Around the World in 80 Jumpseats—& Surprise Vid!

#blog #avgeek #airline #aviation

The following is an updated version of an article once slated to be published in Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine’s “Flights & Fancy” section . . . a couple decades ago . . . .

A very short Thank You vid to all you birthday well-wishers!
(PS: A special Thank You to my good friend Mark, who I somehow missed in the vid!)


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Tired of the daily commute to work? You say you live in Long Beach and the trek to downtown L.A. takes two hours?

You wimp. That’s 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.

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In every airliner cockpit, there is at least one “jump seat.”

This seat is required so that FAA inspectors or Check Airman can occasionally fly along with line pilots for regular flight checks.

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The dreaded B-737 Primary Jumpseat (L)…
and the even more dreaded Secondary.

Apparently, by Federal law, these jumpseats must be designed to be less comfy than a bed of nails.  I am convinced they were designed either by sadistic dentists, or line pilots hoping to keep said flight checks to a minimum.

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

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The A320 Primary jumpseat.
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 preferable to the cruel chair up front!

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B-757 Primary Jumpseat…a bit skimpy on the leg room.
As an airline pilot, I’ve 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’s nothing. I recall the Boeing 727 captain for Pan Am (God rest the company’s soul) 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.

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A320 first jumpseat (L) and 2nd (center), with Capt’s seat (R).
Still roomier than most…
When in uniform and sitting in the passenger cabin, I always feel like I’m on stage. At the slightest bump or klunk, white knucklers 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, they’d panic.

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Jumpseats may be cramped and uncomfy…
Pilots are notoriously cheap (yours truly included), and have exploited the jumpseat privilege for leisure travel as well. Like doctors and lawyers, pilots enjoy virtually for free the fruits of their profession. 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.

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…but they’re a helluva window seat!

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 Bermudas, tank top and beachcombers, sipping a Piña Colada and flirting with the flight attendant.

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Besides stringent dress codes, jumpseating has evolved other traditions and protocol as well. For instance, after the captain approves the jumpseat request, the traveler must always thank him personally. Once this is done, the jumper is often invited to take a seat in the cabin, if any are available. A jumper who fails to thank the captain may be asked to step outside—at cruise.

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Off to SFO for lunch!

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!

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When not in use, a nice place to stow a flight crew rollerboard!
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 wings it (scuz the pun).

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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 Jepps 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 like, well, O. J. through the terminal to the gate for the direct flight from Podunk to LAX.

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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?)

Now comes the game I call, Airline Hopscotch.

You frantically search the nearest Departure screen for the quickest way outta here . . .

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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.

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Yep, even pilots can look like this!

Anywhere, at anytime, your grand scheme of cross-country connections could be shot down like Canadian 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 connect, 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.

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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.
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Next Flight app: shedding tons of baggage off the commuting pilot!

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 groundpounders bold enough to entertain the idea of jumpseating illegally.

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This 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.***

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Still tempted?  Better stop and read Catch Me if You Can, the true story of infamous con man Frank Abignale. In it, Abagnale explains the difficulties of jumpseating when 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?,”
Abignale froze. Clueless to the fact that this industry buzzword equipment meant airplane, he replied hopefully, “Uh, General Electric!”

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

Here’s a scene from the movie, Catch Me if You Can. Sadly, it glosses right over the “What equipment you on?” gig.  But it’s still a hoot!:

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**During research, I found a fun blog called, “Jet Hiking,” wherein the blogger is attempting to hitchhike to all 50 states . . . . in private planes!  Check out: and

***A word about jumpseat security: Post-9/11, U.S. airlines now have a nationwide electronic verification system.  Every jumpseater must be verified via this system before being allowed onto the flight deck.  (Jernnard had simply wandered into the cockpit while the door was open during boarding.)
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Blogging in Formation Week!
Posts all week beginning Saturday, June 29!

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This week’s subject: “The Future of U.S. Aviation

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Cap’n Aux post: Wednesday, July 3 @ 12am PHX

Hotlinks to Blogging in Formation sites:
Sunday, June 30: Andrew Hartley
     (Smart Flight Training—

Monday, July 1: Brent Owens
Tuesday, July 2: Karlene Petitt
     (Flight to Success)
Wednesday, July 3: Eric Auxier (Adventures of Cap’n Aux)
Thursday, July 4: Ron Rapp
     (House of Rapp)

—  —  —  —  —  —

Posting Wednesday, July 10

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Aviation Cartoons by Cap’n Aux!
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