Captain Steve Answers Your Airline Questions
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.
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
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!
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
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.
What is the general condition of our fleet of planes today? — Charles
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Also, do you have to have perfect, uncorrected eyesight? — Jon
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.