Working for an Airline

I’m not a Pilot Either

I used to find pilots intimidating.  I think that has to do with the fact that prior to working for an airline, I’d never actually met a pilot before.  Sure, I’d seen pilots, but only brief glimpses as they marched through the concourse or in the rare moments that they peeked their heads out of the cockpit to say hello. And I’d never actually spoken with one.

Most of the time, pilots were just a faceless voice over the airplane’s intercom that would intone about wind speed and altitude and then periodically order us all to remain seated with our seat belts fastened. They were like airline royalty.  They were powerful and mysterious and what they did all day in the cockpit was anyone’s guess.  But dare to even think about congregating near that locked, cockpit door with the hope of catching one of them in action and you could wind up with a hefty fine or a bed in a jail cell.

So when I landed a job as an airline customer service agent, it was unnerving to find myself promoted from lowly, peasant passenger to one of their top advisers.  A member of their inner circle.  All of a sudden not only were the pilots talking to me but they’re asking me things, too.  Important things.

“What’s the fuel load?” they’d ask, for example, as they swept up to the gate podium.  “How many specials do we have?” they’d question as they peered over my shoulder at the passenger manifest.  And each time, before answering, I’d have to take a moment to just get over the fact that a real, live pilot was talking to me.  To me.

In those first few days on the job, I’d be too nervous to speak and so I’d just wordlessly hand them over the flight paperwork and watch as they flipped through a twenty pages of coded script.  “Huh.” they’d murmur as they studied what looked like the world’s most intricate word search puzzle.  “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”  How they got “turbulence” from 07098731274poo7051hop0960159 was (and still is), completely beyond me.

I’m not the only one who finds pilots to be intimidating, either.  Many of the passengers do as well, which is a fact that comes in handy when there’s a flight delay or cancellation and things start to get ugly at the gate.

“What do you mean DELAYED?”  The passengers will shout in a panic as they swarm the gate podium.  “Why is the flight delayed?”

“It’s the weather,” I’ll offer, which often is the truth but sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes the reason a flight is delayed is because of a maintenance problem with the aircraft  And usually it’s something as small as a light bulb that needs to be replaced or a bit of a seat armrest that’s broken off or a tray table that won’t fold up properly.  But so much as breathe the words “mechanical issue” to a few hundred people about to board a 150 ton flying machine, and you’ve got a crowd of hysterical passengers on your hands.  So we blame it on the weather instead.

“But the weather here is fine,” they’ll point out, indicating the sunny, cloudless sky outside.

“Yeah!” Another will chime in.  “And I just talked to my cousin’s neighbor’s dentist, who’s in (insert random destination) and she said that it’s sunny and 50 degrees there right now.”

Crap. I’ll think, as they all look at me accusingly.

“Well, you know…there’s a storm somewhere…somewhere over the continent….somewhere.” I’ll stammer vaguely.  “And the pilots have to fly to Canada in order to avoid it.”  I heard my supervisor tell a passenger this once, and it seemed to make a lot of sense at the time.  Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know but I use it all the time now.  “The plane had to divert to Canada” I’ll soberly inform the passengers whom are awaiting their flight that’s arriving from New York, Chicago or…Hawaii.

But sometimes blaming delays or cancellations on weather doesn’t work.

“I’m going to miss my cruise / job interview / uncle’s funeral / wedding!”  The passengers will holler, as they glare and stomp and point their boarding passes towards my chest; poised to hurl them like pitchforks and stab me through my lying little heart.  That’s usually the signal that it’s time call for reinforcement.

“Captain, sir…”  I’ll yell as I race down the jetbridge towards where the captain is briefing with the flight attendants.  “Sir,” I’ll say breathless as I reach them.  “We have a problem.”

He’ll then take in my pale, panicked face.  “What’s wrong? What is it?”

“It’s the passengers, sir.”  I’ll inform him, miserably.  “They’ve been waiting for so long now…and they’re hungry.  Starving, in fact.  And…and we’ve run out of food vouchers.”

He’ll then nod, expecting as much.  “What about water?”

