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Tag: career flying (page 1 of 4)

Breaking the chain to get the job you want

Recently, I’ve had to sit on the cockpit jump seat during several commutes because of heavy loads during the holidays. It isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house, but hey, a free ride is a free ride and full airplanes bode well for my job security and profit sharing. This has led to all manner of conversations with the crew—outside of the sterile cockpit realm, of course.

Most of these commutes tend to be on Republic, which is one of the largest regionals in the country, and also the world’s largest operator of the Embraer E-170/175 series of jets. In fact, following Republic’s bankruptcy a few years ago, it’s the only airplane the company operates, having shed the older E-145 “Jungle Jet.”

Almost without exception, the conversation at some point turns to the topic of hiring at both the regionals and the majors, rumors, fact-checking, and seeing who knows who. Republic flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, and it is a key cog for each carrier. Numerous pilots have relayed to me that it’s extremely difficult for Republic pilots to get on directly with one of their code-share partners; friends who work for Republic have told me the same thing. The conclusion and consensus is that the three “brand names” don’t want to contribute to a shortage of pilots at one of their key regional partners. That said, all three have other carriers with whom they have preferential hiring or interview programs set up, but those other regionals tend to be much smaller. and the process is tightly controlled in order to manage the flow of pilots in such a way that metal can still be moved.

I saw this when I was at Comair. For years, Delta had three regional partners responsible for over 90 percent of its regional flying: Comair, ASA, and Skywest. When Delta needed to hire, it tended to take pilots from one of the three carriers in chunks, and when that carrier called Atlanta to complain about losing pilots, the ratio would shift to favor pilots from one of the other two.

This is a bit of a simplistic explanation, but the reality was that Delta didn’t want to leave any of its regionals with a shortage that would only hurt Delta, so the company hired relatively evenly from all three. By doing so, the company also got pilots that were intimately familiar with the Delta system, so it was a win-win. Keep in mind that Delta was also getting pilots experienced in flying jets when that was a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike today.

Those days are largely over, and the pilot shortage is real enough that the majors with regional feed need to consider the ramifications of their hiring decisions on their regional partners. As a result, pilots at Republic are forced to consider “breaking the chain” if they want to get on one with one of the big legacy carriers. Essentially, this means that many are opting for a carrier such as Spirit, JetBlue, Allegiant, or one of the cargo ACMI operators like Southern or Kalitta. Many are also going to Southwest.

Once they get hired by someone outside of their brand of choice, they test the waters for a year or so and make a decision about going through the job-searching process, a new training cycle, et cetera, taking into account career goals and the disruption to family life.  As you might expect, many stay, especially with strong carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. But not all do, and they find that getting hired at UA/AA/DL is much easier when they are no longer directly tied to those carriers. Passing muster in a bigger airplane also helps.

None of this is necessarily fair, but it is the reality of the current job market, and it’s a strategy that people in other fields have been using since the dawn of time. Pilots are no different: Job One is looking out for yourself. Hopefully, Republic will enter into genuine flow or feed agreements across the board, which would benefit all parties. In the meantime, pilots at carriers in a similar position need to be willing to consider the same strategy.—Chip Wright

Choosing the regionals as a career

No pilot has ever begun a career with the goal of becoming a career pilot for a regional airline. It almost always happens unexpectedly.

For some it is the result of bad timing, such as getting into aviation late in life and being held back by a series of economic downturns. For others, the lack of a four-year degree becomes an insurmountable obstacle, and others are denied a chance to move on because of a poor training history, DUIs, medical issues, or just bad luck. Most of the pilots I know who chose to stay at the regionals until retirement didn’t need the extra income that a job at the majors would provide. They often had another source of income, military pensions, a spouse with a great job, or had done well enough in previous career fields that flying for a regional was all they needed. As a percentage of the total, however, these folks represented a small group.

Most of the time, career regional pilots wake up and find themselves in the most common of situations: a mortgage, perhaps a spouse who isn’t working outside the home or works part time, kids, car payments, and numerous other trappings and obligations of a middle-class family. They decide that the move to a major isn’t for them. Many cite their current schedules, seniority, days off, et cetera, and believe that they will be too long in getting back to a similar point before the kids are grown.

