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15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Airline Pilots

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Often described as having the best “view from the office” in the world, airline pilots are tasked with shuttling hundreds of passengers to and from domestic and international destinations. The responsibility is considerable, and so are the requirements: Commercial airlines typically demand thousands of hours of flight time and dues-paying in cargo and regional jobs before they’ll even grant an interview. And even then, the odds of making it to the prized “left chair”—the captain’s seat—are a long shot.

To find out what makes these top-class aviators tick, we asked three pilots for major commercial carriers about life in the skies. (Owing to their media-averse industry, none wanted to identify their employer; one prefers to be known only by his first name.) 

1. THEY CAN FLY FOR FREE—THEY JUST DON’T WANT TO.

Pilots don’t really get better employee perks than anyone else who works for the airline. While they can fly for free, they have to wait for a standby (available) seat to be open on a flight, and most pilots planning a vacation or structured itinerary don’t want to be at the mercy of that variable. “It’s too unpredictable,” says Patrick Smith, a first officer (co-pilot) and author of Cockpit Confidential. “If a baggage handler has more seniority than me, he’ll be ahead on the standby list.”

2. THERE’S NO READING IN THE COCKPIT.

Eric Auxier, a captain with more than two decades of experience for a major carrier, says that most name-brand airlines prohibit taking anything into the cockpit that could serve as a distraction: no magazines, no paperbacks, no music, and no knitting. “We talk amongst ourselves," he says. "That’s all we’re legally allowed to do.”

3. THERE’S NO NAPPING, EITHER. TECHNICALLY.

”But I can’t say it never happens,” says Tim, a pilot at a major airline. “At present, the regulations do not officially allow it, but sleep studies have proven that short catnaps, especially when flying in the wee hours, are actually beneficial to wakefulness. Unfortunately, the FAA hasn't put anything in writing that allows this.” To avoid exhausted pilots, the FAA has instead issued a guide, FAR-117, that mandates minimum rest periods (like a full eight hours of sleep) and maximum working times for pilots—usually no more than 30 hours per week, according to Auxier.

4. THEY’LL LET YOU LOOK AROUND.

Before the plane doors are shut, Smith says many pilots are happy to offer nervous fliers and kids a peek inside the cockpit. “People are more than welcome to come up and say hello before pushing off,” he says. “90 percent of pilots love it when people do that.”

5. THERE'S A SPARE SEAT IN THE COCKPIT.

The cockpit has what’s known as a “jump seat,” a retractable third chair that allows for FAA inspectors or trainees to tag along on flights. “If it’s not in use, it can be used by a qualified pilot,” Auxier says. Another professional perk? Sort of: In most cases—especially on long flights—a pilot would rather sit in coach. The chair is pretty uncomfortable.

6. THEY WISH YOU WOULDN’T ASK THEM TO “PULL OVER.”

Though pilots don’t usually have direct interaction with passengers, Smith prefers travelers who don’t perceive them as bus drivers. “Asking if we can land so they can get off, it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “One woman who left her medication in her checked luggage wanted someone to ‘go downstairs’ to get it.” Unfortunately for her:

7. THERE IS NO ACTION-MOVIE CARGO COMPARTMENT UNDERNEATH THE PLANE.

Wesley Snipes and Harrison Ford have misled the movie-going public into believing there’s an entire layer under a plane full of luggage, pets, and enough room to have a boxing match. It’s just not true. “You might have alcoves accessible under the cabin or cockpit,” Smith says, “but they’re the size of a closet."

8. THEY CAN HAVE ONE HELL OF A COMMUTE.

In theory, a pilot can live anywhere in the country, since they’re able to catch rides on flights that connect them to their “base” airport. But commuting takes up more unpaid days per month, requires them to take early flights to fill available seats, and generally makes a hard job that much harder. “If the airplane fills up with paying passengers, the pass riding employees will simply be left behind,” Tim says. “Sometimes it's necessary to leave home the day before to ensure that you are in base in time for your trip. Commuting can really suck.” (Tim no longer does it: He moved closer to his base and now drives to work.) 

9. PEEING CAN BE PAINFUL.

According to Smith, kidney stones are a common occupational hazard. Pilots don’t always hydrate properly, and post-9/11 Federal Aviation Association (FAA) rules about entering the cabin can make a trip to the bathroom a chore. It all adds up to stress on the urinary tract. “The protocols for leaving the cockpit are very strict,” he says. “It’s inconvenient to get up when the cabin crew is serving refreshments, too, so we tend to hold it in.”

