Unprofessional Airmanship Redefined

By Robert Mark on May 6th, 2013

Remember when we called those two Northwest Airlines pilots who missed Minneapolis a few years back unprofessional because they were playing on their laptops instead of flying? We poked fun at them of course and well, no one was hurt … except for the pride of these two supposed professional aviators. But maybe we should have been tougher.

We talk a lot about professionalism these days, mostly because us old guys think many of the younger folks coming up the line don’t understand the meaning of the word. Perhaps they don’t because we’ve never taken the time to explain it … literally. I guess most of us never thought we needed to, but now I’m convinced that there are pilots jumping into some pretty large airplanes that seem completely unaware of their role as professional aviators.

A321Case in point is the Air India A321 on a recent flight between Bangkok and Delhi in which the two pilots actually left the cockpit of the aircraft within moments of each other at FL330, leaving command of the airliner in the hands of two non-pilot flight attendants. The pilots were both out of the cockpit for almost 40 minutes before one of the young flight attendants turned off the autopilot inadvertently and sent the two licensed aviators scurrying back up front. The two pilots as well as the two flight attendants were later suspended from work for their actions. None of the passengers knew what had happened until they read it in the newspapers.

To call this act unsafe is utterly too simplistic.

Despite the fact that most aviation accidents today are caused by pilot error, we’ve apparently reached a new low in professional pilot stupidity. What could possibly possess two high-time pilots to think that getting up mid-flight and leaving the fate of the 166 aboard to the two female seat monitors who were not even pilots was OK? My guess is this was not the first stupid decision these two made and more importantly, professionalism has nothing to do with the size of the aircraft someone flies.

Professionalism is a way of thinking about your work. Professionals don’t just understand the tasks they’re being paid to complete, they understand how all the pieces of everything in their profession fit together … and why. A professional (at least to me) understands the subtleties that produce a near perfect product or experience, whether that’s installing new carpeting in a home — clean up after yourselves and make sure everything fits before you leave — or flying an airplane near Virga — slow the airplane before you get too close since significant turbulence is highly probable. And professionals wear their label proudly because they don’t need someone to tell them what to study next or what rule to follow. They care enough to dive into their careers and learn because they want to be the best.

It’s not a surprise to me any longer that young workers require more precise instructions than we did growing up. I’ve seen it in my graduate students at Northwestern too. But why? Where did we fail them?

Is this need to hold their hands and to be told what to do and what not to do simply fallout from too much technology or is it decades of lousy, indulgent parenting skills coming back to roost?

How can we possibly be training aviators who know only enough to take orders? Maybe this is just about Air India, although I doubt it. I also doubt there is anything in the Air India cruise checklist cautioning pilots to, “Be certain at least one pilot remains on the flight deck at all times.” But do they really need that spelled out for them … literally? How can an airline or any aviation organization possibly compete in the world when employees think anything and everything is OK if there’s no specific rule against it?

If I ran a flight school training pilots today, I’d certainly want to have a chat about this incident, although the fact that we even need to have a chat about something like this simply belies the judgment we expect certificated aviators to display by the time they take a checkride. But of course, there is no checkbox on the flight test that says, “Pilot displays professional attitude in variety of situations.” Then what’s next … a rule that says, “Don’t crash the airplane before landing at the destination,” or ” you REALLY ARE responsible for all the people in back of the airplane so don’t screw up,” wink, wink?

Tell you one thing … you’d never get me on an Air India airplane … ever.

Somebody please tell me this is all just a bad dream.

Rob Mark, Publisher

Private Jet travel is more convenient and affordable than most people realize.


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32 Responses to “Unprofessional Airmanship Redefined”

  1. Ellen Says:

    “… leaving the fate of the 166 aboard to the two female seat monitors who were not even pilots was OK?”

    So it would have been fine were the seat monitors male?

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    I was reporting what was occurring … that the two people left in the cockpit were ladies. Guess I forgot the importance of being politically correct.

  3. Comrade Misfit Says:

    Let’s try it another way: The gender of the two FAs was as relevant to the point that you were trying to make as their shoe sizes, ethnicity or height.

  4. Robert Mark Says:

    Well said.

    So maybe we can even discuss the point of why four people of various sexes and job descriptions acted as if they were brain dead during the flight.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    So perhaps you have something relevant to add about the behavior of these four people and what it might say about how they viewed their jobs?

    Just wondering.

  6. Steve Rudin Says:

    The fact is the two pilots left the cockpit in the hands of people who are not authorized to fly the plane. That is the main point of the article, and should make us all very frightened. To fight over the wording is just silly. Maybe it should have said “two homo sapiens, of unspecified gender.”

