Around the World in 80 Jumpseats

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Written by: Eric Auxier
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Tired of the daily commute to work? You say you live in Long Beach, California and the trek to downtown L.A. takes two hours? You wimp! That commute is peanuts to an airline pilot. The phrase, “commuting to work” takes on a whole new meaning for the Chicago-based pilot whose spouse, kids and lawn mower are way back in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In every airliner cockpit, there is at least one “jumpseat.” This seat is required so that FAA inspectors or a check airman for the airline can occasionally fly along with line pilots to perform regular flight checks. Unfortunately, it is apparently a federal law that these jumpseats must be designed to be less comfortable than a bed of nails. I am personally convinced they were designed either by sadistic dentists, or by line pilots hoping to keep said flight checks to a minimum.

The view from where you sit. Theres not much room back here and your seat folds down in front of the door.

The view from where you sit. There’s not much room back here, and your seat folds down in front of the door.

When not in official use, these extra seats (however horrid they may be) have become the commuting pilot’s life blood. As a professional courtesy, airlines regularly carry each other’s pilots to and from work on this golden throne. Hey, how else do you think we get to share each other’s company gossip?

Fortunately, when the cabin is less than full, the commuter is allowed access to a more sane cabin seat. Yes, even a coach seat is far and away preferable to the cruel chair up front! As an airline pilot, I have regularly trodden to and from work on that great car pool lane in the sky, logging nearly as many hours in back of the cockpit door as in front of it. As a Phoenix, Arizona native, I’ve commuted to and from work in Albuquerque, Denver, and Washington, DC. But even that is nothing. I recall a Boeing 727 captain for Pan Am who used to commute twice a week from Bozeman, Montana…………to Munich, Germany. Or one of my recent first officers, who commutes from Phoenix, Arizona…………to Chang Mai, Thailand.

When in uniform and sitting in the passenger cabin, I always feel like I’m on stage. At the slightest bump or klunk, white knuckled fliers nervously glance to me with a, “Was that normal?” look. To calm their nerves, I always flash them a reassuring smile. But I’m always tempted to grab the arm rests, bug out my eyes and shout, “What the hell was that!” My God, the other passengers would panic!

Pilots are notoriously cheap (yours truly included), and have exploited the jumpseat privilege for leisure travel as well. Like doctors and lawyers, pilots enjoy the fruits of their profession virtually for free. But, before salivating with envy over the perk, remember that there ain’t no such thing as a free inflight lunch. Pilots have either sacrificed years in the military, or in civilian flight schools (or both), and spent tens of thousands of dollars to get that “free” lunch. Though the jumpseating pilot may be on vacation, tasteful dress and impeccable behavior is still required. If not in uniform, the pilot must often wear suit and tie, or at least “business casual”—and certainly no imbibing, either. White knuckle flyers, always looking for a bad omen, tend to spook upon glimpsing a cockpit crewmember decked in Bermuda shorts, tank tops, and beachcombers, while sipping a Piña Colada and flirting with the flight attendant.

Besides stringent dress codes, jumpseating has evolved other traditions and protocol as well. For instance, jumpseating is a privilege, not a right, and as such the person wishing  to ride must request, “permission to come aboard.” After the captain approves the jumpseat request, the traveler must always thank him personally. A jumper who fails to thank the captain may be asked to step outside—at cruising altitude. Once this is done, the jumper is often invited to take a seat in the cabin, if any are available. If a seat in the cabin is available, protocol states that the jumpseat rider must take it, no matter how much they want to ride up front or not get stuck between the two sumo wrestlers an seats 39 A and C. Security procedures being what they are these days, the fewer people inside the secure flight deck, the better.

Another tradition is—surprise!—common courtesy. The jumpseater is nothing more than a high class hitchhiker, a freeloader who can be kicked off the train at the slightest sign of ingratitude. Woe to the cocky pilot who, with a condescending sneer, demands a jumpseat ticket from an already overburdened gate agent. Somehow, the paperwork always seems to lose itself in the honeycomb of the podium . . . only to be found a few seconds after the plane has pushed back.

All travelers could learn a lesson here, too: no matter how many connections you’ve missed, how many bags you’ve lost, no matter how many coffees have scalded your privates from a well-timed trounce through turbulence, never, ever piss off a gate agent—your ticket may be “inadvertently misplaced,” too!

Contrary to the traveling public, who normally books flights fourteen-plus days in advance and rigidly sticks to the travel agency itinerary, the jumpseating pilot (excuse the pun) wings it. For example, let’s say you’ve just finished a gruelling four day flight schedule that dumps you off (only ten minutes late) in Podunk, New York, and you’ve got to get back to LA for little Julia’s 3rd birthday. As the turbofans wind down, you race through the Airplane Shutdown Checklist, throw your Jeppesen navigation charts into the flight kit, grab your overnight bag, shout “See-ya!” to the crew with whom you just lived through four days of toil, dash off the flight deck and fly through the terminal to the gate for the direct flight from Podunk to LAX. Of course, it’s gone. Pushing back, in fact, right before your bloodshot eyes and slumping shoulders, having departed exactly on time (you arrived ten minutes late, remember?)

Image courtesy Cari McGee.

Image courtesy Cari McGee.

