Introducing Captain Steve, Who Will Now Take Your Airline Questions

Not long ago during a ground delay at my beloved LaGuardia, I met an off-duty airline captain and we got to talking. His name is Steve. (Isn’t everyone’s?) Our conversation lasted two or three hours. As I mentioned in this post — about Steve’s suggestion for shutting down LaGuardia in order to ease New York City air congestion — he knew an awful lot about nearly every aspect of modern air travel.

The good news is that he has agreed to share this knowledge with the rest of us on a regular basis. As longtime readers of this blog are well aware, airline issues have been a recurring theme, ranging from the old cellphone debate to safety precautions to the question of why flight attendants aren’t tipped.

So leave your questions for Captain Steve in the comments section and over time he will answer them in small batches. You can also send questions here.

A little background: Steve is a captain at a major U.S. international airline, and has flown as a captain both domestically and internationally. His aircaft include: B727, B737, MD80, Fokker100, B757, B767; he has 26 years of total experience, 22 years of commercial flying, 11 as captain. Total flying time: more than 14,000 hours. He began as an Air Force/Air National Guard pilot, flying the Vought A-7D/K Corsair II and the Lockheed F-16C/D Fighting Falcon.

Just to start things off, I asked Steve about the recent story of an American Airlines pilot failing a breath test at Heathrow. (There are random tests for pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics.) Here’s Steve’s reply:

I hope that he was headed to Security and Airport Operations to notify them he was not fit to fly — i.e., sick.

Sadly, this has happened several times at a few airlines in the past half-dozen years. Scenario: a guy “overdoes” it the night before, realizes the situation in the morning, and rather than call his company from the hotel, he gets dressed and heads to the airport to inform the captain or Operations people in person. Bad move.

Then they get caught up in the drama and politics of the security screeners. Then it is headline news and then “guilty” until proven innocent because you are a pilot! Makes great headlines.

On the other hand, he may be stupid and thought he could slip through. Rare, but very possible.

Thanks to Captain Steve for this and future answers, and to all of you for what I’m sure will be a good batch of questions.


Schmetterling

Seriously, how does my keeping my iPod on affect flights taking off? It's so annoying when they ask me to turn my iPod off, when I've had it on (secretly, of course) and the flight's never really had a problem taking off?

Gary

I'm quite sure they make you turn your ipod off because they want you to pay attention to their evacuation spiel... you know, in case they have to land the plane in the Hudson or something...

Zoltan

I have pet rats (spare me the comments lest I launch into a lengthy defense of my choice in pets) - their "travel case" is a soft pouch about the size of a large women's purse. Why can't I bring them on as my "carry on" luggage? There doesn't seem to be any difference between a bag of rats (that stay in the bag) and a bag of anything else. A small animal like a rat is too fragile to survive shipping in the luggage hold.

Alissa Murphy

How safe is it to fly regional jets compared to larger planes? How experienced (in general) are the pilots of the regional jets? Do pilots today begin their careers with regional airlines or other types of flying such as cargo planes, military, etc?

Doug Schoemer

I have been on too many flights to count where our flight path and altitude has the plane flying through clouds for many minutes at a time. Since I am not a fan of turbulence, I wonder why this happens, and wonder what is involved with a pilot getting permission to alter his/her path or altitude so that this annoyance (or more so to some) can be avoided. Or is this such a minor thing to a pilot/atc that he or she just doesn't care?

I will say also that I've always been a fan of crew members who give updates from the cockpit as to why certain things are happening (turbulence, turning, circling, etc) and wonder how you, Steve the Pilot, feel about whether this is useful or not.

Jeff

I remember hearing that landings are completely controlled by auto-pilot. Is this true? How much ACTUAL FLYING do pilots do? (I don't mean that as a rhetorical question)

Kathleen

I am deaf with aids, which makes me severely hearing impaired. I have found that airlines continue to discriminate against my group. I have been told that I must board with my "group." Not being able to hear, this makes it hard. I have gone up to agents and told them I was hearing impaired to ensure I wouldn't miss my flight or an announcement of a gate change - to no avail . Unfortunately, I experienced many years of speech therapy, so I don't sound "deaf."

The airlines do not want to reimburse as it's my responsibility to get on the flight. They have told me I should get a wheelchair so they will SEE I am "disabled." I have written the Dept of Justice and Transportation, along with my representatives, but nothing has changed. What can a hearing impaired person or anyone with a "invisible" disability do?

H

1. Why on Earth do the people that sit in first class want/need to get on the plane first? Who really *wants* to be *on a plane*? Board last and exit first would seem to be the optimal strategy.

2. How is it possible that a roundtrip ticket for the route: DEN->PDX->EUG is *cheaper* than the roundtrip ticket: DEN->PDX? Same flights, planes, airline and schedule. My wife travels this a lot, and buys the first itinerary but gets off in PDX.

H

Sam Carter

During weather delays, do airlines serving their hub get preference in takeoff and landing order? If I'm going through Chicago, should I always fly United?

vimspot

Malcolm Gladwell once made the point that all aspects of travel, including ground transportation, airports, hotel/lodging, are all profitable businesses except for the air carrier business itself that feeds those businesses. David Einhorn wrote his senior thesis on how airline profitability is cyclical and inversely correlated with the level of regulation (when carriers become profitable, the government steps in and regulates the profitability away, when they see that this bankrupts them, they lower regulation, and the cycle continues). What are some ways traditional carriers can emerge from chronic unprofitability? Lower regulation? Lower pension benefits? Legalize gambling on planes?

