CEO of the Cockpit #7:
Grumpy Old Captains

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It's been a bad day. Scratch that, it's been a bad week. AVweb's Kevin Garrison has had it up to his epaulets with cute comments from airline passengers, and he's decided it's time to let us know what passengers say that makes airline pilots rant.

The ILS approach was in heavy rain and came at the end of a long day. One of those days that was a never-ending five-leg load of crappy weather, surly passengers, a lethargic ATC system, and air-conditioning packs that just never seem to catch up.

My co-pilot for this four-day "hostage crisis," Scott, summed it up well when he said, "Ah, the life on the razor's-edge existence of an airline crew!"

Indeed. I wonder if all the starry-eyed kids that are slaving their way through various and sundry flight academies that, for only thirty grand will "guarantee you an airline job" that pays $800 a month and has much worse days than this, realize what they are really aspiring to. Not that it is a bad life, flying sub-sonic people movers through the air, but it does occasionally have its downside. People that don't fly for a living wonder how a senior captain like me can be so damn grumpy a lot of the time.

I used to wonder that myself when I was a callow, eager flight engineer and later a co-pilot. I was flying with guys that had it made. They flew captain on the 727, had a regular schedule, and their cars were new enough to start every time while mine always had a dead battery and had to be pushed down a hill to start. They were walking in tall cotton, yet they seemed to be on the verge of having a snit-fit much of the time.

"Could it be," chimed in Scott, "they were that way because they were flying with you?"

Maybe, but I heard about this from other people in my new-hire class too. What made these senior captains such unhappy jerks? Was it the cost of that third wife? The 28-year-old kid who never seemed to get out of college? Painful hemorrhoids? What?

Boo-Hoo, Nobody Understands Me!

"I know what it is," said Scott. "Nobody in their world really knows what they do for a living. The only people they can talk about the job to are fellow airline pilots, and we really don't care because we have problems of our own."

Good point. Even our spouses and family only have the vaguest idea of what we do in the cockpit. The door, if you remember, is locked and now barred. They aren't welcome at simulator training sessions, and the only trips they go along with us on are the easy ones with nice layovers. There is no airline pilot so cruel as to take his wife on a romantic eight-hour Shreveport layover after a 13-hour day.

Most people see our job as one of sitting on plush cushions in air-conditioned comfort pushing random buttons. While that is largely true, it is also true that they don't know about how hard it is to focus your attention on a hairy approach after a long day. They don't have to get fingerprinted to prove they aren't criminals. They don't have to face the constant hypocrisy of a system that talks about giving us guns in the cockpit but hasn't gotten around to allowing us plastic knives with our meals yet.

"Easy there, fella!" Scott could see a rant from me coming on, even though we had time for it because nobody in the ramp control tower could manage to find us a gate, and the ramp people were under cover due to all the lightning in the area. He had already endured four days of me and wasn't ready for me to rave out, but like airline CEOs making personnel cuts and then taking bonuses, it was inevitable.

The Inevitable Happens...

I know that other people in other jobs have to deal with public misconceptions, but I think ours is at least in the top ten in terms of pure frustration. The first five years of your job, you find the public's ignorance sort of cute and charming. Later, it becomes an irritant a raspberry seed under your wisdom tooth that starts off as a minor thing, but later makes you dig at your mouth like Tom Hanks with an ice skate in Cast Away.

You know most of them, but since the ramp is now closed due to impending tornadoes, we have time for me to review some of the most heinous crimes of humanity against airline pilots.

As I prattled on, the rain, which used to be heavy, now became a torrent. The winds picked up so much that the airplane started rocking as it sat on the ramp, and it looked like those tornadoes everybody was whining about might actually exist. As I talked and began my rave-out on passengers, I had the presence of mind to extend the ground spoilers, making our MD-88 a little less of a kite should a twister get near us.

Scott rolled his eyes and took a long drag on his coffee cup. This particular rant was going to be a doozy. "Just wait a minute," he said, "I'll make a quick PA telling the folks that we're marooned here on the ramp; unless, of course, you want to tell them on the PA all that is wrong and ignorant about them."

That's okay. If I did make a PA like that they would only listen for what time we were supposed to arrive, or think I was joking. Why everybody thinks I'm joking when I make an announcement is beyond me, but that is for another rave out.

We Never Lie ... Honest!

Speaking of PAs, why do passengers think we lie to them all the time when we tell them things? What possible motive could I have to tell them we were taking a weather delay when we weren't? Do they think we get some sort of bonus for making things up? Believe me, if we're on fire I won't pick up the microphone and tell everybody we've got a "smoking problem."

