When Your Co-Pilot Is Also Your Spouse
One family, two airline pilots.
Our usual Sunday morning conversation is a little different from the way many couples talk to one another. Instead of sipping our coffee across the table from behind the newspaper, we’re seated on either side of the throttles, flap controls, fuel levers, and speed brakes of a Boeing 737.
My husband and I both fly for American Airlines. Passengers are sometimes shocked that a husband and wife are the captain and first officer of their flight. “Who’s in charge?” “Is that allowed?” “You’re not fighting today, are you?” Despite their professed alarm, no one has turned around and run back up the jetway to the terminal…yet.
I was here first, so to speak. I was already a pilot for TWA when Kevin and I met at an airshow. But our career paths were uniquely affected by airline bankruptcies, 9/11, union negotiations, and mergers. I held out with TWA until the bitter end, after American Airlines acquired my old employer in 2001. I was furloughed after the merger, and when I returned, our seniority had effectively reversed. My husband is now a captain, and I am his first officer. This is a testament to the fact that the cockpit door is like a marriage: neither wide nor tall enough to fit through with a chip on your shoulder.
Yes, the airlines know they have married couples in their cockpits and they’re okay with it. I’m sure there are a handful flying together at each of the majors. No one else wastes time thinking about it. There is no glass ceiling; pilot pay is transparent and based solely on seniority. We are all the same in the eyes of the company. They do not give much thought to women in the cockpit, and this lack of contemplation is evident in womens’ uniforms. Who decided to give us ladies pants sans pockets and scarves the size of handkerchiefs for ties?
Wardrobe aside, pilots are for the most part interchangeable. We all receive the same training. We are on the same team, but as with any team, there is a captain who is ultimately responsible—for the players and the airplane.
Kevin and I always try to do something interesting on our layovers together. They aren’t always exotic locations, but we make them fun. In Colorado Springs, we had dinner with our friend, Billy Dude, during a torrential ice storm. In Detroit, we toured the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. In Mexico City, we ate authentic cuisine from a roadside stand.
Kevin and I have flown to Mexico City together often, because the flight is a red-eye, the sort of less sought-after assignment Kevin gets as a junior captain. I am a more senior first officer, and thus assigned more coveted destinations, which I frequently trade away so I can fly with Kevin. I’m sure many pilots who get my New York City overnight in exchange for a visit to Mexico City feel like they’ve won the lottery.
It was a rare treat when we got a long layover during the day at JFK. We spent a rainy day exploring every nook and cranny of Grand Central Station. We admired the zodiac ceiling, whispered to one another across the ceramic arches conveniently located in front of the Broadway Oyster Bar where we slurped oysters, selected gourmet goodies for our flight home from the Grand Central Market, and found the hidden tennis courts. When your husband is your captain, you can make him take you to Nobu on West 57th Street for dinner. If you asked Kevin what the worst part of flying with his wife is, he’d say, “It’s so expensive.” Left to his own devices, he packs peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on sourdough for dinner.
He has a few other minor gripes, too. “Most of the time, my first officers don’t complain when I turn the thermostat all the way down in the hotel room,” he says. We typically ask for adjoining rooms when we get to the hotel. The front desk clerk always says, “It’s not American’s policy to have adjoining rooms,” and Kevin always replies, “Yes, but most American pilots aren’t married.”
This is handy for no reason other than it determines how early we have to get up for our flight the next morning. If we have access to two showers, we can sleep in. Still, the flight attendants inevitably ask, “Are you saving the company money by sharing a room?”
Flying with my husband is the same as flying with any other captain on the line, at least when we’re on the clock. But who knows what adventures can be rustled up around the country with free rein and a willing partner? It need not always be an epic exploration. Sometimes you just want to order room service and watch My Lottery Dream Home on HGTV before you go to bed. In the interest of professional and marital harmony, I won’t divulge which half of the couple tends to favor this particular pastime.
Kevin and I have flown airplanes of all sizes together. We had our own 1947 Luscombe 8, a two-place taildragger with an 85-horsepower engine. Low and slow, we spent a lot of time watching the cars on the highway speed past us. It took us three days to fly from California to Iowa. We once flew a B-25 Mitchell bomber from Chino to its new home at the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Washington State. We fly well together in small airplanes because we apply the same professional attitude we use in the big ones.
We’re not a couple who goes to work to escape each other’s company. When you fly with your spouse, you can settle right into your usual conversation patterns. Mostly, we talk about what we’re going to do after the trip. I don’t have to listen to stories about someone else’s messed up family life, their miserly ex-wife, miserable current wife, future trophy wife, or their accumulated children. You know your spouse is going to get the job done so one of you can run to Starbucks in the terminal before the next leg.
I realize after 24 years what makes this a successful marriage: We are the same people at work as we are at home. And we actually like each other. You may now kiss the pilot, but not while in uniform.