For Pax Sake

Beyond-the-basics tips for making your passengers comfortable

April 1, 2012


April 2012
Turbine Pilot Contents

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

Once you’ve stepped up to flying turbine airplanes, it’s time to start flying like a true professional pilot—in all aspects. Air traffic controllers are expecting it of you, as are your co-pilot(s)(if applicable) and, of course, the passengers—who may be the people paying your bills.

Smoothness is an obvious sign of a professional. Pilots who are jerky on the controls and quickly push and pull the power levers are like riding in a car with someone who alternatively stabs the brake and gas pedals while twitching the steering wheel back and forth. These types of habits present an aura of nervousness and lack of confidence in your ability. If you were a passenger, would you like to fly with someone who flew as if every yoke movement was to correct an error of his own making? No thanks.

To me, outside of the obvious nod to safety, the most important thing you can do to make your flight as enjoyable as possible is to be smooth—in everything. That means smoothness on the controls, brakes, and power levers—to the point that the passengers notice nothing. They are there to quickly get to their destination while working, sleeping, or conferencing in the back. If every time you come to a stop on the taxiway, all of the passengers’ heads nod forward, then back, it’s a distraction—likely an annoyance—to them. Transitions to or from climb, cruise, and descent should be so smooth that passengers only notice the change in engine noise—which itself should be done smoothly, of course.

Automated warnings

Despite being seasoned travelers, your passengers will get uneasy when they see a wing pointing to the ground from their window seats. Worse is if they hear, “Bank angle” coming from the cockpit’s enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS). So limit the bank angles to 25 degrees or less when able, and no more than 30 at all times. The other warnings that EGPWS emits are even bigger no-nos for passengers to hear, such as, “Terrain—Pull up” or “Too low—Gear.” Keep your head in the game so you and your passengers never hear these warnings.

Traffic warnings are another thing that will get your passengers’ ears perked up. Today’s modern TCAS and more advanced TCAD systems provide aural warnings over the speakers in the cockpit, and they are plenty loud enough to hear in the back. If you’re climbing or descending toward traffic, reduce your vertical speed to 1,000 feet per minute or less to prevent this alarm from going off. The passengers in your airplane—as well as those in the target airplane—will appreciate it.

Go down/slow down tricks

Use of the speed brakes is another thing to avoid if possible. In most jets, speed brakes or spoilers can cause quite a bit of rumbling and shaking. When able, I like to set a lower descent speed of 270 to 280 knots (traffic flow permitting). If ATC issues a last-minute crossing restriction or needs me to pick up my descent rate, I can simply push the nose over and accelerate to as much as 330 knots to catch up with the revised descent path—without having to use the wing shakers.

You can also program the FMS with an exaggerated tailwind component in order to trick the box into thinking it needs to start down earlier. Closer to the airport, I prefer to simply lower the landing gear rather than use speed brakes to slow to approach speed. The “rubber speed brake” is much more effective and doesn’t shake the airplane.

Some general guidelines will keep your descent planning ahead of the airplane, and keep your passengers from getting rousted by the spoilers. Plan to be 30 miles from the airport at 250 KIAS and 10,000 feet agl. At 10 miles, plan to be at 3,000 feet. Of course, some airplanes descend/slow down better than others, so adjust accordingly. Approaching high-altitude airports, 250 KIAS results in a much higher groundspeed, so a slower-than-normal airspeed in the terminal area of high altitude airports may be appropriate.

For pax sakeAutomation

Autopilots are one of the greatest tools for pilots; however, at times they can be aggressive on the controls without a little pilot intervention or creativity. Most autopilots have increased sensitivity when capturing a localizer. When being vectored to a localizer at the standard 30-degree intercept heading, the autopilot may aggressively roll the airplane into the turn to capture it, especially when there’s a strong tailwind. To avoid this, I like to have the airplane capture the runway’s extended centerline using LNAV (GPS), which is a much smoother transition and automatically accounts for tailwinds. Just don’t forget to switch back to the Approach mode as you get closer to the runway.

