What happens when your pilots just don’t get along?

A pilot walks through the Phoenix airport.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

When the boss is an insufferable troll, his personality can create a toxic environment that sets the workplace on edge. If the boss happens to be the captain on a commercial aircraft and his abrasive temperament creates undue stress for his co-pilot, the result could threaten the integrity of a flight.

For this reason, co-pilots, or first officers, have a way to quietly avoid flying with a captain they despise.

At the airline I work for, this subversive maneuver is known as “Do Not Pair.”

Here’s how Do Not Pair works:


When a first officer submits electronic bids for the next month’s flight schedule, he must enter the name of the undesirable captain into the computer bidding module.

As the bid is processed, the system makes certain the two pilot names are not paired on the same flight sequences.

This is not to say that captains have a reputation for prickliness. On the contrary, the vast majority I’ve worked with are skillful managers who have earned the respect bestowed on them.

Day in and day out, these unsung heroes calmly pilot millions of passengers through lightning strikes, turbulent skies, hydraulic failure and, on rare occasions, bird strikes that cause engines to flare out. (Think Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame.)

Once in a blue moon, however, the captain—capable though he may be—is endowed with a personality that makes him difficult to work with.

As one of 14 crew members on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Miami, I worked with a captain who was so corrosive and lacking in managerial etiquette that he inconvenienced more than 200 passengers.

He made flight attendants cry and the first officer worry. He may even have sucker-punched by an enraged colleague.

In the cockpit, there is a hierarchy. There is a first first officer and a second. The second is jokingly referred to as “Food Boy” because his limited responsibilities allow extra time to eat.

He is the lowest-ranked pilot in the cockpit, and his primary responsibility is to relieve first officer A and the captain during long-haul flights of more than eight hours.

Typically, that person is not at the controls during takeoff or landing.

Fifty minutes before takeoff in Rio, our captain and Food Boy got into a shouting match.

As I welcomed passengers aboard, the pilots’ voices bellowed through the open cockpit door.

And then, “ my airplane!”

It was the captain’s voice. Loud. Unabashed. Derisive.

A moment later Food Boy emerged from the cockpit, his pilot’s bag in one hand, trusty roll-aboard in the other.

His face was fire-engine red. There was something about a punch and the captain’s face.

He stormed past me and marched alongside the queue of startled passengers waiting on the jet bridge.

Work rules forbid us from flying an eight-hour flight without that position. By kicking him off the airplane, the captain had effectively canceled our flight.

While the drama unfolded, first officer A had been using a nearby lavatory and no doubt heard the captain’s fiery dismissal.

Concerned, the first officer bolted from the lav and into the cockpit to find out what was what.

Basically, our captain was an overbearing bully who seemed to enjoy making his colleagues miserable.

The previous day, on our inbound flight from Miami, he berated two rookie flight attendants for no apparent reason other than the fact that they were young, inexperienced and women.

Just before boarding the flight in Rio, he paraded the same two women out onto the jet bridge and scolded them for being airborne neophytes.

Really? The second first officer and I watched in disbelief as the captain gleefully chided them when in fact they had done nothing wrong.

This was Food Boy’s breaking point.

When the captain returned to the cockpit, he followed and said to his boss, “You were way out of line.”

That’s when the shouting began.

Food Boy was ultimately relieved from duty for “insubordination.”

Luckily, the other first officer’s cooler head prevailed. He tracked down the departed first officer who was in the terminal making hotel arrangements.

Our three pilots—the two first officers and the captain—held a 10-minute meeting where differences were resolved, or at least shelved.

Boarding resumed soon thereafter, and our flight departed with only a minimal delay.

Sometime after landing in Miami, Food Boy pulled out his laptop, logged onto the employee website, entered the captain’s name and clicked, “Do Not Pair.”