Pilots Confess: We're Tired, Hungry & Just As Confused As You

For many of us who travel on planes, believing the pilots are well-fed and rested is a necessity. But according to some of the industry secrets that airline pilots have divulged to the editors of Reader’s Digest, the men and women behind the controls are — for better or worse — just like the rest of us.

Among the list of 50 Secrets Your Pilot Won’t Tell You are these gems:

“Sometimes the airline won’t give us lunch breaks or even time to eat. We have to delay flights just so we can get food.”

“The truth is, we’re exhausted. Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud.”

“Some FAA rules don’t make sense to us either. Like the fact that when we’re at 39,000 feet going 400 miles an hour, in a plane that could hit turbulence at any minute, [flight attendants] can walk around and serve hot coffee and Chateaubriand. But when we’re on the ground on a flat piece of asphalt going five to ten miles an hour, they’ve got to be buckled in like they’re at NASCAR.”

“No, it’s not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes.”

“I’m constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I’m comfortable with. Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel. Sometimes if you carry just enough fuel and you hit thunderstorms or delays, then suddenly you’re running out of gas and you have to go to an alternate airport.”

“There’s no such thing as a water landing. It’s called crashing into the ocean.”

“Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence. It’s all but impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. We avoid turbulence not because we’re afraid the wing is going to fall off but because it’s annoying.”

“When you get on that airplane at 7 a.m., you want your pilot to be rested and ready. But the hotels they put us in now are so bad that there are many nights when I toss and turn. They’re in bad neighborhoods, they’re loud, they’ve got bedbugs, and there have been stabbings in the parking lot.”

“Do pilots sleep in there? Definitely. Sometimes it’s just a ten-minute catnap, but it happens.”

50 Secrets Your Pilot Won’t Tell You [Reader’s Digest]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Mclick says:

    I have been on some private jets of an oil filed company and was told some stories about a few of the pilots sleeping for nearly entire flights, putting the plane in auto pilot and coming to the back to play cards with the passengers. Thankfully none of the pilots I flew with did that but one guy read the news paper nearly the entire flight which bugged me a little as I am not a big fan of flying to begin with.

    These pilots are putting many peoples lives at risk based on the statements above. Put some better regulations in there.

    • Shadowfax says:

      The biggest risk comes from pilot fatigue. But regulations to reduce that would involve hiring more pilots and putting them in decent hotels, which would up the price on the ticket. And since John Q Public will bitch if his flight costs $10 more than it did last year, they won’t be doing that any time soon.

    • fs2k2isfun says:

      There was always at least one pilot in the cockpit. Even on autopilot, someone needs to be there to handle radio calls and fix things when auto pilots make mistakes (and they do make mistakes).

    • SuperQ says:

      It makes me very, very, VERY happy that planes have advanced enough that the pilots can look away from the controls for extended periods of time. I’m looking forward to the day when we don’t even need pilots in the planes.

      We don’t need better regulations, we need better automatic controls.

    • Rachacha says:

      “These pilots are putting many peoples lives at risk based on the statements above.” Actually, I don’t think it is the pilots that are putting people at risk, it is the regulations (or lack thereof) and the corporations that are not providing the pilots the facilities or time necessary to fully rest or eat properly. As a result, the pilots are tired and hungry and not focusing on their jobs which may lead to an accident.

  2. JRock says:

    I have a confession to make to the pilots: most of the time, I don’t bother to read the plane safety placard, placed in the pocket in front of me.

    • mac-phisto says:

      i sleep thru the safety briefing. sometimes it’s just a catnap, but it happens.

    • dreamfish says:

      If you’ve heard it before, the only important thing to pay attention to is where the nearest exit is and where your lifejacket is stored (as that is different for where you’re sitting and for each type of aircraft respectively).

    • Anaxamenes says:

      Why are you confessing that to the pilots? They don’t care, it’s the Flight Attendant that is responsible for your understanding of what is on the Emergency Card.

  3. AstroWorn2010 says:

    I am just going to walk to my next destination.

  4. JMH says:

    “No, it’s not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes.”

