The jumpseat is the term for the third seat in the cockpit. Every two-person airliner, with the exception of some smaller turboprops, has a cockpit jumpseat. Some jets, such as the Airbus family and some Boeings, have more than one. Many also have a flight attendant jumpseat in the cabin. Beyond the first jumpseat in the cockpit, the installation of additional jumpseats is a decision usually made by the airline that took delivery of the airplane from the factory.
The intent of the jumpseat is for the FAA or company check airmen to observe or evaluate operations in the cockpit. This means that the overwhelming majority of the time the jumpseat is empty.
When it is not in use for another purpose, the jumpseat is usually available for pilots of any reciprocating airline to use as a seat to get to or from work if the cabin is full. As the airlines have reduced capacity, it has become more and more common for commuting pilots to have to use the jumpseat not just as a term, but in the literal sense as well.
The protocol is pretty simple. Access to the cockpit jumpseat is based on a mutual agreement between airlines and/or pilot groups to accept each others’ pilots. That is still in place, but in the post-9/11 world, it is no longer that simple. There are certain security requirements that must be met, so I won’t disclose them here. But the general rule is that the person looking for a ride must ask the captain of the flight for permission to “ride your jumpseat”; you do not say, “I am taking your jumpseat!”
Assuming no weight and balance issues exist and the jumpseat is not deferred for any reason, the answer is almost always yes. If a seat opens up in the cabin, the jumpseater is almost always offered that seat instead—that third seat in the cockpit is almost universally uncomfortable.
The rule of thumb is that pilots of the airline operating the flight get first dibs, usually in seniority order, but in a few cases it is first come, first served. After that, there is often a pecking order that is followed, but for the most part it is first come, first served. Even if you can bump a pilot from another carrier that has higher rights than you, it is considered poor form and only done in dire situations. Universally, you must be at the gate by a designated time, and you must treat the gate agents with a great deal of respect. Some resent the extra work created by jumpseaters, and others just resent that only pilots can ride in the cockpit. Most, however, are more than happy to help.
Rules vary from company to company. Some airlines will only allow as many jumpseaters as they have actual jumpseats installed. Others will allow as many jumpseaters as there are empty seats. This is definitely the best rule, and the goodwill it generates is tremendous. There are also certain dress rules. Back in the day, it was expected that you would either be in uniform or a suit. Now, the uniform still always works, and the dress code for the most part is business casual; shorts and sneakers need not apply. Once in the seat, you are expected to act as a third crew member, which means honoring sterile cockpit procedures, looking for traffic, and if possible, listening to ATC and (gently) pointing out a potential error by the crew.
Most airlines prohibit the use of jumpseating for anything other than leisure travel or getting to or from work. Using them in the pursuit of business interests is risky, but it has been done. If you work for one airline, and are going to an interview with another, then riding their jumpseat is a great way to learn about the company.
On occasion, stories crop up of a pilot getting in trouble for misusing or abusing the privilege, and it is just that—a privilege. Likewise, there have been “jumpseat wars” in which pilots try to use the jumpseat as a political weapon by denying it to pilots of another carrier during a dispute. This is almost always a bad decision made by a pilot who doesn’t commute. Commuting is hard, and pilots who don’t commute don’t appreciate the challenges that it presents. To try and make a point by denying jumpseaters not only makes you look bad, but it stands to punish and ostracize your fellow co-workers who may totally disagree with your particular point of view.
Jumpseating is a great perk of the job, and at some point as an airline pilot, you will probably need it. I’ve been coming home from vacation with my family, and I had to use it in order for all of us to get on. I routinely use it to get to and from work. It’s fun to see other airplanes I don’t fly, or to see how other companies operate the airplane that I do fly.
If you ever have the opportunity to fly for an airline, embrace the jumpseat and use it as intended. And take some Advil before a long flight in one. Your back and legs will thank you.—Chip Wright
Editor’s note: The accompanying photo of a Boeing 767 cockpit and jumpseat was taken by Kent Wien and appeared in the April 13, 2009, Gadling blog Plane Answers.