Airplane Insider: Secrets I Learned Sitting Next to an Airline Pilot


Your friendly airline pilot holds lots of industry secrets — and loves to talk!

While boarding a recent early morning flight returning from a Caribbean island, I had a déjà vu moment of sorts. I qualify it because I wasn’t reliving my own experience. Yahoo Travel editor Leah Ginsberg had just shared seven great examples of knowledge gleaned when she sat in the exit row with off-duty pilots. As hubby and I settled into a rare splurge on extra-legroom exit-row seats, sure enough, a pair of uniformed pilots slipped into the row across the aisle from us. It was like sitting with the cool kids!

Related: Best Seat on the Plane: 7 Secrets I Learned Sitting Next to a Pilot on My Last Flight

I excitedly awaited the opportunity to start a conversation and see what I could learn. After the drink cart passed, I prompted hubby to lean across the aisle and break the ice by asking where they had spent the night on an island where most accommodations limit regular travelers to weeklong stays. He prefaced the question by telling them that we have been visiting the island for five years and that opened the door to a flood of questions, not from me, but from them! Here’s what I found out.

1. Pilots long to enjoy the destinations they fly us to. They wanted to know everything we knew about the island. They asked where we eat, where we stay, what our favorite dive sites are, and even what it costs for a week (excluding the cost of airfare, of course). One talked about bringing his wife; the other was scouting honeymoon destinations for his daughter.

It was only after more than an hour of asking questions that they got around to explaining the intricate details of pilot downtime rules that force the need for pilot rotations like the one they were on. If the inbound flight the night before is delayed even a little, there could potentially not be enough official rest time before morning. (The downtime doesn’t start when the plane lands, but when they are “behind the hotel door.”) The inbound pilots would not be able to fly back out on schedule the next morning. The guys sitting in coach with us had flown the plane in; a second crew was flying it home. So they often don’t have time to get to know the destination to which they are going.

2. Even pilots have travel bucket lists. It’s hard to believe that two pilots nearing the end of long careers flying the globe could have travel destinations yet to conquer, but both of these guys did. One wants to visit Ireland and has a trip planned there soon. The other confessed that when he travels for fun, it’s usually by car, but that he would love to spend time in Asia.

3. Pilots judge other pilots on their flying skills. It’s like there’s some secret point system. We had an incident on our approach to landing during which both nonflying pilots sized up the guy actually flying the plane. Just as the tarmac appeared beneath our plane, the engines roared and we suddenly climbed hard and began banking. While everyone else craned to look out the windows for an explanation, I looked at the pilots.

The aisle pilot calmly said, “Oops.” The window pilot studied the runway, now far below us, before explaining that it looked like a plane on the ground had not quite cleared the runway while taxiing to its gate. “No point lost for our guy,” he said. “It was a good call. He did the right thing.”

Related: Scary Selfies: Is Your Pilot Taking Pictures Instead of Flying the Plane?

4. Pilots sometimes get annoyed or fight with the control tower (politely, of course). The two pilots agreed that such conversations were likely taking place as we circled wide to get back into position again. Our plane actually had to be routed back into the line of planes waiting to land — at the end of the line, our pilots said. “Sometimes they (the tower) will work you into the middle of the line, but it depends on the stack.”

5. Pilots don’t always tell passengers the truth. Following our missed landing, the pilot flying our plane confirmed over the PA what our aisle buddies had already told us. There had been a taxiing plane not quite clear of our intended landing strip. But not every pilot feels the need to be forthcoming, particularly when they are at fault. The aisle pilot told a story of a missed approach caused by pilot error. That pilot attempted to hide his mistake from passengers by blaming it on a nonexistent plane on the runway. What he did not know was that he told his fictional story to the control tower (which knew better), not to the passengers. Bad piloting and a finger on the wrong communication button put him at the very end of the line for his re-try.

Related: Confessions of an Airline Pilot: Weirdo Pilots Edition

6. Being a pilot can be lonely. My two pilots included their wives and families in every topic of conversation. Their job puts them in exotic destinations, far from their families, in the company of attractive co-workers, but for these two guys at least, it was just another day at the office with an eagerly anticipated return to home and family.

A Flight Attendant Sees a Pilot Sitting on a Plane — Months After He Was Killed in a Plane Crash (Video)

Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. And check out Yahoo Travel’s original video series A Broad Abroad, starring Editor in Chief Paula Froelich. In the most recent episode, Paula learned how to make Mexican pizza from an expert.