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Ask a pilot

by Steve Landells Flight Safety Specialist

We scoured the internet for some of the most common questions asked of pilots and put them to BALPA’s own Flight Safety Specialist and former airline pilot, Steve Landells, to get some answers. 

Do pilots have to go through the same security process as passengers?

Yes the rules are exactly the same for pilots and cabin crew as they are for passengers. As time is of the essence, a lot of airports provide dedicated security points for crew in order to reduce delays caused by the pilots being held up. If there is no dedicated crew security lane then they will join the passenger lanes and, if possible, will go to the front of the queue. This sometimes generates comments from passengers but most people seem to realise that their aircraft can’t go anywhere without the pilots on board and letting us in is greatly appreciated. There is no priority for baggage. 

Do pilots sleep on flights?

Long-haul flights often have three or sometimes four pilots to allow for rest breaks. This is not just a nicety; the maximum hours a pilot can be at the controls for is set down in law. The availability of suitable rest facilities allows the duty period to be extended which avoids the need to stop en route to replace the pilots. Larger aircraft will have special bunks for crew to get some sleep, some will just have ‘rest seats’. Where there are four pilots, the same Captain and First Officer will do the take-off and landing, with the relief pilots stepping in while those rest. 

Do the airlines provide your food or do you have to take your own?

Some airlines do provide meals but a number ask pilots to either bring their own or buy food on board. Sometimes it can be a problem getting your own food, that you have brought from home, through security so often it is easier to either buy it in the departures terminal, if you have time, or purchase it on board. Pilots are encouraged to eat different meals to reduce the risk that both get food poisoning  

Do you fly with the same crew each time? Do you get along?

Depending on the size of the airline and whether you’re long or short-haul, you are often with a new crew for every flight. In the old days of long-haul, when we used to spend more time downroute, we would socialise with cabin crew and get to know them more. Nowadays with such quick turn-arounds, you tend to only stay in one place long enough to get some sleep before flying back. As for the other pilot in the cockpit, once you’ve taken off and completed all your checks you will often have a chat, but pilots are just people and so it’s only natural you get along with some people more than others. This is why Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are so important; each pilot needs to know exactly what their role is and what the other pilot will do even if they have never met before. This system has been refined over the years and works very well.

Why do we still have to turn our phones off/switch them to plane mode?

It’s mostly about safety. While there is speculation that mobile frequencies could cause the plane's electronic systems to malfunction, there isn’t much evidence that this is true. However, pilots have noted mobile phones can cause audible interference on radios. This interference might block radio frequency, or at the very least will be a distraction. With mobile technology being so important these days, and with WiFi being introduced on more and more airlines, we might see this rule changed or thrown out altogether in the near future.

What was your favourite airport and why?

I was fortunate enough to fly long-haul routes for 15 years which means that I have seen a lot of places and I can honestly say that everywhere has something interesting to offer. Seeing things for the first time is always special and seeing the Great Wall of China from the air the first time I went into Beijing was really exciting. The bright lights of Vegas and the coast of Barbados always got me excited but if I had to boil it down to just one place I think it would be Rio de Janeiro; coming into land at the airport with the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain in the background is simply stunning. 

Part 2 of our ‘Ask a pilot’ blog will feature next week. Do you have a question you want to ask? Let us know and we will do our very best to get Steve, a pilot for 27 years, to provide an answer.