Should you opt for this lifestyle, or feel forced to stay in it, keep in mind that your job security is tied to circumstances beyond your control. Network managers for your major airline partner decide which regionals come and go, how big each will get, and what you’re going to get paid. Your company controls absolutely nothing that matters.

That said, there are ways to maximize such a career in a way that will keep you competitive if you ever need to get that next job, while providing personal enrichment and satisfaction. One of the easiest is to get involved in the training department, which is larger than most people realize. Sim and ground instructors are the obvious choices, and great teachers with line experience are always valued. Becoming an examiner increases pay and responsibility and looks great on a resume. Training management experience can be parlayed into careers outside of aviation and will never provide a dull moment.

Involvement with updating manuals and procedures is another area of expertise that sounds more dull than it is. Airlines modify or tweak procedures all the time based on human factors studies, accident and incident reports, manufacturer recommendations, and more. When one thing changes, it often triggers an avalanche of manual revisions, which must be done in concert with the FAA. Working with the feds increases your contact network and can lead to great opportunities.

Safety departments also attract a certain kind of person, both on the company and the union side, and they often work hand in hand. Nowhere is this more true than with ASAP programs. The beauty of safety work is that this is an area in which the airlines freely exchange information and data, because safety is universal. There are numerous conferences every year in which safety data is discussed, analyzed, and shared (much of this also includes folks in training).

Staying with the regionals isn’t the typical choice, but for those that make it (or are forced to make it), there are ample opportunities to make a difference, and the job can be as satisfying as you want it to be. You can also stay connected with others in a way that you can use to move on if you choose or have to move on, all while staying current in the airplane. If this is you, broaden your horizons as much as possible, and dive into some of these chances. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

Exiting the Hold: Utilize Community Connection

In last month’s installment of Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals we talked about the importance of quieting the critic, exhibiting determination and the importance of perseverance in reaching your goals. In the final installment we will focus on utilizing aviation community connections to help reach our goals.

Sun ‘n Fun 2018

In this digital age you would be remiss not to use built-in aviation community connections such as:

  • Message Boards
  • Type Clubs
  • Online Forums
  • Type-Specific Websites
  • Facebook

Utilize community connection

View isolation as an enemy in attaining your goals. When we are isolated it is easy to fall into old patterns of thought and behavior. Remember from earlier installments of Exiting the Hold, old thinking will not support new learning.

Oceano Airport Toys for Tots

Why not attend one of our wonderful aviation events? Whether large or small, these events are sure to inspire you. Gatherings are a way to network with old-timers, connect with mentors, and meet others on the same path of growth. Make sure to fully utilize the support of your friends and family.

Try putting this simple formula to work for you. First, change your thoughts. The second step is to change your language. Next comes changing your actions, and finally your experience will change. Here is an example with the goal of getting a tail wheel endorsement. Your old thinking of “I don’t have the rudder skills to fly a tail wheel” changes in to “I can learn the skills I need to fly a tail wheel.” Next comes the language piece. Tell a friend, “I am learning to fly a tail wheel.” The action part is scheduling the airplane and instruction necessary for the endorsement and completing the training. And finally, voila! you are a tail wheel pilot.

Exiting the Hold, OSH 2018

Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals has been a very popular presentation series over the past year as I have presented across the country from Sun n Fun, to Oshkosh, to the Capital Airshow in California. I have decided in 2019 to continue with this series in hopes of reaching even more folks who feel stuck in life, and hopefully to inspire them to move forward toward success.

Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals

Six Keys Summary

  • Maximize timing
  • Choose your course of study wisely
  • Let yourself be a flexible thinker
  • Quiet the critic
  • Exhibit determination
  • Utilize community connections

In early 2019 I will be partnering  King Schools to offer Exiting the Hold in beautiful San Luis Obispo California. ACI Jet will be hosting the evening seminar which will be an opportunity for us to gather together, earn FAAST credit, see the presentation, and also perhaps win the drawing for a certificate for any course King Schools offers. Look for more information soon.

It is possible to exit the holding pattern you have been flying. Acknowledge that you have been stuck, use community connections to decrease isolation, make informed choices about resources, and be determined to change your aviation future. Look at obstacles merely as challenges to overcome; in the end your flying will be safer and more enjoyable and you will be proud of your accomplishments.

