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A Pilot’s Best Friend

If I had to put together a “top 10” list of work-related questions fired at me by friends and family, many of the queries would be unsurprising:

  • “Flown anywhere exciting lately?” (Does home count?)
  • “Do you need a second pilot, or can you fly the airplane by yourself?” (The G-IV requires two pilots)
  • “Can you take your wife or kid along?” (Not unless it’s an empty leg.)
  • “How many people can it seat?” (It’s certified for up to 19, but most interiors are setup for 13-15 passengers)
  • “How far can it fly?” (About 4,300 nautical miles, assuming no wind)
    “How high can it go?” (45,000 feet)
  • “Can you fly outside the United States?” (The aircraft is capable of operating worldwide, and our OpSpecs allow for that as well)

One of the most interesting questions, at least from my perspective, is whether we have a flight attendant aboard. The answer isn’t as easy as a simple “yes” or “no.”

When the airplane is being chartered, a FA is always aboard – primarily for the safety and comfort of the passengers. The safety part is fairly obvious: If a passenger falls ill, a cabin fire breaks out, a ditching occurs, etc., they can focus on the pax while the pilots worry about the flying.

Of course, emergencies of that ilk are as rare as hen’s teeth. The primary role they play in day-to-day operation is ensuring the passengers have a pleasant experience. From serving food and drink to putting on a movie, setting up beds, locating games, card decks, pillows, blankets, and the thousand other items we carry, they’re helping the customers enjoy a first-class travel experience.

If it’s a Part 91 trip being flown by the owner of the aircraft, a flight attendant is not typically needed or requested. On complicated international trips or when the passenger manifest is long, a flight attendant will sometimes be requested even by the owner in order to make the trip run more smoothly.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of corporate/charter flight attendants as the forgotten soldiers of the business aviation industry, which is ironic because they’re the hardest working and lowest paid members of the flight crew.

They often show up long before the pilots do. Charter trips are often beset with complicated and specific meal requests, which sometimes even our best caterers cannot accommodate, so they’ll shop for and prep those things themselves. They take the time to research the passengers, determine their preferences, dislikes, allergies, and even decorate the cabin for special events. They deal with brokers, which can be a challenge all its own.

Flowers seem to follow flight attendants like cigarette smoke in a Mad Men episode. You can hardly find one without the other. I’ve flown to the most ill-equipped and destitute third world countries, places were even clean water was a luxury, and somehow the FA will still find a perfect collection of flowers.

The best flight attendants are preppers. They’re the ones you’d want to be with during a zombie apocalypse. They’ll have contingency plans, backups to the backups, special gifts for little kids, and a dozen other things I never would have considered.

But flight attendants get my respect not only because so many of them go above and beyond even the high levels of service expected by passengers – not an easy thing to do – but because they’re dealing with human beings.

That sounds obvious, but think about it: People are unpredictable. Sometimes the folks coming up the air stair are as pleasant as can be. At other times, the passengers have had a rough day and they’re a lot harder to please. As a pilot, when I press a button, flip a switch, or turn a knob, the equipment will respond in a very predictable way. There are no variances. I can bank on specific behavior from the hardware. People are quite the opposite, and as anyone who’s traveled extensively can tell you, living out of a suitcase and changing time zones takes a toll on the body. That fact is as true for the passengers as for the crew.

Flight attendants also take care of the guys up front, usually taking the time to prepare something for the pilots to eat, and frequently checking in with the cockpit to see if we would like a snack or something to drink. I always tell my copilots that I’ve never gone hungry on a Gulfstream, and we probably won’t start today. That’s due to the thoughtfulness and hard work of corporate flight attendants.

On layovers, the FAs have often researched the area and know where to eat, what to do, and so on. I recall a last minute trip to the World Cup in Brazil where our FA was so determined to get us tickets to one of the matches that she stayed up all night just to keep searching for a decent trio of passes to a sold out game between Switzerland and France. Sure enough, she hit pay dirt.

I’d like to think a good pilot will recognize and take care of the flight attendant, ensuring they are not abused by the passengers and receive support in dealing with the FBO, stocking the aircraft, or even little things like walking them to their car at night.

We’re a team, and I always feel better when I know a good FA is part of the crew.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

5 Comments

  1. What’s the difference between a good FA and a great FA? A good FA says, good morning Captain…. A great FA says, it’s morning Captain!

  2. Another elegant and wonderful post Ron! You do have a knack for words. My last FA was like a “Seal Team 6” member, she went above and beyond the call of duty to please the pax. A good FA’s human relations skills are simply unbelievable. They routinely pull rabbits out of the hat, can turn ordinary grass into a beautiful Chef’s salad, and are without a doubt, the hardest working member of the flight crew, especially on an international large cabin flight where they can be on their feet for 12-16 hours.

    • Thanks for the kind words. Yes, they do develop an uncanny ability to MacGyver their way through just about any situation. It’s interesting how different that is than the way a pilot operates. When something’s not working properly, pilots have fairly regimented procedures for dealing with it. FA’s, on the other hand, have to just make due with what’s on hand or find a creative solution.

      I’m always in awe of their space management skills. Box after box of catering will arriving, and I’ll think “there’s no WAY that’s all fitting into the galley!” but sure enough, within a few minutes it’s neatly stored away with room to spare. And boy do they work hard. I recall a transcon flight from NY to LA where we were empty. We’d had a long day and not more than min rest, and Instead of relaxing, the FA took everything out of the drawers, dusted it all, checked the expiration dates, and put everything back in pristine order.

      Interesting thing about the flight attendants, they always tell me about how they prefer it when they’re busy because the time passes much faster. Which is interesting because that might explain why those international flights seem to take for-ev-er when we’re strapped to a seat up front.

  3. All I know is I am glad I’m a Cargo Dog! I fend for myself, feed myself, fly the plane, check weather, buy fuel, sometimes sleep in the cargo area while waiting for the truck, cook my food, pee in a bottle, hitch hike into town, do my walk around, pre flight in the dark, get my clearance, takeoff when the airlines cancel, get stuck in a holding pattern, got my back pack on my back. Nobody’s more of a true “prepper” than a Cargo Dog! I don’t care for the airlines and never will. So you can have your cushy life and the people around you, I will be the “gray man” just doing his job. And that means even during xmas rush when airline pilots put in for vaca.

    • I used to fly a job like that. I’d do dispatch tasks, then wash a plane, then fuel and prep the aircraft before flying it all day. It was fun, but I’m not sure it’s a gig I’d want to do forever.

      To each his own. That’s why aviation is so amazing. There’s a job out there for every personality type.

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