Most airline pilots will at some point likely have to ride in the cockpit jump seat. The jump seat is a third (or fourth) seat that is installed for the FAA or a company check airman to do observation flights. However, the majority of the time, it remains empty. Qualified pilots—in this case qualified is limited to FAA-approved Part 121 pilots—are allowed to ride in the jump seat with the concurrence of the captain. U.S. airlines use a computerized system to verify eligibility at the gate or the ticket counter, but in all cases, the captain has the final say. Nearly all airlines have a minimum dress code that is, essentially, business casual: no jeans or shorts, a collared shirt, and a professional appearance. The rider presents his company ID and the boarding card provided by the agent, and if requested, a copy of his license or medical, to the captain.
It should be noted that other qualified personnel are allowed to ride the jump seat as well, but the specifics are individual to each airline. As a general rule, pilots, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, NTSB personnel, and designated company leadership individuals all have access. The FAA and Secret Service agents trump everyone else.
You can expect a briefing from the crew if you’ve never ridden in the cockpit of the particular airplane. The briefing will consist of operating the seat, which is usually stowed, the oxygen mask, cockpit door, radio, and anything unique to that airplane (the CRJ, for example, has an overhead escape hatch). Most captains will gently remind you that you are a part of the crew, and that is a key concept to understand: The jump-seater, even if from a different airline, is considered an essential crewmember. That means no alcohol, and it means you should not request the jump seat if you’re sick.
Once underway, there are a few simple things worth remembering. The most important is the concept of sterile cockpit. Any conversation below 10,000 feet msl is to be limited to safety of flight only. No personal or extraneous communication is allowed. However, you are expected to point out traffic or other obvious safety-of-flight issues if they occur. Likewise, if you are listening to the radio—and you should, either on the speaker, your own headset, or the one provided by the crew—and you catch an obvious mistake or a missed radio call, you’re expected to point it out and help the crew. Not only is it expected, but it’s appreciated.
Riding the jump seat is also a great opportunity to just observe. Even though you may be riding in the same airplane that you fly, it may with a different carrier, and you will be shocked at how differently airlines can operate the same equipment. The checklists will vary; flows, procedures, and callouts will often be wildly different; and points of emphasis will not all be the same. That said, it’s important that you don’t question a crew’s apparent lack of action as a mistake. If you do have a concern, it’s best to try to phrase it more as a question of curiosity than as doubt.
Don’t assume anything on the jump seat. If you have food to eat, ask permission before you eat, and if possible, offer some to the crew. Introduce yourself to both pilots, not just the captain, as well as the lead flight attendant. When you arrive at the gate in your destination city, give the crew a chance to finish their checklists before talking or opening the door, and be sure to thank them. Realize that sometimes weight and balance will not work out in your favor, and you’ll have to get off. Most importantly, do not get on the airplane and announce that you’re “taking the jump seat.” It is the captain’s decision, and such an entitled attitude is one that will surely lead to confrontation or your dismissal.
The jump seat, which is hands-down the most uncomfortable seat there is in nearly every airplane, is a privilege and a great tool, but there are certain rules of etiquette that need to be followed. Learn them and follow them, and show your appreciation for the free ride home or to work.