 

 

 

 

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and instrument rated pilot. Jolie presents aviation seminars around the country including Sun n Fun, EAA Oshkosh and AOPA. Jolie is the Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: www.JolieLucas.com Twitter: Mooney4Me

Getting adequate sleep

One of the best parts of flying for a living is seeing the country and the world while somebody else pays the bill. One of the hardest parts of flying for a living is ensuring that your sleep needs are met. Unfortunately, the two issues are tied together.

When flying domestic routes, the biggest issue with sleep usually pertains to the hotel. The air conditioning may not work to your satisfaction; the pillows may not be hard or soft enough; there may be noise outside your room or outside the building that makes it difficult to sleep. The all-time favorite is the middle-of-the-night fire alarm that keeps you out of your room for an extended period of time (this has happened to me twice).

Sometimes, sleep is difficult to come by because of the schedule. Everybody handles the schedule variations differently. I tend to wake up at the same time every day no matter what time I go to bed, which means that if I finish exceptionally late, I have a difficult time sleeping in. Others can sleep anywhere at any time (I do not care for these people!). For cargo pilots, the challenge is being able to sleep during daylight hours when your body is used to being awake, and then staying awake potentially all night to fly.

It’s said that you should just sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry, and there is some truth to this. Short naps, taken whenever the time permits, will help. Learning how to nap effectively can be an art, but ear plugs and sleep masks can do wonders. Putting a blanket or a sheet over your body to mimic your night-time sleep also helps “trick” the body, as does removing your shoes. If you’re in a hotel, going through your entire bed-time routine—brushing your teeth, adjusting the temperature, taking a shower—can go a long way to catching a good sleep. It also helps if you can allow for at least two hours, so that your body can go through an entire REM sleep cycle.

On those nights that you can’t sleep well, be honest about the reason why. There’s no question that sleeping in a different city every night is a challenge, but if the issue is the hotel, try to fix it. Noise is probably the most common issue, followed by climate control. Try to address the issues with the front desk, and if that doesn’t work, move on to the approved process your company has, which may require the use of a fatigue call. Calling in fatigued is not something done lightly, because of the potential cancellations, but if it needs to be done, it needs to be done. The FAA takes fatigue seriously, and if the hotel is routinely one that causes problems, a few fatigue calls usually will generate a quick resolution. If the hotel is indeed the problem and you don’t say anything through approved channels to fix it, the problem won’t go away.

Sleep is a critical part of your health, and nobody knows better than you when you’ve had enough or are lacking. Listen to your body, learn the tricks of the trade, and don’t sacrifice your safety by short-changing your sleep.—Chip Wright

Put your phone away

A different post than my usual. This one just has some odds and ends—some to help with life on the road, others as job aids.

Don’t do a walk-around while on your phone. It doesn’t look good, and passengers notice. So might your boss if he or she is in the terminal. Passengers will take a picture of you and send it to your boss. It’s OK to use your phone to take a picture of a potential maintenance issue to show the captain or send to the main maintenance folks. In a pinch, you can use the flashlight feature on your phone if it isn’t too dark. But don’t do your job while talking on your phone. It’s a sure-fire way to a chief pilot carpet dance.

Know the difference between transition level and transition altitude. Use the “V” and the “A” to help. “V” points down, so transition le”V”el is the point during a descent when you switch from standard altimeter settings to the local altimeter setting. “A” points up, so transition “A”ltitude is the point at which you go from local to standard settings. In the United States, the transition altitude and level are the same (18,000 feet). But in Mexico, the transition level is 19,500 feet, and the altitude is 18,500. Aruba has an even greater discrepancy: The level is 4,000 and the altitude is 2,500. The data is printed in small print on the approach charts and SID and STAR charts.

Keep pictures of your important documents, such as your passport, company identification, et cetera. Losing one of these can create monumental headaches, and photos can help smooth some feathers. Store the pictures on the cloud or on your phone (if you feel comfortable doing so). If you do a lot of international flying, including Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, memorize your passport number. If you use a company iPad or similar device, take a picture of your ID on a white background that also has your phone number. Make that picture the first thing someone will see when they hit the home button. That way, if your device is lost and someone finds it, they can find you ASAP. You could also include an email address or other information you feel comfortable disclosing.