Next in order of irritation is the "What is your route?" question. About five hundred years ago, when we flew wooden airliners, pilots did have a "route," like the Newark to Boston run, mainly because we didn't go to all that many places. To ask a pilot his "route" nowadays is a sure indicator of your dork status. Don't be the dude that asks a pilot that. The question is annoying, and instead of explaining for the millionth time that I don't have a regular route but go just about everywhere, I usually tell the miscreant that I now fly the Boise/Hanoi route and leave it at that.

"I think that passengers mean well and are just searching for something to say to you," said Scott in an attempt to get me off my rant. He couldn't buy my silence that easily.

I know they mean well, but why do they have to say anything at all? For example, I could be a medical doctor if it wasn't for all those "D's" I made in science and math, and the fact that the sight of blood makes me barf. If I were a sawbones, would random people I don't know come up and ask me dumb questions about the last colon polyp I'd removed?

Now that I mention it, they probably would. It must be part of human nature to want to be one of the cool guys, as we pilots definitely are. I mean, people don't go up to street sweepers and ask them about their route, do they? Hardworking Americans who spend their day at the rendering plant removing pig entrails don't have to endure boring questions about their jobs. Maybe it is an honor that so many people that know so little about our profession take the time out of their busy day to make fools of themselves.

"Aren't you being a little more harsh than usual?" asked Scott. "Maybe you need to chill out a little and take a deep breath. I'm an ex-Navy jock, and I had to endure thousands of questions about Top Gun, and it didn't bother me all that much."

You have a point, and to be honest, I'm guilty of being fascinated with strong young people with handles like "Goose" and "Schmengie" who get hurled off of pitching decks riding high-speed jets. I've heard that they officially don't even allow alcohol on aircraft carriers. I'd need a lot of hooch before I'd try to land on one, I'll tell you that.

Speaking of booze, why does the general public think it is okay to quiz airline pilots about their drinking habits? I can be at a neighborhood party with five more days off before I go flying and yet the very first question out of my neighbors' beer-soaked pie holes is: "When do you have to fly again?" This question, of course, is obviously designed to protect civilization from me sucking down a brewski and then killing 200 people with an out-of-control jet.

First of all, you've flown with me long enough to know I don't need booze to get a jet out of control. Second, at all those parties, I'm usually standing next to a friend of mine who happens to be a heart surgeon. He always wears one of those beepers on his belt so the hospital can call him up should the need arise for him to cut somebody open with a knife. He's standing there with a double scotch does anybody ask him when he has to operate next?

"There you go," Scott intoned in a soothing voice intended to shut me up. "Now just sit back like a nice quiet little captain and wait for the ramp people to come out to park us."

Not before I run down a few more things that bug me about the flying public and their warped concepts of our job.

The CEO Raves On, Then Donates

Here's the biggest un-popped zit: Why do they think we care about their opinions of our landings? At the end of every flight, almost without fail, two or three of them have comments like "Nice landing," or, "Wow, that was a rough one." You can almost kill everybody six or seven times on a leg while enroute, but if you "nail the dismount" and land smoothly, they think you are some sort of genius.

I wouldn't even mind the landing comments from people if it weren't for the ones that think they know something about flying but really don't. Comments like, "Were you flying the beam?" and, "Those wing flaps out on the edge of the back of the wing wiggled too much you ought to have them checked," would be funny if they didn't happen every leg for the past 24 years.

Finally, in this new age of improved security I wish passengers, even well-meaning ones, would quit asking us what hotel we are staying in and for how long. I never really give a good answer to that one because I don't want to see that person in the motel bar that night and have to explain my drinking schedule to USA Today later.

Scott at last got relief when we noticed that the storm had abated and the ramp people had come out of hiding to park us. Once in the gate, I had to smile and chuckle when four of our 100 passengers complimented me on my landing. Then I noticed that the "Urine Gestapo" lady was in the jetway and was motioning to me that I had a pee-date with the drug police. It looked like my long day was going to be even longer and that in some sort of cosmic way I was going to pay for my temper tantrum.

Nobody was around to complain to as I trudged down to donate bodily fluids to the war on drugs. Scott made his escape as soon as he could and I couldn't blame him. Had anybody been around to hear my comments, I might have mentioned the futility of testing me for drugs after the trip was over how could that improve safety? But since nobody but the pee-collecting nurse was there, I just did my duty, made number one, and went home.

With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.