Deadhead Pilot: A Passenger or on Active Duty?

Pilots · 6 min read · Jul 22, 2022
deadhead pilot

Moving through the aisle and suddenly you come across a pilot seated among the passengers. Then, you suddenly remember the fake pilot, Frank Abagnale from the movie ‘Catch Me If You Can’. At this point, your mind becomes more curious than ever before. Let us help to calm your curiosity and tell you about deadhead pilots!

What you have seen is a deadhead!

Do not panic, the pilot sitting among passengers is most likely in good shape!

In the transportation industry, a deadhead refers to any person or a thing that travels free of charge.

Pilots who are flying in the cabin with other passengers are usually termed with the buzzword deadhead pilots. They are taking the flight at the behest of their airline. When simply put, a deadhead pilot is a regular pilot who is being repositioned to take his assigned flight from another airport.

An example of a deadhead pilot

A pilot from a scheduled flight from Indianapolis to Chicago, O’Hare airport found themselves sick a few hours before the flight, and as indicated in a simple IMSAFE checklist, they are unable to take control of the aircraft. In that case, to operate as per the schedule, the air carrier should fill the vacancy with another pilot. Here comes deadheading into play: a pilot is sent to Indianapolis on another scheduled flight from Chicago.

On the other hand, when a pilot is assigned to a flight operated away from the home base of a pilot, a deadhead flight is arranged for the particular pilot to the point of departure. The same is true for an entire deadhead crew as well.

During the Covid pandemic, it was a common sight to see a deadheading pilot among the usual travelers.

Passenger seats on a commercial aircraft.

Should the deadhead pilots fly the airplane?

A deadhead pilot usually does not get themselves in the cockpit unless it is an emergency. They just sit back and relax until get distracted by a curious passenger. There is no rule that a deadhead pilot should be flown on planes they is certified to fly – operators schedule the flights with a minimum flight time to keep the pilot as fresh as a daisy as he will be boarding his assigned plane anytime soon.

Are pilots being paid to become deadheads?

Of course, all the pilots taking a deadhead flight are entitled to a payment and are considered to be on duty throughout the flight. The rate may vary from one airline to the other. Most of the major airlines consider deadhead flights as same as usual flights and pay at the full rate.

Deadheading flight attendants

It is quite unexpected to see a deadheading flight attendant on a plane. But on rare occasions, a full flight crew including pilots and flight attendants is deadheaded.

Passenger reactions

To deadhead pilots or flight attendants, reactions from the other passengers can offer differ significantly.

Toward pilots

It is no wonder that passengers will love to see a pilot flying with them in the cabin: giving a sense of reassurance. A deadhead pilot has an assigned seat just like the passengers and receives the same food as a passenger. Pilots wear the uniform during the flight as they are most likely taking their next assigned flight once they reach the destination. More importantly, a deadhead pilot shoulder the responsibility of being an airline pilot as they are on duty despite the fact of being deadheaded.

For most pilots and flight attendants, time spent with travelers is more like an on-duty assignment. Unlike personal travel, they have to represent the carrier they work for.

Since the early days of flying, piloting has been a rewarding and honorific career. Hence people will love to talk with an airline pilot, especially the exhilarated kids.

Should the operating pilots land the plane with a heavy thud or fly through turbulence spilling the earthly-flavored tomato juice, passengers find deadhead pilots as a perfect culprit to soothe their turmoil. So, while wearing the uniform, keeping their cool and apologizing seem to be the ideal answer from a deadhead pilot for a hot-tempered passenger.

Toward flight attendants

While deadhead pilots are receiving mixed comments from travelers, chances are high for deadhead flight attendants to end up their journey with another ordeal. Travelers often misunderstand the seated flight attendant to be a part of the working crew and reach out to request help.

Being distracted in the middle of a flight with your favorite music is a sin. A pat on your back and a deadheading flight attendant’s eyes open to see an old lady holding her bag and asking for help to place it in the overhead bin. How unfair the world is!

Two flight attendants walking to a deadhead flight.

Notable deadheaders

During an emergency, regardless of its nature, a pilot on board is a ray of hope for the passengers, even for the pilots struggling to fly a crippled plane. Here are a couple of examples of notable deadhead pilots:

  • A deadhead pilot flying aboard a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 came to rescue when pilots were unable to control the aircraft. Unfortunately, the same aircraft (Lion Air Flight 610) crashed killing all 189 travelers and crew on board due to the failure of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The malfunctioning flight control system commanded flight controls to nose dive the aircraft and slammed into the Java Sea.
  • A United Airlines DC-10 aircraft operating under flight number 232 encountered a failure in number 3 engine, rupturing a few hydraulic lines. With the partial loss of hydraulic systems, certain fight controls became inoperative. Two pilots, the flight engineer along with the deadhead pilot successfully performed a semi-controlled emergency landing.

Unarguably, the support given by the deadhead pilots comes in handy, especially during the critical flight phases: landing, take-off, final approach, and initial climb. Close proximity of the aircraft to the runway is the greatest threat and a delayed remedy will cost lives. The same is true for a deadhead flight attendant as he or she can support the crew for cabin preparation and evacuation during an emergency.

When do the airlines deadhead their pilots and crew members?

Here are some common examples where a carrier opts to deadhead its crews.

Unfit to fly

Like the aforementioned example, if a pilot(s) or a flight attendant(s) is unfit for the duty, the airline makes arrangements to fulfill the requirement by sending a deadheading crew. It is quite obvious that modern commercial airliners require at least two airline pilots to fly the plane.

When it comes to flight attendants. the requirements are subjected to changes across the globe. As stipulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for airplanes with more than 100 seats, two flight attendants are required and one additional crew member should be added for every 50 sets of passengers. When one or more flight attendants are found unfit for work, airlines send deadhead crew to operate as scheduled without offloading any passengers.

When a pilot or a flight attendant is unfit to work, immediate notice should be sent to the relevant captain or the lead flight attendant respectively.

Upon a nature call

When the weather takes a turn for the worse and a scheduled flight cannot make it to the airport, another plane flies with a different crew operating the trip without a delay. Then the stranded crew is deadheaded to the crew base on the earliest possible scheduled plane.

American airlines airplane being towed through heavy winter storm.

Exceedance of maximum duty period

As stipulated in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) under the Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs), every commercial pilot should adhere to certain rules on their maximum duty and minimum rest periods. Due to the unplanned delays, pilots will have to pull out from duty to stay within the limits. In such cases, deadheading a pilot will be the only viable solution. In fact, pilots work many more hours than people imagine, so staying within maximum duty limits might be a more challenging task than it looks at first sight.

Key takeaway

The aviation industry is a fountain of buzzwords. Deadhead or deadheading is one pick from the jargon. The term is often used during crew planning and is famous among airline pilots. The ominous nature of the word has no connection with its real purpose (and do not misspell the word either!). Pilots are often requested to fly to and from the home base as deadhead pilots to cater to crew requirements due to diverse factors: bad weather stopping a return flight, pilots becoming unfit for the duties, and exceedance of maximum duty period.

However, a deadhead pilot is still a pilot on duty, wearing the uniform and representing the airline. The only difference is that just like a paid traveler, the pilot gets a seat for the trip in the cabin. Don’t forget that deadheading is applicable for flight attendants too, despite happening seldom.

So, now you know what is going on in the operations of airlines when you see a deadhead pilot or a different crew member among passengers on your next flight.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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