  7. Ellen Says:

    Nah, just delete the ‘female’ from ‘female flight attendants’ and replace ‘seat monitors’ with ‘flight attendants’ – or cabin crew.

    However, there is another point that has crossed my mind while watching air crash documentaries. The communication between cockpit and cabin crew often seems patchy, and things that the pilots do need to know is neither conveyed nor asked for. Then there is this incident in which the cabin crew did not question the pilots, perhaps out of some misguided deference to a real or de facto hierarchy on airline staff. Perhaps some extension to the philosophy of crew resource management might be wise.

  8. Andrew Says:

    Apologize in advanced or any spelling or grammar errors, I’m writing this on my iPhone.

    This extreme focus on being PC is part of the problem. We focus so much on babying everyone, no ones prepared for the responsibility and failure of the real world! Don’t mark wrong answers with red ink, no more ‘honor rolls’ cause you’ll make the weaker students feel stupid, no more ‘losing’ teams in some youth sports, everyone gets a participation trophy, etc etc etc…. The newest generation is woefully unprepared what faces them in the real world. The crap I hear some kids pull in interviews is absolutely insane and would’ve been unheard of in the past. I could probably write a whole entry in and of itself if I kept going…

  9. Paul Berliner Says:

    I was in Mumbai last September as a 787 Flight Instructor for Air India and will be returning to Mumbai next week for another round of training. The crews I worked with were nothing short of professional and quite competent. The Indian Media is another story with every newspaper resembling The National Inquirer. That being said, I have no doubt that this story is rooted in fact and the event actually did transpire. The real facts, however, are most likely far from what was reported in the original news report. I will speak to their management when I arrive and try to get a more accurate picture of what really happened.

  10. Robert Mark Says:

    With that said Paul, I would have thought that if the stories were inaccurate for any reason, the Air India folks would have at least taken the time to refute the image they create … for their brand if nothing else.

    I’ve looked and found nothing. And this is certainly not the first piece of poor PR I’ve read in the past year with the blending of the Air India and Indian Airlines groups.

  11. Paul Berliner Says:

    Your observation is spot on Rob. The lack of response on the part of Air India is more an sign of their culture than anything else. Indians are numb to this sort of thing. Training in India was my most challenging assignment of my entire career. Nothing else even comes close….even taking small arms fire in Afghanistan!

  12. Ray Says:

    Despite the fact that most aviation accidents today are caused by pilot error…
    This still bothers me , so are all the Bus , Train & Auto Accidents which claim many more LIVES , No Big Deal Ever Made From This Group !!!

  13. Jamie Dodson Says:

    I thought your description of professionalism was correct to my way of thinking. But have we failed our young? And if so who has failed them? The tenants of professionalism must be inculcated early and who better than the parents? CFIs, teachers, and mentors can only build on the ethics and morals that the parents, or primary care giver if you like, provide. Your questions are valid and should be asked but I think I know where part of the blame lies.

  14. Jerry Morris Says:

    I flew for a major US carrier for 25 years and your comments are right and wrong.
    Carriers have been taking responsibilities away from Captains for many years. When I retired in 2004 it was basically call ops for anything you want to do. For instance, way back when a Captain would NEVER subject his passengers to an 8 hour sit on the ramp. It happened so often that our Congress had to get involved to stop it. Why? Because the Captain was told what to do in no uncertain terms.
    Does this create pilots who don’t care? You bet it does. Is this unprofessional? you bet it is, but the companies don’t want leaders in the left seat anymore, they want followers.
    It’s a sad state of affairs and I’m glad I’m out of it.

  15. JC Creighton Says:

    Back to original point. Saw loads of it at Large Training Corporation. New hires for E170 operators, for example: no interest at all in what went on in class. Perfectly happy to sit there with their computers and phones. Entreaties by instructor ignored. Couldn’t make instrument approaches in simulator. And couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t be spoon fed the procedures. Some would even blow off their company check pilots, as if a pilot shortage already existed. Unheard of in my day.

  16. Felipe Andrade Says:

    It remembers me of Aeroflot 593, when the pilots let the captain’s son (16 years old) take over the controls. From time to time, one or another forget that they are in an extremely hostile environment, and only professional airmanship could guarantee a safe flight.

  17. Angelo Lagonia Says:

    Lack of professionalism is not just relegated to India. I fly professionally in Honduras. In March on a very iffy MVFR day I was cleared to land right after another aircraft was cleared to back taxi on the runway I was cleared to land on and was told to hold in the holding area at the end of that runway. He was also told to expedite his back taxi as there was another aircraft on final, me. On short final I noticed that something was wrong with the view from my cockpit. That pilot had decided to just stop in the middle of the runway. When I queried the tower about what I was seeing the guilty pilot responded saying just go ahead and land, you’ve got plenty of room. Of course I did a go around while the tower read him the riot act. Just goes to show that like my grandfather used to say, “You just can’t fix stupid.”