A few hotel tips

  • Use multiple alarms. Don’t count on wake-up calls, as they frequently don’t get entered into the computer. Worse, they sometimes get entered for the wrong room. If you’re going to use the alarm clock in your room, pay attention to AM/PM and DST settings, along with the volume.
  • If you need to go to bed when it’s light out, or want to sleep in after the sun comes up, use the pant-clip hangers to clip the curtains together to keep the light out, and make sure the previous guest doesn’t have the alarm set for 3 a.m. when you aren’t planning to get up until 10 (ask me how I know this).
  • Always carry a 10-foot phone charger. Some hotels still don’t have convenient outlets near the bed.
  • If you want to put food in the fridge to keep it fresh, put one of your work shoes in the fridge with it, so you don’t forget the food the next day.
  • Text yourself your room number when you leave your room so you remember where your room is (don’t take the key envelope; if you lose it, you’ve given someone access to your room).—Chip Wright

The quick reference handbook

If you’re getting ready for your first job in a turboprop or a jet, you’re about to get introduced to the quick reference handbook (QRH). The QRH has all of the abnormal and emergency checklists in it, based on the equipment and furnishings on the airplane. At the very least, the manufacturer-designated checklists will be included, but often the company or operator will include its own procedures. This book is kept on the flight deck.

QRHs are usually written in some kind of an outline or flow-chart like format, with the intention of minimizing confusion for the pilots. However, lawyers are also involved, as are government representatives, and confusion still finds a way to rear its ugly head. Sometimes the confusion is difficult to avoid because the checklist has to work its way through several potential scenarios to troubleshoot and isolate a problem. Electrical and smoke issues are good examples. Some engine problems can be as well.

Adding to the problem are stress and compressed time. It’s very easy to write a checklist sitting at a desk or in a procedures trainer. It’s something different to determine how things will play out when the actual emergency is underway with a crew or a pilot that may be (pick a few) inexperienced; tired; scared; asleep; undisciplined; poorly trained; or sick. I’ve never seen a QRH that is perfect, and I doubt I ever will. In fact, just turning the page can be an issue. Some QRHs have different options based on what is occurring, and when a page is turned, it’s possible to lose track of which flow of information you’re using.

More and more crews are using electronic flight bags, but there are plenty of paper QRHs still on the flight decks. Paper doesn’t break or require electricity to use, and some books are just too hard to manipulate or use on a tablet, since you can’t mark several places with your finger.

The key to QRH use is to understand the layout of the book, and to use it exactly as intended. Don’t go beyond the scope of the particular problem you’re trying to solve. Too often, you’ll just make the situation worse. When the QRH says to “confirm” something, that almost always means asking the other pilot to verify that you have the correct switch or engine. More than once, I’ve seen a pilot shut down the wrong engine in a sim because he rushed and didn’t give me a chance to verify the correct engine was about to be secured.

Sometimes, the manufacturer will put a checklist in one chapter of the QRH when logic would dictate that it should be in another. For example, some engine issues are addressed in the chapter that deals with fires. Occasionally, a message that indicates as an abnormal is addressed as an emergency in the QRH. For the most part, all you can do is roll with it.

Changing a QRH is daunting, but not impossible. The aforementioned lawyers and bureaucrats want their say, but when real-world experience dictates, QRHs get changed. And that’s another challenge: It’s important to be at least tangentially aware of those changes.

The QRH is a great tool, and in the airline world, you’ll be more familiar with it than you want to be. But, it only helps you when you use it correctly, slowly, and as intended.—Chip Wright

IOE

When ground and sim training are complete, it’s finally time to fly the airplane! Back in the day, the first step was to get some landings in an actual airplane, usually conducted in the middle of the night at a small outstation under the guidance of a specially trained pilot. Those days are largely gone because of cost and safety concerns (mostly cost). Simulators are now so good that the airlines and the FAA agree that “familiarization flights” are no longer needed.

Initial operating experience (IOE) is the term used to describe your first trip of several in an airplane under the watchful eye of a check airman (sometimes called a line check airman, or LCA). IOE is an exciting yet nerve-wracking experience. You’ll go to the airport, find the crew room, and go through the entire preflight routine. It will feel like you have no time at all to get everything you need to do done, but in no time you’ll be able to do it all with time to spare.

