Plane Answers: Paying off passengers on weight restricted flights and a question about approach speeds

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!


My girlfriend and I were traveling to Washington D.C. on Delta from Des Moines via Cincinnati. At CVG, the ticket agent said they were looking for volunteers, as the flight was oversold. I eagerly rushed up, since we were just staying with a friend that night, and inquired. He offered $600 each, meal vouchers and a hotel for us. He said there was an issue with weight as well.

We hung around the gate to make sure, and at the last minute, he said “Captain’s ordered everybody on.” The flight was full. Very full. We were the last two seats on the CRJ. My girlfriend had to sit next to the FA in a jumpseat/lavatory door.

My question is: How can weight play an issue? Aren’t they fueled according to the passenger count? How much does luggage weight come into fuel calculations? And lastly, What could have made the pilot change his mind about weight?
I would have jumped at the $600 offer. You were smart to try and nab it.

Very often, flights are weight restricted, which means that after the safe fuel and reserves are added to the flight, there’s only so much weight left over for the passengers and bags. This is more common on the regional jets, but it occasionally happens to the smaller Boeings and MD-80s.

As the boarding is taking place, there are often a few variables that aren’t apparent until the baggage, freight, mail and fuel are added to the airplane. Getting an up-to-the-minute tally of the weights allows the load planner (which may even be the pilots, depending on the airline) to get the maximum number of passengers and bags on the flight. Baggage weights aren’t actually weighed, however. Average weights are used; 30 pounds domestically and 40-45 pounds internationally.

You’re also more likely to run into this situation when the weather is poor at your destination, since the flight plan will need to include enough fuel to travel to an alternate airport after reaching the destination just in case the weather isn’t good enough to get in. So this added fuel reduces the useful load of the airplane. Each gallon of fuel weighs just over six pounds, in fact.

Occasionally, there may be a similar weight restriction based on the maximum landing weight of the airplane. If the airplane must operate again with nearly full fuel, and the distance isn’t enough to burn down below the maximum landing weight, the number of passengers will also need to be restricted.

Clearly it was in the airline’s best interest to look very closely at the numbers, something that can only happen at the last minute, to see if they could get you on. But they didn’t want to find themselves in a situation where at the last minute they’d have to remove two passengers and their bags and delay the flight if the weights came in just over the maximum allowed. So in your situation, they held you two back just in case they needed the weight reduction. I’ve also been in your situation when flying on another airline and just as I was starting to spend the extra cash in my mind, the door opened up we were rushed on at the last minute.

Tom asks:

Hi Kent,

You said that the newer 737-800s are “faster” on final approach than the older 737s. If the flight crew controls the airspeed on final approach then wouldn’t the speed on final be the same regardless of the age of the 737? Please explain and many thanks.

I should have been more specific. You’re right, the age wouldn’t have any impact on the speeds, but the older 737 model, the -200s are able to approach much slower than the -800. Another significant influence is the weight of a particular aircraft which can change the approach speed by twenty to twenty-five knots (23 to 28 m.p.h.).

In a previous Plane Answers, I called a lot of friends who fly a variety of airplanes and they provided me with the approach speed of a variety of airplanes. You’d be surprised which airplanes land the fastest:

747-400: 157 (174 m.p.h.)
737-800: 148 (170 m.p.h.)
A380-100: 145 (166 m.p.h.)
767-300: 142 (163 m.p.h.)
A320: 142 (163 m.p.h.)
EMB-145: 139 (160 m.p.h.)
777-200: 138 (159 m.p.h.)
MD-80: 136 (156 m.p.h.)
A300: 135 (155 m.p.h.)
A319: 132 (152 m.p.h.)
757: 132 (152 m.p.h.)

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Plane Answers: Crew rest seats and identifying pilot uniforms

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Ignacio asks:

Say you’re on a Boston-Paris trip. The flight is totally loaded up, so there are no free seats, neither First nor Tourist class. When it comes to rest-time, what do you pilots do? Is it possible for a scheduled flight to have no seats available?

The policy varies by airlines, but the FAA requires that a seat be provided somewhere in the back for the third pilot on flights over 8 hours. Whether that seat is in coach or business class is something that’s determined by contract negotiations. At my company, we’re lucky to have a seat in business, often with the seat next to us blocked as well.

Jocelyn asks:

Regarding airline pilot uniforms;

1. What is the difference between the different colored epaulets airline pilots wear on their uniforms. Some wear white and some wear gold, that I have seen.2. Is 3 stripes for a co-pilot and 4 stripes represents a captain?

3. Is there a 1 or 2 stripe epaulet and if so what is that rank or what do they do?

4. Does the hat have to match the epaulets i.e., gold band and gold leafs on the brim of his hat if he wears gold epaulets?

5. What is the gold or white band and why the gold or white leafs on the brim of his cap?

I never imagined there could be five questions relating to epaulets and uniforms, but I’m thrilled with the unique query.

Individual airlines can choose, often with their employees’ input, the color and style of uniform. The more modern pilot uniforms have moved to thinner stripes on the jacket sleeve for example.

