A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

45 Things Pilots Wish Airline Passengers Knew

Pilots might seem like mysterious figures keeping things running smoothly at the front of your plane. Well, several of them were willing to share a little more about what they do—and what they wish you'd do next time you join them for a trip through the skies.

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Portrait of Pilots Sitting in the Cockpit, Adjusting the Controls
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Let’s fly

Even when there isn’t a pandemic to upend the air travel industry, flying planes is a fascinating, complicated job. And just as there are things flight attendants won’t tell you, there are juicy secrets happening in the cockpit as well. We asked pilots from across the country to give us straight answers about the effects of COVID-19, maddening safety rules, inexplicable delays, the air and attitudes up there, and what really happens behind the cockpit door. What they told us might just change the way you fly. Note: These are the opinions of individual pilots and may not hold true across the board.

Pilot in an airplane wearing a facemask
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Some of us like flying during COVID

Suddenly airports are quiet, delays are nonexistent, commuting is a breeze. It’d be perverse to say that flying is “better” than ever, but certainly, it’s easier. Easier for all the wrong reasons, but it’s a way to keep my head up and maintain a sense of normalcy…I’m happier on the job, where I feel engaged and useful, than I am at home, where I’m apt to stew and wallow. —Patrick Smith, airplane pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential

Delayed flight screen at the airport
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COVID massively increased delays

The problems we usually encounter in connection with COVID for international air travel are DELAYS. Although air traffic has declined within the last year and the skies in Europe were basically empty, many flights were nevertheless delayed. The reasons are mostly the complicated passenger handling procedures due to strict COVID regulations. —Martin Pletzer, airline captain for a major European airline

Woman Holds COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card
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Research your destination’s policies

We would like our passengers to be fully familiar with COVID regulations for their destination. They should come to the check-in and gate fully prepared, with all the required documents, tests, etc. If, for example, the validity for a COVID antigen test is 48 hours in your home country, but only 24 hours in the country of destination, you will probably get in trouble. Dealing with such problems shortly before departure usually causes delays. —Martin Pletzer

Female Traveler in KN95 Mask Looking Out Airplane Window
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Comply with mask policies

Passengers should be aware of the mask regulations aboard their flight. Usually, the airlines give concise information, but they are not always respected…Non-compliance with regulations concerning masks, like not wearing them during flight, might, in the worst case, end up in a travel ban for the passenger. —Martin Pletzer

Passengers Disembarking Aircraft On Arrival, Back View
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Respect different departure policies

Follow all instructions during de-boarding the plane. Every country has different regulations and procedures for passengers leaving a plane. In Russia, for example, you are required to stay seated and wait for officials to board the aircraft to check for signs of fever. In other countries, entry docs from all passengers are collected by the cabin crew and handed over to officials after the aircraft doors are opened. Usually, all passengers rush towards the exit after landing in order to be the first out. During COVID, passengers have to stay seated and wait until their rows are called for de-boarding. Non-compliance leads to delays for the next departure of the aircraft. —Martin Pletzer

airplane in the sky with lightning

I’ve been struck by lightning twice

Most pilots have. Airplanes are built to take it. You hear a big boom and see a big flash and that’s it. You’re not going to fall out of the sky. —Airplane pilot for a regional carrier, Charlotte, North Carolina

 empty seat airplane and window view inside an aircraft
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Sit in the back if you’re always cold

The general flow of air in any airplane is from front to back. So if you’re really concerned about breathing the freshest possible air or not getting too hot, sit as close to the front as you can. Planes are generally warmest in the back. —Tech pilot at a regional airline, Texas

Airplane experiencing turbulence

Turbulence isn’t dangerous

Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence. It’s all but impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. We avoid turbulence not because we’re afraid the wing is going to fall off but because it’s annoying. —Patrick Smith 

You also don’t need to be afraid of these common airplane sounds.

Woman using laptop computer on airplane
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Listen when I tell you to put your laptop away

We don’t make you stow your laptop because we’re worried about electronic interference. It’s about having a projectile on your lap. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get hit in the head by a MacBook going 200 miles per hour. And we’re not trying to ruin your fun by making you take off your headphones. We just want you to be able to hear us if there’s an emergency. —Patrick Smith

Here’s what happens if you don’t use “airplane mode.”

parked airplane
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If you’re a nervous flier, book a morning flight

The heating of the ground later causes bumpier air, and it’s much more likely to thunderstorm in the afternoon. —Jerry Johnson, airplane pilot, Los Angeles

Drinking coffee/tea on a plain
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Some FAA rules don’t make sense to us either

Like the fact that when we’re at 39,000 feet going 400 miles an hour, in a plane that could hit turbulence at any minute, [flight attendants] can walk around and serve hot coffee and Chateaubriand. But when we’re on the ground on a flat piece of asphalt going five to ten miles an hour, they’ve got to be buckled in like they’re at NASCAR. —Jack Stephan, US Airways captain based in Annapolis, Maryland, who has been flying since 1984


The smoothest place to sit is often over or near the wing

The bumpiest place to sit is in the back. A plane is like a seesaw. If you’re in the middle, you don’t move as much. —Patrick Smith

Aircraft Cockpit during turbulence
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We’re more worried about updrafts than turbulence

A plane flies into a massive updraft, which you can’t see on the radar at night, and it’s like hitting a giant speed bump at 500 miles an hour. It throws everything up in the air and then down very violently. That’s not the same as turbulence, which bounces everyone around for a while. —John Nance, aviation safety analyst and retired airline captain, Seattle

Did you know that planes are forbidden from flying over these places?

