Captain Steve Answers Your Airline Questions

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A while back, we began soliciting reader questions for Captain Steve, a captain with a major U.S. airline. He answered his first batch of questions here, and now is back with his second round. Please leave new questions for Captain Steve in the comments section below.

Q

Is there any way to obtain information on my commercial airline pilot before I fly — like how long he’s been flying, education, what he/she is or isn’t trained to do? — Tracy Moore

A

Tracy, yes there is a way, but not how you would think. The best and only way is to walk up to the pilot either before you board, or ask to go to the cockpit while the plane is on the ground. Tell the flight attendants that you are a curious flier and need to be reassured by the captain and crew.

Don’t be afraid to ask them! Think about it. Don’t we all love to talk about ourselves? Ask the pilot what he did to get to this level of his career and where he went to school; ask whether he flew military or civilian and what other flying he did or does outside of the airlines; ask where he lives and how he gets to work.

If you do this often, I think that you will be amazed at the vast amount of experience, education, and training each and every pilot has accumulated!

Q

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. It’s 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. — Rob

A

Rob, United is the only U.S. domestic carrier that does this. None of the other carriers’ aircraft are equipped to enable pilots to allow you to hear what is being said. Personally, I would love it. I commute from my home to my crew base. Being able to hear the transmissions during that time would be insightful. This goes for you as well.

Q

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

A

I will attest that for the most part, our aircraft are in pretty good shape. This is a testament to the great design of these very complicated machines. With that said, there needs to be a large upgrade of aircraft in the next 10 years or so, especially with the U.S. carriers. Much pending legislation is going to require all companies to improve their “carbon footprint.” To do this, we will need new aircraft with new wing designs powered by new engine designs.

Q

I’m an American student who has been in Europe for the past nine months, and I was wondering if you know how, exactly, airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet actually make money? 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. — Alex

A

Very complicated answer needed. Most of these “low cost” carriers have exactly that — low cost due to various reasons (bankruptcies, no legacy costs like pensions, etc.). Some are very well-run, no-frills, basic transportation. Some use only outlying airports. These airports usually have lower fees, etc. Combine all of this and you can have different types of companies competing with one another. Try to fly to Hong Kong on Ryanair: you can’t. Try to go to some of the destinations Ryanair goes to on British Airways: very hard. Sorry, Alex, I said this is hard to quantify, but I hope that you get some idea of an answer to your question.

Q

I fly from Chicago to Hong Kong and back quite frequently. On 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 we burned fuel sitting on the runway. How close to the minimum fuel needed do they load on the plane? Twenty minutes of extra fuel seemed a little close for a 14-hour flight. — JPC

A

Whew, you guys are throwing tough ones. My guess is this: the 20-minute delay may not be the whole story.

1. Storms can cause rerouting, which requires more fuel. Legally, we need to have enough fuel to fly to the destination, to fly on to our alternate airport, and to land with a certain amount of fuel reserves left in the fuel tanks (to be used in case of landing delay/emergency). These amounts of fuel vary greatly, and we can adjust them during the flight as conditions change at our destination.

2. Another wrinkle is over the course of 14 hours, we may have to circumnavigate a large deviation. Doing this can make us burn the fuel that was intended to be used as holding fuel for delays. If we use all of the holding fuel and there are large delays, we will not be able to stay in a holding pattern as long as we had originally planned.

These fuel changes happen to me all the time. We simply adjust to a new plan that is safe; but it may not be the most convenient plan for our passengers.

Q

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? — Jon

A

There are many ways to get started. But for someone who is as smart and educated as you, I have to ask, why? Why would you want to become a pilot? It is not what you may think it is: 16 to 18 days away from home every month, long days, bad hotels, bad food, etc. But it is such a cool job!

Get in touch with a flight school. You need to get many certificates of training. These are private pilot, commercial pilot, instrument pilot, and airline transport pilot certificates. After you get your certificates, you need to fulfill a level of flying experience by logging a certain number of actual flight hours. Then you begin to run the gauntlet of the hiring process to get a real flying job.

I don’t perceive a stigma regarding military- vs. civilian-trained pilots. When I was hired at the majors in the mid 1980’s, there weren’t too many civilian-trained pilots in our ranks because the military commitments were not as long. Now, the class and craft differences of our backgrounds are minimized.

Q

Also, do you have to have perfect, uncorrected eyesight? — Jon

A

My guess is no, but you would have to inquire with each company. For just getting certificates you don’t need perfect vision. This is usually a sorting criterion in the hiring selection.


vikram hegde

I totally laud the answer to the first question and agree that would indeed be the best way to collect info. However, I wouldn't be surprised if the person asking the question didn't find the answer satisfactory. I'm not saying the pilot will lie about his biodata. However, if at the time of booking a flight I have a set of data available, I will probably choose a airline that does not have all newbies.

