When it comes to air travel, one of the great misconceptions is the belief that a pilot will make a conscious decision to call up his company and just cancel a flight because of something that he decides makes it unsafe to fly. It almost never happens this way.
At the airlines, there are two parties who are responsible for a flight. The first is the captain (“pilot in command”), and the other is the dispatcher. The final authority is clearly left to the captain. The federal aviation regulations make that abundantly clear, and every airline does as well. However, at the airlines a dispatcher is equally responsible for the flight, as it is the dispatcher who actually puts together the flight plan, plans the route, and computes the fuel required. The dispatcher usually begins working on a flight anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes before departure. The captain may well be still asleep, or inbound on another flight, or on the way to work.
When circumstances begin to conspire against operating the flight according to the usual parameters, it becomes a team effort to figure out what the alternative is going to be. The dispatcher usually has a bigger-picture view than the captain, because he or she has access to more sources of weather (even though smartphone technology is rapidly changing that), and because the dispatcher also has at hand the planned maintenance schedule for the airplane. Further, as stated above, the dispatcher may have more information about minimum equipment list (MEL) issues than the captain does. The MEL will dictate items on the airplane that can be inoperative during regular operations, and if there is a performance penalty, it will stipulate that as well. For example, most jets are only allowed to operate at 25,000 feet if one of the air-conditioning packs is deferred. This is a fairly low altitude for jets, and it means a higher fuel burn, which could affect range and payload. It may also make it difficult to avoid certain weather.
When weather or mechanical issues can affect a flight, the captain and the dispatcher will frequently work together to come up with an acceptable Plan B. This is important because both are required to sign the flight release, and it includes a statement that the flight may be conducted safely as planned.
But what about the first officer (FO)? How much say-so does the second-in-command have? At times, it may be more than you think.
While the captain is the one who technically holds all the cards and is the only pilot required to sign the release, there are times when an FO can influence the outcome. Weather is an obvious example. If the FO feels that the weather is just too risky, he can say that he isn’t willing to take it. He may be able to speak first hand, such as if he just flew through said weather.
Mechanical issues can crop up as well. Maybe the FO has found something on the walk-around that she knows isn’t right. She can refuse to go anywhere until a mechanic has a chance to offer a second opinion. I know of a fellow who once refused to fly a flight because his seat was broken….and when I say broken, it was as though the seat’s support unit had a hole the size of a toilet seat in it. When he sat down, it was painful on his back and his legs. To his great surprise, the broken part was deferrable (the fact that it was deferrable is a testament to how rarely it broke), and the mechanics wanted to avoid the 30-minute delay that would ensue if they changed out the seat.
The mechanics left the decision to the captain, who in turn left it to the FO. After all, he was the one who had to sit on the seat for a two-hour flight. The mechanics made a vague threat to call the chief pilot, and the FO responded by handing the mechanic his phone; the mechanics backed down, and the seat was eventually changed.
It turned out that one of the issues was that cockpit seats on this airplane are well north of $10,000, so spares are not often kept. The mechanics were forced to take one out of an airplane that was an operational spare, meaning that the spare airplane was now out of service.
Had the issue been pressed, the FO would have been well within his rights to refuse the seat, and the flight likely would have cancelled.
It’s rare that a pilot directly makes the call of, “I’m cancelling the flight.” But it can happen, and it does happen. And yes, the FO can make that call, and he can do so by simply walking off the airplane. As long as it is a well-defined and safety-related reason, he should have nothing to worry about.—By Chip Wright