Midsection Of Woman Using Mobile Phone While Sitting In Airplane
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There’s a reason you can’t use your cell phone

What can happen is 12 people will decide to call someone just before landing, and I can get a false reading on my instruments saying that we are higher than we really are. —Jim Tilmon, retired American Airlines pilot, Phoenix 

Woman looking at airline flight times
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We fudge numbers when it comes to flight time

No, it’s not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes. —AirTran Airways captain, Atlanta

empty plane
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Being on time is more important than getting everyone there

The Department of Transportation has put such an emphasis on on-time performance that we pretty much aren’t allowed to delay a flight anymore, even if there are 20 people on a connecting flight that’s coming in just a little late. —Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina  

Low Angle View Of Airplane Against Sky
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I’m constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I’m comfortable with

Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel. Sometimes if you carry just enough fuel and you hit thunderstorms or delays, then suddenly you’re running out of gas and you have to go to an alternate airport. —Captain at a major airline

plane driving in foggy skies

You’ll never hear, “One of our engines just failed”

What they’ll say instead: “One of our engines is indicating improperly.” (Or more likely, they’ll say nothing, and you’ll never know the difference. Most planes fly fine with one engine down.) You’ll also never hear, “Well, folks, the visibility out there is zero.” Instead, they’ll say: “There’s some fog in the Washington area.”

Here’s what these common flight codes mean.

Pilot standing and looking at departure board
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The truth is, we’re exhausted

Our work rules allow us to be on duty for 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud. —Captain at a major airline

Passenger plane Fly over blue sea.
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There’s no such thing as a water landing

It’s called crashing into the ocean. —Airplane pilot, South Carolina.

Eating airplane food during a flight, personal perspective directly above view
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We’re actually jealous of your onboard meal

Sometimes the airline won’t give us lunch breaks or even time to eat. We have to delay flights just so we can get food. —First officer on a regional carrier 

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Most people get sick after traveling not because of what they breathe but because of what they touch

Always assume that the tray table and the button to push the seat back have not been wiped down, though we do wipe down the lavatory. —Patrick Smith

No Smoking and Fasten Seat belt Sign in the airplane.
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It’s one thing if the pilot puts the seat belt sign on for the passengers…

But if he tells the flight attendants to sit down, you’d better listen. That means there’s some serious turbulence ahead. —John Greaves, airline accident lawyer and former airline captain, Los Angeles  

Back view of woman driving car
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Driving is WAY scarier than flying a plane

People always ask, “What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?” I tell them it was a van ride from the Los Angeles airport to the hotel, and I’m not kidding. —Jack Stephan

Check out these hidden features on airplanes you never knew existed.


Most of the time, how you land is a good indicator of a pilot’s skill

So if you want to say something nice to a pilot as you’re getting off the plane, say “Nice landing.” We do appreciate that. —Joe D’Eon, a pilot at a major airline who produces a podcast at flywithjoe.com

The heavy storm is approaching the airport in cloudy weather.
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Remember: Bad weather exists BETWEEN cities, too

This happens all the time: We’ll be in Pittsburgh going to Philly, and there will be a weather delay. The weather in Pittsburgh is beautiful. Then I’ll hear passengers saying, “You know, I just called my friend in Philly, and it’s beautiful there too,” like there’s some kind of conspiracy or something. But in the airspace between Pittsburgh and Philly, there’s a huge thunderstorm. —Jack Stephan

Baby sleeping on parents lap on an airplane
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Is traveling with a baby in your lap safe? No

It’s extremely dangerous. If there’s any impact or deceleration, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose hold of your kid, and he becomes a projectile. But the government’s logic is that if we made you buy an expensive seat for your baby, you’d just drive, and you’re more likely to be injured driving than flying. —Patrick Smith

Caucasian pilot walking up steps of jet
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We may not be financially well off

I know pilots who spend a quarter million on their education and training, then that first year as a pilot, they qualify for food stamps. —Furloughed first officer, Texas

Shot of a young woman sleeping in the aeroplane
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You can recline, but be mindful of who’s behind you

If you’re going to recline your seat…please check behind you first. You have no idea how many laptops are broken every year by passengers who slam their seat back with total disregard for what’s going on behind them. —John Nance

Soda cup on airplane
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We’d give you perks if we could

We miss the peanuts, too. —US Airways pilot, South Carolina

Rear view of pilot driving airplane
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We don’t wear our hats in the cockpit, by the way

