Ask the pilot

Do pilots have a "romper room"? Do they fly the same routes over and over? Those questions and more

By Patrick Smith
Published May 22, 2009 10:34AM (EDT)

What is the reason that airlines, when flying from the United States to Europe, insist on taking off in the late afternoon or early evening, only to plunk down their exhausted passengers in Europe at the crack of dawn? We then have to survive an entire day before it's bedtime, running on little or no sleep. It is also impossible to check into one's hotel at the times flights usually arrive. What's the deal with this madness? Instead, why not take off at, say, 11 p.m., arriving in Europe in the afternoon? The plane could then return to the U.S. for landing in the early evening.

Mostly it's about two things: passenger connections and aircraft utilization.

Flying from New York to Paris, for instance, a sizable percentage of passengers will be continuing onward to places elsewhere in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, etc. Arrivals are timed to dovetail with those connections. Not to mention, many of the folks who boarded that evening in New York began their journey much earlier -- in, say, Salt Lake City, San Diego or New Orleans; or Syracuse, Roanoke or Harrisburg.

Returning westbound, same thing: Landing in New York (or Chicago or Houston or Dallas or Miami) in the midafternoon leaves ample time for connections to points throughout North America.

It's very similar with flights to Asia. Flying from Chicago to Tokyo, you will take off in the morning and arrive in the afternoon. Later, a bank of departures will leave Tokyo destined to cities deeper in Asia. To Bangkok, for instance, where you'll touch down about 11 p.m. That aircraft spends the night, then returns to Tokyo early the next morning, landing at midday and allowing easy connections back to North America.

This way, too, the aircraft spend minimal time on the ground. Lease payments on a widebody jetliner are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, and a plane can't make money resting idle on the tarmac. Airlines strive to keep their jets in the air as much as possible, scheduling the quickest feasible turnaround times (figure 90 minutes, minimum, for an international flight).

One wrinkle is with flights to and from South America, where service is often an all-nighter on both ends. An aircraft arriving after sunrise in Buenos Aires can't turn around and fly back to New York, or it will get there after dark with little or no opportunity for connections. Many airlines bite the bullet, letting their aircraft sit for 10 or 12 hours before heading back again in the evening. (My carrier often uses this opportunity to deep-clean its interiors. Even our normally filthy cockpits come back scrubbed and vacuumed.)

Some carriers do provide limited service focusing on what's called "origin-and-destination," or "O&D" traffic, better suited for fliers who aren't connecting. British Airways, for example, has traditionally offered daytime flights to London from certain U.S. cities. Leave Boston around 9 in the morning, and you'll reach Heathrow around 8 p.m.

On a given flight, half or more of the passengers might be transiting the first arrival point. Most European carriers wouldn't be half the size they are if not for the number of transfer passengers moving through their hubs. Indeed, some of our largest and most profitable airlines hail from city-states with relatively tiny populations, where O&D traffic is only a fraction of the total. Singapore Airlines and Emirates, for example. Their success is less about carrying people to Singapore or Dubai than it is about carrying people through Singapore or Dubai.

Singapore Airlines has one of the world's largest all-widebody fleets (about 90 aircraft) -- a stupendous accomplishment in a country smaller than metro Philadelphia. Emirates, with a population base half that of Massachusetts, flies 115 widebodies, not counting its 50-plus Airbus A380s still on order. Emirates carried 21 million people in 2007; Singapore about 19 million. In both cases that's considerably more than the entire population of the airline's home country.

It comes down to strategic position, literally. By fortune of geography, those places make excellent transit hubs along some of the busiest long-haul routes. They are also quite wealthy, able to build the high-tech infrastructures and gleaming airports in which those esteemed brands can flaunt themselves.

Award-winning on-board service doesn't hurt, either.

I really enjoy your online photo archive. Many of your pictures were apparently taken on the job, and this got me wondering. How is it decided which crews fly where? Does a crew often fly the same route repeatedly, and how long in advance do you know where you’re going?

It varies slightly, airline to airline, but typically crews are assigned their schedules in 30-day increments. Each month, bid packets are posted, specific to each base city and aircraft category, containing a long list of multiday "trips" (cities/layovers) available for bid. There can be hundreds to choose from, ranging from single-day out-and-back rotations (sometimes called a "turn") to those lasting a week or more. You select your preferences, and the schedules are divvied up based on seniority. This process normally takes place around the middle of the month. In other words, pilot and flight attendants know their schedules for the coming month by the second or third week of the current one.