10. THEY SHAKE THEIR HEADS AT THE “PASSENGER EMBELLISHMENT FACTOR.”

The “PEF” is pilot slang for travelers who tend to exaggerate the sensations of air travel. “Even in rough turbulence, the plane is never changing altitude more than 10 or 20 feet either way,” Smith says. “There’s this idea it’s plummeting hundreds of feet. Not true. Same with take-offs and descents. The nose is, at most, 20 degrees up or 5 degrees down. If I put you in a 30-degree nose-down descent, you’d know how steep that really is.”

11. CO-PILOTS AREN’T SIDEKICKS.

Despite what movies and television would have you believe, a co-pilot is not some kind of subordinate apprentice who looks to the captain for all the answers. “Co-pilots are fully qualified pilots,” Auxier says. “They could just as easily be the pilot. That is solely a factor of seniority.” Smith bristles when media outlets refer to a singular pilot in stories: “We normally take turns. If one of us flies to London, the other flies back to New York. There are two pilots.”

12. AUTOPILOT ISN’T CODE FOR “NO PILOT NEEDED.”

Another pilot pet peeve: the idea they climb into a cabin and watch a computer do their job for them. “A plane no more flies itself than a high-tech operating room performs an organ transplant by itself,” Smith says. “There are routing changes, communications issues, navigational issues, monitoring fuel burn. There is always some task going on. We might not have our hands on the wheel as often as we did years ago, but we’re still flying it.”

13. THE UNIFORM GETS THEM A LOT OF RESPECT. (IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES.)

“Pilots in uniform seem to receive more respect when flying overseas than in the U.S.,” Smith says. “Culturally, I don’t know what it is. In some countries, maybe it’s that air travel is not taken for granted as much. In West Africa, little kids come running over to you. All the crew members are addressed as captain. They’ll salute you.”

14. BEING ON FOOD STAMPS IS NOT A MYTH.

Major media has gotten a lot of play out of profiling pilots who are paid so little that they sometimes apply for food stamps in order to make ends meet. While this is more common in regional circles, Tim says it’s not far-fetched, either. “People always seem to assume that if you fly for an airline in any capacity that you're loaded,” he says. Regional pilots can make as little as $21,000 a year, according to Bloomberg, while the cost of flight training can exceed six figures.

15. THEY REALLY LOVE LANDINGS.

Owing to many flight techniques being computer-assisted, pilots tend to appreciate landings, which are still almost fully operated by the human hands in the cockpit. “It’s something that requires all of our skills,” Auxier says. “It’s where a lot of the job satisfaction comes from. It’s a volatile industry with no guarantees. You need to just enjoy the journey.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

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11 Behind-the-Counter Secrets of Baristas
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Being a barista is no easy task, and it’s not just the early hours and the don’t-talk-to-me-unless-I’ve-had-my-coffee customers. While people often think working at a cafe is a part-time, temporary gig, it takes extensive training to learn your way around an espresso machine, and most baristas are in it for the love of coffee, not just to pay the bills. Mental Floss spoke to a few baristas working at the New York Coffee Festival to learn what exactly goes on behind the counter, and why you should never, ever dump your extra coffee in the trash.

1. THEY REALLY LOVE COFFEE.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the profession, says New York City-based barista Kayla Bird, is “that it's not a real job.” But especially in specialty cafes, many baristas are in it for the long haul. Coffee is their career.

“It's a chosen field,” as barista Virgil San Miguel puts it. “It's not like you work in a coffee shop because it's a glamorous job,” he explains. “It's more like a passion.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF TRAINING.

“Being a really good barista takes a lot of studying,” explains Jake Griffin, a wholesale representative for Irving Farm Coffee Roasters who has worked in the coffee industry for almost a decade. “It can take a few years. You have to start to understand origins, production methods, where your coffee came from.” You have to go through an intensive education before you start pulling espresso shots for customers, so it's possible that the person taking your order and fetching your pastry isn't even allowed to make you a drink yet. “They have to be what we call 'bar certified' before they're even allowed on the machine,” he says. “Usually people start off in our cafes in various support roles, then start to go to classes and go through the training program.”

