A Pilot’s Perspective: Before Getting To The Plane


This is a hipmunk guest post from Scott Simko, a U.S. Commercial Airline pilot of over 15 years. His views and opinions are his and his alone and do not represent the airline of his employment or hipmunk.

Have you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at the airport and why certain things happen the way they do? Well, I’m here to help and their is almost always a reason for airport madness.

I have been an airline pilot for 16 years and I am currently furloughed from a major legacy airline. Ok, first word to explain is furloughed. It basically mean that you are laid-off but because the airline industry is heavily unionized and runs on a seniority based system the most junior workers are involuntarily laid-off during economic downturns (usually the big trigger is the sale of aircraft). However, the majority of these workers will return to their respective positions when the economy rebounds and more flying is available because of that same seniority system (ie. starting over at another airline stinks).

I think the easiest way for me to explain what happens is to walk you through a typical day from the pilot’s perspective.

Before a flight, most airlines require the pilots to report 1 hour before a flight departs; yes, we have to go through the same security you do but often the airport has a special spot for employees. This gives us pilots time to meet each other (more often than not we don’t know each other or only vaguely know each other).

We review the weather for the the cities and regions we will be traveling to that day (this could be 1 to 4 cities (up to 8 for the regionals)) taking note of anything that is forecast to happen that may require special attention (e.g., thunderstorm, low visibility, snow, icing) and may require a little extra fuel.

We generally then look over maintenance documents on our aircraft for that particular leg. We look at the most recent maintenance items that have been fixed and any item that might be broke. Yes, we can fly with very specific items broke. You wouldn’t want your flight delayed or cancelled for a tray table, would you? Each airline has what is called a Minimum Equipment List (MEL), which is a book approved by the FAA of parts that can be broken and are deemed safe to still operate that aircraft. Sometimes we have to do things differently to comply with the MEL and sometimes not, it just depends on the item. Each type of aircraft and airline has a different MEL, so the items are not the same for everyone but they are similar.

We look over the flight plan the dispatchers have prepared, taking into account the weather, MEL items, possible ATC delays and if any errors were made. Then we decide if they planned enough fuel to meet our comfort level. A lot has been made in the news about pilot pushing regarding fuel (the reason is the heavier that aircraft, the more fuel it burns carrying that extra fuel). Ultimately, the Captain is the Pilot-In-Command (PIC) and has the final authority from the FAA standpoint, but airlines have apparently have started questioning pilot’s judgement. In my 16 years I’ve never seen this but I do work for a company that has a culture of safety.

These occurrences that are making the news: are they a more systemic problem or rare situations? I don’t know. All I know is if I am on the flight it will have enough fuel on board.

From there we head to the gate to meet the aircraft and flight attendants. I think this is a good place to stop. In my next piece I’ll pick up from here.

If you have a very specific question please ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to address it in an upcoming post.

The image above is from the movie Airplane I hope no one gets mad at me for using it.

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