The LCA will be talking a mile a minute, trying to teach you as much as possible in as short a time as possible. At the gate, you’ll do a supervised walk-around, and then get in the cockpit and do your routine as you’ve trained for it in the sim. However, now you’ll be bombarded by other distractions that you didn’t have before, such as flight attendants who want to say hello or need you to order something they’re missing in the cabin. Mechanics may be nosing around, and ticket agents usually come down to see if you’re ready. It doesn’t help that you still haven’t perfected the routine, and you feel as if you’re running in mud. Meanwhile, the LCA keeps talking, and he’ll take over a lot of the little stuff to try to achieve an on-time departure.

You’ll be thinking about the fact that you’ll be flying the airplane for the first time with a cabin full of passengers who have no idea that you’ve never actually flown this airplane, but you can’t dwell on it. Time will feel very compressed as you’re dealing with ATC, busy frequencies, and weather you don’t see in the sim (especially good weather). Your first night in the hotel will probably be one of the best nights of sleep you’ve ever had, thanks to the exhaustion.

IOE is a lot of fun in addition to being a steep learning curve. You’re putting all of the pieces together and realizing the culmination of your dreams. At times it’s frustrating because you don’t realize going into it how much you still have to learn, and landing the airplane is totally different than the sim. But over a few trips, with several LCAs, it starts to fall into place. And no matter how many times you go through IOE in the future, it will never be as overwhelming as the first time. Nor will it be as fun.—Chip Wright

Buddy passes

The buddy pass is one of the perks of working for an airline. It is just what it sounds like: a pass for a buddy to fly for a rock-bottom price. Virtually every airline offers them to employees, and at first glance, they sound great. You can take a friend or a family member on a trip and do so for a fraction of the price of a regular ticket. But, as with every airline ticket, there are catches.

The most important caveat is that a buddy pass is a space-available seat, meaning that your friend—or soon-to-be enemy—is only getting on if there is an empty seat and there isn’t a weight and balance restriction. In this day and age, with planes flying 80 to 90 percent full, an empty seat is hard to come by. I always tell people that the only thing a buddy pass guarantees is a positive space trip through security. That’s it.

That’s because, in terms of priority, buddy pass riders are listed behind revenue passengers; revenue passengers trying to change flights; employees being moved around by the company, employees that are non-revving; and, in some cases, retirees (a few airlines put retirees after pass riders). There is usually an exception in place if the pass rider is traveling with the employee, and that can be a significant advantage. Pass riders on their own truly are the last ones on the airplane.

Boarding last creates other issues along the way. The gate agents’ first concern is getting the flight out on time, and they’ve been known to leave some pass riders behind on occasion. Second, if you have a bag of any consequence, the overhead bins are likely to be full, and your rider may or may not be charged to check the bag, potentially increasing the cost of the trip.

Back in the day, pass riders had to rely on the employee to create the listing. Today, most airlines provide some avenue for a pass rider to look up loads and explore connecting options. As an employee, it’s up to you to make sure that the buddy can navigate the process without any help from you.

Buddy passes are charged based on either a zone formula (so much for traveling within a zone or a radius of a certain amount) or by charging so much a mile. And this is the rub, because it’s possible for the ticket price to climb to a point where the gap in price of a buddy pass and a positive-space ticket is close enough that a positive-space ticket will make more sense and provide the peace of mind of knowing you’re going to get on a flight.

Here’s an example: A friend of mine wanted a quote for a buddy pass to go to Australia. The first class rate (more on this below) for a round-trip ticket was $1,300, and around $700 for coach. But, there was a sale fare of $1,000 round trip, and my suggestion was to just buy a ticket, especially since it was such a long trip with few options. Speaking of paying for a buddy pass, most of them are payroll deductible, so make sure you get paid ahead of time, and settle up after the flight if the price varies.

But the biggest issue with buddy passes is making sure that everyone understands the rules (including you, as the sponsoring employee).
Unfortunately, too many people don’t seem to understand the limitations of flying stand-by.

In certain markets, giving someone a buddy pass is almost cruel (think Florida for spring break, or Hawaii any time). Flexibility is key, and the rules vary from one airline to another. For example, some airlines will allow you to list for a first-class seat, but they’ll put you in economy if that’s the only section with seats, and charge you accordingly. However, you may not be allowed to list for coach and then go to first class if a seat opens up there. This happens a lot on international flights, so pay attention to the rules for listing.

