What is there to say about air travel these days? In a time where airline ticket prices are incredibly low and airline companies are working hard to thrive on razor-thin profit margins, air travel has lost some of the "romance" that some folks say it used to have. The good news is that more and more people are getting to where they need to go quickly and safely, but the bad news is that travel can easily become an anonymous, non-personal experience. It doesn't have to be that way- there is much to learn from fellow travelers and the folks working in the transportation industry, and sometimes all it takes is a short conversation to break the ice and make a trip more enjoyable. When it comes to interactions with the pilots working on your flight, there are good ways to do that and there are not-so-good ways. Here are a few tips for what not to ask your flight crew on your next trip.
1. You haven't been drinking, have you?
Don't be surprised, sometimes folks actually say something like this. Usually, it is an attempt at a joke. From the perspective of the person in uniform, it's not funny. The problem is that it has to be considered as an accusation. Depending on the company policy, the crew member might be able to resolve the issue with a frank discussion about the inappropriateness of a comment like that, assuming that the one who made the comment is willing to say that it was not intended as a serious question. In other cases, the crew member might be required by policy to conduct an alcohol test. Guess what that is going to mean for the on-time status of the flight? It's not going to get the plane off of the gate any faster, that's for sure. In some cases, it may lead to a cancellation. The same issue applies to comments about the use of drugs. If you'd like to be funny, it is probably best to avoid any reference to use of judgement-altering substances.
2. Excuse me ma'am, where is the captain?
This day in age, females represent somewhere around 5% of the pilot population in general, and about the same percentage of airline pilots are women. These numbers are growing each year, so travelers are more and more likely to board a plane with at least one lady up front. If you find yourself to be one of these lucky few, it is probably best to not assume that the uniformed females on board are flight attendants and the uniformed males on board are pilots. If you really want to top the list of rude passengers, make comments about how you're not sure if she's going to do as good of a job as a male pilot. Keep in mind that all airline pilots are highly trained and frequently evaluated, and most are highly educated and experienced professionals. None of the adjectives in the last sentence are chromosome-related. Today's airplanes certainly don't require some sort of brute strength to operate; instead they require good communication skills, leadership, and judgement. Knowing that, maybe you'd prefer for your Captain to be a Ms. Captain.
3. You seem too young to be a pilot!
The natural reply: "That's something I usually hear from old folks." Is it really the young ones that you want to worry about? See the part of point number 2 about training, experience, and constant evaluation. Airline pilots don't make it onto the airplanes without meeting particular standards. The age of a pilot is not a reliable indicator of his or her experience level. You might have a 50-something on his second career, fresh out of training, or you might have a 20-something who has been immersed in all-things-aviation since she could first say "airplane." The person in uniform doesn't have any control over his or her age, so there isn't anything to gain from bringing it up, other than creating resentment.
4. What route do you fly?
Long gone are the days when pilots would operate a single route in most of the passenger airline industry. Most pilots will go to almost every city that their company operates to in the type of airplane that they are trained in. There are some exceptions to this generalization, especially when it comes to challenging destinations that might require some extra training, such as over-water international flights or flights to airports surrounded by challenging terrain. But in almost all cases, this will be a question with a long answer that amounts to "we don't do it that way anymore."
5. I just called my [so-and-so] in [the destination town] and they said the weather is just fine, so why are we delayed for weather?
There are several questions that fall under this category, and all have a common theme: they undermine the decision of the folks you have trusted with your safety. It is almost never appropriate to question the conservative safety decision of someone who you have tasked with the job of keeping you safe. Beyond the issue of undermining judgement, there is probably a really good answer for this question. In many cases, flights are delayed not just because of the weather, but because of the combination of the quantity of planes using the airspace and the weather. The weather might be good enough to get there, but it's not good enough for all of the planes that are trying to get there, and we have to wait our turn. Sometimes the bad weather is in an area that impacts the airspace around an airport. A very localized thunderstorm, for example, may impact arriving air traffic but not even be visible from the population center of a town.
Don't let these topics convince you that airline pilots are unapproachable. They are all humans with their own perspectives, and most are glad to talk to travelers, especially nervous ones. Like any other personal interaction, success is just a matter of respecting the other person's perspective.