Joe D

H @8: How does your wife get back on in Portland for the return? Or does she return from Eugene?

My office (I telecommute) once booked me a Kalamazoo->Detroit->Dallas flight thinking I lived closer to Kalamazoo (equidistant to Kal & Det). It would mean getting up ninety minutes earlier and getting home two and a half hours later (and adding two forty minute flights), but when I tried to change the reservation, I found the very same seat on the DTW->DAL roundtrip was about $400 more. I asked what would happen if I just showed up at DTW, and they said my flight would be cancelled if I wasn't on board at Kalamazoo.

Obviously at some level they've discounted the flight to fill the Kalamazoo-Detroit plane, but since the ticket was *already paid for*--WTF? Don't I *save* them money (marginal fuel cost) if I'm *not* on the extra leg?

David

Doug,
You need to fly through the clouds to get above them. Jets are flying on instruments, under the eye of ATC and thus are kept separated. ATC gives them their heading and altitude, climb rate etc. If you want to stay clear of the clouds get yourself a Cessna 172 and fly Visual Flight Rules, where you are not allowed in the clouds. You will end up flying low and slow, but you will never be in the soup.

Rob

Why don't more pilots turn on Air Traffic Control on one of the internal radio stations. It seems United flights do this more than most.

I'm not a pilot but I like hearing what is going on. Its calming to know why things are happening. Instead of the more common sitting there with no idea why we haven't moved on the tarmac in 15 minutes.

Its also helpful to hear a big turn has been requested or we are making changes to avoid turbulence as I can inform my wife who is more scared of flying that things are ok and going as planned.

James

"I remember hearing that landings are completely controlled by auto-pilot. Is this true? How much ACTUAL FLYING do pilots do? "

Jeff, this common misconception has been addressed by pilot Patrick Smith, both in this very blog as well as his own Ask The Pilot column.

http://freakonomics.com/2006/12/11/freakquel-pilotless-airplanes/

http://www.salon.com/tech/col/smith/2007/12/21/askthepilot258/index.html

He's been an invaluable resource to those of us who tend to be curious about the ins and outs of air travel.

charles

What is the general condition of our fleet of planes today?

Alex

I'm an American student who has been in Europe for the past 9 months, and I was wondering if you know how exactly airlines such as RyanAir and Easyjet actually make money? This may be as much for Captain Steve as Writer Steve or Economist Steve.

I understand that airlines change rates depending on when you buy the ticket, and I'm sure not everyone gets the great deals, but paying $00.01 for a one-way ticket (including tax and "other charges") is just ridiculous. Is there a drastic reduction in fuel costs for shorter flights? Or perhaps their use of out of the way airports is a cost saving mechanism?

I mean, I'm not complaining at all - hopping around Europe this year has been less damaging to my wallet for sure. But those two particular airlines at least seem to be doing very well despite the insanely low ticket prices.

JBK

I hate when passengers are rude and disrespectful to the flight attendants, treating them like servants. While some FA's can have an attitude, for the most part they are helpful and doing their best. I have started confronting unruly passengers and telling them to sit down and shut up when they do this, and have been pleased to find that my fellow passengers support this and join in to humble the offensive person.

But does this really help? Or in your experience is it more likely to incite the passengers and cause the flight attendant (and you) even more trouble? I just can't sit back and watch some blowhard humiliate someone who likely can't respond as she would like to due to company regulations. How much latitude to FA's have in telling passengers to shut their pie holes when appropriate?

Thanks for keeping us safe.

JPC

I fly from Chicago to Hong Kong and back quite frequently. My last flight we sat at the gate in Hong Kong for about 20 minutes due to a passing thunderstorm. Then the pilot came on and said we needed to add fuel because of the fuel we burned sitting on the runway. How close to the minimum fuel needed do they load on the plane? 20 minutes of extra fuel seemed a little close for a 14 hour flight. A previous time I was coming into ORD after the long flight from HK. There was a storm in Chicago and instead of circling until it passed, we flew directly to Detroit because we needed fuel.

One more long distance flight question.

In bad weather (winter snow especially) it seems like the long distance international flights are the last to be cancelled. They will delay them for a long time (6 - 8 hours sometimes). Why is this? Do the flight crews not time out as easily on the long distance flights? Is it too hard to rebook a full 747 that only goes once a day to Hong Kong? Domestic flights seem to cancel or the crews seem to time out much quicker.

Thanks for the insight.

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Jon

I've always harbored a secret desire to become a pilot, but always figured it was too late since I already graduated college with a chemistry degree. How does someone train to become a commercial pilot if they aren't in the military? Is there a stigma for those not coming from a military background?

Also, do you have to have perfect uncorrected eyesight?

Chris

Are there any situations where flying private can be justified from a cost perspective?

For example, if I have a family of 6, and we are frequently taking 2000 mile trips at a cost of $2000 per round trip (first class), can an argument be made that I should be flying private?