3. THEY’RE PROBABLY PRETTY WIRED.

Sure, baristas take full advantage of all that free coffee. And if they work in their company’s training programs, their whole job is to drink coffee. But it has its downsides. “I taste—at minimum—ten shots of espresso a day,” John Hrabe, who trains baristas at Birch Coffee in New York City, says. On his busier days, it might be as many as 20. You get used to all the caffeine, he claims—at least until you take a few days off. “Then when you go on vacation and you're not working ... everyone's like, 'Why's John so tired?’”

Other baristas who have worked in the field for a long time say the same. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I used to have five or six coffees a day,” Michael Sadler, who helped develop the barista education program at Toby’s Coffee, says. “Now I do two,” he says, both because of the caffeine-induced anxiety and the withdrawal headaches he would get on his days off.

4. OR THEY’RE DRINKING … SOMETHING ELSE.

Like any job, there are things that go on in coffee shops that the boss would definitely not approve of. According to one barista who has worked at both a corporate coffee chain and specialty cafes in Delaware and New York, coffee shops can get pretty rowdy behind-the-scenes. “If you see a barista with a lidded cup behind the bar, there's probably a 50/50 chance: It's either coffee or beer,” he says. “You never know.” And it’s not just the booze, either. “I’ve been a part of secret menus that have cannabis-infused coconut milk,” he explains. “I had a pretty good cappuccino.”

5. THEY GET ANNOYED WHEN YOU SKIP THE PLEASANTRIES.

You don’t want to hold up the line telling a barista your life story at 7 a.m., but even if you’re in a hurry, don’t forget to say hi before you jump into demanding that large coffee. “Walking up to somebody and saying 'Almond latte,' when they just said 'How are you today?' is probably the biggest thing you can do to get on a barista's bad side,” Toby's Coffee's Sadler says. “It's like, exchange pleasantries, then get to business.”

6. IF YOU’RE NOT NICE TO THEM, THEY WON’T BE NICE TO YOU.

Not everyone is super perky in the morning, but if you can’t be civil, you’re better off making your own coffee at home. At some places, if you get snippy with the employees, you’re going to get worse than furtive eye rolls between baristas (though you’ll get that, too).

“Be nice to your baristas, or you get decaf,” warns one barista. While it varies from cafe to cafe, multiple baristas told Mental Floss that it happens. Rude customers might get three letters written on their cup: “They call it DTB—‘decaf that bitch.’”

There’s a less potent way a barista can get back at you, too. If the hole in your coffee lid lines up with the seam of your paper cup, you’re going to get dripped on. And sometimes, it’s not an accident. “When a barista puts the mouth on the seam, they want it to leak on you,” a New York City-based barista explains.

Others are a little more forgiving of rude patrons. “I like making them the best drink that they've ever had, just to kill them with kindness,” one coffee shop employee says. “I don't want them to be like, ‘She’s a bad barista.’” Just to be safe, though, it's better to be nice.

7. THEY PROBABLY KNOW WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU DO.

“The longer you work in coffee, the more when someone walks in the door you read their personality type and say, I know exactly what you're going to drink,” Jared Hamilton, a self-described “espresso wizard” at the Brooklyn-based chain Cafe Grumpy, says. When I ask him to predict my drink, he proves his skills. “What you're going to drink is like, an alternative milk, flat white or cappuccino. So maybe soy, probably almond. Nonstandard. You don't want a lot of milk, just enough.” He’s not too far off—my go-to is, in fact, a non-standard, some-milk-but-not-too-much drink, a decaf cappuccino, though I drink regular milk in it. He points to another festival visitor who is dressed in business attire. "That guy right there, he drinks espresso all day," he guesses.

Depending on the coffee shop, the barista might know what customers want more than they do. Dominique Richards, who started her first barista job in Brooklyn three months ago, says she has to order for her customers around a third of the time. “Usually if someone's looking at the menu for more than 30 seconds, I jump in and say, ‘Hey, what would you like?’” She then asks them a few questions, like whether they want hot or cold coffee, and goes from there, often recommending lattes for people who are just getting into specialty coffee. “It's kind of a learning experience for the majority” of her customers, she says.

8. CUSTOMERS CAN BE REALLY PARTICULAR.

“People treat cafes like they're [their own] kitchen,” according to Cafe Grumpy’s Hamilton. “My favorite thing people do is when they walk in and they rearrange the condiment bar. Then they order, then they go use the condiments.” Apparently, some people are really particular about the location of their sugar packets. And if you throw off their routine, watch out. One of his colleagues describes a customer who threw a fit because the shop didn’t have a cinnamon shaker, demanding a refund for both her coffee and her pastry. (They eventually found some cinnamon for her.)

9. YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER DUMP EXTRA COFFEE STRAIGHT INTO THE TRASH.

Even if you ask for room for milk in your drip coffee, the cup is still sometimes just a bit too full. It’s tempting to just pour a little into the trash can, but whoever has to take out that garbage is going to pay for it. “Please don't pour it in the garbage,” Bluestone Lane barista Marina Velazquez pleads. “Because at the end of the night, it ends up on our feet.” If the shop doesn’t have a dedicated container for you to pour out your excess coffee, take it back to the counter and ask them to dump a bit in the sink. Your baristas will thank you.

10. MAKING ESPRESSO DRINKS ISN’T A ROTE SKILL.

When you’re waiting in line, it may look like baristas are doing the same thing over and over for dozens of drinks. But in fact, every order presents its own challenges.

“There's probably not an appreciation for how much a coffee can vary,” explains Katie Duris, a former barista of 10 years who now works as a wholesale manager at Joe Coffee. High-quality coffee is “really dynamic as an ingredient,” she says. Baristas “have to make micro adjustments all day long. You have to change the grind based on the humidity in the room or a draft or how much coffee is in your hopper—if it's an espresso machine—so they're tweaking all day long … good baristas are making adjustments all the time.”

11. IT’S PHYSICALLY TAXING.

Making espresso drinks all day long can wear you out, and not just because you’re on your feet all day. There are also repetitive stress injuries to consider. “There's physical wear and tear on your joints when you're a barista,” Birch's Hrabe says. He’s worked in coffee for 11 years, and says that tamping espresso shots (compressing the grounds before brewing) day after day has given him tennis elbow. “It's totally common for baristas,” he says.

In short, baristas are probably doing more work behind the bar than you give them credit for, whether it’s dealing with customers or actually making coffee. “Being a barista is fun, but it's hard work,” Bluestone Lane's Velazquez says. “Everybody should be a barista at least once. I think it teaches humility.”

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10 Secrets of Ski Instructors
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If you’ve spent this fall wearing shorts and sandals, you’re not alone: Temperatures have been warmer than average across the United States. But no matter how warm it is where you are, there’s still snow (and skiing) in the forecast somewhere. Before you hit the slopes this winter, check out these on-the-job secrets of ski instructors, from why they love bad weather to what they do during the summer.

1. THEY LOVE BAD WEATHER.

No one can control the weather, but ski instructors cross their fingers for frosty temperatures and heavy snowfall. “Ski instructors love cold, appalling winter weather because it so often results in big snowfalls and the skier's dream—velvety powder snow,” says Chalky White, a ski instructor and the author of The 7 Secrets of Skiing.

But big snowfalls don’t always happen, so ski instructors try to make the best of whatever weather they encounter on a given day. Tony Macri of Snow Trainers, a ski and snowboard training company based in Colorado and New Zealand, tells Mental Floss that the weather’s unpredictability makes ski instructing an adventure. “I never think that weather is disappointing,” he says. “It is what creates more challenge and mystery in every day, versus going back to your cubicle that always has the same florescent light shining down on you.”

2. SOME OF THEM HAVE A BEEF WITH SNOWBOARDERS.

Although some ski instructors also teach (and love) snowboarding, the majority of them try to stay away from snowboarders on the slopes, at least when they’re teaching. “[Snowboarders] tend to push all the fresh snow down the hill with their natural movements. Gets pretty frustrating!” justind99, a ski instructor in Quebec, writes in a Reddit AMA.

But other ski instructors have a more zen attitude when it comes to snowboarders and preach coexistence. “We are all here to have fun,” rbot1, a ski instructor in Salt Lake City, says in a Reddit AMA. “The snowboarder vs skier stigma does nothing but cause problems. Share the mountain!”

3. THEIR CERTIFICATION PROCESS IS INTENSE.

Ski instructor teaching adults

Depending on the country in which they become certified, ski instructors must take classes and pass a series of tests to prove their proficiency. In the U.S., the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI) establishes certification requirements for instructors. Once instructors become certified, they can take additional tests of their technical skills to earn higher levels of certification.