Now comes the game I call, Airline Hopscotch. You frantically search the nearest departure screen for the quickest way outta here. “Let’s see, in twenty minutes there’s a Delta out of Gate twelve direct to Chicago, and from there I could connect with United to San Francisco, but American goes to Dallas in an hour, and from there I could take USAir to Phoenix then Southwest to LAX. Or else I could………

You get the picture.

Anywhere, at anytime, your grand scheme of cross-country connections could be shot down like Canada Geese through an Airbus turbofan. The jumpseat is typically first-come-first-served, so if another pilot makes it ahead of you, it’s time to recalculate. Weather, mechanical problems or even a missing inflight meal could delay you ten, twenty, ninety agonizing minutes or more, and your whole itinerary augers in, flaming. (By the way, it has been scientifically proven that the time of delay on Flight One is inversely proportional to the connection time to Flight Two—the shorter the connection time, the longer the delay.)

Okay, so you made it on the United to Chicago. Now you can breathe a sigh of relief and happily sip an orange juice back in coach. But wait! You’ve arrived an hour late and missed the connection to San Francisco. Now it’s time revise the plan of attack. Time to connect the dots through a few more terminals, cities and airlines. The old joke, “I just flew in, and boy are my arms tired!” rings sadly true when one must suddenly tote armloads of carry-ons from Terminal A to the connection in Terminal E. Fortunately, today’s technology has allowed commuting-pilot types to finally throw away pounds and pounds of airline timetable connection books, and simply use an app or two. This leads us to another aspect of airline jumpseating: traveling light. This is mandatory. No U Haul-sized checked baggage allowed—you never know if you’ll make it home to LAX, or end up camping out in the concrete jungle of plastic chairs in JFK.

A word of caution for those ground-pounders bold enough to entertain the idea of jumpseating illegally: last year, wannabe-jumpseater Philippe Jernnard was quickly nabbed in the cockpit of an airliner when he posed as a deadheading Air France pilot. He merely wanted to avoid the cramped quarters of Coach and get a free upgrade. Instead, he faces Federal charges. Still tempted? Better stop and read Catch Me if You Can, the true story of infamous con man Frank Abagnale. In it, Abagnale explains the difficulties of jumpseating when one does not know the ritual or the lingo. Fake airline I.D. in hand, Abagnale posed as a deadheading pilot to travel cross-country on a jumpseat. When asked by a “fellow” pilot, “What equipment you on?” Normally the quick-witted con man, Abagnale froze. Clueless to the fact that this industry buzzword equipment meant airplane, he replied hopefully, “Uh, General Electric!”

As Abagnale and Jernnard both learned, a landlubber posing as a pilot stands out like a ticking Samsonite.


aBkCvrSigHiEric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier is an airline pilot by day, writer by night, and kid by choice. An A320 Captain for a major U.S. airline, he is also a freelance writer, novelist and blogger ( His second novel, The Last Bush Pilots, captured the coveted Amazon TOP 100 Breakthrough Novels in 2013. His new book, “There I Wuz! Adventures From 3 Decades in the Sky” will be available on Amazon Kindle in June and in print in July.  Mr. Auxier makes his home in Phoenix, Arizona.

About the Author

Eric Auxier



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  • sjwecks

    Fascinating. I feel like Captain Aux and Patrick Smith are perfect complements for one another, with the former giving us the day-to-day experience of airline pilots, and the latter contextualizing the bigger picture. I can’t get enough of either of them.

    • capnaux

      Thanks, sjwecks! I’m glad you liked the story! It’s positive comments like yours that keeps me writing more! 🙂
      (Oh and I’m sure if you “can’t get enough,” you’ve visited my blog at LOL!)

  • rossaimer

    Very well written article, Captain Aux!
    As one of the pioneers in the introduction of the “Jump Seat” to other crew members, I fully endorse your departing shots at the future Frank Abigail copy cats.
    Captain Ross Aimer
    UAL Ret.

    • capnaux

      Thank you, Captain Aimer! As a former commuter (who among the airline pilot ranks have NOT been?), I greatly appreciate your pioneering work opening up the jumpseat–especially in our challenging post-9/11 era!

      And I agree: in today’s electronic world, it’s near-impossible to fake the jumpseating pilot gig. Folks, don’t try this at home!

  • Daveabbey

    Frank Abagnale was a genius at being a con-artist. I would think nowadays it would be much harder to pull off what he did with such frequency. Abagnale said that Pan Am accused him of flying over 1 Million miles jumpseat as a fake Pan Am Pilot (more than 200+ flights), none of them on Pan Am itself since he thought it’d be too easy to be caught that way. Captain Aux, great video clip with TWA Flight Center (JFK) used as part of the scenery.

    • capnaux

      Thanks, Dave!

      I read Abignale’s book back in college, and I believe Abignale’s primary reason for imitating a pilot was to build the trust at the bank in order to cash those dummy checks–but he certainly figured out how to get around! I think their portrayal in the Hanks/DiCaprio film was spot-on. Very entertaining!

      But I agree, with today’s electronic barriers, no way to fake it with simple chutzpah.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Global PlaneSearch

    Great Article. I’ve seen pilots utilize the jump seat from time to time but never actually thought about “jumping” in the seat myself. I work with, and we always encourage people to get their pilots license and fly themselves, but a jump seat might be the next best option! Thanks Cap’n Aux!

    • capnaux

      You’re welcome, thanks for the comment!