Dress code is important as well. United made the news about a year ago when a couple of pass riders were denied boarding because they were in violation of the dress code for pass riders. Most of these rules are available in a PDF format, so print them out for your buddies and also email them so that they can reference them as the get ready for the trip.

If your buddies don’t get on a flight, some systems will automatically roll them over to the next flight to that destination—but some won’t. The agent may manually do it for them—but they may not. It’s ultimately the buddy’s responsibility to figure that out.

Having flown for the airlines for more than 20 years now, I’ve learned that the best piece of advice I can give you about buddy passes is this: Don’t use them. Too many things can go wrong, and too often somebody says they “have to get there,” and that’s a sure-fire sign they need to buy a ticket. And too often the buddy doesn’t understand or respect the rules, and the person who gets in trouble is the employee.

The one exception I make is that I will give buddy passes to someone who used to work for an airline or has used them and is familiar with the process, the risks, and isn’t going to lose any sleep if they don’t make their flight.

If you insist on using buddy passes, be aware of the rules. And don’t say that I didn’t warn you.—Chip Wright

New drug tests

Drug testing is a fact of life at the airlines. You can count on being tested as a new hire, and then you’ll be subjected to random testing for the rest of your career. The FAA requires that 25 percent of pilots, chosen at random, get tested annually. The airline handles the details, or perhaps the testing company it contracts with to process the sample collections.

The standard profile calls for alcohol, marijuana, and several illegal recreational drugs. Recently, however, natural and synthetic opioids were added to the list. This is clearly in response to the national opioid epidemic, but it isn’t really a surprise. Used as intended, opioids such as Percocet, Oxycontin, et cetera, are extremely effective anti-pain medications used to treat various injuries or to ease recovery from some surgical procedures.

Unfortunately, these medicines are also extremely addictive, and as evidenced by the large number of deaths the last several years, they are too easy to acquire (in fact, NBC News did a segment showing how easy it was to order synthetic opioids online and have them shipped to your home). The FAA has added such testing not so much to catch pilots in the act, but as a deterrent. In my experience, most pilots are tested after they are finished flying. I’ve yet to see a test administered before a trip. It wouldn’t matter in the sense that it takes several days to get the results back, but if a pilot is tested before he or she flies and then comes up positive, it could create a public relations nightmare for the company.

If you’re ever prescribed one of these medications, you can minimize the risks of a positive test fairly easily. First, ask if something else might work just as effectively. If not, ask for the minimum number of pills that you might need, and then only take them when you absolutely need them. Second, ask detailed questions about how long you need to allow the remnants of the last dosage to leave your system. Whatever that time is, added another 48 hours before you return to work. Third, read the enclosed literature, or search the manufacturer’s website for more detailed information. Better yet, contact the manufacturer directly and ask them how long you need to wait to ensure a passed drug test.

If you’re flying internationally, you should also be aware that some countries have far more rigid rules with respect to the presence of alcohol. The United Kingdom is famous for this, and they’ve recently added some enhanced procedures to prevent pilots from flying under the influence. Keep this in mind if you plan to imbibe a bit while you’re on a trip.

There is very little leeway for flying with any hint of drugs in your system, and the rules can vary wildly from one country to the next. Play it safe, and if there is any chance you might have any in your system, ground yourself until you can be sure you’re completely clean.—Chip Wright

Dragging passengers

It has happened again: Last week, a passenger was dragged off a Southwest flight. Unlike the infamous United incident a few months ago, this passenger was carried off by police officers, and there is no “it wasn’t our flight, but one of our regional partners” argument to be made.

However, it does appear that the passenger in question had a number of reasons or excuses ready to go at the beginning of the incident as she tried to stay on the airplane, first claiming a severe allergy and working her way through the ever-popular “I need to get where I’m going.”

I can’t speak for what the policy is at SWA with respect to pilot actions in these kinds of incidents. Every airline has its own protocols to follow, and while the captain is generally considered the final word once the airplane leaves the gate, the final say-so is sometimes a bit murky at the gate. Gate agents don’t like having their judgment questioned after they’ve let a passenger on. Further, they don’t want to be blamed for a delay, and they don’t always know what a crew had to deal with once the doors close. That said, more than one agent has been guilt of trying to pass the buck and just get the airplane off the gate.