“Level 1 is pretty easy to get. Anyone that can ski a blue square comfortably can pass a level 1 exam,” rbot1 says. But achieving certification for higher levels is more challenging, requiring ski instructors to demonstrate their mastery of various turns, bump runs, and drills. “A single mistake in any of those runs nets you a fail,” says rbot1, who spent two years preparing for his Level 2 test. “These drills might be easy to complete, but you have to do it perfectly.”

4. THEY’VE SEEN SOME GNARLY ACCIDENTS.

Although some people think of skiing as a risky activity, ski instructors insist that, statistically, skiing is no more hazardous than many other sports. That said, most ski instructors have seen at least one nasty injury on the slopes, including broken legs and noses, concussions, and shoulder dislocations. “The worst injury I ever witnessed was a spinal fracture from a kid landing on his back after attempting to do a jump in the snow park area,” justind99 says.

“I have seen some injuries to knees, but the worst was when a friend concussed himself so bad that he was knocked out and was actually sleeping with his eyes open,” Macri says. White tells Mental Floss that a helicopter once picked him up from the slopes because medics suspected that he’d broken his neck. “Good news—I didn’t."

5. THEIR PAY ISN’T GREAT.

The income ski instructors make can vary widely, based on where they teach and their level of expertise. Some instructors earn $10 or $11 an hour for group lessons but charge more for private lessons or longer coaching sessions. While most beginning ski instructors may make just $20,000 per year, the perks of getting paid to ski outweigh the lack of cash for many instructors. “I do understand that at some point I’ll need to either start working really hard to boost my earning potential as an instructor or find another field,” rbot1 says. “For now, it’s a blast.”

6. THEY GET CREATIVE TO TEACH KIDS.

Ski instructor teaching children

A group of young kids bundled up in ski jackets while they try to balance on narrow skis might look adorable, but teaching children to ski comes with plenty of challenges. “Some kids don't have the muscles to do it at [a young] age and some do,” explains inkybus21, a ski and snowboard instructor who has taught in Canada, Australia, and Japan. To make sure his young students don’t lose interest or give up, he makes up games that require various skiing motions and uses visuals to help kids figure out how to properly use their bodies.

7. THEIR EQUIPMENT IS EXPENSIVE.

Ski equipment can be pricey, and ski instructors know the pain of an empty wallet firsthand. From skis and boots to bindings, poles, helmets, goggles, and other accessories, ski instructors can easily spend over $1000 on their equipment. And because their gear gets more use than a casual skier’s, instructors typically go through a pair of skis, boots, and liners each season. But many instructors are eligible for steep discounts on their gear, thanks to their employer or their PSIA-AASI membership. “I haven't bought anything at retail price in years,” rbot1 says. “I can’t even imagine paying full price for a pair of boots or ski/binder set up.”

8. THEY MISS SKIING DURING THE SUMMER.

In a career dependent on the winter season, what do ski instructors do during the summer? Some of them travel to the opposite hemisphere to work at a ski resort—essentially working two winters in a row. But because it can be costly to travel and live on another continent, most ski instructors work odd jobs or use their savings to rock climb and explore the outdoors in the off season. Rbot1, for example, has spent his summers working at a ski resort’s restaurant, boxing fish at an Alaskan processing plant, and living off of his savings. “Most people have a seasonal job. The most popular is raft guiding, the second most popular is working at a state park,” he says.

9. THEY GREATLY APPRECIATE TIPS.

Ski instructors don’t always receive tips from their students, and they wish more people knew that they welcome—and in some cases, expect—gratuity. Rbot1 recounts the story of how he once earned $1500, his biggest tip to date, after instructing a family of four for five days, taking them to different parts of the mountain and even eating lunch with them. “At the end of the week it was all hugs and smiles, but my hand was left dry,” he says. “Anyways, next day I got an email that said ‘you have a tip in the office’ and BOOM $1500 in an envelope.” Rbot1 made good use of the generous tip, paying two months of rent and car payments, as well as buying new ski goggles and gloves.

10. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE OVERCOME THEIR FEARS.

Although skiing is good exercise and an enjoyable winter activity, learning to ski can also help people feel more confident. “It’s not always about skiing and teaching people to be the best skiers,” Macri says. “A lot of [the job] is just about showing people a good time and helping them achieve their goals or overcoming their fears.”

Macri particularly appreciates the amazing views from the top of a mountain, as well as the feeling he gets when he takes students down a great run and everyone high-fives one another in joy. “I sit back and think this is my office and I am having just as amazing [a] time as everyone else. The only difference is that I am getting paid for it,” he says.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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