This trick is also handy when ATC has you join the localizer many miles out, where the signal is weak. Autopilots will aggressively track the LOC, often hunting back and forth, until a better signal is received closer to the airport. LNAV tracks a nice straight line so your passengers aren’t subjected to the zigging and zagging.

Fancier airplanes are equipped with autothrottles, some better than others. In turbulent conditions or in mountain waves, some of these systems try too hard to maintain an assigned speed and may be constantly sawing back and forth in their effort to nail that number. It’s often smoother and more comfortable to click off the autothrottles and allow airspeed to wander up and down a little as long as there’s a comfortable margin between stall speed and max Mach. If the margin is too small, descend to make it bigger and give yourself some wiggle room.

Environmental systems

Getting a handle on the quirks of your airplane’s environmental systems is critical to keeping passengers happy. Sometimes an index line drawn on the panel with a grease pencil can help you find the sweet spots on your temperature control knobs for quick reference. This is especially helpful if you fly many different airplanes in a fleet, for example. The reference marks left by a previous crew can provide quick guidance and, since it’s a grease pencil, the mark can be removed later.

Try not to “fly” the environmental systems if it’s automatic. If nobody’s complaining, the temperature is likely just fine. But as a general rule, consider that people who have just boarded tend to be warmer after dragging their bags through the FBO or terminal. Once settled in, the passengers tend to cool off and may require the cabin to warm up a few degrees. At altitude, automated systems do a pretty good job of maintaining a set temperature, but the minus-45-
degree outside air temperature may seep through the airplane’s skin in spots, so a degree or two bump may be warranted. Once on the ground, especially in warmer climates, start cooling off the cabin in anticipation of the disembarking drama that’s about to come.

Some airplanes have passenger-controlled cabin temperature selectors. Putting temperature control in the hands of passengers may eliminate a source of cockpit distraction, but often passengers overshoot the sweet spot, creating wild swings in temperature. Thankfully, there’s a cockpit override. As we all know from having thermostat battles in our homes, some people’s perception of temperature may be far different from yours. But getting to know how your airplane’s environmental system reacts can greatly increase the comfort of your passengers.


Operationally, there are several things you can do to minimize the airplane’s exposure to adverse weather conditions. On those windy days after a cold front has blown through, turbulence can be brutal at altitudes below about 6,000 feet. Put off descending into those altitudes as long as possible, and slow down, too. When climbing on departure, climb at your airplane’s best rate of climb to minimize the amount of time spent in the worst turbulence. At jet climb rates you can be out of it in just a few minutes. Put off accelerating to your typical climb speed until clear of the turbulence.

I always found it best to brief the boss on expected crummy weather before the flight, in order to get an idea of where he/she would like to go in case of a divert. Some alternates may be fine and legal for us as pilots but lack the amenities that the folks in the back need, such as rental cars or a conference room at an FBO for that revised meeting location. Conferring with the boss on the ground before a flight will eliminate distracting, on-the-fly changes to the flight plan.


When talking to passengers, try not to use jargon and trite phrases. I cringe whenever I hear, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.” That phrase should be buried for eternity. Unless your passengers are pilots too, telling them that cruising “at the ATC-assigned altitude of three eight oh and four hundred knots” and parking at gate “Bravo Four Niner” just makes you sound like, well, a pilot. Use normal terminology that people can understand. “We are level at 38,000 feet and traveling 460 mph. We are expecting to park at gate B, as in Bravo, 49. Expect some bumps [not turbulence] on the descent once we get below the clouds.”

Some airports may require a special briefing to ease passenger fears. When departing the John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, for example, a warning about the steep climb and subsequent power reduction to meet the strict noise-abatement criteria will cue your passengers in to a departure that definitely is not normal.

Pete Bedell is a Boeing 737 first officer for a major airline and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.