Four stripes on either the shirt epaulets or the jacket sleeve are reserved for the captain, and three stripes for the co-pilot. Years ago we had mechanics who were licensed as professional flight engineers on the 707, 727 and DC-10 at my airline and those non-pilots sported two-stripes on their sleeves. There was no retirement age for these professional flight engineers, so you would occasionally see an FE in his 70’s flying the DC-10 before they were (both) retired.

Later, when qualified pilots were hired to work as flight engineers, they were given three stripes when sitting at the sideways seat.

Captains can also be identified by the ‘scrambled eggs’ on the brim of their hats and some airlines have slightly different design on the captain wings, occasionally adding a star, for example. The color of the epaulets, scrambled eggs and trim is again decided by the airline, but silver and gold are the most common examples.

I’ve seen thin single or double stripes used on the sleeves that are now reserved for flight attendant uniforms.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Plane Answers: A controller opinion on the JFK kid and a college major for pilots

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

A friend of mine who works as an air traffic controller emailed me with his thoughts on the JFK ‘bring your kid to work’ controversy. Here’s what he had to say:

Each of my 3 kids have talked to planes in Chicago airspace 7-10 years ago. I limited it to a frequency change after advising the pilot “it’s take your daughter to work day, standby for a frequency change.”

I recently mentioned it to some former colleagues who all said they had done something like that also. I believe that any clearances are clearly inappropriate but that there was no danger involved at JFK. The dad certainly would have been in the trainer jack with override capability.

So there you have it. I’m still hopeful that nothing more than a policy memo is sent out and that the controller(s) in question are able to come back to work as soon as possible.

And now a multiple-part question from Ricardo about a university major for a prospective pilot and the best direction he should take afterwards:

Hey Kent,

I have always been interested in flying commercial aircraft ever since I was a child. My ultimate goal is to gain an ATPL. I am currently 16 years old and I’m already looking through colleges. I have found several that offer a Private Pilot minor but I do not know what to major in. Do airlines look for pilots that majored in something in particular? I was thinking of aerospace engineering or aerospace systems technology but I would like to know for sure what I should major in so that I will have better luck with airlines in the future.
I would suggest that you major in the subject that interests you most. Ideally it would be an area that you may be able to fall back on if the airlines aren’t hiring or you’re furloughed for a period of time. So many of the pilots I’m flying with today are doing something else to supplement their income, whether it be managing a trucking company, working as an electrician or managing rental properties.

Airlines absolutely look for a bachelor’s degree, but the subject is far less important during the interview for most companies. So you may as well use the degree to make you well rounded.

Another question I have (bear with me, I have several) is how should I gain my flight hours? People have suggested that I should become an instructor and give flight lessons. What do you think?

I talked a bit about this in a recent Plane Answers here and here. Flight instructing is the most popular way to build flight time as a civilian pilot, although there are some other creative options such as TV/Radio traffic reporting, fish spotting, and banner towing.

You’ll learn a lot during the instructing and it’s a nice rating to keep active throughout your career, as you may end up teaching friends and family to fly someday. But don’t expect to earn much money during your instructing years. $20 an hour may sound livable, but keep in mind that’s $20 per flight hour. At least you’re getting paid as you accrue hours, something that isn’t possible when you’re working on your private pilot’s license or building time toward your commercial ticket.

My advice? Get the flight time any way that comes available. Hanging out at the airport where you learned to fly is the best way to take advantage of the opportunities as they arise. Fortunately, flight instructors spend a lot of time hanging out at airports.

Finally, do you think that I will have a chance at being hired by an airline in the future? I have heard that hardly any airlines are hiring now and I am feeling a bit nervous and cannot help but think that the industry may not improve and that I will be stuck with a license but no job in the future.

Very few airlines are hiring right now, but this is a cyclical business and that drought certainly can’t continue for the next five to ten years, unless the entire airline industry continues to shrink significantly. Pilot retirements will pick up in December of 2012, which is five years after the FAA raised the retirement age by the same number of years. So you may be in a good spot by then, but building time will be key.

Good luck on your quest and be sure to keep in touch!

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Plane Answers: JFK kid controller incident and a smoking 757

Probably the most popular offering on is the JFK ground and tower frequency. It’s rather entertaining to listen to the Kennedy controllers who are often faced with the daunting task of moving so many airplanes from all corners of the world with a variety of accents.

So it’s no surprise that when a JFK controller hosted a young visitor to the tower on February 17th, and even allowed the kid to make a few transmissions over the tower frequency, those listening to were there to catch it. And the TV reporters weren’t far behind.

The child, who was possibly the controller’s son, was heard handing off an Aeromexico and JetBlue flight to departure control as well as clearing the JetBlue flight for takeoff.

As a pilot, I’d probably react in the same way the JetBlue crew did. I’d get a chuckle out of it, but the FAA can’t possibly shrug off this now highly public incident. I just hope the controller doesn’t lose his job.

