JetBlue Pilot Meltdown: The Stress of Flying

The JetBlue pilot meltdown has everyone buzzing, including fellow airline pilots.

“The first thought that went through my head when I read the story of the JetBlue pilot,” a veteran of the cockpit said, “was, ‘Thank God he wasn’t armed!*’ ”

*A post-9/11 federal program allows eligible pilots to carry guns in the cockpit.

Listen as air travel analyst Rick Seaney and editor Anne McDermott discuss this shocking story:

Anonymous Pilot Speaks Up

The pilot, who spoke to FareCompare on the condition of anonymity, has been flying for one of the established legacy carriers for more than a decade. He has no direct personal knowledge of the JetBlue situation, but commented in general on what it’s like flying big planes for a living.

10 Things You Don’t Want to Hear from a Pilot

The JetBlue Pilot Meltdown

As for the aforementioned JetBlue pilot, described by the airline’s CEO as a “consummate professional,” he has since been suspended after an apparent breakdown on a New York to Las Vegas flight on Tuesday.  The chaotic scene described by passengers had the co-pilot locking his ranting colleague out of the cockpit whereupon the man screamed and pounded on the door until he was subdued by flight attendants and passengers. The flight was diverted to Amarillo, Texas, and the disturbed pilot was taken to a hospital.

This follows an eerily similar case that occurred earlier this month when an American flight attendant was removed from a plane at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport after screaming about the plane crashing.

Fatigue and Stress Factors of Flying

It is not known if stress or even fatigue could be a factor in either incident, but late last year the Federal Aviation Administration  overhauled its pilot fatigue rules which included requiring a minimum of 10 hours for rest before flight duty, up from 8 hours. The  pilot who spoke with FareCompare said that in the past, “Sometimes we pilots could be our own worst enemy [because] of what we were sometimes willing to endure” in terms of long hours to increase their pay.

Yes, Pilots have Fallen Asleep on the Job

So is stress to blame? The anonymous pilot claims, for the most part, “the job isn’t stressful but pilots who find it so shouldn’t be flying in the first place because their heads are not in the game.” However, his may be a minority opinion.

Pilot Makes List of ‘Most Stressful Jobs’

In CareerCast’s List of 10 Most Stressful Jobs of 2012, commercial airline pilots rank third – even ahead of police officers. Here is their top five:

  1. Enlisted Soldier
  2. Firefighter
  3. Commercial Airline Pilot
  4. Military General
  5. Police Officer

According to the CareerCast study, stress and pressure on pilots is high in part because of irregular working hours and routes, plus jet lag and layovers. Besides that, “They are not only expected to guarantee the safety of passengers, but also to keep their flights on-time, even when flying in inclement weather.”

Weather and Other Pilot Stress Factors

The pilot who spoke to FareCompare agrees that flying during bad weather and the need to avoid storms is one area where pilots must use all their skills and powers of concentration and it is a fairly common event. Then there are those extremely rare emergency situations where a pilot might have to ditch a plane in a river, as US Airways’ Capt. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger did during that Miracle-on-the-Hudson flight a few years back.

Adding to the stress on pilots and other airline employees is the constant threat of layoffs as carriers have streamlined and cut capacity over the past decade. This is now happening at American Airlines which announced earlier this year that it would axe as many 13,000 employees during its bankruptcy proceedings.

Other stresses: passengers behaving badly.

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Passengers Stress

The anonymous pilot says he understands that for passengers, flying today can be a frustrating and stressful situation thanks to security demands and cramped planes, but a small minority of flyers makes it worse for everyone by contributing to the stress with bad behavior.

He cited December’s incident in which actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off a flight for failing to follow a flight attendant’s orders to turn off his mobile device, adding, “Why do people with fame in Hollywood have issues with authority and control?”

It should be noted that this small minority with alleged authority issues is by no means limited to celebrities.

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Published: March 29, 2012