The great debate: the “spouse factor”

Non-pilot passenger in Cirrus
Does the non-pilot passenger change the way you fly?

Before every flight, pilots make some sort of go/no-go decision, even if it happens nearly instantly. A good decision-making process involves a review of the weather conditions, the health of the pilot and the condition of the airplane. On a sunny Saturday this can be easy. But when bad weather moves in or there’s a significant squawk on the airplane, making the decision not to fly is often the toughest one we make as pilots.

But there’s another factor that comes into play more than we probably admit: passengers. We all want to make a good impression on our passengers, and prove that we are safe and proficient pilots. And the added stress of a personal relationship–especially if it’s your spouse–can make the go/no-go decision a lot tougher than what an airline pilot might face with anonymous passengers concealed by a cockpit door. You can see this “spouse factor” when you read the reader comments in many of our Go or No Go articles (where we present a real weather briefing and you decide if you would fly the trip). Often times pilots comment that they would fly the trip solo, but not with their spouse on board.

That brings up today’s question: Do passengers change the way you plan or fly flights? Should they? And how do you deal with a nervous spouse? Are there any good ways to “sell” non-pilot passengers or spouses on flying in general aviation? Add your answer below.

47 Comments

  • The go/no-go decison making process couldn’t have been any better illustrated than a fatal accident just Sunday evening over in Indiana when two couple coming back from probably a fun week or weekend in Florida all lost their lives. It’s very early and no NTSB report has been issued, so you may argue that much of this is speculation. But by all accounts I can find this was likely the result of a decision making process that perhaps wasn’t the best. Speaks directly to the article above.

    • The best remedy is to encourage your spouse to participate. To understand the basics and contribute or at least to appreciate the factors leading to a decision.

  • The presence of passengers most definitely changes the way I operate an airplane. Weather and its corollary turbulence are the most obvious factors. Leg length is another. For many passengers, lots of otherwise routine and safe operations simply are too uncomfortable. If the flight is optional, why make more enemies for GA? I always want my passengers to ask “When can we do that again?” – not to exclaim “I’ll never do that again!”

    • Tom could not have said it better. Passengers are typically quicker to get apprehensive when experiencing turbulence or other weather. As an instrument rated pilot, I love punching through the clouds and rain showers while on an IFR flight plan, but a lot of passengers are not so thrilled. So while I am confortable with certain missions, I always take into account what my passengers may think and have many times made a no-go decision to take a passenger. Our responsibility to passengers does not stop at safety, but equally extends to their emotional experience. With GA in decline, we cannot afford to create more negative feelings toward small aircraft. Fly safe and give your passengers a good time.

  • I am a brand new private pilot, having passed my checkride just two weeks ago, and while I look forward greatly to traveling with both my wife and teenage son, I feel a different level of responsiblility in flying with them as opposed to flying solo. I’m not sure this fits in to the category of making the go/no-go decision, but the level of responsiblity as pilot-in-command definately feels different.

  • Yes, having passengers does affect my flight planning. I want them to have an enjoyable experience and may call a flight that I would have otherwise made alone if I believe that conditions may make them uncomfortable. I am also aware that it is my responsibility to get them home safely and so I fly somewhat more conservatively.

    • I definitely accept lower ceiling and higher crosswinds than if my spouse is on board. She gets quite nervous when we encounter lowering cloud decks, or bumpy air. I chock it up to experience, and willingly allow her to set the tone/route as I’d rather have her on board enjoying the trip with me, than me telling her about it when I get home.

  • A part of my preflight brief with a passenger is: “We are doing this to have fun. If we are NOT having fun its time to stop doing this. We’ll go home.” A little turbulence is still fun for me while it could become extremely uncomfortable for my passenger. So my Go/No Go decision changes accordingly. 2 hr legs maximum, at a cruising altitude with the least number of ‘pot holes’, and when possible an interesting destination for the passenger.

  • First of all, I have ONE level of safety. I don’t have a double standard where I will take more risk that my passengers.

    Second, for the most part, I don’t take inexperienced flyers flying. And I don’t need to “sell” someone GA and convince them to fly, and would NEVER take them for a ride just to convince them. However, I’d tell them the benefits, good and bad, and encourage them to take a lesson or an intro flight.