Frankly, these instructions could have been given in French and pilots would understand exactly what was instructed. And each pilot in this case read back the instructions clearly, so there was no misunderstanding. If the readback was incorrect, the controller would have jumped right in. So don’t believe the hype that a near disaster was narrowly avoided.

Of course we don’t bring our kids to work in the cockpit. In fact, there were two high profile examples of why this isn’t done. A Turkish pilot was fired in 2008 for letting a 15-year old sit in his seat.

And tragically, an Aeroflot flight crashed while the captain’s 15-year old son was flying. But a child saying adios from the tower to a departing flight isn’t exactly the same as letting a kid fly the plane.

No doubt the media will be all over this today. Here’s one report from The Early Show on CBS this morning that includes the kid’s ATC audio that was surely obtained from

And finally, we’re going to get back to more questions on Plane Answers. Here’s today’s:

Pete asks:

Dear Kent,

On a recent flight from BOS to SFO there was significant smoke from the engine when started. Let me lay the facts out… Light snow was falling. The plane needed to be de-iced. The plane was a 757. Upon starting the engine, significant smoke came from the engine. I worried at first but then figured it was because of the De-Icing solution. Is that correct and is it normal for smoke to come from the engine on start?

Good observation, Pete. The 757 and the Lockheed L-1011 use the Rolls-Royce RB211 engines which smoke quite a bit during engine start, especially on cold days. We’ve had passengers think the airplane was on fire during start, in fact.

While I’m not certain, it’s likely unburned fuel or pooling oil that’s at the root of this phenomenon. Either way, it’s definitely noticeable. Other jets don’t seem to produce the amount of smoke that this engine does on cold days.

De-Icing fluid can also cause a bit of smoke, but not as much as a cold 757 does.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Plane Answers: The Frontline episode regional airlines don’t want you to see

I’ve always been a big fan of PBS’s Frontline. It’s obvious that they study a subject before they report on it. And as any pilot knows, that can be a rarity in the often hyped television coverage of the airline industry.

Frontline has tackled specific airline subjects in the past and I’ve always found them to be accurate and insightful. I’m looking forward to the episode tonight called “Flying Cheap” that may just expose the disparity in pay and working conditions at the regional airlines.

Major airlines have long used separate carriers as a firewall of deniability while playing them off each other to secure the lowest bid. They control the scheduling of these companies, but leave the maintenance and operational responsibility to the regional.

A few carriers, such as Delta and American wholly own and have control over their regionals, but they still contract with other small airlines to some extent.

After the response from last week’s Plane Answers about the NTSB reaction to the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo, it will be interesting to see if this PBS Frontline episode spurs enough public interest to cause some changes. PBS has provided an eleven minute excerpt below of the show that may give you an idea of what direction the program is taking tonight.
From the Frontline press release:

In “Flying Cheap,” FRONTLINE investigates the deadly airline crash of Continental 3407 in Buffalo, NY, and what the crash reveals about dramatic changes in the airline industry. The rise of the regionals and arrival of low-cost carriers have been a huge boon to consumers, and the industry insists that the skies remain safe. But many insiders are worried that now, 30 years after airline deregulation, the aviation system is being stretched beyond its capacity to deliver service that is both cheap and safe.

Frontline examines the rise of low-cost regional carriers-who now account for more than half of all domestic US flights-and asks: Is the aviation system being stretched beyond its capacity to deliver cheap, safe service? Watch on air and online beginning Tuesday, February 9 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

In the eleven minute excerpt from tonights program, there’s a gem of a quote from Roger Cohen of the Regional Airline Association, the group that lobbies on behalf of these smaller carriers involved in code sharing.

When confronted with the low pay and how it represents an untenable economic position for the junior pilots, Roger, who looks like he recently came back from an extended Caribbean vacation, defends regional pilot pay with this:

“I just checked the web this morning-you can get a hotel room near the Newark airport for $50 a night.” He proudly claims.

Roger doesn’t realize that, at $21,000, this would represent between 20% of a line-holder and 50% of a reserve pilot’s potential take-home pay. At these rates, even a crash pad looks too expensive and the crew lounge becomes far more tempting.

I had to run some numbers. On a typical one hour and fifteen minute flight, a Dash 8 burns $2,900 worth of fuel. A copilot in his fifth year at Colgan earns $29 an hour, or $36.25 on that flight. (Source: Maybe it’s time to rethink that pay scale. Management doesn’t realize that if they gave this pilot the tools (and incentive) to fly just 1% more efficiently, they could nearly double that copilot’s salary.

But that just touches on pay. Be sure to watch the excerpt below to catch a VP of operations at a regional that comes up with an innovative way to falsify records in order to get a pilot to fly past his FAA mandated sixteen hour duty day:

While not every regional airline pilot earns these kind of wages or flies with this kind of pressure, tonight’s episode just might highlight a few companies that have been driving the pay and working conditions lower for much of the industry. Every pilot I know will be watching. But maybe passengers should take a look at this, as well.


PBS has posted the entire Frontline episode, “Flying Cheap” online to view here.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr