A Jumpseat Named Desire


Jumpseating — the practice of bumming a ride aboard a human mailing tube headed somewhere you need to go — is one of the time-honored institutions of the airline industry. Some use their privileges to commute, others to move around on company business. But, in the right hands, it’s really more of an art. Come along for the ride as AVweb contributor Ken Cubbin tells all in this humorous look at scheduled hitchhiking.



“Fella! … won’t you give me the jumpseat? Please?”

You stand crestfallen as the gate agent informs you that there is already a jumpseater listed.

“But … I coulda been a contender.”

It’s true that most of us don’t have Marlon Brando’s thespian abilities (or girth), but it goes without saying that each of us exhibits the same degree of passion and desperation when it comes to asking for the jumpseat.

Tread Softly And Carry A Big Pen

Every day, in every major and many minor airports around the country, micro-dramas play out. I have seen normally gruff individuals charm, beseech, dramatize, and yes, even plead for mercy when trying to beguile a gate agent into accommodating his or her request. As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”

The whole jumpseating experience is a dynamic process of different procedures for each airline and a myriad of uncomfortable interpersonal interactions. Do I wait my turn in line with passengers seeking seat assignment? Will the gate agent be irritated if I ask for a form while he or she is seemingly overwhelmed? Perhaps I need to go down to this airline’s flight operations? Shoot! Who do I need to escort me?

Does this gate agent look — insert as appropriate — nice, angry, disgruntled, disheveled, happy, courteous? Having decided on a particular approach, we assume our character and step up to the podium. The power is held by the gate agent — a fact that does not escape some of the more uncooperative ones. And the pilot, who is used to being in control, has to accept that in this situation, the decision of whether or not he or she will get the jumpseat will be made by someone else. Someone who has two million things to do in too little time and under constant duress. Approach the podium in the wrong manner; display the wrong attitude, demand too much attention and you are going to find that it’s not such a good idea to be pushy.

First step is to get to fill out the form. Once the form is filled out and no other jumpseater shows up with higher authority to ride than you, the prize is near. But we haven’t gotten past the gate agent yet.

Chaos Theory…

For men, we are now in familiar — although uncomfortable — territory. For we, simply by being male, are used to playing our part in life’s black-comedy every time we try to get a date. In the mating game, power — absolute, undiluted and indivisible — rests with the woman. Through the years we try to learn the rules although, ultimately, understanding women — at least for most men — remains as remote a concept as quantum physics. And asking for a date, from teenage years to adulthood, remains excruciatingly uncomfortable.

Quantum physics …yes, that’s it! There is a pattern to what appears to be general chaos. This has to be the key to understanding women! Now all I have to do is figure out the pattern. Oops … the light just went out. Never mind, where was I?

Ah, yes … the gate agent.

I find that courtesy and manners work better than charm and brevity. The working life of a gate agent is arduous and most often unappreciated; the least I can do is to take as little of his or her precious time as possible and say, “please” and “thank you.” Believe me, those two words are too seldom heard by everybody, but especially by gate agents.

…Two Steps Forward, One Step Back…

For most airlines, it is preferred that you wait until most, if not all, paying passengers have boarded. Therefore, we linger a while longer around the departure lounge. People watch. The drama continues.

Uh-oh! Who’s that running to the gate with a look of desperation on his face? Is that a pilot of this airline going to bump me out of the jumpseat?

Unconsciously, you are holding your breath while waiting for the axe to fall. Whew! He was a passenger whose flight had arrived late from Chicago. Exhale.

As you pass the gate agent and pass onto the airplane, you relax. At last, familiar territory. People, not only of the same profession, but of the same mindset. Most cabin crewmembers and pilots have traveled this same road. We are the dislocated — well, from work at least — and the fellowship of commuters embraces members with help and empathy.

So ends Act I. Well, not really. It ain’t over yet.

…Plans B, C and D

The airplane still has to depart without interruption such as a mechanical problem, ATC delay, bad weather or other operational problem. And we all find out the hard way that when things go wrong, you had better have an alternate plan up your sleeve; Plan B.

Most physicists have never heard of Newton’s Law of Commuting. It states: When a disruption occurs to an airline’s scheduled service, the effect will be infectious to other airlines on a cumulative basis. Of course there are some logical reasons for this law; for example, all the passengers delayed from your canceled flight must be accommodated on other airlines. However, there are also inexplicable disruptions that occur concurrently. Mystical forces work against you. Airline A has a mechanical; airline B’s flight from Memphis is delayed; a flight attendant doesn’t show up for his or her flight on airline C; a storm front moves into the Midwest — you get the idea. Of course, by some obscene twist of fate, all these problems occur one after the other. While you stand there fat, dumb and happy with your duly-signed jumpseat authority in hand, it all goes to hell in a hand basket. That’s when Plan C comes into effect. Every experienced commuter knows you gotta have a Plan C.

Plan C involves jumpseating to an alternate airport with the hope that you will be able to jumpseat to your primary destination from that point. Maybe Newton’s Law of Commuting has not yet been complied with in this part of the country. Yet. So, instead of jumpseating from Atlanta to Los Angeles, maybe you opt for Phoenix instead. Wisely, you realize that there are many flights from Phoenix to LAX operated by America West and Southwest Airlines. Therefore, your chances of getting the jumpseat will be higher than if you had opted for say, San Francisco where United Airlines pretty much owns the route to Los Angeles. Keep as many options open as possible; that’s the commuter’s creed.