Crew members with high seniority can better control their schedules. Those near the top can have pretty much whatever they want; those near the bottom get the leftovers. Some prefer the same trips over and over; others mix it up; others have no choice. The lowest-rung crews are relegated to on-call status, known in airline parlance as "reserve." A pilot on reserve has no fixed schedule for the month and must be available for assignment on short notice -- sometimes as little as an hour or two.

I am fortunate, because although my overall seniority is low, it is reasonably high when it comes to my monthly bidding. I benefit from two scheduling considerations: I have chosen a base city that is overall quite junior, and I also prefer the types of long-haul trips that many of my colleagues aim to avoid. (I'll take the Third World over Western Europe any day.) At least for now this permits me to stay off reserve and fly to some very cool places. Last month I worked two trips -- a three-day rotation to South America, and a 10-day rotation to Africa.

Downtime in a particular city can range from a quickie overnight with little time to leave the hotel, to three or more days. The average layover duration for the trips I tend to work is 48 hours. (I perform between two and four landings a month, usually -- a far cry from the three or four landings a day I often made as a regional pilot.)

On the whole, international flying tends to go to those more senior, but not always. Some pilots don't enjoy it and will go their whole careers flying only domestic. Others, like me, can’t get enough of it.

Not long ago the TV Show "CSI: Miami" did an episode called "Flight Risk," which, according to one preview, was going to expose air travel secrets to viewers. Among them: a "romper room" accessible by an elevator; drug use by crew members; and the ability to drug someone and drop them through a hatch into a cargo hold.

As detailed here a few weeks ago, some long-haul planes do have lower- or upper-deck rest modules, outfitted with sleeping berths and chairs, tucked away in places that the average passenger doesn't have access to. But they are normally reachable by stairs, not elevators (some versions of the old Lockheed L-1011 had a lower-deck galley reached via elevator). However, I cannot think of a less apt description for those places than "romper room." Pilots and flight attendants almost always have separate rest quarters, and I'll tell you what goes on in those rooms: sleeping. Or maybe a little griping or gossiping or reading, and then sleeping. Maybe it was different in the 1960s or 1970s, but these days, believe me, it's pretty unexciting.

Drugs: All crew members, I'll remind you, are subject to random testing for drugs and alcohol, and failure of a test means instant termination and the revocation of your license. Failures for flight attendants occur more commonly than those for pilots, but the rates overall are minuscule. Have I ever known of a pilot who flunked a drug test? Yes, once, about 10 years ago, at an airline I no longer work for. The culprit was pot, and he reportedly admitted to using it. (Offenders are entitled to an appeals process, but that is a scary, guilty-until-proven-innocent nightmare.) It's possible, after a period of time, to have one's license reinstated, but you will not be getting your job back, and employment at another commercial carrier would be a long shot.

Sex on airplanes? Occasionally, yes, though almost always it involves passengers, not crew members. I've heard an awful lot of stories from appalled flight attendants who have had the duty of breaking up some of these mile-high dalliances. If even half of them are true ... Lavatories are the most common spot, but seats are popular too, especially in first or business class. Those fluffy duvets provide some cover, but despite what the participants think, they often are being watched.

As for that last one, about dropping somebody through a hatch into the luggage hold ... Such hatches don't exist, unfortunately. On larger planes there is ladder access to under-floor nooks housing electronics and such -- some of these bays are roomy enough to stand and move around in -- but normally there is no direct access to the freight or luggage compartments. This is mostly for fire safety. Some Boeing and Airbus models have lower-deck rest modules, but those too are sealed off from the rest of the under-floor space.

Thanks to your column, I now greet and thank the pilots every time I get on and off a plane. I usually get a smile, but I don't stay and converse. Should I be doing this? Is my interruption an irritation? And when it comes to thanking a pilot, is there anything specific I should say -- or not say?

On the whole, I'm sure that your visits are welcome. Some crews are more receptive than others, but personally I enjoy it when passengers bother to come up front and say hello. There's no reason you can't stick around a few minutes and chat or take a photo. For nervous fliers this can be especially comforting, and you should introduce yourself as such.

If you're a hardcore aerophile, let the crew know, and often you can sit in one of the jump seats until shortly before push-back.

As for saying thanks, almost anything is appreciated, especially if it conveys your understanding that pilots do, actually, have a difficult job and aren't merely up there dozing while an autopilot does all the work. One thing, though: Try not to comment on the smoothness of the landing. For one thing, you can never be sure which pilot actually performed the landing, and passengers' interpretations of what constitutes a good or bad one aren't always accurate. Remember that certain touchdowns are intentionally firm (on short runways or in times of low-level gusts or turbulence) or slightly askew (crosswinds). As I sometimes tell people, judging a flight by its landing is a bit like judging an entire paragraph by a single punctuation mark. That's my excuse, anyway, for those times when I bang it on.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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