Warren Murdoch

A few years ago I joined a couple of pilots for a meal at Wendy's at Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Capt Steve is right. These guys loved to talk about their training, types of aircraft, the aviation industry, etc. It was pretty obvious they were in love with their profession.

Egidio

I often travel between LGA and an airport in the southeast. Coming back to LGA it only takes me twenty minutes to get to my departure airport and 99% of the time when I get there the internet updates and the departure screens tell me everything is on time. I get through security and end up waiting 6-8 hours because either the plane is not there or ATC at LGA won't let us leave. I have heard I could track my plane's whereabouts if I had its tail number. How can I do this and evaluate the extent of the backup at LGA?

Brandon

I know you've mentioned earlier that the majority of landings are done completely manually with no auto-pilot interference.
That being said, how much of a flight IS controlled by the auto-pilot, and what exactly does it do for the pilots?

Eric

My father (56yrs old) will not get on a plane. I live in Portland, 1500 miles from where I grew up, so anytime my parents want to visit, they either have to drive for 3 days or take the train. I believe his anxiety is related to giving up control and occasional turbulence. He once mentioned to me that when the descent starts, the pilots just slow the plane down until you start to "fall out of the sky" at a controlled rate. Can you give me a more reasonable explanation? Surely you control the angle and rate of descent; it's not just gravity making the plane land.

Robot Mistake

I'm sure pilots love to stand around and talk all day but seriously...

In the cattle call that is airplane boarding these days, I would think the last thing the flight crew wants is an interview session with boarding passangers.

Pilot "Im sorry for the delay folks, but we have missed our depature window because I was busy talking about my old college, we should be moving here in about then 30 mins."

Matthew

@4: A lot of the flight is controlled in any plane with an autopilot if for no other reason than to make life easier for the pilot. Flying a jet up in Class A airspace (above 18,000) feet is an involved job between waypoints. The plane must maintain heading exactly lest the plane get off the IFR airway and must maintain altitude within a few feet. (+/- 100 feet and air traffic control will call you to tell you that you are off your assigned altitude.) When driving a car, the roads do not randomly bank or move up and down on you. A plane in flight, however, can be moved up or down or sideways hundreds of feet in the blink of an eye by an unexpected gust of wind. A pilot lacking autopilot must be constantly making adjustments in flight unless the weather is perfectly calm and this will take all their attention.

An auopilot will keep you at the correct heading and altitude in spite of shifting winds and changes to the plane (remember that as the plane burns fuel its flying characteristics change!) The pilot and co-pilot need to monitor essential systems and communicate with the various air traffic controllers along the route as they are handed from tower to tower.

I am a private pilot and do most of my flying by hand simply because my trips aren't that long. Recently, however, I flew cross country from central Texas to western Florida using IFR routing and was very thankful I had autopilot available to me. When I fly using autopilot I get myself on heading and to the correct altitude but the autopilots used by the commercial carriers can practically do the entire flight for the pilot.

@5: "Fall out of the sky" sounds more harsh than what actually happens. A plane ascends when the upward forces (lift+the vertical component of thrust) are greater than the downward force (gravity) and vice vers afor descent. While the pilot can just push the nose over to descend, this also causes the plane to accelerate. The better plan, when preparing for landing, is to start slowing down some distance from the airport so that the plane has slightly less lift than that needed to maintain level flight. Then the plane can achieve the desired descent rate that makes for predictable, controlled flight. It is akin to slowing a car that was traveling at constant speed. One doesn't have to take one's foot off the gas completely to slow down, simply giving the car less gas than that required to maintain constant speed will slow the car.

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Trevor L

Why aren't airlines able to foresee super-long delays on the tarmac/runway which occur before takeoff? (I'm talking about those 3 or more hour delays which I have experienced and heard about from friends and relatives). And why can't they de-ice the plane before people get on?

A Cynic

In Malcom Gladwell's book, Ouliers, he talks about plane crashes. One fact that he points out is that 44% flights have pilots who have never flown together. Is this true? IF so, what is the logic pairing up pilots who have never flown together?

Mike

Eric - gravity provides a constant force down on the plane (namely, the weight of the plane). As air moves over the wings, it creates a low pressure area above the wing and a high pressure area below the wing. The difference in pressure results in a force upward on the wing. At a certain speed the force up on the wing is greater than the force down due to gravity and the plane goes up. When the force up on the wing is equal to the weight of the plane, it flys level, and to bring it back down you slow down which means that the wings provide less force up than the gravity pulling you down and plane starts to come down.

