Rebuilding the Public Perception of Airline Pilots, One Confused Passenger at at Time
This caught me slightly off guard as I was at a backyard birthday party to celebrate a friend’s daughter turning three. Naturally, I was at first a bit defensive. “What do you mean, you have a bone to pick with us?” was my response. It turns out this gentleman was convinced that airline pilots flew through turbulence and bad weather on purpose, held airplanes on the ground on purpose and made air travel in general a miserable experience—all on purpose!
In all actuality, the conversation was held in a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, but before I could rattle off all of the specifics of the occupation, we had to turn our attention to our three year old daughters who were about to kill themselves on a rickety swing set! Crisis averted, I quickly ensured him that we did not do these things on purpose. Unfortunately, being at a three year old birthday party can be very distracting and needless to say, we didn’t have time to finish the conversation.
This brief encounter stayed with me for a few days after the event. I never got another chance to explain how our profession worked but it got me thinking. Did people really think airline pilots do detrimental things to the passengers and aircraft on purpose? It was a preposterous thought, but then again I have a vested interest in my profession. Did angry passengers really look at us with contempt? I know now that the answer is yes, but until that afternoon I had never been personally confronted by such an accusation even if it was a bit sarcastic.
I like to think of airline pilots as one of the most highly trusted occupations on the planet. In this day and age, we may take it for granted because of the industry’s safety record, but passengers do put a lot of faith in the two people in the cockpit. Just as a person needs to have a lot of trust in his or her doctor or lawyer, a person needs to have trust in their cockpit crewmember. The big issue I could see though was that if the man I chatted with at the party was even a small sample that had their faith in crewmembers waning, than we as a profession need to work to rebuild that trust. We cannot force people place their trust with us, but we must work hard to build and then keep that trust.
The general public in the infancy of the airline industry was quite apprehensive about flying and rightly so. If you look back on airline advertisements from the 1950′s and 1960′s, the pilot was the figurehead of those ads. Typically, an older more distinguished gentlemen was shown in his crisp uniform with a blurb about how, “so and so has flown over five million miles on XYZ Airline Jets and you can trust in his experience to get you and your family safely to your destination.” As the industry over time became safer and safer, the advertisements focused less and less on the pilots up front in part due to the fact that the airmen over time had earned the trust of the paying public.
The unfortunate part of air travel is that it can be a very unpleasant experience from the passenger’s standpoint. From the minute that a customer shows up at the airport, the experience is rife with land mines all attempting to ruin the travel experience. Will your bag show up at your destination? How much are those hidden bag fees? The TSA needs to frisk my six year old? There is a delay due to weather? How can it be due to weather if it is beautiful outside? This is all before the airplane has ever even left the ground!
Once in the air the passenger has to deal with turbulence, inoperative in-flight entertainment systems, and the inevitable waiting for a gate upon landing. I can assure you that there is nothing more frustrating to my fellow airmen than to see and hear and experience the inadequacies that our industry has to offer in return for a large amount of hard earned customer money. I can remember a very cold night around Christmas time in 2005. We had just flown a short flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Philadelphia International Airport. We had a flight time of roughly 38 minutes and sat on spot fifteen of the commuter ramp for one hour and twelve minutes waiting for our gate to become available, only to taxi in and wait another 10 minutes for wing walkers and a marshaller to guide us the last ten feet. This was unacceptable not only from my standpoint but especially our passengers’ standpoint. We did our best to update the passengers with any and all information we had, but there is only so much gate space available and only so much room to navigate a 50,000 pound jet in the narrow confines that the ramp of Terminal F in Philadelphia offers to us.
So what could have been done differently that night? From my perspective we did what we always did. We flew as safely, efficiently, and quickly as we could to Philadelphia only to sit in a literal traffic jam on the ramp. Did our airline schedule too many flights at once? Perhaps. Did they schedule them to close to each other? Perhaps. Did we have enough ground personnel to handle the task? Absolutely not. Did we as a flight crew purposely go out of our way to ruin our customers evening, by taking an hour and a half to get to the gate after landing resulting in missed connections? Not a chance.
My intention here is not to cast blame on the other aspects of an airline operation for the woes of the customer experience, but to highlight the fact that as airline pilots it bemoans us to see the horrors that travelers have to endure everyday. In our situation that night in December, it was tough to swallow because there wasn’t anything we could have done as a crew to get our passengers off the airplane any quicker. It is a very helpless feeling knowing that you want your customers to be as happy as possible and watching a scenario unfold that only results in resentment. I can understand why some may want to blame the crew; there is no one else to cast it on and we are the first line of defense.
Summertime does not bring any respite to the difficulties of air travel and in fact it may make things even worse! I understand the frustration of a delay when it is a beautiful day outside the terminal window. The issue though is that one hundred miles away may be a 300 mile long line of thunderstorms of which there is a twenty mile wide gap that a few hundred airplanes are trying to get through. I know some passengers may think I like to fly through thunderstorms for fun, but I can assure you I do not. I am not going to get into the specifics of the results of doing so, but I will put it this way: I want to return after my trip to my two year old daughter and wife, and in doing the opposite, that may not happen. As an airline pilot, you don’t need to have a family to justify not flying through thunderstorms. Protecting your own butt is more than enough of a reason. Thunderstorms on a hot summer day have a similar effect on air travel as a car accident does on a multi lane highway. The result is only a few lanes being available which in turn produces very long delays and huge traffic jams extending many miles. The airlines in conjunction with air traffic control have ways of mitigating these jams in the air by having the customer sit in the terminal during a “ground stop”. It is cheaper to keep the airplane on the ground than to takeoff towards bad weather and end up holding and possibly diverting. This is frustrating for everyone but you just don’t mess with the Mother Nature.
So what can be done to prevent all of these issues? Well, very simply we could have way less airplanes flying and we can get rid of bad weather. That would solve it immediately but is obviously not very realistic. I am admittedly not smart enough to come up with an all encompassing solution but am hopeful that there are mathematicians and engineers coming up with new air traffic models that can help alleviate the congestion. We are operating under an antiquated system that needs an overhaul for everybody’s sake from the passengers, to the pilots, to the air traffic controllers. Everybody has a deep interest in seeing an airline travel experience that is less stressful and more user friendly than what we have. As an airline pilot and as an industry as a whole, we need to make a more valiant effort to earn back the trust of our customers.
What I do know is that, to me, it is unacceptable to have reached a point where passengers are thinking that we as airmen are purposely going out of our way to make the experience a bad one. Nothing could be further from the truth. All airline employees and especially pilots have a huge vested interest in the success of the airline. Going out of our way to ruin the experience is tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot. I will admit that it can be very easy for pilots to just shut the cockpit door and escape our passenger’s problems, but it may be time to open it back up (figuratively) and become more involved in helping to smooth out the customer experience with actions as well as just giving updates every fifteen minutes. I do not believe that the entire flying public feels the way that the gentlemen at the beginning of the article does, but for the few that do, it is time to regain their trust and it needs to start today with actions as well as words.
NYCAviation Columnist Justin Schlechter is a First Officer for an international airline and lives with his family on Long Island, New York. You can read more of his writing on his Positive Rate blog.