How Airline Crews Work

By: Tom Harris

­Modern airplanes are phenomenal pieces of technology, but they're not worth much if you don't have somebody who can fly them. The skills and expertise of veteran pilots are crucial to airline organizations, as well as to getting you where you need to go. The flight-attendant crew is also an important element in the flying process: Attendants try to keep everything running smoothly on each flight, and they deal with the desperate situations that arise when things don't go according to plan.

In this article, we'll take a look at the unique world of airline crews to find out who's working on a typical flight and see what their duties are. The life of an airline crew member can be tiring and frustrating, but it is rarely boring. When these people come into work (in an office that cruises a mile or more above the ground), they might very well be headed to the other side of the world.



Southwest pilots preparing for takeoff
Southwest pilots preparing for takeoff
Photo courtesy Southwest Airlines Co.

You wouldn't get very far on a flight without pilots: They're the people who put all that sophisticated equipment to work. On commercial airlines, there are always at least two pilots, and on many flights, there are three. All airline pilots have had extensive training and flying experience, often as part of military service. The road from the first training flight to the airline cockpit is a long and difficult one, but for many pilots, this is the only way to go. To learn more about this career path, check out How Becoming an Airline Pilot Works.

On an airliner, the pilot in command is called the captain. The captain, who generally sits on the left side of the cockpit, is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on the flight. This includes making major command decisions, leading the crew team, managing emergencies and handling particularly troublesome passengers. The captain also flies the plane for much of the trip, but generally trades off with the first officer at some point.


The first officer, the second in command, sits on the right side of the cockpit. He or she has all of the same controls as the captain, and has had the same level of training. The primary reason for having two pilots on every flight is safety. Obviously, if something happens to the captain, a plane must have another pilot who can step in. Additionally, the first officer provides a second opinion on piloting decisions, keeping pilot error to a minimum.

Most airliners built before 1980 have a cockpit position for a flight engineer, also called the second officer. Typically, flight engineers are fully trained pilots, but on an ordinary trip, they don't fly the plane. Instead, they monitor the airplane's instruments and calculate figures such as ideal takeoff and landing speed, power settings and fuel management. In newer airliners, most of this work is done by computerized systems, eliminating the need for the flight-engineer position. In the future, it will be phased out entirely.

All three pilots in the flight crew have equal levels of training, but they usually have varying degrees of seniority. At most airlines, the career track is based almost completely on length of service. To become a captain, you have to rise through the ranks and wait until it's your turn and a position opens up. Seniority also dictates the sorts of planes a pilot flies, as well as his or her schedule. Pilots who are relatively new to the airline will fly reserve, meaning they do not have a set flying schedule. A reserve pilot may have "on call" duty for 12 hours or longer at a stretch. In this time, the pilot has to be packed and ready to fly, because the flight scheduler might page them at any moment. If a pilot is called in, he or she reports to the airport immediately for a flight assignment (for many airlines, the pilot must be ready to go within an hour of being paged). Reserve pilots are called up when the scheduled pilot becomes ill or can't make the flight for some other reason. The life of the reserve pilot is largely unpredictable: Pilots might spend several days on reserve and never get paged, or they might get paged every day. And when they report for duty, they could be flying over to the next state or they might be putting in a three-day trip to another part of the world. With this hectic schedule, it's no wonder flights are occasionally delayed while waiting around for crew members to arrive.

Pilots with more seniority pick out a regular flight schedule, called a line. Pilots holding a line live a more "ordinary" sort of life, in the sense that they know ahead of time when they'll be working. But even these pilots spend a lot of time away from their families, and they never know what delays they'll encounter. In the United States, a pilot's scheduled flight time should not exceed 8 hours in a row for domestic flights or 12 hours for international flights. In actuality, however, pilots may work for more than 16 hours straight, since flights are often delayed or extended.

A pilot typically arrives at the airport at least an hour before departure (two hours for international flights). Most airlines have a computerized check-in system in the pilot's lounge. This gives the pilots the details of the flight, including the weather, the number of passengers on board and the other crew members who will be working. In order to keep everything in one place, pilots generally keep their flight papers and any other information in a large briefcase.

