February 19, 2015

What They Don’t Teach You in Ground School, Part II: Mistresses, Wives and the Mile High Club

(Editor’s note: part one of this series can be read here.)

The flustered aircraft salesman walks past the front desk of the FBO pulling at his tie, a permanent blush to his cheeks; for some reason, he can’t look me in the eye. Next in through the sliding doors is the flight crew looking similarly discombobulated with confusion. The only clue they give me is an eye roll when I ask if everything is okay. All I can think of the situation is that the demonstration flight did not go well. The last two people through the doors gave me the answer to their bewilderment. The gentleman who had been taking several demonstration flights over the last few weeks had taken his wife for a ride a few days earlier. Today, it was the mistress’ turn, and while the salesman and flight crew were professional in front of their clients, the ability to handle this type of social situation is a requirement for pilots—and it’s not something they teach you in ground school. (In case you’re wondering, during the divorce, both the husband and ex-wife got matching jets).

Stepping into the cockpit of a corporate jet is similar to stepping into a confessional. Pilots enter a realm of intimacy with their passengers, and knowing how to deal with the drama of clients can be just as difficult as landing an ILS to minimums in Aspen during a blinding blizzard with a tornado mixed in. If a pilot doesn’t deal with these personal situations appropriately, he could lose his job. You can be the best aviator in the world, but if you can’t deal with the personal aspect of corporate charter clients, then you better start thinking about flying the red-eye cargo routes.

My most awkward moment came after months of flying a family and a nanny to a high elevation destination. On this particular day, it was just the husband and the nanny, and on this day, she was taking care of the husband. My inclination was to rage against the injustice and corrupt morals, but that is not part of my job description as a pilot. I am not allowed human emotions; I am just a pilot getting paid to fly the airplane. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t up to me to set personal rules and make moral judgments of my clients. My job is to get the people who are paying to their destination safely. But it’s not easy when the very next week, I was flying the wife, children and nanny. It hurt my heart. But life works itself out without my interference.

Clients forget that pilots are human. When they ask us to close the door or curtain so that they might join a particular club, it’s awkward for the other pilot and me. Pilots don’t like having to use emotions. Feeling awkward is an emotion that someone else puts us in. So, we deal with it by using humor. But that’s between us pilots. How do you deal with your misbehaving clients? Think like a priest or psychologist. What happens in the cabin, stays in the cabin, and so do your thoughts about it. Don’t say a word to your clients, but do what you can to guide the situation behind the scenes. Above all, just be the ultimate professional, look them in the eye and ask if they enjoyed their flight. Okay, that is passive aggressive, but you get the idea.

I had a pilot friend lose his corporate pilot contract with a client after he thought it was okay to ask his passenger if the two women onboard were available for dating. Since they were his daughters, they were not, and he was asked to never fly them again. It was a cushy flying job, and he always regretted his moment of being human. He forgot he was a pilot and needed to act like one. Pilot means in control, and that means controlling yourself in the situation.

Corporate and Part 135 charter pilots will be placed in an awkward situation at some point in their careers. Maybe it’s a fight between family members, or a drunk client who shouldn’t be driving a rental car. For the most part, your role is to ignore it, but there will be times when you have to step in to keep you and your passengers safe. It’s your job.

If your boss wants to smoke pot inflight because it’s his airplane, how does a pilot respond? Responsibly. I’m from Colorado where it’s legal, but it’s not at most destinations. It still violates federal law and, despite the laws, breathing it in, especially at altitude, might impair your ability to be a pilot. If a polite request to put it out draws you a nudge and a wink, it’s where you have to draw the line. If you have to, raise the cabin pressure to 9,999 feet and put on your oxygen mask. If the smell of your passengers tips off a security search, you and your passengers will be in for a long day. It’s not worth risking your life or your license so be proactive. As a crew, stand up for each other and give a united front to keep you and your flight safe. It can happen once, but don’t allow it to happen again. If this is a charter, it’s much easier to lay down the rules. If this is a private aircraft with a fulltime flight crew, the situation is more difficult. Tell your boss what will happen when he gets caught. The smell doesn’t go away and line guys know what that smell is. Tell your boss about ramp checks and DEA investigations, and if that doesn’t work, stand up and say “no.” If you get fired for this, I have a hundred attorneys that would love to take your case.

It’s easier if your passenger is a charter client, but it still demands alternative thinking. I had a very intoxicated passenger who wanted to rent a car once we got the destination FBO. He had made his way up to the cockpit several times during the flight and it became very apparent he shouldn’t be driving. In this instance, it was easy to control the situation behind the scenes without being the bad guy. I called ahead on Unicom and told the customer service rep the situation. I told her that this gentleman should not be allowed to drive under any circumstances. I had her call a limo service and to have a car waiting. It was a gamble for me, but I was willing to take the financial hit (explain it to my boss) if it didn’t work out. The customer service rep was prepared to firmly tell this gentlemen “no.” She did a great job while being kind about the situation, and since we had a limo waiting, it was still convenient for him. She told him he could have the limo drive him back tomorrow if he still wanted the rental car. He ended up enjoying being driven around in a limo, and the expense ended up being comparable to the rental car since he was only needing transportation to two places. He ended up using limo service at most of his destinations after this incident.

The world outside aviation doesn’t realize all the nuances of being a corporate or charter pilot. The job requirements of a pilot these days goes beyond just flying a machine. Not only is it learning complex machinery in complex airspace, it is about pleasing clients to please employers. It often puts pilots in interpersonal situations beyond the call of duty. Just remember it takes a village to please a client. Use the resources and people around you. If a client is doing something unusual, a phone call to the chief pilot or flight dispatcher might save your job. Just letting someone else know that you need help controlling a customer situation helps you gain even more control, and cover your hindsight. Somewhere out there, right now, a charter pilot crew is fighting a mechanical problem and bad weather, but they can handle that. It’s the passengers in the back of the airplane who are giving them an ulcer…

Erika Armstrong has experienced everything aviation has to offer. From the front desk of an FBO, to the captain’s seat of an airliner, she’s done everything in between. If you want to tell her how you got your ulcers, she can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Erika Armstrong



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