A review of Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections

I have been doing a lot of flying lately.  In 2014 alone, I’ve flown across the Atlantic three times.  I also flew to Virginia to see my dad for the last time before he passed away last month and flew on a couple of European flights, too.  In the years prior to 2014, I took quite a few trips by plane.  It’s not so much that I enjoy flying; I really don’t.  It’s just that flying is faster than driving is and some of the places we’ve gone haven’t offered a better alternative.

When I saw Patrick Smith’s book, Cockpit Confidential,  I immediately decided to buy it.  I did this not knowing that Smith has had a popular column on Salon.com and Web site called Ask the Pilot.  For years, Smith, who has worked as a pilot since 1990, has been answering questions put to him by the masses.  He explains in his book that he has been passionate about airplanes since he was a young lad and made it his mission to get into the industry.  And so he has… but I think he’s also a very good writer.  I really enjoyed his book.

Filled with personal stories about his time as a pilot as well as informative articles on how airplanes and the airline industry works, Smith does a good job educating his readers.  The book also offers answers to questions people have sent in.  Not only are Smith’s answers interesting and informative, they are also very entertaining.

I got a kick out of reading about how even pilots get harassed by the TSA.  Smith writes a colorful anecdote about how one time, his knife– the same knife that was used on the very aircraft he was about to pilot– was confiscated by the TSA.  The reason?  It was serrated.  Smith explains that it was a stretch to call the knife serrated, but because the knife had little ridges on it, it was deemed unsafe.  This, even though the passengers in the first class and business cabins on his airplane would be using the same knife as they tucked into their in flight meals.

Smith also writes about how pilots and flight attendants have to be screened like you and I do…  but the folks who are hauling your suitcases, cleaning the planes, and stocking the galleys with food can come and go with a simple swipe of their ID cards.  Granted, Smith explains that they are always subject to being searched randomly, but they don’t have to deal with the same screening ordeals the rest of us do.  If you think about it, that’s a little unsettling.

Smith covers a huge range of topics, which is why his book runs for 320 pages.  But once you’re finishing reading it, you will be a lot better informed about all things pertaining to the airline industry.  He writes about how to become a pilot and how it’s not nearly as glamorous or well paying as it might seem; in 1990, when Smith got his first pilot job, he was getting a mere $850 a month.  He writes about the history of some of our best known airlines, many of which are no longer around.  Some of his commentary is hilariously snarky, too.  His comments about some of the ad slogans and cutesy names airlines give their planes are pretty funny.

If you’ve ever wondered how planes fly, Smith has you covered.  He offers a detailed explanation about how it’s possible to get a metal tube filled with thousands of pounds into the air.  He also explains how some “emergencies” aren’t really emergencies.  And he even dares to explain why Chesley Sullenberger’s landing on the Hudson River was not as impressive as it seemed.  Ever wanted to check out the cockpit?  You can, you know… not while the plane is flying, obviously, but before or after the flight.  You don’t have to be a kid, either.  Smith says a lot of pilots are kind of flattered when people express an interest in seeing their work space.  Just ask a flight attendant to find out if it’s okay.

I like non-fiction books, especially when they satisfy my curiosity about things I’ve always wondered about.  I have read a number of books by flight attendants, but Smith’s Cockpit Confidential is the first book I’ve read by a pilot.  He did a great job demystifying the airline industry for me.  I would definitely recommend Cockpit Confidential to anyone who has ever been curious about the airline industry.  I also think it’s good reading for anyone who has ever considered a career in aviation.


Ever wonder what it’s like to be a flight attendant?

I posted this review of Heather Poole’s 2012 book, Cruising Altitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet on Epinions in 2012.  Since I am currently reading a book about air travel, I decided it makes sense to repost my review of Poole’s tales of life as a flight attendant here on my travel blog.  I must say, any glamour I thought existed in the world of flight attendants has now vanished.


Ever wonder what it’s like to be a flight attendant?

 Jun 26, 2012 (Updated Jun 26, 2012)
Review by    is a Top Reviewer on Epinions in Books
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:You may not look at flight attendants the same way again.

Cons:Maybe a couple of slow spots.

The Bottom Line:This book didn’t crash and burn.

I love a good tell-all, especially when it’s about professions I’ve wondered about.  There are lots of people out there who have interesting jobs and I’m always grateful to those who choose to write about their work for curious readers like me.  Though I have read a few books about flight attendants, I know that flight attendants have one of those jobs that always spins interesting tales.  And every flight attendant no doubt has a million stories to tell about what it’s like to fly the friendly skies with the crazy, crabby, or crotchety, whether they’re passengers, pilots, or fellow flight attendants.  That’s why I knew I had to read Heather Poole’s 2012 book, Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.  This book is available for download or in paperback.

Becoming a flight attendant is difficult…

Next time you’re sitting on an airplane, watching the flight attendants wrestle the drink cart down the aisle, consider the fact that that person had to fight longer odds than most to score that job.  Poole goes into great detail about what it takes to become a flight attendant.  You might be surprised by how challenging it can be.  Indeed, Poole tried a time or two before the 1990s, when she got her first gig working for a now defunct charter airline.  Stepping up to her current job was quite challenging and required a grueling training course in a different city.  Poole spent weeks in a hotel and funded her incidental expenses on credit.According to Poole, it’s very easy to flunk out of flight attendant training.  In fact, she describes sort of a “here today, gone tomorrow” atmosphere.  One day a man or a woman would be in training with her.  The next day, they’d be gone, never to be seen or heard from again.