    Is this a bad thing? I don’t really think so. I’d rather be prepared to arrive later/have less time to make a connection, and wind up arriving earlier/having more time to make a connection, than vice versa.

    • outlulz says:

      Yeah, I agree. I’m glad they give the leeway. If they’re early, great for me. If they’re at the time they said they would be, great for me. I like having that buffer automatically figured in if I have to schedule a connecting flight.

    • trentblase says:

      Right, as opposed to them making an unrealistically aggressive schedule and pissing everyone off when they are always late. It sounds like on-time reporting is doing its job.

  5. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    “We tell passengers what they need to know. We don’t tell them things that are going to scare the pants off them. So you’ll never hear me say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we just had an engine failure,’ even if that’s true.” -Jim Tilmon, retired American Airlines pilot, Phoenix

    My confession? I really wish I knew these things. I promise not to freak out, I just have a curiosity on all things mechanical. If I could get a video feed to all the instrumentation I might actually have something to do on flights. Haven’t flown in years though, so, with any luck, I won’t have to for a while still. B)

    • OSAM says:

      Same. Those in-seat TVs should have a channel that is essentially a virtual cockpit. But that will never be because of “homeland security”

      • NeverLetMeDown says:

        United plays the air traffic control communications through channel 9 on your in-seat audio. Not on every flight (pilot’s discretion), but I’d say 90% of the time. Kind of neat.

  6. Iron Weasel says:

    “The truth is, we’re exhausted. Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud.”

    Having my Class A CDL and formerly having driven for one of the largest companies in the US, I can agree with most of that. Truck drivers have to abide by the 11 / 14 hour rule which basically states you can’t drive more than 11 hours or be on-duty more than 14 hours in a 24-hour period without having a 10-hour off-duty / sleeper berth “break”. I was driving around the country in a 72′ long box with 75,000+ lbs. of weight behind it – not a 232′ long 325 ton aircraft with 350+ people on-board. Personally, I think airline pilots should have stricter requirements than a truck driver.

    If I wrecked a truck on a highway out in the middle of nowhere, I’ll spill a load of cereal on the side of the road and need a tow truck and would only hurt myself. I wouldn’t be putting the lives of several hundred people at risk. I have one issue with the comment about being able to pull over at the next rest stop. Some states have severely restricted the usage of commercial vehicles to use rest areas unless there is a portion of the rest area specifically intended for overnight parking by large vehicles. Compounding that is that fact that some states also prevent commercial vehicles from using highway on & off ramps for overnight parking.

    Overall, I find it amazing that airline companies place so little value on the employees who are in complete control of hundreds of people at any given time. I would prefer to think that the guy at the controls is well fed, rested up, and in a good mood so that he’ll be fully alert while he’s flying around.

    • snarkymcfarkle says:

      I totally agree, but if we’re going to talk about work hour reform, we really need to fix the situation in our hospitals. Physicians — newbie resident physicians, no less — routinely work shifts of 30 hours or more at a time.

      I was an intern at an academic medical center that seemed to specialize in hazing young doctors. I routinely worked 32+ hour shifts, and I received 0-2 hours of rest on the majority of nights I was on duty. The kicker was that at end of the shift I was still responsible for complex orders for medications and diagnostic tests, and to transfer the care of my patients to the next poor sap who had to repeat the process. I even responded to code calls after more than an entire day of wakefulness.

      And we’re worried about pilots working for 16 hours at a time after sleeping on a lumpy hotel bed?

  7. James says:

    re: “There’s no such thing as a water landing. It’s called crashing into the ocean.”

    I think Sully and crew proved that wrong. Although it was a smooth river and not an ocean the egress preparedness still applies.

    Most of this is just fearmongering. I’d rather have reruns of “Humor in Uniform…”

    • Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ã‚œ-゜ノ) says:

      Kind of reminds me of “We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.”

    • GearheadGeek says:

      As perfectly-executed as Capt. Sullenberger’s ditching in the Hudson was, it was a crash. It happened to be an excellent crash from which all the passengers escaped, but the aircraft was totaled and the risk was extremely high. It was a very, very good crash.

