On Final: Pressure to Perform – Airplane

On Final: Pressure to Perform – Airplane

Pressure to Perform – in the airplane, that is. As owner pilots, we feel it from time to time. Departing through building thunderstorms, to get home for the kids basketball game. Launching in low vis conditions with no suitable takeoff alternate because of a family emergency. Flying all night, to be ready for the big business deal.
But no group feels it like professional pilots. In many cases, their jobs hang in the balance. Those that fly freight in awful weather, knowing that if they refuse, the next guy in line will go. Those that depart with a “strange noise” from the left engine because the airplane just has to be there on time. And those that try to land in Aspen at night, after curfew, with the boss in the cockpit admonishing them to push on.
Recently, I had a front row seat to see the “pressure to perform” in an airline environment.
Sitting at the gate in a major hub waiting for my evening flight home, I heard this announcement from the agent at the next gate. “Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. The Captain is refusing to take the aircraft due to maintenance issues. He is on the phone with our maintenance base, who say the aircraft is fine. So, we have a disagreement here and as soon as we work this out, we will be ready to go.”
There was an audible gasp from about 150 people. I was stunned. Several passengers headed for the bar. The agent had just created a massive public conflict between pilot, passengers, and the airline. Her comments were so unprofessional, I transcribed them on my phone.
A few minutes later, she says, “The airplane is fine. We are finding another crew that will take you to your destination.”
The airplane was not fine.
The Captain emerged from the jet bridge and was immediately surrounded by worried passengers. “Is the airplane safe?” they said. Calmly, he said, “There are un-resolved issues. It is our first priority, and my job, to make sure you are safe.” He was visibly shaken. The agent grabbed the microphone at her stand and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not listen to the Captain. He is now timed out of his duty hours and should be on the bus headed for the hotel.”
This was getting interesting. I moved a little closer to hear more.
Soon, several senior passenger service guys wearing sport coats arrived and urged the Captain to step behind some closed doors. No yelling, but very tense. A senior agent spoke to the now extremely concerned passengers. “Ladies and gentlemen, we now have a totally different airplane with a new crew that will be here soon to take you home.” The Captain headed back to the wounded ship as the dazed passengers followed the agent to a new gate. Everyone disappeared as if nothing had happened.
Twenty minutes later, the Captain and entire crew emerged from the airplane. They huddled together, still visibly distraught by what had transpired. I approached them. “Sir, I fly a Citation and just thought you should know what was said to the passengers about this situation.”
“One of our FMS’s failed,” he said. “There are moderate mountain waves over the Rockies and widespread weather over the east coast. I didn’t think we should take the airplane in this condition.” The co-pilot nodded in agreement. I listened.
Could this just have been a union versus management issue? Or simply a disgruntled flight crew? From the genuine looks on their faces, I don’t think so.
We all shook hands. It wasn’t necessary to say anything else.
Paid or not, we are all pilots in command. Sometimes, under pressure, we have to make tough decisions.
Fly safe.

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