    Third, I will adjust the flight for COMFORT, if a passenger won’t tolerate weather, bumps or an uncomfortable situation. However, that passenger is rare for me. I also brief all passengers prior to flight. If they are afraid or sick, they don’t go. I may take an inexperience friend that has a sincere interest, but that may be just a lunch run… not serious travel.

    Forth, I fly as a crew with my significant other. Either one can cancel or divert the flight. She is pilot also, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

    And Fifth, the safety parameters of the go/no go or divert decisions are made irrespective of the mission or the importance of the trip. We may accept a level of discomfort to accomplish the trip, if important, but not at a lower level of our safety standards.

    • A great list, Larry. #Your fourth item: My husband is a very experienced, professional pilot and I earned my license to share in the challenge and joy of flying our tailwheel. We always use the crew concept and airline standards, discuss everything, share the workload, read all checklists, double the preflight and eye scan, and love every minute of it together! In unusual or difficult situations there is no doubt that he imakes the final decision but I often “fly” it. Decision-making and piloting skills are substantially upgraded as a result of skillful coaching, planning, flying. After I was licensed our insurer gave a substantial discount because they say such cockpits are inherently safer with fewer accidents and incidents. Like you and your significant other, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Of course passengers fit into my flight planning. Not necessarily from a safety perspective (although I might not make a flight with a passenger if I think that passenger might distract me with either their discomfort or their pressuring me). But I certainly take passengers into account from a “golden rule” perspective: would I want somebody taking me into turbulence in IMC if I wasn’t comfortable in little planes?

    • Passengers certainly do come into play. But this brings up an interesting question–especially for those of us who use airplanes to travel a lot. Does the passenger take away some of the utility of an airplane?

      It’s easy to cancel a Saturday afternoon joyride if the wx isn’t great. But what if you’re using a high performance plane to get somewhere? No, we don’t want ot compromise safety. But if we cancel everytime there’s turbulence, I’d never fly.

      There has to be a balance.

  • The answer to this, like many, is “yes, and no”.

    Like others mentioned, I don’t hold a different standard of safety if I am alone or with my family. If it’s safe enough to fly alone, it’s safe enough to fly with them, and vice-versa.

    As others have mentioned, leg-length is a consideration (bladder, bored kids, etc all factor), and I’d say the same about turbulance. I don’t mind a little chop, within reason. Everyone else the plane may have a different tolerance level, though.

    To me, the biggest change in having the family as passengers is on WHEN I make my go/no-go. If it’s just myself, I’ll wait until a few hours before the planned flight when I have the best information. But if I’m taking the whole crew, I may make a no-go call as early as a few DAYS ahead, so that we can make other plans, especially if it’s a cross-country. That drives me nuts, but it’s the right thing to do. I’d rather call it off ahead of time with a bad forcast than have to make a last minute call and stand around going “now what?”.

  • Since I fly to enjoy – not to endure, it’s easy for me to say, “Not today.” There’s probably been a passenger or two who thought, “DARN! I wish he’d said, let’s go.”

    Basically, I go somewhere to fly rather than flying to go somewhere. I probably don’t fit well with some pilots on here.

  • The presence of pax definitely increases pressure and the pressure is probably directly related to the number of pax. Throw in hotel, restaurant and car non-refundable reservations and it’s a silent boiler. It’s easy to see how one could make a bad decision to launch. Solo, if it’s good enough to start then it’s pretty easy to make a go decision since diversions and stop-shorts are no big deal.

    Personally, when I take the plane on a trip with others (including spouse) I don’t allow reservations to be made in the planning stage unless they’re made on the same day (or day before)of the trip and it’s obvious that the trip can be made. Ok, so I don’t do many advance planned trips with a planeload as a result; but I haven’t crashed much in the last 46 years either.

    Sometimes I even wonder if small planes shouldn’t be limited to two seats just to reduce the pressure and possibility of making big mistakes.

