The often untold story of private aviation is the relationship between pilots and passengers.
When you fly on a scheduled passenger airline flight, one of your pilots might be at the cockpit door to say a brief goodbye after you’ve landed and pulled up to the gate.
Once in a while, your pilot might come into the cabin before the flight to welcome you. Otherwise, the connection between passenger and pilot is left to listening to announcements from the cockpit over the speaker system.
On private jets, your pilot typically meets you in the FBO, greeting you, checking IDs and helping to ensure your bags are loaded.
They check to make sure you have transportation set when you get to your destination and verify that the correct catering has been loaded.
Once on board, one of your pilots will give you a brief safety demonstration if there is not a flight attendant. They will also show you where everything is located, and might even offer to fix you a drink or help organize catering when you are ready to eat.
However, one thing private jets and scheduled airline travel have in common is flight operations are subject to weather.
In private aviation, you’ll likely find out about possible delays because one of your pilots will come back to the passenger cabin to discuss what’s happening with you, and provide options.
If the interaction goes wrong, the results can be fatal. Pilots under pressure by their operator, passengers or even self-imposed can create dangerous situations.
Andrew Flaxman, founder of ExpertJet and a regional airline and private jet pilot recounts the adage, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. There are no old, bold pilots.”
He says, “Foremost, there isn’t one pilot out there that don’t value their lives.”
Still, he says, pressure, real or self-imposed, can weigh on decision-making.
“No matter the destination or mission, merely voicing to the crew, ‘take your time’ goes a long way,” he says.
“As corporate or charter pilots, we’ve learned that when passengers begin to rush, our mentality must be to slow down. This is always when mistakes happen.”
It’s not always easy. On a private jet, generally, one person is footing the bill. Repeat business is the key to prosperity. There is pressure to keep customers happy.
Flaxman points to the 2001 crash of a Gulfstream G-III on approach to Aspen after departing Los Angeles 41 minutes late and racing against a night curfew in Aspen.
Informed before takeoff about a potential diversion, the lead passenger had his assistant call the charter company to let them know he was upset. He was described in one report as being irate.
All eighteen passengers, including both pilots and flight attendant perished.
Flaxman says positive input from passengers to crew helps “prevent human emotions from interfering with any risk assessment of weather, or unsafe aircraft conditions.”
By contrast, he says, “Egging on the pilots is akin to forcing someone to drive drunk when they’ve expressed concern. “
If you are a guest or employee on the flight, you still should take note of aggressive behavior by your host.
“Most times the people who aren’t paying for the trip, won’t feel comfortable speaking up,” he says.
However, Flaxman recommends, “poking your head into the cockpit even before departure to reassure the crew that you and the rest of the passengers just want to get there safely.”
If you happen to be an assistant for a high-octane person and are worried that he or she might apply undue pressure, Flaxman says, “If you have concerns even before booking, it never hurts to let the broker or operator know what those are, and what solutions they can provide to mitigate those issues.”
I asked a former captain who has worked for both private individuals and a major fleet operator about his take on the crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter, the other passengers and the single pilot.
In terms of helicopters, he says, “Fly with two pilots whenever possible and always at night, or if the weather conditions look anything less than excellent.”
He says, “It is all to easy for a single pilot to become blinkered by pressure to perform a flight; a co-pilots’ primary role is to challenge the captain when safety is being breached.”
That’s also good advice in mind if you charter piston or turboprops as well.
Asking not to be named, he adds, “Never apply pressure to the crew to fly. This can be a balancing act especially…when a close relationship exists between the crew and the lead passenger.”
A good starting point is also making sure you are using an operator reputation with a top-notch reputation.
“The overwhelming golden rule is to make sure the (airplane) is managed by a respected management company that has a commercial Aircraft Operator Certificate (AOC). It is a critical safety net that the pilot is not the sole manager of the aircraft and there is a protection mechanism to allow a decision not to fly – to be made without discussion or argument from the lead passenger.”
NetJets pilots have a shield in that they can’t fly without permission from a licensed dispatcher operating out of its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. “Our owners pay us a lot of money to tell them no,” Don Wittke, its chief pilot told me when I visited last year.
Passengers should take an active interest in safety Flaxman says. “It’s incumbent upon the passengers to be somewhat informed about their surroundings as well. If there is inclement weather, directly question the pilots as to what concerns they may have about their departure airport and arrival airport conditions.”
He adds, “Is there snow or icing conditions for departure? If you didn’t see it happen yourself, make sure with the crew that they de-iced the aircraft. It never hurts to ask, even if the pilots are miffed.”
Elliott Mintzer, a pilot and president of Pilatus PC-12 operator Boomerang Air Charter, says good operators try to gain as much information as possible when the trip is being booked.
He says part of a safety culture is to find out why the customer is making the trip, and their flexibility in advance, so the provider can have alternatives in place if the weather becomes a factor.
“We try to always do the very best we can to explain the rules and regulations we are bound by to keep everyone safe. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to balance, there is a disappointment. But when people’s lives are on the line, we would rather lose a client or money finding them an alternative source of travel than to have an accident take place where it’s was tragic.”
Many charter passengers don’t understand duty limits and can think a pilot just doesn’t want to work more or wants to go home. Pilots are limited to 14 hours from the time they report in for duty when flying under Part 135 rules. Sometimes they were flying before they picked you up, repositioning the airplane.
Another private jet pilot tells me he has had passengers offer extra money when he has explained the crew is out of duty time.
Since trying to assess safety culture as a consumer can be difficult, buying into a jet card program with high safety standards or using an experienced charter broker who knows the operators is also good advice.
“If the pilot says, ‘I’m not sure we are going to be able to land in X tonight,’ telling him, ‘We’re happy to go whenever you think conditions are safe,’ will be greatly appreciated,” Flaxman says.
Either way, all private aviation pilots I spoke with say that highlighting that safety is your priority as a passenger helps underscore best practices.