Pilot Lifestyle
An uncomfortable moment
March 13, 2012

I could not have asked for a better morning.  We left New York early enough to arrive on the west coast around 10:45am.  The three day trip was finished and it was time to commute home.

San Francisco’s weather was beautiful.  The commute flight I’d chosen was on-time and “wide open.”  I hustled over to the adjacent terminal where the gate agent immediately printed a boarding pass.  If it were always that easy, commuting would be a breeze.  I was in a really, really good mood.

I was the last one to board the aircraft.  The flight attendant smiled as I came through the door and made the obligatory left turn towards the cockpit.  Even though I’d been cleared by the agent, it is still customary to request the captain’s permission to ride.

Formalities completed, I turned and headed down the aisle to find my seat.

“Virgin America!?” The question came from a very enthusiastic gentleman seated in row three.

“Yes, sir.” I said.  I knew the next question before he asked.

As predicted: “What are you doing here?”

I have a few friendly responses to the question.  I smiled and said, “I got a little lost.”

He returned the smile as I continued down the aisle.  In my mind, the conversation was finished.  I’m completely accustomed to having that brief exchange with at least one person while boarding another carrier’s jet.  It is reasonable… most passengers do not understand the unique lifestyle of a commuting pilot.

I’m always ready for the conversation.  However, as I passed him, I was not prepared for his follow-up statement.

“Your airplanes are WAY better than this one.”

He said it LOUD.

I actually stopped and winced.  Or, maybe I cringed… not sure.  I spent the next half a second quickly contemplating a response.

Don’t see my predicament?  Imagine going to a party at a friend’s home.  When you arrive, the host and another mutual friend greet you in the living room.  Then, in front of the host and all the other guests, the friend said, “Hey, your house is WAY better than this one.”  The passenger had just become the friend with no tact.

If I ignored him, the statement would have just lingered.  Agreeing with him would have insulted my hosts.  Telling him he was “out of line” would have been rude.  I appreciated his enthusiasm for our product, but, he obliviously put me in an impossible situation.

I leaned back towards him and offered the most diplomatic reply I could muster: “I wouldn’t say that sir… this airplane is better because it is taking me home.”

When the lead flight attendant came back towards my seat, I apologized for being involved with the conversation.  She heard the exchange and assured me that nobody on the crew felt I solicited the comment from the gentleman.  That’s the way I saw it… but, sometimes these situations morph into a life of their own.  I was glad we were on the same page.

I stand by comments I’ve made several times on my blog: In my opinion, we have the best domestic airline product in the United States.  However, there’s a time and a place for me to make that statement… and it certainly isn’t when the competition is generously providing a ride home.  Aviation is a small world.  We must do everything in our power to preserve the professional courtesies offered across our brands.

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 11 comments

  • Crossland says:

    Interesting…..I didn’t know you all could commute home on competitor’s airplanes. Do all airlines participate in this? I don’t remember ever seeing a competitor pilot on my AA flights when I was working there, but I also may not have known to look.

  • Pam Deveau says:

    Perfect response Brian. If only I could find that tact when I needed it!!!

  • Riley says:

    Great response to the man. I probably would have just shrugged it off. But I have a question, how did he know you were VA? Do most commuting crew members wear it when commuting?

  • Matt L says:

    Very classy response! Like Riley stated above, I would have probably just smiled and kept walking, but that could have seemed insulting to any crew member that may have noticed, now that I think about it. This blog entry has given me a little bit more insight into the life of a commuting pilot.

  • Brian K says:

    Very much agree that Virgin America does have one of the best domestic products in the US. I was under the impression that each airline has their own agreements with various airlines with respect to commuting rights, but this is apparently not so? Does extend over to the regionals also? (i.e.: Virgin America pilots being allowed to commute on say, American Eagle, Chautauqua, etc. and vice versa)? Out of curiosity, even though it’s customary to request permission to ride from the Captain, have you (or have you ever heard) of any pilot being refused by a captain?

    • Hi Brian,

      A mutual agreement has to be in place for a pilot to jumpseat on another carrier. That being said, I cannot think of a domestic US Carrier that doesn’t have an agreement with the other carriers. For pilots, it is pretty simple. So, yes… I can jumpseat on American Eagle, Chautauqua, or just about anyone else. (The cargo carriers also have jumpseats. Sometimes, FedEx is the only way to travel.)

      However, that doesn’t apply to other employee groups. For other groups, an “interline” agreement must be negotiated. With an agreement, an employee of one airline can purchase a reduced standby fare on another. The amount of interline agreements varies greatly from airline to airline.

      As for your last question, YES. Sadly, some people use their jumpseat to make a political statement. As an example, some non-union pilots have been denied jumpseats on union carriers… even when there’s an agreement. When that happens, both airlines’ “jumpseat coordinators” usually get involved and inform that captain that the jumpseat is no place to play politics. But, that happens LONG after the pilot was left at the gate.

  • Brent Mosley says:

    Very interesting insight of pilots commuting on other airlines. I never knew too much about it. One thing I have learned about going into aviation is don’t burn any bridges because of this exact reason, the aviation world is small. Being put in awkward situations such as this is pry not the most comfortable setting, but that is a great response you gave. Thanks for giving us some insight behind the lines.

  • Kate Z. says:

    You handled the situation with grace and class. I probably would have just shrugged it off. Kudos to you for handling an awkward situation so well!

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