Being a flight attendant is difficult…

More than just sky hosts or hostesses passing out drinks and snacks, flight attendants are responsible for saving lives.  And while they’re protecting your life, they have to look their best, wearing shoes with at least a one inch heel and, if they’re female, tastefully applied makeup.Flight attendants don’t get paid until the doors on the aircraft have closed and the flight is pulling away from the gate.  That means that when they’re greeting you as you come aboard, they aren’t getting paid.  Moreover, according to Poole, flight attendants don’t make munch money at all.  Consequently, they tend to share “crashpads”, basically a house or an apartment used just for sleeping.  Poole was based in New York City and shared a “crashpad” in Crew Gardens with dozens of different people, some of whose names she never learned.  Her first crashpad was a house owned by a Brazilian guy who did some shady business on the side.  For the privilege of sleeping at the Brazilian’s house, Poole, along with many of her colleagues, paid about $150 a month.Of course, flight attendants have to endure their share of abuse, whether it be from disgruntled passengers, lecherous pilots, or crazy co-workers.  Poole offers anecdotes aplenty about passengers who have demanded her name so they could report her to the airline authorities.  She writes a story of a fellow flight attendant who had to be escorted off the aircraft in handcuffs.

But being a flight attendant has its advantages, right?

Heather Poole was attracted to her career because it meant getting to see the world on the cheap.  But– not so fast– it turns out that it can take awhile before a flight attendant ever gets a chance to see Paris.  Flight attendants on international routes tend to have a lot of seniority, which, according to Poole, is everything.  Flight attendants who don’t have a lot of seniority tend to get stuck with the crappy jobs and the suckiest routes.  And they may very well get fed up and quit before they ever see sunny Barcelona or Buenos Aires!Despite all that, Poole says that flying is now in her blood.  She’s been doing her job for over fifteen years and even got her mom to join up.  And as much as I hate dealing with obnoxious people and nursing sore feet, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy at what Poole describes as an exciting but chaotic life.

My thoughts

I really enjoyed reading Cruising Attitude, almost as much as I did Elliot Hester’s similar book, Plane Insanity, which, back in 2004, I described as the funniest book I had read in a long time.  Though Poole’s book has some funny moments, I wouldn’t describe this book as a humor book.  She takes the time to explain how the airline industry works, particularly post 9/11.Actually, as exciting and fun as it sounds to be able to jet off to different cities around the world, Poole makes being a flight attendant sound kind of like a bad deal.  When she first got started, Poole’s salary was about $18,000 a year, before taking about $800 to pay for her uniforms.  For that $18,000,  she got to put up with a lot of crap as she practically starved!  Poole made friends, but watched a lot of them walk away from the job and, consequently, her life.OverallPoole’s writing is, for the most part, very engaging.  There are a few slower spots in the book, but I mostly enjoyed reading about her experiences as a flight attendant.  Poole seems like the kind of person I would like to get to know.  I found her book hard to put down and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in learnning about what it takes to be a flight attendant.  Interested in learning more?  Check out Heather Poole’s blog… http://hpoole.wordpress.com/

Recommend this product? Yes


WestJet pilot gets offensive note from passenger…

Yesterday, I was reading Yahoo! when I came across an article about a female pilot for WestJet who received a sexist note from a passenger who took issue with her gender.  The passenger berated the pilot, Carey Smith Steacy, a Canadian pilot with 17 years of experience, for being in the cockpit.  Apparently, this guy thinks she’d be better off at home, barefoot, pregnant, and cooking dinner for a man.  The offending note was written on a napkin and accused the pilot of “vanity”, since we need more mothers than pilots.

The pilot handled the asshole passenger with class, writing an open letter back, hoping he was joking.  Frankly, I think it’s too bad no one invited the passenger to deplane mid flight.  What a sexist jerk.  I’m sure the world of aviation is still heavily populated with men, but there’s no reason why a woman couldn’t do the job.  And Steacy has certainly proven she is capable.

It’s so scary that there are people in the world who still hold the view that women only belong in the kitchen, especially in a western society.  The note writer said he’d wished he’d known she was at the helm, so he could have booked another flight.  Because goodness knows, it’s much more important that the occupants of the cockpit have a cock than a clean safety record.  Sheesh!  What an idiot.


Delta Airlines changes their frequent flyer program…

You gotta love corporate spin.  This morning, I got an email from Delta Airlines explaining that they were changing their frequent flyer program so that people would be rewarded based on the amount they paid for their tickets rather than the number of miles they fly.  Naturally, they made this sound *awesome*, even though it basically rewards business flyers because they tend to pay more for their tickets.  Now you have to spend at least $2500 a year on tickets in order to reach the lowest tier of their medallion program.

For me, personally, this is not a huge deal.  Although I usually try to fly Delta because their miles don’t expire, I know I’ll never have a lot of miles.  I mostly joined the program so I might not have to board in zone four.

Of course other airlines are watching how people react to this news.  Along with all the other hassles and indignities of flying, this is yet one more way to stick it to consumers.  Flying is expensive and annoying, but it does shorten travel time and, in many cases, is the only practical way you can get somewhere.  I’m surprised they offer any rewards, given how uncomfortable and unpleasant flying can be.  Frequent flyer miles are really just a gimmick to make you think you’re getting something for your business.  What the airlines really want you to do is sign up for credit cards so they can make more money.

Anyway, this is not good news for bargain hunters who like to fly.  For me, it’s probably business as usual.