If plan C fails there is only one option left: Panic, otherwise known as plan D. If you reach plan D, you are in deep doo-doo. In fact, that’s what the “D” in Plan D stands for.

Self-inflicted Torture?

Of course, it is only necessary to panic if you aren’t going to show for a duty flight. If you can’t get home, your family will be disappointed and you will feel irritated, but no great harm will be done. Of course, there will always be the wrath of your spouse or the disappointment of your son or daughter because you missed their recital. In more lucid moments, we commuters are often found mumbling to ourselves: “Why am I doing this?” What makes an otherwise-sane individual decide to live hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from his base?

Well, as most of us already know, usually that decision is made for us. Either by an employer who decides that it’s necessary to transfer to such-and-such base in order to climb the seniority/equipment ladder — and you don’t want to have to move every few years — or by other factors. For those of you not acquainted with other factors, let me sum it up in one word: Family. We do extraordinary things for the people we love (or, in some cases, fear).

Family factors include: Spouses with close familial ties to certain areas (gotta love the mother-in-law); spouses with better jobs than we have (why are we still working?); kids in school (won’t they ever leave home?); real estate inequalities (buy high, sell low is not preferable); visitation rights (dispossessed kids) and many other subjective reasons. For most, the decision is logical but, for me, I chose to live on the east coast when my base is in Los Angeles. Therefore, that places me in the category normally eligible for the insane asylum. Even my fellow commuters are incredulous as to why I have made life so difficult for myself. I hope my medical examiner’s not reading this!

Glitter Gulch To Greensboro

So, many of you are probably wondering why I up and moved way across the country to North Carolina when my base is Los Angeles. I’m glad you asked. Well, not really, but I’ll answer the question as coherently as I can.

I fall into the category of “doing it for my family.” But not because we wanted to live in the same city as other relatives. Instead, ours was a quest for a great place in which to raise our son. We think of it as an investment in his future. Zack, the heir apparent (apparently not heir to much) was reaching the age where we needed to get established in an area that we thought offered the best mix of family-oriented values, education and future job opportunities. (Not only for him; my wife and I may also need employment.) Call me crazy, but we thought that Las Vegas didn’t offer all the qualities desirable for family life. Not unless you want your son to learn how to play a slot machine while you do the shopping at the grocery store.

Not that Las Vegas doesn’t have its fair share of youth clubs and other kid-related venues — there are, after all, the “blackjack for tots,” “keno for kids,” “so-you-thought-your-mom-and-dad-had-the-money-for-you-to-go-to-college” programs — but the standard of morals in Lost Wages is pretty well personified by the images of partially-naked women that adorn almost every cab in the city.

Unless my son intends to be either a proctologist or gynecologist, there is no earthly need for him to be spying buxom women at every turn in the road. Unfortunately, my wife also told me that I didn’t need to see them. Amazing how insightful women are with these things isn’t it? So we moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. Lock, stock and barrel.

For those of you wondering how we settled on Greensboro for a place to live, I cannot begin to explain without diagrams, charts and a discussion of historical weather patterns. But I will say that we looked all over the country before choosing. Of course, for each of us, the choice of where we live is subjective. And just as well, or you might all move here to Greensboro. I certainly don’t need any more competition for the jumpseat, thank you very much!

Pilots’ Club

Only we — the fraternity of commuters — understand the need to travel afar in order to perform the functions of our daily toil. We are joined by a commonality of hardship endured for either love and stability of our family or quest for promotion. We are partners in our quest for the venerable jumpseat. At least, that’s the way it is, until we get to the departure gate; then, the primitive instincts of survival take over.

It’s as if every pilot in the world has been marked with an indelible “P” on his or her forehead: We know each other. And when a pilot is trying to jumpseat, there’s a scent of desperation and need that permeates any departure lounge. So real is this effect that often you sense rather than cognitively realize that another jumpseater has just entered the hunting ground. Like bad spies out of a Maxwell Smart episode (didn’t the bad guys work for KAOS? Hmmm … there’s that chaos theory thing again…), jumpseaters sit in the departure lounge, pretending to read the paper, but with their radar tuned for human beings with the letter P on their forehead, secretly keeping an eye on everyone who walks up to the check-in counter.

Is that another pilot? Does she have a pass? Will I get bumped? Oh, man! I see a P on her forehead! No, wait! That’s just a lock of hair.

But because we as jumpseaters have a common bond, we each look out for the other guy. The unselfishness of airline pilots in this quid pro quo adventure never ceases to amaze me.

“Oh no … you have to get there by one o’clock … you take the jumpseat. I’ll take the next flight.”

“You need the jumpseat? I’ve got a pass, let me use that and you take the cockpit.”

And, through the good graces of fellow pilots, we board and travel to our base or home. One, two, three, or in my case, six hours to and from work. And why? Don’t ask me. In this chaotic world, all of us, relying on each other, have made a pattern out of the madness. If you’re every down in Greensboro, be sure to look me up. I’m the one the neighbors all point at while they shake their heads.

To all those pilots who have given me the jumpseat and for all those who I’ll approach in the future, I say, “Thank you and God bless.” See you at the gate. You’ll recognize me: I’m the one with the big “P” on my forehead.

About the author…

Ken Cubbin is a flight engineer for “a major international airline,” presently based in North Carolina. He is an Australian who began his career with Qantas more than 25 years ago. When not performing cockpit duties for “a major international airline,” Ken pursues a second career as a writer, devotes time to his wife and four-year-old son, and studies for his MBA degree.