The main reason we ask you to send in your questions for our team — we end up hearing questions we’d never think of ourselves! Today’s user selected topic: Are flight attendants trained to land planes?
As you may already know, flight attendants are not just there to serve you peanuts and drinks. They are highly trained professionals who play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of all passengers on board. But can they land a plane in case the pilots become incapacitated?
First off, we can see where this question has come from. After all, some airlines require two people to be in the cockpit at all times — so typically a flight attendant sits in the cockpit whilst one pilot takes a comfort break. Equally, we also understand many nervous fliers are looking for reassurance as to what would happen incase both pilots fall unwell!
It also features in the fictional plot of the 1997 movie, Turbulence, where a flight attendant is talked through a landing… So, what about real life?
In this article, we’ll explore the answer, and the reasons behind the decisions airlines have made.
… But they can be useful!
Just because flight attendants aren’t trained to land aircraft, doesn’t mean that they are completely helpless in case of a pilot-related emergency!
Cabin crew are trained to help out whenever one pilot becomes ill or incapacitated in any way. They have specialist training in how to operate the pilots seats and harnesses, to remove them from the controls without interrupting the flight.
In addition, the aviation industry is a small place. Plenty of wannabe pilots have spent time gaining experience in the industry — often as flight attendants — whilst looking for a career break or whilst undertaking their flying training.
I know flight attendants who have a keen interest in aviation outside of work, and have some light aircraft flying experience. So, although there isn’t mandatory training, there’s a chance your flight attendants are slightly more qualified to land the aircraft than you think!
Highlighting this point, back in 2008, an Air Canada 767 was helped to land by a flight attendant after the co-pilot had a breakdown mid-flight! Although it turns out that “helpful” flight attendant was a trained commercial pilot! So could ably take up the co-pilot’s seat, and provide plenty of assistance to the Captain.
Why aren’t they trained?
It’s a nice idea in theory — if one of the pilots keels over, there’s always a backup in the form of ably trained cabin crew! At a glance, it seems like a good idea. In reality, it’s an argument that doesn’t stack up.
Here are three of the biggest problems…
1. Training and salary costs
First, the training required to become a pilot is both extensive, and expensive! Pilots undergo at least two years of rigorous training, and must meet strict ongoing criteria to be qualified to operate an aircraft.
In contrast, flight attendants typically undergo a much shorter and less intense training program that focuses primarily on safety and customer service from the other side of the cockpit door.
To train flight attendants to the level of a pilot would require a significant investment of time and resources, which airlines simply cannot justify. And if airlines were willing to pay for the additional training and salary for a multitasking flight attendant — surely they could just employ an additional pilot?
2. Varied accidents
Furthermore, the types of accidents and emergencies that can occur on a flight are incredibly varied and unpredictable. For any nervous fliers, that might sound like a bad thing, but I can assure you it’s not! The reason commercial airline accidents and emergencies follow very limited patterns is precisely because they are so rare — there are not enough crashes to spot any real trends.
Because there are so few accidents in the United States relative to the number of flights, focusing safety programs on accidents alone addresses only a small fraction of potential accidents and is reactive rather than proactiveImproving the Continued Airworthiness of Civil Aircraft
While it may be possible to train flight attendants to handle a few specific scenarios, such as a sudden loss of cabin pressure, it’s impossible to prepare them for every possible situation that could arise.
For this reason, airlines focus on providing comprehensive training to pilots, who are better equipped to handle complex emergencies and make critical decisions in the cockpit.
3. Aircraft types
Finally, another factor to consider is that flight attendants typically work onboard multiple types of aircraft. Flight attendants at large airlines with a varied fleet may operate different sized aircraft, made by different manufacturers, over both longhaul and shorthaul all in one week.
The ability for flight attendants to work on multiple aircraft types increases an airlines’ efficiency, and helps massively with covering all the work.
In contrast, pilots are solely trained to operate a specific make and model of plane, by undertaking an in-depth course known as a Type Rating. On this side of the cockpit door, differences between aircraft are significantly larger than in the cabin.
So if airlines were to provide flight attendants with a type of specialised training required to land a plane safely in an emergency, it would only be on one aircraft at a time. This means airlines would also have to totally change the way they roster flight attendants, having individual flight attendants specialising in only one aircraft type.
In conclusion, flight attendants are not routinely trained to operate aircraft — either manually, or via specialist procedures to give them enough knowledge to enable an automatic landing.
Instead, airlines focus on providing comprehensive training to pilots, who are better equipped to handle complex emergencies and make critical decisions in the cockpit.
However, flight attendants onboard an aircraft are far from useless in a cockpit emergency. If one pilot becomes incapacitated, flight attendants have plenty of first aid and pilot incapacitation training to ensure that the other pilot can safely continue the flight.
Equally, some flight attendants have flying experience on both commercial and light aircraft. You might be surprised at just how qualified your cabin crew are.