Flight attendants are the ones who have to deal with the passengers once the door is closed. They are on the lookout  for passengers who might be a problem, whether from intoxication, anger or frustration at broken travel plans, or a fear of flying or claustrophobia. If they sense that a medical issue could (or already has) materialized, they want to deal with it on the ground. In their mind, and with good reason, their preferred course of action is usually to have the passenger removed.

The pilots are in an odd spot at the gate. While they are clearly the final say once airborne, they have to trust others to do their jobs before leaving. Generally speaking, if the cabin crew wants someone off the airplane, the pilots will accommodate that request, and will often risk a scene to do so. Sometimes, passengers make it easy to make a decision by acting in an inappropriate fashion. All of this said, the captain is responsible for the safety of the flight as a whole, and anything that happens on his watch can be thrown back in his face—and will be.

I’ve had to deal with a few of these at-the-gate types of incidents in my career. Three stand out. They aren’t easy to deal with, they’re unpleasant for all involved, and while tact is often desired or needed, sometimes it just doesn’t help or have a place.

I wasn’t there for either of these two events. The crew, in my opinion, could have taken a stronger stance by simply announcing that the flight wasn’t going to go anywhere until the passengers in question removed themselves from the airplane. This is a harsh line in the sand, but it may be the most effective choice under the circumstances.

The chances are that another crew is not going to be handy to call to gate to operate the flight, and even if there is, once they hear about what is going on, they aren’t likely to step into a minefield by taking the flight. In my experience, even if the Chief Pilot’s Office got involved in something like this—either in person or on the phone—they tend to back up the pilots and agree that the flight will not operate until the offending passenger is removed.

A secondary option, though one that is not always available, is to push for an equipment swap if another airplane is available. This would require everyone to deplane and move to another gate. At the new gate, the gate agents and airport police can prevent the offending passenger(s) from boarding.

In the three cases that I can recall in detail involving passenger disruptions at the gate, one ended with a trio of intoxicated men agreeing to leave with no resistance when the police came on board. The second required intervention from a family member traveling with the individual in question, along with an assertive discussion with the gate agent, who felt she was going to be blamed.

The last one was the most similar to the UAL and SWA incidents. The passenger was a belligerent woman who was being extremely uncooperative and verbally abusive. To allow her to stay on would have undermined the authority of my flight attendant, and could have therefore affected her safety. I had to explain to the woman that we were having her removed and why, and when she began to say she wouldn’t get off the airplane, I made it clear we’d cancel the flight outright. I had to make the same comment to the gate agent, since he was pushing us to keep her. When he realized he’d be responsible for rebooking an entire cabin of passengers versus just one, he agreed to work with us.

All of this brings up another point that was lost in the shuffle of the Republic/UA debacle. Back in the day, regional airlines had their own gate agents. They don’t anymore. The agents are either contracted from a third company (and get paid around minimum wage) or are employees of the mainline brand. This often creates tension and a disconnect, because when situations like this arise, not everybody is on the same team. All anyone knows is that somebody at HQ is going to start asking questions, so everybody gets defensive.

As the pilot, it is best to remember who is ultimately going to be held the accountable, and for that matter, who has the most to lose. The answer is simple: It’s us. That’s no different in a Cessna 150 or a Boeing 747. If you’re willing to exercise the responsibility of being pilot in command in one airplane, you need to be ready, willing, and able to do it in all.

In either of these cases, it would have just taken one pilot to stand up and say they weren’t going to take a problem passenger. To emphasize how far this goes, the same can be said if the problem is one of the cabin crew. Fly for an airline long enough, and you’ll also have to deal with a flight attendant who shouldn’t be at work that day.

When it comes to the passengers, though, no matter how upset they are or how bad their day is going, once they step on the airplane, they have to behave themselves. They can file all the complaints they want later. But from entering to exiting, they need to play by the rules, even if they are asked to leave the flight. And as operators of the airplane, we need to recognize that everything we do is likely being recorded, and make sure that we do whatever we can to avoid someone being dragged off.—Chip Wright

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