Our family of four schlepped 5 pieces of luggage, 2 car seats, 4 heavy carryons, 4 backpacks, and 2 gate checked strollers. We couldn’t even move it all ourselves without a porter. I joked, “I hope the plane takes off!” I mean, one of my carryons was near 40 pounds, and my backpack probably 20. What if everyone on the plane acted as we did? WHAT IF I CAUSED THE PLANE TO NOT TAKE OFF?
First of all, why worry about where and how much weight is on a plane? Well, the airplane can only carry so much useful payload [weight of all the stuff you add onto the plane] if you want it to lift off. Weight needs to be balanced or it will effect the nose of aircraft. Too much weight in the front, nose will aim down and, you know, planes need to go UP. Too much weight in the back, the nose will raise too high and stall (the wings stop producing lift, and you can’t maneuver the plane, and well, you stop flying).
Many moons ago I was an active pilot. I learned about weights and balance for little 2 and 4 seater Cessnas. I could ask the weight of my passengers and sit them appropriately. If they weighed too much, I would take some fuel out of the tanks. (I was never flying very far).
I pondered all the weight that gets thrown on a commercial flight. We don’t get asked how much we weigh (can you imagine that?). They don’t weigh our carryons. I decided to interview an old acquaintance whom I met years ago through a women’s pilot club (the 99s). She was a flight instructor and now she flies commercially for a cargo company, but knows a lot about passenger airline practices. So here’s what I learned from her:
1) Pilots use something called a Flight Management System (FMS). They can plug all their info in, like navigation, wing balance, fuel, landing weight, etc.
2) Pilots assume each passenger and their carryon weighs 175 pounds in summer and 185 pounds in winter. (do we really walk around with 10 extra pounds of clothes and boots in winter? jeez.) They assume pilots are 215 pounds each – they used to lug up to 50 pounds of flight charts around – thank God for ipads and glass cockpits!
3) Baggage – they separate the oversize bags from the regular ones, and give the luggage count to the pilot. The baggage loaders don’t really make the organizing decisions, but rather mostly just do as they are told. Sometimes the pilots need to explain to the baggers who are getting cheeky why the bags need to be arranged a certain way and why they might need to rearrange. The factors for the organizing process include…
4) Obviously front to back balance is important. But left to right is too. The floor of the airplane has a maximum weight limit too. Don’t want to stress one part of the plane’s frame. If the baggage shifts during flight because of maneuvers or gusts of wind, that can effect the pilot too. So rope those bad boys down.
5) Anything that is toxic or flammable gets placed near the pilot (this is probably more for cargo pilots). That way, if anything catches fire, the pilots and the other people helping with the situation know exactly where that dangerous material is and can handle it quickly instead of searching through all the baggage and wasting time. Unless it’s radioactive. That shit goes in the back.
So what if the pilot finds the plane getting heavy (ie: Laura’s family schleps too much on board) or the plane isn’t balanced? What’s an aviator or aviatrix to do?
1) Taking fuel away like on my itty bitty plane is not an option. FAA requires enough fuel on board to not only reach your destination, but to fly to an alternate airport plus reserves. This is a fixed number so no, you can’t adjust that. Don’t even think about it!
2) A few bags might have to be left behind. Yeah, sucks if it’s your bag and you just spent half an hour watching the baggage carousel go round and round. But hey, your plane got off the runway right?? 😉
3) You might hear the workers announce at the gate for volunteers to be bumped to a different flight. Sometimes this is because of double booking, but might be due to weight issues.
4) For balance, you sometimes see the flight attendants walking through the plane counting people. They are counting kids (they are light), infants in laps, pets, and sometimes ask people to rearrange.
So what can we do to help? There is so much that goes on behind the scenes when we fly. But we don’t need to make the job harder.
When an announcement is made to not all line up around the bathrooms in the back, that’s not just to keep the aisle clear. Enough people move to the back on the plane and we can push the nose up! My pilot friend said that it is quite the experience to watch the plane nose rise and without seeing, you know a bunch of people are lining up by the back bathrooms. (this is only a degree or half a degree, but maybe Myth Busters show can do an experiment to see how many people doing a peepee dance it’ll take to stall a plane. lol). Besides, there’s a $10,000 fine for not listening to those flight attendants.
Which leads me to a public service announcement my pilot friend would like to make. Keep your seat belts on until that damn light goes off! I know you’re eager to get off the plane, but there have been airplane incursions (accidents) involving parked planes. It’s not unheard of for planes to skid on refrozen de-icing material on the ground. The pilot might need to slam on the breaks. We shouldn’t take our car seat belts off before we park, don’t do it on the tarmac.
Ok! I hope you learned a lot. I did!