“We’re all out of that, too.  We’re expecting a new shipment next week…But right now we don’t have anything to give them.  And I’m afraid that they’re going to storm the gate soon…You must say something to them.”  I imagine that they’re already starting a fire with their boarding passes and carry-on luggage…preparing to burn us all alive.

“Very well then.  I”ll talk to them.”  He’ll say, his face set with grim determination.  By this point, the scene outside the gate has typically escalated into a war zone.  One of the gate agents will be trying to hold off the surge of people that are charging the gate door, while the other is frantically shouting into the microphone:  “Ladies and gentlemen, please back away from the gate. Back away from the podium!”  as the crowd waives their flight itineraries in the air like war flags.  And it’s obvious to anyone watching that we’re losing the battle.

But then something magical will happen.  The captain will strode over to the podium, pick up the microphone and say say six little magic words that  work like a charm every time:  “Folks, this is your captain speaking…”

And I swear, it’s as if a King or God himself has spoken.  A hush will fall over the crowd and the passengers will stop flinging salted cashews at the gate agent long enough to listen to what the pilot has to say.  And it won’t even matter what he says.  He could blame the delay on a snow storm in Antarctica or a mysterious wind pattern in the Bermuda circle and they’d just nod their heads in awed silence.  Hell, he could even tell them something to the effect of:  “Folks, I’m sorry but the engine…fell off.  But we’ll have it screwed back on and running in no time.  So just sit back and relax and we’ll give you another update in a little while…mmmkay?” and they’d probably just wander back to their seats, feeling completely reassured.

Occasionally you meet a pilot who’s let this go to his head.  One of my coworkers has a theory that the size of the aircraft a pilot flies is directly proportional to the size of his…ego.  As in, the bigger the plane, the bigger the attitude.  This has some merit to it, I suppose, in that the bigger planes require more experience and more time in flight school.  If one of the agents sulks into the break room muttering about “that jerk pilot”, the first question asked is usually:  “What type of aircraft was it?”

Which isn’t fair, really.  I’d say that 99 percent of pilots are just nice, normal men (and women too!) who are just trying to do their jobs.

And now that I’ve been on the job for six months, I can say that I no longer find them as intimidating.  The star-struck feeling I experienced in the beginning has worn off and it’s become easier to talk to them.

Well, some of them anyway.  I’ve never had a thing for pilots exactly, but every once in a while a cute one will come a long and I’ll find myself suddenly shy.

“Thanks,” I’ll mumble, pretending to be absorbed in studying the passenger loads, as the cute pilot hands me a cup of coffee or bar of chocolate.  “That was nice of you…” I’ll manage to get out, completely embarrassed by the attention and unsure of what to say.  And then I’ll quickly revert my attention back to business and fill them in on the pet in 4C or the lap child seated in 22D.

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5 thoughts on “I’m not a Pilot Either

  1. It’s great to get the perspective from the agent’s point of view. But as a pilot myself, I have to say I don’t get the impression anyone is intimidated! Not that I want them to be.

    If you’d like to get to know us pilots better, you can check out “Fly With Me”, my podcast about airline life from a pilot’s perspective. It’s at

    Or you can watch my live show at . You can even call me during the show and ask questions or talk about your blog, so come on by! (Next one is Feb 21, 2010)

    By the way, I enjoyed this post – it’s well written, honest, and informative.

  2. @ Rachael – The job is not as exciting as I make it out to be…Most of the time it’s incredibly stressful! But yes, all of us female airline employees (and quite a few of the males, too) wish that Jake flew with our airline. Sadly though, he flies with some small regional airline I’ve never heard of. What a shame!

    @ Joe – Nice site. Very welcoming and I have to admit, not intimidating at all. : ) I’ll have to check out your podcasts!

  3. I am a pilot. The job may seem glamorous to an outsider, but like any job, the novelty wears off and it becomes more routine. When you are single it is a great job and you can travel more than most people. Once you are married, you are away from your family on weekends and that is not so fun. Nowadays I just feel like I am a glorified bus driver, and sometimes I wish I had a job where I could spend more quality time with my family.

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