My friend Mike* is a First Officer at a regional airline here in the U.S. He's graciously agreed to answer some questions exclusively for Flight Club about being a pilot, as well as addressing some of the rumors that we hear as travelers about everything from sex to slowing your plane down on purpose.
Is it true that regional pilots intentionally fly slower to make more money, since you're paid hourly?
Yes and no. We fly slower than we could be, but the little bit of extra money it makes us is an unintended consequence.
Over the last few years the speed at which we fly in cruise has been dialed way back in the interest of saving fuel. When fuel was cheap, nobody thought much of getting into cruise, setting the thrust levers at max, and getting where you're going as quick as possible. As fuel costs started to increase, airlines started turning over every rock in search of fuel savings. Basic aerodynamics teaches us that the faster you go, the higher the amount of drag exists on the airframe. In fact, doubling the speed at which you're flying actually will quadruple the amount of drag felt by the airplane. Long story short, flight planners realized that by going fast everywhere everyone was burning a ton more fuel only to arrive there a couple of minutes early. Especially on the shorter stage lengths that regional airlines tend to fly, you're really not increasing your flight time by more than a couple minutes, yet you can save hundreds of pounds of fuel. If we're on time or early, I like to fly at the speed that saves us the most amount of fuel. It is also a lot more advantageous to fly your planned speed so that the fuel burn that was calculated for our flight plan is accurate.
On top of cost savings, arriving to your destination with more fuel gives you more options if you can't get straight into the airport. The fuel saved by flying more economically can mean the difference of one more turn in a hold vs. having to head to an alternate airport.
There are times when it makes sense to go fast though. Most of us fly frequently as passengers, we understand the need to arrive to your destination on time. On top of that, regional airlines are compensated for each flight they operate for their mainline partner, plus bonuses for completion factor and on time performance. If we are running a few minutes behind schedule, it makes sense to go fast to try to get back on time. Even just a few minutes can make the difference between someone making their connection vs having to spend the night in the airport.
I have flown with a few people who do fly slow everywhere they go because they think they're padding their paychecks. But they tend to be the extreme minority...and to be honest, you can add more to the flight time by taxiing slow or taking the second turnoff on the runway instead of the first.
Do main-line pilots treat you with equal respect as peers (since they likely started as a regional pilot too) or do they look down on you?
One of the best thing about this industry is the camaraderie. One of the absolute best perks of the job is that almost any airline pilot in the country can go to the airport and ride for free/cheap on the jumpseat of almost any other US airline. This certainly increases your exposure to pilots who work at other airlines. This is a very unique industry that nobody will understand unless they've been there. One of my coworkers likened it to the life of a carnie. We're in a different city every night and we give people rides.
As a result, most of us look out for each other, even if they work for a competing company. Unfortunately aviation is not immune from the general guideline that 10% of the people on this planet are idiots. One day after giving a 737 pilot a ride home to HSV [Huntsville, Alabama], he stopped me on the jetway and told me that he hoped I would become unemployed by next year. Some people are just unhappy in life and feel the need to take it out on others. But all in all, we get along. Look at two pilots as they pass one another in the terminal. Usually we'll exchange a nod. Its not a greeting, so much as it is a shared understanding of how crazy this job can be sometimes...basically a "yeah....me too."
Do pilots hook up with flight attendants as often as people think?
I can honestly say that if this has happened on any crew I have been a part of, it has been very well disguised. I can't think of a single time in which I've noticed anyone in my crew head back to a hotel room together. There are some couples that are dating and bid to fly together, but I've never seen a random hookup.
What's the dumbest thing you've seen a passenger do on one of your flights?
People are usually pretty behaved on flights, its in the terminal where you see the real crazy stuff. But as for stuff that happens on a regular basis, I'd have to say passengers conduct relating to their carry on bags that is the most facepalm worthy. I understand that everyone loves their things, but in most cases it physically will not fit in our overhead bin. Even if it does, when the flight attendant says you need to leave it on the jetway, she isn't just being mean. For weight and balance reasons the FAA is the one that dictates what can and cannot be brought into the cabin. She's just doing her job. Of all the flights I've ridden on where I have gate checked my bag, I have run into exactly two problems, both caused by a crew tag with confusing instructions. Take your valuables out, put a tag on it, and I promise it will be waiting for you when you get to your destination. Now go sit down, there are 40 people behind you waiting to board.
Do you have a favorite plane to fly as a pilot? What makes it your favorite?
Every pilot has a favorite airplane. For some its the airplane that has the best takeoff and climb performance, for some its just air conditioning that works and left over first class meals. In their simplest form, airplanes are tools. What I'm looking to accomplish will decide which plane I would consider a favorite.
DA20 Katana pic by Alec Wilson on Flickr.
If I was going up in a general aviation airplane just to fly for pleasure, I'd probably pick the Diamond DA20 Katana. It's light, it's maneuverable, and it has a very large windshield through which I can admire the view.
Cirrus SR-20 pic by Alec Wilson on Flickr
If I'm flying GA but actually looking to get somewhere, I'd say my favorite is the Cirrus SR-20. That airplane is the only GA aircraft I've ever sat in that I've actually found comfortable. Combine that comfort with lots of workload reducing tools and a significant amount of speed, you have the perfect cross country machine.
But for most pilots, their all time favorite airplane to fly will be a jet. So far in my career I've only flown one, the Canadair Regional Jet. Performance wise the CRJ is actually a rather anemic jet, yet it still stands head and shoulders above any other plane I've flown. I think what I love about it the most is that the things you can do in a jet are really impressive. The increased technology and training we get to see at an airline allows you to fly in some pretty challenging conditions. Doing laps around the pattern in a Katana is fun, but breaking out at 100ft above the ground on a Cat 2 ILS is a pretty awesome experience.
How about as a passenger, what's your favorite plane & why?
You can't beat the 747. The A380 may be bigger and a more comfortable ride, but the 747 was the first big passenger aircraft... and is much better looking. One of my favorite aviation memories is being able to ride in the upper deck of a Northwest Airlines 747-200. Between the business class service I was fortunate enough to enjoy and the fact that there were only twelve seats up there, you felt like you were on your very own private jet. It was easy to forget that there were 300+ poor bastards crammed in like sardines down below. Combine comfort with the sheer beauty and size of it, the 747 has to be my favorite airplane to fly on as a passenger. I hope that someday I'll be able to make it my favorite to fly as a pilot as well.
Top photo: Virgin America flight attendants. [Getty Images]
*I changed Mike's name because he agreed to answer my questions on conditions of full anonymity.