On TV and in the comics, you always see these pilots with their hats on, and they have their headsets on over the hat, and that always makes us laugh. —Joe D’Eon

airplane flying in the blue sky

Autopilot is not perfect

People tend to think the airplane is just flying itself. Trust me, that’s not true. It can fly by itself sometimes. But you’ve always got your hands on the controls waiting for it to mess up. And it does mess up. —Airplane pilot, South Carolina

Portrait of Female Pilots Sitting at the Cockpit
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Sexism abounds

I am so tired of hearing “Oh my God, you’re a girl pilot.” When you see a Black pilot, do you say, “Oh my God, you’re a Black pilot”? —Pilot for a regional carrier. 

open window on airplane

There’s a good reason for everything we ask you to do

We ask you to put up the window shade so the flight attendants can see outside in an emergency, to assess if one side is better for an evacuation. It also lets light into the cabin if it goes dark and helps passengers get oriented if the plane flips or rolls over. —Patrick Smith

pilot making an announcement to passengers
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Don’t ask us to report sports scores

Here’s a news flash: We’re not sitting in the cockpit listening to the ball game. Sometimes we can ask the controllers to go to their break room to check the score. But when I fly to Pittsburgh on a Sunday afternoon, the passengers send the flight attendants up at least ten times to ask us the Steelers score. —Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina

womans shoes on the floor of an airplane
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Leave flip-flops in your luggage

I always tell my kids to travel in sturdy shoes. If you have to evacuate and your flip-flops fall off, there you are standing on the hot tarmac or in the weeds in your bare feet. —Joe D’Eon

Man and a woman in protective medical masks press call button on plane.
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We do have control of the temperature

Cold on the airplane? Tell your flight attendant. We’re in a constant battle with them over the temperature. They’re moving all the time, up and down the aisles, so they are always calling and saying, “Turn up the air.” But most passengers I know are freezing. —Captain at a major carrier. Here, find out if planes can fly in extremely cold weather.

so many airplanes are in line on the runway waiting for take off
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Here’s the truth about airline jobs:

You don’t have as much time off as your neighbors think you have, you don’t make as much money as your relatives think you make, and you don’t have as many girlfriends as your wife thinks you have. Still, I can’t believe they pay me to do this. —Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina

Experienced senior pilot pulling his luggage in the airport terminal
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Don’t ask for directions

I may be in uniform, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best person to ask for directions in the airport. We’re in so many airports that we usually have no idea. —Pilot for a regional carrier, Charlotte, North Carolina

Commercial airliner seat belt.
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Some airline lingo:

Blue juice: The water in the lavatory toilet. “There’s no blue juice in the lav.”
Crotch watch: The required check to make sure all passengers have their seat belts fastened. Also: “groin scan.”
Crumb crunchers: Kids. “We’ve got a lot of crumb crunchers on this flight.”
Deadheading: When an airline employee flies as a passenger for company business.
George: Autopilot. “I’ll let George take over.”
Pax: Passengers.
Spinners: Passengers who get on late and don’t have a seat assignment, so they spin around looking for a seat.
Two-for-one special: The plane touches down on landing, bounces up, then touches down again.
Working the village: Working in coach.

Read here for more funny airport codes.

Tired man yawning at work. Pilot flying airplane.
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We sleep in the cockpit

Do pilots sleep in (the cockpit)? Definitely. Sometimes it’s just a ten-minute catnap, but it happens. —John Greaves

Loading cargo plane
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We don’t dress up for cargo flights

One time I rode in the jump seat of a 747 freighter, which carries cargo, not passengers. As soon as the doors closed, the first officer went in back and put on a bathrobe and slippers. No kidding. He said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear a tie for a bunch of boxes.” Tech pilot at a regional airline, Texas

Pilot and flight attendant walking through airport
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We need to fly frequently to remain able to fly

A pilot’s license never expires. What does expire, however, is his or her currency—i.e. “recency of experience,” as the FAA puts it. To keep current in my aircraft type, I need two things. The first is to pass a semi-annual training evaluation. This is a two-day course that we repeat every nine months, usually referred to as “recurrent training.” In addition, we need to log a minimum of three takeoffs and landings every 90 days. If you drop out of currency, the airline has to run you through the simulator to bring it back again. —Patrick Smith

Stressed Pilot Looking Down Worried In The Airport. Aviation.
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Losing our jobs can be devastating

When a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. The way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. You lose everything. So any threats to our jobs or companies make us very nervous. —Patrick Smith

Modern commercial jet aircraft cockpit and pilots
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We retain knowledge of what’s familiar to us

So much of flying is muscle memory—internalizing the location and operation of the various switches, prompts, buttons, and levers—and the longer you’ve been flying a specific model, the stronger your retention. On my last assignment, finally in first officer’s seat again after a multi-week absence, I was surprised more by how quickly it all came back. —Patrick Smith

Up next, make sure you know these 18 things you should never do on an airplane.

Martin Pletzer, airline captain for a major European airline