  8. humphrmi says:

    “Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence. It’s all but impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. We avoid turbulence not because we’re afraid the wing is going to fall off but because it’s annoying.”

    Uh, no. Whoever wrote that is not a pilot. Turbulence causes unbuckled passengers to fly around the cabin unprotected, potentially hurting or killing themselves or others. It may not cause a crash, but it’s still very dangerous to passengers and every pilot knows it.

    • lettucefactory says:

      I was coming to call BS on that one, too. Turbulence is not going to make planes fall out of the sky, but it can be legitimately dangerous.

      • Rectilinear Propagation says:

        Actually, one of the other pilots calls BS on it too:

        “Most of you wouldn’t consider going down the highway at 60 miles an hour without your seat belt fastened. But when we’re hurtling through the air at 500 miles an hour and we turn off the seat belt sign, half of you take your seat belts off. But if we hit a little air pocket, your head will be on the ceiling.” -Captain at a major airline

        Of course, this begs the question of why they’d turn off the seat belt sign if they think it’s dangerous to do so. I guess they have too?

        • Ebriosa says:

          Every time I’ve flown lately they say something to the effect of “When the seatbelt sign is turned off, you are free to move about the cabin, but if you’re in your seat, stay buckled” and then in French. So they have to allow you to get up for potty time, but they are asking you to stay buckled the entire time. They need to switch the signs – the no smoking should be a “Safe to use electronics” and the seat buckle should just be “Take your chances and get up for a minute”.

    • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

      Actually, most pilots I’ve read from have this opinion.

      The vast majority of turbulence will never be more than a minor annoyance.

      Also, what you’re arguing and what the pilot is arguing are very different. People think turbulence will knock a plane out of the sky. It will not. As long as passengers stay buckled in, they’ll probably escape with nothing worse than some bruises and an upset stomach.

      But hey, why listen to the safety announcements? They’re annoying and get in the way of more time with your iPad, as so many on this site have made clear.

      • isileth says:

        I’ve listened to the safety announcement the first time I flew and now I know them.
        Despite the fact that most times all you get is a flight assistant who seems to be channeling Madonna in her “En Vogue” video and the audio part is a string of noises coming out from the speaker in language that is nowhere near a known languange in human history.
        I always wanted to ask to English-speaking people if it’s me or they don’t understand it either.
        And it’s really unbelievable when you get to watch a video for hearing-impaired people shown on a 7″ lcd screen 3 seats away where you can “imagine” a person using signs when you cannot see her/his hands.
        Very helpful.

  9. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence.

    I find it hard to believe that pilots are surprised that non-pilots get scared when the plane bounces all around.

  10. axiomatic says:

    Just remember airline CEO’s and upper management, no matter how much you paid for your first class ticket, the same pilot flies both you first class elites and the coach class behind it. Are you sure there isn’t maybe a little more money you could throw at hiring more pilots so pilots can get a normal 8 to 10 hour work day like the rest of us?

  11. ScandalMgr says:

    Is your pilot on Food Stamps and welfare because their salary is only $19,000 per year?

    Ask next time you see a pilot, you might be surprised. I think Michael Moore uncovered this little known factoid when he did “Sicko”

    • Iron Weasel says:

      Haven’t seen Sicko, but there was a portion in “Captalism: A Love Story” where he talked to several pilots and one, for a major airline, had been on food stamps because he was only making around $20k per year.

    • DarksSideMoon says:

      Yeah, what they get away with paying pilots is absolutely insane.

    • cromartie says:

      I absolutely believe this. Remember that one of the two pilots in the Buffalo crash had a second job as a barista.

      I had the privilege of installing a new payroll system at a major airline in the late 1990s and was mortified when I found out I was making twice as much as the commuter plane pilots. I haven’t flown them sense.

    • Powerlurker says:

      I was astounded to learn that my graduate stipend is more than what a starting regional pilot earns.

  12. borgia says:

    Articles like this are a good example of poor risk managment. People are scared to fly and they perceive more risk than what truely exists. Even with all these problems it is still safer to fly than drive, and we need to keep this in mind before putting in more regulations. We would do better to spend more money on airplane inspections for metal fatigue and other structural problems since those account for the majority of airplane crashes. Or better yet, road safety.

