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Cockpit Confidential: Insider Secrets and Advice from an Airline Pilot

Airline travel is a hassle, a miracle, exhausting, and exhilarating. Commercial pilot Patrick Smith has demystified the experience—from where to sit to what that racket is just after you land—in his new book.

(Nikolai Sorokin/Dreamstime)

You might say that Patrick Smith knows a thing or two about air travel. He flies jets for a major carrier and has been a professional pilot for more than 20 years; he is the host of askthepilot.com and for 10 years wrote Salon.com's column Ask the Pilot. His new book, Cockpit Confidential, answers travelers' most pressing questions—including advice about the best seats for jittery fliers, explanations of disturbing events like turbulence and iffy landings, and the lowdown on the overall safety of flying.

I caught up with Smith recently and posed some of my own most pressing questions to him—I hope they reflect what you're most curious about, too. Here, his answers along with some tidbits from Cockpit Confidential, a fun, informative read that I highly recommend.

Get your kids a cockpit visit

Smith reminds us, "Many people wrongly assume that the cockpit is entirely off limits. This isn't so. Cockpit visits are welcome while the plane is parked at the gate, either before or after the flight. Provided things aren't too busy, we're usually more than happy to have a guest stop by. It's flattering when somebody takes that much interest in what we do. And this isn't just for kids. If you've never seen a cockpit up close before, and you're curious, come on up. For nervous flyers, a chat with the crew and a look around is often reassuring. Be sure to ask a flight attendant first, but nine times in ten it won't be any problem."

The best seats for jittery fliers

While Smith doesn't idly dispense "tips," he does offer solid advice for passengers on those topics he's most qualified to speak about. "If you're a fearful flyer bothered by turbulence and/or engine noise," he says, "avoid sitting in the rearmost rows. It's noisier in the back, and the aircraft tends to sway more during spells of rough air. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference, but the smoothest seats are usually those over the wings."

Advice for the truly fearful

The good news is that fearful fliers are not alone. "The first thing to keep in mind is that everybody is on some level afraid of flying," Smith says. "This is normal, whether you're a first-timer or an annual million-miler. The problem is when this fear becomes irrational and unmanageable. Often in such cases, no amount of statistics or straight talk from a pilot are going to make a difference, and what's really needed is professional counseling. For some people, one thing that helps is a "dry run" prior to the day you plan to fly. Take a trip out to the airport and go through the motions, familiarizing yourself with the process. Walk through the terminal, watch some airplanes take off and land, etc. Many of the most stressful aspects  of flying—long lines, noise, etc.—take place on the ground, long before you're actually on the plane, and this is a way of priming yourself for these hassles. Another good idea, of course, is to get yourself a copy of Cockpit Confidential."

What's the deal with airline food?

Smith reminds us that though the topic might still be ripe for stand-up routines, airline food has greatly improved. "On shorter flights, the old plastic trays and beef-or-chicken entree options have been replaced by buy-on-board options. Usually it's a sandwich or wrap of some kind, and they tend to be decent. On long-haul flights, full catered meals are still the norm, and frankly they are a lot tastier than people give them credit for. And if you're fortunate enough to be in first or business class, of course, long-haul meal presentations are often exceptionally good, with four or more gourmet courses and a carefully selected wine list. The more prestigious carriers—Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, British Airways, et al.—take their catering very seriously. Some Turkish Airlines flights carry an on-board chef who prepares and supervises the business class meals. U.S. airlines, to their credit, have markedly improved their service standards over the past few years. This includes better food and drink options in both economy and premium classes, in some cases rivaling the better European, Asian, and Middle Eastern airlines."

Spanning the globe on one tank

Over the years, Smith's readers have asked what plane has the longest range. The answer is the Boeing 777-200LR, which can cover a staggering 9,000 nautical miles without refueling, making it possible to connect just about every major city on earth via nonstop flights. He also notes that the longest scheduled flights offered by major carriers are less than 8,000 miles and include flights from Australia to Texas and from Texas to the Middle East.

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