As I mentioned in last week’s post, I broke this topic up into two pieces due to its size. Last week’s post discussed the reasons, rules, and logistics of commuting. This week, I’m going to discuss jumpseat chivalry and how to deal with getting stuck. Hopefully after reading both of these posts, you will be well on your way to becoming a jumpseat master!
The unspoken chivalry of jumpseating
For pilots, jumpseating with CASS isn’t just a way to get around and see cool places, it’s necessary for their survival. It is inevitable that a pilot who commutes will eventually miss work and will get stuck someplace they don’t want to be. Sometimes, a pilot will bump another pilot out of a seat, and sometimes they will get bumped themselves. It’s a bump or be bumped world. To keep order and make jumpseating as human of an activity as possible, pilots develop an unspoken chivalry of sorts to keep the system moving. Below is a list of the customs pilots follow (or usually follow) to help keep the peace and make the CASS system work. I organized it in chronological order starting from the time a pilot shows up to the gate to jumpseat and ending after they leave the gate to go wherever they are going.
Before showing up to the gate
- Always travel in uniform even if you are not working. This is not required, but is important for a few reasons. First, it lets other pilots and crew members know you are one of them. Captains will work harder to get you on if the flight is full and gate agents will assume you are looking to list for a jumpseat and will know you aren’t a regular non-rev. Second, if you are issued the jumpseat because the cabin is full, it looks more normal to passengers to see someone walk into the cockpit in uniform than it does to see someone in “business Casual”.
When you show up at the gate
- If there is no gate agent working the flight yet, look around for other pilots. If someone is sitting down ask them if they are looking to list on the flight you are looking to get on. If they are, make sure they check in before you. Remember standby priority is based on check-in time, but you can’t check in without a gate agent… So it would be a jerk move to cut in front of someone who was already waiting in line when the gate agent does show up.
Before checking in
- Make sure the gate agent isn’t busy working with passengers. Your not paying for a seat… remember? Passengers have the right-of-way over you in all cases. Before you speak to the agent, have all of your documents ready to make their life as easy as possible.
After checking in
- Look around and see if you can see the crew working the flight. If it’s a quick turn, they probably will be down at the plane out of reach. If its a originating flight, you should be able to catch them at the jet bridge. Introduce yourself and let them know you are looking to catch a ride. This lets the crew know you exist and they will make sure not to forget you.
- Look around to see if you bumped anyone. If you did, go up and introduce yourself and see what their story is. If they are going to work and this is the last flight they can take but you are just going somewhere for fun, its common courtesy to give up your seat.
- When boarding, always board behind all passengers. Do this for two reasons: First is the unspoken jumpseat rule that passengers always have the right-of-way. Its not fair to cut in front of paying passengers to sit in your free seat. Second, boarding last allows you easy access to the cockpit to introduce your self and show your credentials. Its hard to do that if you have a line of 30 people behind you.
- Always gate check your bag if the service is available. This frees up as much overhead space as possible for passengers. It also gets rid of your roller board if you are given the jumpseat.
- If offered a seat in the back by the gate agent, always take it over the jumpseat.
Arriving at the cockpit
- ALWAYS check in with the captain before you board, even if the crew is busy, and EVEN if you were given a seat in the back. Along with being regulatory, this lets the captain know there is another pilot on board. Show your badge and jumpseat pass before you enter the cockpit and wait until you are invited in. If you were given a seat in the back, tell the captain and show them your boarding pass.
- Checking in with the captain at the cockpit is also important for weight and balance. Some gate agents will list you as an ACM but will say that a random seat, say 12B is opened. If you walk in and sit in 12B without telling the captain, the crew might assume the ACM never got on because there is no one in the jumpseat. When they get the count from the flight attendants, it will be off by one, creating a huge headache.
- If the captain says that you can’t get on for any reason, regardless of how silly, get off and don’t ask questions. Don’t argue, don’t make a scene. I have never been asked to get off, but I have worked flights where captains denied jumpseaters boarding for silly reasons, so it is always a possibility.
Riding in the cockpit
- Every crew that you ride with will have a different personality. Assume that the crew that you are riding with is the most conservative and pedantic crew in the airlines until you feel them out. Don’t speak unless spoken to, observe the sterile period, wear a headset if they give you one (technically you are supposed to regardless), don’t take out your phone to text your wife/girlfriend/family that you are on your way home unless asking. Buckle your belt with all available straps. Don’t take off your shoulder harness unless the crew does first. In general, be one level more conservative than the crew you are flying with.
- The ACM headset plugs into a separate ACM audio panel. You probably won’t know how to use the audio panel in the A-320 or 757 if you fly a CRJ. In order to prevent accidentally making a PA to the passengers stating how “you can’t figure out how to work the radio on this crazy thing!”, ask the crew. After riding in a few different planes, you will learn the commonalities between the panels of the different aircraft and won’t need help anymore.