  • I’ve only been flying for a couple years and every flight with my is awesome. However, she really needs some basic passenger traing that’s not coming from her husband. She’s already expressed no interest in flying with my CFI and so I’m in search of options. This article nails the issue right on. It would be great if Airfacts, AOPA, or someone would compile a basic non-pilot spouse course.
    One item especially important is reasoning behind the PICs (thier spouse) go/no go decision making process. For example, recently after a weekend with the inlaws we had planned on wheels up around 0700. After several unscheduled family stops and increasing winds we took off around 1300 only to find the cross winds too much for our primary fuel stop. My alternate was fine but she still does not understand why I was so worried about our departure time.

  • We went flying on our first date, the day after we first met. When we got engaged, she was living in Jersey City and working in New York City while I was in the second year of my business startup in Ithaca, NY. Every weekend, from that November to the next July when we married, except for one when there was a blizzard, I flew down to KTEB and we either stayed in Jersey City, flew back to Ithaca, or went somewhere else in the airplane.

    That was 32+ years ago and we’ve flown together for over 2400 hours of the 3500 hours or so that I’ve accumulated in that time frame. She has never had an interest in learning to fly and doesn’t like “flying for fun” all that much. She likes to “go places”. For her flying is a very convenient means to an end whether we are going to NYC, FL, Alaska, or anywhere else.

    Go or no/go is entirely up to me. Over the years, we’ve rarely totally cancelled a trip. We’ve gone early to get out ahead of weather and delayed to let weather pass. On just a few occasions, we’ve had to divert for one reason or another. A couple of times, mechanical problems caused changes in plans. All part of the adventure.

  • Steve F ends with “… she still does not understand why I was so worried about our departure time.”

    Probably too late for you, but if someone is unwilling to share responsibility and meet at least half way, I’ve learned to avoid them. High Maintenance people can suck you dry.

    • The term high maintenance is a stretch as it doesn’t even come lose to my wife. She just doesn’t understand yet. I was flying before we met and started taking lessons again about two years after our wedding. After a few more years, I received my certificate and we’ve only been flying for a couple of years now. That said it actually took 32 years and for 28 of those years we been married. She understands and accepts my passion for flight. She just doesn’t understand some of the decision process. Her mindset is still in the car and not the plane. That’s where it would be good if there was a basic video for her to watch. After 28 years, I’ve learned that there are somethings that should left to others to teach her.

  • Passengers do not affect my go/no go decision. I make that decision alone. About three years ago my girlfriend and I were on a cross country and landed about 100 miles from home because of a weather troth. She kept saying that she had to get home, I told her that we would leave if the weather got better. I waited for two or three hours watching the weather on the FBO computer. It didn’t.

    We rented a car, drove the 100 mile home and came back to get the plane two days laer….

  • My wife refuses fly, and won’t let me fly either. She’s the biggest obstacle between me and my ticket. Anyone ever overcome this problem? I could sure use some tips.

    • Too late for you my friend. Once you choose to limit yourself or make/blame others for failure to “take responsibility” in adult matters, allowing them to make decisions for you …. you’re done in any event as “PIC and the cockpit” is not the place for such behavior in any event (subject of this article, as a matter of fact).

      Next lifetime for you!! 🙂

      • I have always said that flying is the greatest thing that you will do to yourself,for yourself and by yourself. That being said,10 years from now and you look back and say to yourself :I coulda,shoulda, but didnt. Look deep into your wife s eyes and hate her with every fiber of your body! Just sayin. Lol

  • LOL, JBR get divorced. (Then you won’t have enough money to fly)

    Seriously my wife does not like to fly and only uses the airplane for short trips. The weather must be perfect, which is all fine with me.

    The worst mistake I’ve made flying was to try a trip that before I took off I told myself “well if my daughter was with me I wouldn’t do this”. While I will push myself alone – a little – I don’t push near as hard.

  • I fly an experiment aircraft and recently took up my son’s long term girlfriend. I always fly gently when I do not know what sort of passenger I have in back. Well, she ripped me a new one that I was flying to gently. I told her OK, you fly it (yes she if a private pilot) and both she and I by extension both had a great time.