  18. Planeman Says:

    Rob, you wrote:

    “….there are pilots jumping into some pretty large airplanes that seem completely unaware of their role as professional aviators.”

    Generally, I don’t disagree. The “bad apples” are still amongst us.

    However, I have to say that the younger generation is just like the older generation….it’s a mixed bag. I remember being a flight engineer for some extremely unprofessional pilots who would have made front page news had they been caught. OTOH, I presently fly with young people who are every bit as professional as the best of “our day”.

    Professionalism is not a generational thing. It’s an individual thing. Some are, some aren’t.



  19. Peri Says:

    Rob, you are right on that the pilots were absolutely derelict in their duties. And the flight attendants should have refused to do tasks they knew they weren’t qualified for.

    But I also have to agree with Ellen. You lose professionalism in writing and weaken your message when you describe the flight attendants, not just as “non-pilots”, not just as “young”, but as “female seat monitors”! Maybe the masculine arrogance implied here is part of the problem.

  20. Robert Mark Says:

    Boy Peri … Ellen really got you thinking about how important the sex of the employees was didn’t she? Actually she did me too, but I’m sorry I can only agree with her slightly … especially since other than pointing out the comments about sex, she had nothing relevant to add to the discussion.

    OK yes, the fact that the flight attendants were young ladies was not relevant … only the fact that they were employees just about as dumb as the pilots who supposedly convinced them to keep the seats occupied while those two highly-trained professionals a break.

    What masculine arrogance has to do with this topic though eludes me.
    This incident is about plain old stupidity to me … and I don’t think sex — as Ellen said last night — has anything to do with it.

  21. Larry M. Coleman Says:

    Mr. Mark, a large part of professionalism is the ability to admit when you’re wrong and take corrective action instead of stubbornly continuing down the wrong path. Another mark of a professional is being willing to take advice from someone besides yourself. Instead of whining about how everyone is being overly-PC, why not just delete the word “female”, which doesn’t add contribute anything useful to the work anyway?

    If you want to write about professionalism, you need to step up and be a professional yourself. Otherwise you’re like a captain flying a heading of 270 who criticizes his FO for pointing out that their assigned heading was 170: in other words, you’re demonstrating what professionalism IS by being an example of what it ISN’T.

  22. Robert Mark Says:

    Superb advice Larry. I actually deleted the “female” comment from the post last night.

    Again, I only reported what was actually happening on the flight, but to be fair I would have needed to explain that the two pilots were male or not mention any of it as some of you have pointed out.

    But maybe you need to read the last comment just before yours appeared … the one where I acknowledged the point a number of you have made here about the irrelevance of the sex of the pilots and the flight attendants. Seems to me I have been reading the comments rather closely to tell you the truth.

    So maybe we can all take a deep breath, forget the sex of the individuals involved, which I will say again is indeed irrelevant and allow someone to explain why these four airline professionals believe it was perfectly OK to leave the command of a A321 with 166 people aboard in the hands of two untrained flight attendants.

  23. Pete Danes Says:

    And this is why people make fun of feminists – focus on a completely irrelevant detail of wording, instead of the point of the article. I’ve had it with PC, and now go out of my way to include such comments, just to see how many fools I can stir up.

  24. Callan Says:

    The pilots were “UNPROFESSIONAL”, we all agree on that. I think that we can all agree that the gender of the “UNTRAINED” seat occupants is irrelevant to the point of what the author was attempting to convey, operations that were “less” then satisfactory.

    (The next statement is my opinion and not PC.)

    The whole trouble with the nations state of affairs is no one is willing to call out “poor behavior” because of the PC police and there message of “NONE RESPONSIBILITY FOR PERSONAL BEHAVIOR”. It always somebody else, who made them do it.

  25. Greg W Says:

    Mr. Mark, I agree this is amazing that it could/does happen. As to the p.c. argument I thought “seat monitors” was the poor comment. The proper current term of “flight attendant” that you used at the start is funny to me as well however. The name was changed to this to add “professionalism” from the old term of “stewardess/steward”, yet why did we feel more comfortable with the abilities of many of them to get us out of a burning Convair or B-707? Too many are concerned with the title/name than with performing the task at hand with one’s upmost skill and dedication.

  26. Robert Mark Says:

    It is interesting about the microcosm of our society that tis little discussion seems to be representing.