- If you seriously don’t know how to pull out the jumpseat, use the seatbelt, or use the oxygen mask, ask.
- In the beginning, the hardest part of riding up front for me was is the cockpit conversations. “How do you feel about this merger?” “What will happen to the company’s planes if this happens?” “How’s your work schedule at airline X?” Airline pilots love to talk shop and conversations can get pretty deep. When you just start out in the airlines, you won’t know a lot about the industry. In general, try to avoid all of these industry related conversations because your probably going to get yourself in trouble by saying the wrong thing without knowing it. Try changing the subject if possible. Eventually, you will learn how to be be conservative and get by.
Riding in the cabin
- Be as nice to the flight attendants as possible. A little courtesy goes a long way here. If there’s a seat opened in first and the gate agent didn’t assign it to you, they will usually move you up, but they don’t have to!
- NEVER recline your seat.
- Turn off your cell phone and make you seatbelt easy to see.
- Say “yes” if seated in an emergency exit row when the flight attendant asks if you are willing and able. Don’t say “I fly this plane! I know how to use the door!”
- Take refreshments if offered but never ask.
- Try to deplane last. If you have a window seat this is easy. If you have an isle seat and have passengers that need to get off, just get off when your turn comes. Deplane last for two reasons: First, it allows passengers to get off as quickly as possible. Second, more relevant to regional jets, it keeps you from waiting in that claustrophobic, un-heated jet bridge while the rampers unload your valet bag. Usually if you deplane last, you can simply walk by and grab your bag, no waiting required.
- On your way out, thank the flight crew for the ride.
I figured I would wrap up this two-part series by describing what to do if you get stuck.
Let’s say you are that unlucky pilot that ends up getting bumped off of your last flight home, or your flight comes in late and you miss it all together. Now things begin to look grim. The five stages of grief begin to set in. You look at the jet bridge pulling away and think… No way! This isn’t happening to me. Its not possible! Then anger. You stomp around, throw your hat on the ground, and make mean faces to small children when they look at you with the hope of being just like you someday. You think, “If that plane comes back to the gate for some reason only just this once, I’ll never complain about my job again!”. You wait and watch the plane takeoff. The realization finally sets in – You are stuck here and there is nothing you can do. Your anger fades and you start to make pouty faces. But there is hope, not for getting home, but for acceptance. You are going to get through this!
So now what? After accepting your fate, your mind will be free to make rational decisions. You have a few options:
- Get a hotel – This is the option for true quitters (like mainline pilots who can afford them ha!). A $150 dollar per night hotel in New York or Chicago is likely out of your reach financially, and would take all the fun out of being a true commuter!
- Rent a car – If your commute is fairly short, you might be able to find a cheap one way rental. You can commonly find rentals for under $20 through company deals or Expedia. Granted, you might have to end up driving a bright pink convertible smart car, but its still better than being stuck at base. If you are real lucky, you might be able to catch a flight to a place that is drivable to your home and rent a car from there.
- Find/make an airport bed – If you are at your base, you might be able to find a comfy spot in the crew room (of course I would never, ever condone this naughty behavior). Tough it out for the night, and take the first flight out in the morning… which might only be a couple of hours away at this point anyway.
- Crashpad it up! – YESSSS! The illustrious crashpad. These mythical places are where true commuters dwell. I can neither confirm or deny their existence but will tell their tale based on the common folk lure all pilots know:
Crashpads are a combination of a Boy Scout summer camp, frat house, and homeless shelter all rolled into one. Their existence is usually fleeting, and they can pop-up and disappear literally overnight. These whimsical places are typically located close to the airport with some form of public transportation to and from the place and airport. As such, they are usually located in bad neighborhoods. Realestate is cheap if a plane flies over every five minutes and shakes plaster off the ceiling. So how does one find one of these places? Internet search? Priceline?… Not a chance! They only exist by word of mouth, if they even do at all. And who owns these places? I don’t know, but a theory is that they are owned by the same people who sell kidneys on the black market. No one knows for sure.
So, If you ever find yourself walking down a dark alleyway in Queens or a sketchy neighborhood in Miami, Chicago, or L.A., take a quick look at your surroundings. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a white shirted, ghostlike figure scurry into the darkness. Before you can identify the shadowy character, they disappear out of sight. If you listen closely, you might even hear the faint slamming of a crashpad door, or the erie sound of roller board wheels echoing into the night.
So there you have it! You now know more about jumpseating than most of the newbies and even a lot of the more seasoned pilots out there. It’s now time to stretch your wings and ride that magical extra first class seat up front.