In the time before take-off, a pilot reviews this information, works out the flight plan, files it with air traffic control and meets with the rest of the crew. Once the airplane has landed, the captain meets with the arriving flight crew to find out if they experienced any irregularities. The first officer performs a general inspection of the plane to make sure everything is in good order. After this walk-through, the pilots meet in the cockpit and make sure all of the instruments and controls are working properly.

Before takeoff, the captain must sign the flight release, a document attesting that the crew is fit and that the pilots have reviewed the flight information. While they're preparing for takeoff, the pilots will receive an up-to-date weather report and passenger count and a pre-departure clearance form. To make the paperwork easier, many cockpits are equipped with a built-in printer that receives information from the gate agents and the control tower.

When the paperwork is finished, the attendants secure all the doors and the captain gives the go-ahead for push back (pushing the plane back from the gate so it can move onto the runway). Then, the pilots simply wait their turn and follow the air traffic controller's instructions for takeoff.

In an uneventful flight, takeoff and landing require the most intensive piloting. In modern airliners, the pilot's main responsibilities are to monitor the automatic systems to make sure the plane is flying correctly and to alter the course as needed. In an emergency, of course, things can get a lot more hectic. All airline pilots have extensive training in dealing with the unexpected and keeping a cool head in precarious situations. Fortunately, it is only on rare occasions that pilots have to put this training to work, but they must be ready to leap into action at all times.

The life of flight attendants -- the crew members who take care of the passengers -- is also filled with unpredictability. In the next section, we'll look at the work that flight attendants do on a flight, and we'll find out what it takes to become a flight attendant.

Flight Attendants

A flight attendant serves a typical "in-flight snack" consisting of drinks and peanuts.
A flight attendant serves a typical "in-flight snack" consisting of drinks and peanuts.
Photo courtesy Southwest Airlines Co.

On a commercial flight in the United States, there must be one flight attendant for every 50 passengers. These attendants have a variety of responsibilities in their work, which begins before the first passenger boards and continues through the entire flight. Before boarding, the whole crew meets, the captain reviews the flight schedule and any safety concerns, and the lead attendant assigns each attendant to a particular section of the plane. Before the plane takes off, the attendants must:

  • Greet passengers and direct them to their seats
  • Help passengers stow their carry-on luggage
  • Make sure passengers near the emergency exits are prepared to help out in an emergency
  • Run over safety procedures or show a safety video
  • Check every seat to make sure all passengers are buckled-in and that their seats are in the right position
  • Lock the doors and arm them so that the emergency slides will inflate if they are opened

After they have worked through this checklist, flight attendants strap themselves into their jump seats. Once the plane levels off, the attendants prepare food and drinks, load the refreshment and meal carts, and serve the passengers.


Additionally, attendants must make sure that all passengers adhere to the safety guidelines, and they have to deal with any emergency situations that come up. If there is a problem with the plane, the crew must keep the passengers calm and help them exit the aircraft if necessary. Attendants must also be prepared to deal with terrorists, irate passengers and various medical emergencies. In situations where most people would be paralyzed with panic, flight attendants have to keep their wits about them and work through the emergency.

Before each flight, the flight crew reviews safety measures with passengers.
Before each flight, the flight crew reviews safety measures with passengers.
Photo courtesy Southwest Airlines Co.

To deal with all of these duties, a flight attendant must possess certain abilities and personality traits. Airlines look for friendly people who can memorize a lot of information and keep a cool head under pressure. To get a position with an airline, potential flight attendants must interview for the job, pass a medical exam, and work their way through a rigorous schedule of instruction and performance reviews. During the training period, which can last between three and nine weeks, a potential attendant lives with other candidates at a hotel or dorm facility, where they attend classes on everything from food service to dealing with armed hijackers. At this time, the candidates may receive a weekly allowance for expenses, but they aren't actually considered airline employees. They are not hired officially until after they complete the entire training course and pass all tests. To find out how you can become an airline flight attendant, check out this site.

There are many more flight-attendant applicants than there are flight-attendant positions, so only a select few make it through the entire process and get hired by the airline. The position is competitive primarily because of the unique benefits it offers. In most airlines, flight attendants can fly domestically and internationally at minimal cost (as little as $5 for a domestic trip) as long as the plane has available seats. People are also attracted to flight-attendant work because it doesn't have a five-day, "9-to-5" schedule.