    (On a side note, having worked at several different hotels with contracts with different airlines, I can guarantee that more than 65 percent of the pilots that checked in did not run up to their rooms to get sleep, a lot went out drinking to bars till late at night.) A lot of this sounds like general job complaints to me.

  13. DriverB says:

    I think I knew a lot of these things already, but I’ve always wondered about the window shades thing – now I know! And knowing is half the battle!

  14. Anonymously says:

    “People don’t understand why they can’t use their cell phones. Well, what can happen is 12 people will decide to call someone just before landing, and I can get a false reading on my instruments saying that we are higher than we really are.” -Jim Tilmon

    Dear Mr. Tilmon – Your plane sucks. Non-sucky planes shouldn’t do that.

    • DarksSideMoon says:

      I’m not sure what he means by this. If he’s talking about the literal Altitude indicator that is absolutely false. If he’s talking about the ILS I’m pretty sure it’s false.

    • DarksSideMoon says:

      Also, Jim Tilmon retired from flying quite awhile before cell phones were in major use

  15. Framling says:

    As a software developer, let me just point out that the control software that ideally would make it less dangerous for a pilot to nod off for ten or fifteen minutes is probably being written by folks who aren’t getting much more sleep.

  16. DarksSideMoon says:

    As a student pilot I call shenanigans on a lot of this. The cell phone affecting altitude indication is absolutely false. The turbulence thing is false too. No sane pilot would ever fly into it, but there is turbulence that can cause structural damage, and improper responses to extreme turbulence could bring down the plane too.


    The fuel thing and pilots being treated like crap is totally true though.

    • Fantoche_de_Chaussette says:

      Two words for you: “Radar altimeter”

      Eminently susceptible to radio-frequency interference.

      Gratuitous aviation tip: as a student pilot, you really don’t know what you don’t know. Overconfidence is your worst enemy. Keep learning, keep questioning, but realize that a lot of things that you know nothing about are still lurking out there, waiting to trip you up if you start thinking that you “know better” than more experienced airmen.

      • DarksSideMoon says:

        Thanks for the tip. I did not mean to sound arrogant. I understand that I do not know everything there is to know, but I did do my research on this. From what I’ve found radar altimeters are in the 4.2-4.3 Ghz range, while cell phones operate at less than 1.8ghz. If cell phones could cause such a serious issue wouldn’t they be completely banned from flights? And wouldn’t heavy cell use in congested areas near the approach path cause issues as well?

  17. Salty Johnson says:

    “No, it’s not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes.”

    They say that like it’s a bad thing. On-time arrivals are on-time arrivals whether the airlines are “cheating” or not. If my flight arrives 10 minutes before it was supposed to arrive, I have 10 extra minutes to make sure my plans work the way they’re supposed to.

  18. Naame says:

    This is one of those cases where I think a well organized union could have the potential to really help. I understand unions often come with a bad rap (some of which is well deserved), but I think they also have a role to play at times. In particular, what we are reading here is a result of too much centralized power within various airlines. A union’s role would be to decentralize that power.

    • Powerlurker says:

      Pretty much all the airlines in the US are unionized.

      • sinfonian94 says:

        While they ARE unionized, those unions have become very weak. The Pilots unions need to step up and ground all flights until conditions improve. Also, I disagree that unions’ bad reputations are well deserved. Their “bad reputations” are a result of very effective trash talk from the corps they deal with. While SOME union leaders are corrupt, the majority are out to give workers a chance to negotiate fairly with their bosses. Something that is impossible on a one to one basis.

  19. Urgleglurk says:

    Hate to say it, but these were well-known problems when I started in the airlines in 1979.
    Think about that. That was 31 years ago.

    JRock: I spent over twenty years in the airlines. I have written airline manuals. I ALWAYS review the safety card on every flight. If there’s an accident (very unlikely), I want to be certain to know what to do without looking for a card (when the plane might be dark, full of smoke and panicky people).