    My topic was why four people acted so stupidly and irresponsibly putting the lives of 162 other people in danger and most of this concept has gotten beaten down about how unprofessional I acted by mentioning the sex of the seat monitors.

    But let’s see … I think I agreed that the sex of the people involved was irrelevant, but that the term “seat monitors” would stay because that is accurate.

    I agree with some of the other comments that perhaps this is precisely why so little gets done in Congress.

    We need someone to stand up and blow a whistle to grab everyone’s attention with, “Yes, yes … you all have valid points about some of the language, but let’s actually talk about the problem itself.”

    And isn’t it interesting as well that some of the people who have spoken the loudest about the irrelevance of some of the language have so very little to add about the point of the story.

    Perhaps I need to repeat some of what I said in my first comment … “I’m very sorry if I’m not being politically correct here …”

    Ah well … back to work.

    Thank you everyone for your input, even those with whom I have disagreed.

  27. Lonny Says:

    It seems that no matter what the subject, if you mention a woman, it is not acceptable. The main subject of this article was the fact that two flight crew members left the crew station unattended by someone not qualified to fly the airplane. It is not always about you, the women, the fact is that 166 passengers were placed in un-necessary danger. Not that women were mentioned in the article. Get over yourself Ellen. The pollitical correct crap has got to stop!!

  28. ampilot Says:

    Totally agree with the national PC problem. Look at all the posts with absolutley no relation to the original topic of the article. And this problem isn’t just overseas.
    Recent example is we had to get a charter Lear for a medical flight here in the U.S. Plane showed up and one of the crew was in blue jeans and a tee shirt and the other 2 were in ordinary personal clothing (I’m not saying they need to be in a suit and tie but at least look professional). They knew it was an urgent medical flight but didn’t have tools to fill oxygen, had the FBO fuel the acft, then checked the weather and said they couldn’t go now so they were leaving to eat then they’d come back later. Finally they returned, checked weather and after everyone was onboard preparing for taxi the pilots figured out they didn’t have enough fuel(remember they earlier had the FBO refuel the plane). Piss poor planning and communication with us. What company accepts these actions as professional.

  29. Grant McHerron Says:

    Remember the famous comment: You can’t legislate professionalism :) :)

    A point on Air India: As long as the Indian government keeps using it to park cronies in management positions as “rewards” & treating it like their own personal bizjet fleet, the professionals who are within the airline will not have a chance of making a difference.

    Professionalism is an attitude and flying is all about attitude. If you have bad attitude, your aircraft isn’t going to fly very well, right? :) :)

  30. Pops Says:

    I’m just an old GA pilot Rob.

    I rarely comment in blogs for fear of exactly what is happening. I think you’ve covered it.

    The comment that I originally made was actually off topic to what you were writing about. The comment was about you and your writing style and your subsequent comments. Clearly, as many pointed out, and you agreed, gender had nothing to do with it the object of the story. Your comments later in the blog prove that you “get it”.

    I probably stirred the pot by calling you out on “how” you retracted/apologized for what you said. Doing something like that in the public forum of a blog was probably the wrong venue. That’s on me, I was just too lazy to find your email address.

    I agree that absent the word “female” the whole gender thing would never have occurred.

    The article about the stupidity of qualified people leaving the cockpit in the hands of completely unqualified people is the issue. Everyone involved should have lost their jobs. The attendants should have refused and Air India has culpability as well in that they have fostered an environment where this could even happen.

    That said, stupid things like this happen all the time, not just in aviation. $2 Billion trading errors at JPMorgan, Nuclear Power Plant safety systems bypassed, parents leaving their kids in the car on 90 degree days, the list is endless.

    My kids are writers and I’ve called them out on their writing when they (as young adults do) rant on paper or in a blog and the way that they have written distracts from WHAT is written and the object of the communication fails. I’m guilty of the same thing. I guess that is what I was trying to convey.

    Let’s move on to what’s more important and that is the focus you bring in your blog.

  31. Rob Mark Says:

    Good points Pops. Thanks.

    And before we leave this Air India topic, I thought I’d share something I learned from a number of sources in that region of the world.

    Apparently this kind of story – pilots both leaving the cockpit with flight attendants turned inro monitors – is not that unusual. This is not the first time it happened … just the first time most of the rest of the world heard about it.

  32. Norman Says:


    Spot on Rob. If the facts are as reported, these two Muppets should face prosecution for putting the public at risk. If the world is a just place they would then be refused the stewardship of anything above a hot-dog stand.
    The cabin crew concerned – well, perhaps they would be better placed working at something else, their instincts seem to me to be on the low side of abysmal. Could this be a HF spike of cultural consequence?

    As for gender issues…. Irrelevant in this context? A distraction and I mean no disrespect to any commenter here.

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