As with pilots, a flight attendant's work schedule is determined by seniority. Newer flight attendants have to fly reserve, rarely knowing where they will be headed the next day. They are at the mercy of the crew-schedulers -- the airline employees who figure out who needs to be where on a day-to-day basis. After a year, or in some cases many years, attendants may hold their own line, maintaining a regular, set schedule.

The world of flight attendants and pilots has changed considerably since the beginning of commercial aviation. In the next section, we'll see how early airline crews differed from the ones that fly today.

Crew History

The original eight stewardesses, registered nurses who went to work for Boeing Air Transport in 1930
The original eight stewardesses, registered nurses who went to work for Boeing Air Transport in 1930
Photo courtesy Boeing

Since the very first airplanes, pilots have been the stars of the aviation world, though their role has evolved considerably over the years. The major developments in the world of pilots have been due to new equipment and changing training standards. When airplanes were first invented, they had a relatively simple control system and were often piloted by the designers themselves. Flying was a difficult skill, but since absolutely everybody was an amateur, the only way to pick it up was by trial and error.

As airplane technology advanced, more and more training was required. Automated systems and sophisticated instruments did a lot of the flying work for the pilot, but the pilot also had to understand what everything did. If you've read How Becoming an Airplane Pilot Works, you know that pilots have to go through a lot of work before they can fly for the major airlines.


The first widespread, standardized pilot training came during World War I, when militaries started to put soldiers up in the air. Military aircraft training was expanded during World War II and the following decades.

In the 1920s, the U.S. began regulating both aircraft design and pilot training, and the only practical way to meet airline standards was to have extensive military flying experience. In the 1930s through the 1960s, the vast majority of airline pilots in the United States were white men with some military background. Today, there are more and more women and minority pilots, and roughly half of all current U.S. airline pilots were never in the military.

The world of flight attendants has also changed significantly since the beginning of commercial air travel. The first airliners were actually mail planes with a few extra spaces for passengers. On these flights, you had to take care of yourself: The plane crew included only pilots, and they were so busy flying the plane that they didn't have time to attend to passengers.

Eventually, some early airlines added cabin boys to their flights. These crew members, who were usually teenagers or small men, were mainly on board to load luggage, reassure nervous passengers and help people get around the plane. In 1930, a young nurse named Ellen Church, along with Steve Stimpson of Boeing Air Transport, came up with a new sort of attendant. Church proposed that registered nurses would make an ideal addition to the flight crew, as they could take care of any passengers that got sick. Boeing, then an airline as well as a plane manufacturer, hired eight nurses for a three-month trial run. The new attendants, who would come to be called "stewardesses," soon became an integral part of the airline industry. In time, these attendants were no longer required to have a nursing degree, but the nurturing, maternal character remained a key element in the profession.

Until relatively recently, airline stewardesses were under strict control. They were not allowed to be married -- ostensibly because husbands would complain that the long hours kept their wives away from home -- and most airlines had certain constraints on their height, weight and proportions. Their clothing was similarly restrictive: At most airlines, stewardesses wore form-fitting uniforms and were required to wear white gloves and high heels throughout most of the flight. While it was a perfectly respectable occupation for young women, early stewardesses were generally underpaid, had minimal benefits and were in a subservient role to pilots.

Early on, airlines imposed tight restrictions on stewardesses.
Early on, airlines imposed tight restrictions on stewardesses.

During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, flight-attendant unions, as well as representatives from the equal rights movement, brought about sweeping changes in the airline industry that addressed these problems. Since the 1970s, the policy of the major airlines has been to hire both men and women as attendants and to have no restrictions on size and weight. Flight attendants now share many of the same benefits as pilots, and airlines recognize them as a crucial component of the air-travel industry. After all, to most passengers, the flight attendant is the face of the entire airline.

As the airline industry continues to expand to meet growing consumer demand, more and more young people are joining airline crews. To those workers who can stand the long hours and unpredictable lifestyle, there's nothing quite like flying through the air for a living.

To learn more about flight attendants, airline pilots, and the airline industry in general, check out the links on the next page.