  • Okay, everyone who professed to plan or do things differently with passengers, you flunked. My wife flys with me whenever we go on a trip, otherwise she stays home. She trusts my judgement and I never do things differently, crosscountry or a local pilot proficiency flight. When I take a passenger up I feel he or she deserves my best, so I train the way I fight. (sorry an old F-4 motto)

  • Whether the flight is right for your intended passengers is, or should be, on the checklist of every GA pilot. I screwed up on this point in deciding to make a Christmas IFR trip with my wife and two teenage daughters. See my article, “Gland Plan Smashed: Terrified Passengers” in Air Facts Journal, Feb. 12, 2012.

  • First of all,don’t take anyone with you that is afraid or nervous !

    Don’t let yourself be “DISTRACTED” by people in the cockpit;for info,read the event “distraction” on my website aviator-tips.com

  • I employ the same level of safety with or without passengers, but the stress level goes up with them so it feels different. I have also found the two most potent weapons against distraction from wife/daughters: altitude (puts them to sleep) and intercom isolation switch. I am not afraid to use either.

  • With family endorsement, we flew 2.5hrs at night for our Thanksgiving day return flight. I filed IFR for a beautiful, but moonless VFR trip. Everyone was wonder-filled at the city lights we overflew and I thought I was Sky King. But upon reporting established on the ILS at our destination, the tower controller gave a courtesy “check three greens for landing gear down” my wife went nuts. She called out, “did you forget?…why did he say that?…they’ve never said that before!” Now, we’re in a Mooney with manual gear so it’s pretty obvious when the gear goes down, so I’m still trying to figure out the dynamics at play here. Lesson learned: a good pilot flies his airplane AND passengers all the way to tie down.

  • Bill Sez, ” I have also found the two most potent weapons against distraction from wife/daughters: altitude (puts them to sleep) and intercom isolation switch. I am not afraid to use either.” I got a chuckle out of this.

    Uhh, Bill. Aren’t you supposed to give them supplemental oxygen? ;=))

  • I fly safer having no pressure from my husband 😉 Because his obvious “GO!” is rarely coincides with my own decision. So when I stay on the ground, he never understands why.

  • My wife has flown with me for >20 years. We were working, and so we did have to fly IMC on occasion, without issues, to get to, or back from wherever. Recently she has become less comfortable with turbulence, rain, etc. She is well aware of the benefits of flying instead of driving, or commercial.

    So I was ‘forced’ to upgrade from our C310 to a pressurized, turbocharged C340A so we can fly above turbulence, catch some good tailwinds, etc. She’s migrated to the rear of the cabin so she can recline, put her feet up on the facing seat, Kindle on the fold-out table and listen to XM radio, or nap. Honest, I had no other choice. I got all the good stuff just to make her comfortable 😉

  • Now HERE’S a guy who has this spouse thing all figured out. A tip o’ my hat to you, Edd. And, one “Atta boy!” too.

  • I started flying with my then boyfriend from the beginning of our relationship. We have been married over two years and I love to fly with him in our Citabria or Baron so much that I am learning to fly also. I believe he is as careful with or without me in his decisions. With 57 years of flying under his belt, I trust him totally.

    • Follow this conversation from its beginning and you begin to see that communication is key! A few of these comments are mean-spirited, some are helpful, all are interesting. Whether it’s flying together or more mundane household issues with no dangerous aspects, the best relationships in the air or on the ground begin with mutual respect and walking in other shoes, thinking before speaking, and practicing the golden rule. To all of us pilots and to our passengers, if each of us puts as much effort into those behaviors as complaining, condemning, criticizing, and dismissing, we’re all more likely to get what we want and believe we deserve.

  • Carol & Sharyn both have very good points. Two criteria I use for sorting out those who I do and do not voluntarily associate with are: #1 Can I trust them? (When flying, it’s with your Life.) #2 Are they good to get along with?

    Flunking either one is a total failure. Combined, they are a Go/No-Go criteria. Saves a lot of headaches and heartaches.

    If our passengers don’t feel trust in us as a pilot, they won’t be comfortable no matter how smooth our flying and landing. If we’re nasty towards them, they won’t feel comfortable, either in the air or on the ground.

    I wish I could make it more simple; I can’t.

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