Imagine spending the best part of 17 hours stuck in a tiny room with somebody you really dislike, with no opportunity to escape, while being required to constantly interact. This is what happens when two pilots who don’t get on are rostered on the same flight route.
Pilots may all sound the same over the tannoy but they are real people with real feelings, and in the same way that you might think your colleague is a wazzock, so might they.
And as it is particularly important that the flight deck – basically a pilot’s office – hosts a calm, considerate and communicative environment, airlines have developed a system to stop two people who hate each other getting stuck in there together.
Called “Do Not Pair”, the system works thus: each captain, first and second officer has an electronic list which feeds into the carrier’s scheduling system, to which they can add the names of anyone they do not want to be sat beside for hours on end. The rota then prohibits those two names ending up in the same cockpit.
It is a lesser-known element of a pilot’s nine-to-five, but a quick scour of the Internet finds a number of incidents that have led pilots to add a name to their “Do Not Pair” list.
One relays the story of a first officer whose captain wanted him to be his “wing man” for meeting members of the fairer sex on a layover. To cut a long story short, the first officer ended up adding the other pilot to his list.
In 2008, an American Airlines captain caused a stir after filing a complaint about the pilot of another aircraft for taxiing too slowly – landing them with a 15-day unpaid suspension.
In a recent article for the LA Times, a flight attendant wrote about the lists.
Elliot Hester explained how he witnessed a pilot have a violent falling out with a third officer only minutes before a flight was due to take off from Rio de Janeiro for Miami.
The service would have been cancelled were it not for a 10-minute emergency meeting “where differences were resolved, or at least shelved”.
After landing in Miami, however, Hester said the third officer “pulled out his laptop, logged onto the employee website, entered the captain’s name and clicked: Do Not Pair”.
Author and pilot Patrick Smith doesn’t mention the list by name in his book Cockpit Confidential, which answers dozens of burning questions about air travel, but he does reference how noting which colleagues you want to avoid is part of normal schedule planning.
“Every 30 days, around the middle of the month, we bid our preferences for the following month: where we’d like to fly, which days we’d like off, and which insufferable colleagues we hope to avoid,” he writes.
“What we actually end up with hinges on seniority. Senior pilots get the choicest pickings; juniors get whatever is left over.”
One small saving grace for those pilots who don’t really get on is a regulation called the Sterile Cockpit Rule, which forbids pilots from talking about anything other than essential flight-related things when the aircraft is below 10,000 feet, to ensure maximum concentration on the flight deck. So at least their innane chatter is limited to cruising altitude.