Aeronerds: yes, I ignored lot about flaps, angle of attack, and lots of technical stuff, but the main point is then the force up is greater than the weight you go up, when gravity is stronger than the force up on the wings you go down.

Dawn

Captain Steve, I have some questions about flight connections. Having missed my fair share of connections by about 10 minutes or less, I am very curious about this.

Is the idea of holding a plane for passengers a complete myth? I have heard many people say this, but this has not happened in my experiences. Also, under what circumstances does the plane "hold" for passegners and who makes that decision? Pilot? Airline?

Why do airlines make the connection times so short especially at busy airports such as ATL? There have been many times where my flight has landed "on time", but I end up missing my connection because the plane ends up sitting on the tarmac for an addiitonal 10 - 15 minutes.

Thank you for agreeing to answer these questions. It's nice to have a pilots point of view.

J

"Q Also, do you have to have perfect, uncorrected eyesight? - Jon
A My guess is no, but you would have to inquire with each company."

Any employment lawyers can clarify, but it's my understanding (and the practice at my airline) that while historically this was a requirement to get hired, there was an ADA amendment or interpretation in the early 90s that made this requirement specifically illegal under the ADA. If you have an FAA First Class medical certificate, you're physically qualified for the job, period (and you can get a first class without perfect eyesight).

"And why can't they de-ice the plane before people get on?"

They can and sometimes do. What they can't do is anti-ice the plane, as the fluid used to do so has a limited "holdover time" depending on temperature and precipitation type, after which the whole process has to be repeated. Pneumatic wing anti-ice systems don't work on the ground, so anti-icing, if necessary, must be done as close to takeoff as possible.

In the same vein, there are so many things that can affect the length of a delay when the weather is bad, it's simply not possible to foresee all delays. There are situations where an airline can foresee very long delays, but you have to get in line to take off at some point.

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John

@Dawn

One of my recent flights was held for a connecting airline. When I asked the gate agent about the policy, she told me that they (Midwest Airlines) would wait a few minutes for connecting passengers when the flight was the last one of the day to the destination. Had the connecting passenger been able to get another flight say two hours later, the airplane would have departed on schedule.

Also, I believe the booking systems won't allow you to schedule a connection whose departure time is less than 30 minutes after the preceding flight's arrival time.

Jorge

As we all know, during taxi and take off we're required to turn off our electronics and cellphones. Once we get close to cruising altitude we're allowed to turn on our electronics but must keep our cellphones off. Why then is it that when a plane lands we're allowed to turn on our phones but must keep all other electronics off?

Matthew

@14: The airlines gave in, deciding that allowing cell phone use while on the ground would be enough of a concession to get people to not do anything else. From a reality standpoint, I have yet to have a cellphone interfere with the avionics in the planes in which I have flown as pilot or copilot. When I fly with my father (also a pilot) we wil routinely take turns at the controls and the other will take pictures with our camera phones and then email them when we pass over an area populous enough for us to talk to a tower.

The FAA has a blanket ban on in flight communications devices because of an attitude of "just in case, ban everything." If you think about it, this makes sense. They cannot test every last piece of electronics someone might carry aboard with every last flight instrument to determine that it will not interfere. It is far safer to just say "No electronics during take-off and landing and nothing that broadcasts the rest of the time." I know people want to talk on their phones and communicate in flight, but is the inconvenience of being out of contact for a couple of hours really so great that airlines should risk a possible conflict with avionics that ensure safety of hundreds of passengers?

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Sam

Hmm, the pilot's advice on the first question is probably only OK for white people to use ... imagine a brown person telling a flight attendant that they're curious about the cockpit and crew ... instant jail time

Andrew

#16: Depends on what shade of brown. African-American, brown perhaps a rude or dismissive response, or perhaps a good response, depending on how the person is dressed, their age, and their sex. Middle Eastern brown, waterboarding.

Jonas

About the European ultra cheap airlines, their biggest advantage is that they?re using smaller airports which usually are former military fields.

Once sold off to the local municipalities the landing fees on these airports are very small (in some cases the airline get paid to land there) since the municipality is subsidising the traffic to increase local labourmarket.

Your part of this setup isn't paying for the airfare but buying expensive coffee and transfer on site, eventually small parts of those costs get routed to the stockholders of the airline.

BSK

Sam and Andrew-

Brilliant. But why would we expect someone like Captain Steve, who has already demonstrated an incredible self-centeredness in his answer, to understand that people of color and other individuals might not have quite the same life experience as he does?

Shahzad Naqvi

I have a question for Capt. Steve about having a illness schizophrenia and paranoia and can the person fly meaning taking controls as I recently read they hired schizophrenic and paranoid persons to fly and was wondering I could too as I have about 900 plus hours on single and multi engine and am diagnosed as schizophrenic and paranoid .