Behind The Scenes At 40,000 Feet: Airline Codewords, Secrets, And Tips

Flight has long been something that humans have strived for. Whether it be the invention of the wheel or the creation of the first ever successful airplane by the Wright brothers, humans have always tried to make their mode of transportation more efficient.

The IATA or the International Air Transport Association is a trade association that represents more than 280 airlines around the world and represents almost 85 percent of the world’s total air traffic. Because of this, the IATA is able to compile tons of data on airlines, passengers and airports from all over the world.

In the year 2017 alone, the IATA estimates that more than five and a half trillion dollars worth of goods was shipped around the world in 2016. The agency also estimated that tourists who traveled by air spent a total of 650 billion dollars in 2016! The IATA ranked American Airlines as the number one passenger airline followed by Delta, United, Emirates and then China Southern Airlines. The IATA found that the Asia Pacific took up 33.6 percent of the air traffic, followed by Europe, which took up 26 percent, and then North America which came in at just under 23 percent.

And with so many people flying around the world on so many occasions, it is time we debunked the codewords, symbols, signals, and secrets that airline employees share with one another. In addition, we will also examine any hints and tricks that are provided by airline employees themselves. Patrick Smith is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need To Know About Air Travel and he is also a blogger at

In his book, he describes and explains certain codewords that airline employees use. Here are some of the most interesting ones.

Before anyone is even allowed to board a plane, the plane must go through a round of inspections. Whether it is for sanitary or hygienic purposes, the plane must be inspected by officials and staff before passengers can board. As Patrick Smith explains, when airline employees say ‘doors to arrival’ it simply means disarming the emergency escape.


This is to make sure that the emergency deployment slides don’t open up inside the plane as the doors are being opened. Serious injuries can occur if the slides were accidentally deployed into the passenger boarding bridge as passengers are boarding.


And in the book, Patrick Smith explains that the code word ‘crosscheck’ simply means that airline employees have inspected one another and verified that everyone has completed their own procedures. This is to make sure that all employees have done their due diligence and have kept each other accountable.

‘Last minute paperwork.’ Almost everyone dreads hearing the words ‘last-minute paperwork’ being uttered into the speakerphone, but it actually serves some very useful purposes. Smith explains that this is the act in which pilots check delayed routes, technical specs, flight logs, weight and balance records, flight plan changes and also maintenance write-ups.


Dan Boland, who is an international airline pilot, and also the founder of, explains that tracking the weight of a plane’s cargo and passengers is essential because it factors into the proper speed that is needed for takeoff. Dan explains that pilots need to make sure that everything is in order before taking off.


‘Final Approach.’ Almost everyone wants to hear that they have arrived at their destination and this one isn’t so much a symbol since it can be taken literally. According to Dan Boland, ‘final approach’ simply means that the plane is 10 to 15 miles away from the destination and is headed onto the runway in a ‘straight-line path.’

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Dan Boland, however, stated that when a flight attendant says ‘final approach’ it serves a different meaning. When it is said by a pilot it designates that the plane is near the destination but when said by a stewardess it serves as a reminder to passengers to stay in their seats.

‘Deadheads.’ ‘Deadhead’ isn’t usually a term that is used on the megaphone, rather it is generally used between airline employees. Dan Boland says that ‘deadhead’ is a blanket term for all airline employees that are on the flight but aren’t working. They are ‘pilots or cabin crew traveling, either off-duty or on-duty, in order to get home or start a flight at the destination.’


Dan went on to say that ‘deadheads’ are usually placed in a business or first class seat but on a packed flight they might be placed in economy. Furthermore, Dan said: ‘sometimes they are required to use their uniform, so don’t be shocked if you see a captain at the back having a snooze.’

‘Holding Pattern.’ This is a symbol that pilots use to each other in times of bad weather or congestion. Patrick Smith says that it simply means that the plane will fly in a steady pattern or like a racetrack in the sky, and keep circling until the weather clears and improves.


Patrick Smith explains that keeping these ‘holding patterns’ ensures that planes won’t collide into one another during bad weather and also if they keep flying in these figure 8 patterns then they will be separated by more than a thousand feet and will remain safe for landing.


‘Overbooking.’ Dan Boland says that it is standard procedure to overbook a flight to ensure that there is a full flight. He says that oftentimes passengers will not show up. To entice passengers to give up their seat, airline have offered free hotels, financial compensation or an upgraded seat on a later flight.


On some flights, passengers have complained of hearing of bells that chime throughout the flight. Patrick Smith explains that these little chimes throughout the flight are meant to designate to the flight attendants that it is almost time to land.


Furthermore, Patrick explains that the bell or alert you hear approximately five to ten minutes after takeoff is to tell ‘the crew and passengers that the plane has passed 10,000 feet, which means the flight attendants are now free to contact the cockpit with any questions or concerns.’

Do we really need to turn off our electronic devices? Patrick Smith says that smartphones have yet to be proven to cause technical disruptions but airlines would rather err on the side of caution. He also said that listening to loud music on the plane will prevent passengers from hearing important announcements.


Pilots do not fly themselves. As Patrick Smith explains: ‘people have this vastly exaggerated idea of what the autopilot does and how pilots interact with it. You hear it in the media all the time: ‘airplanes just fly themselves, and pilots are just systems monitors!’ The autopilot isn’t flying the airplane—the pilots still have to tell a plane what to do, when to do it and how to do it—in other words, you’re instructing the automation.’


Patrick went on to explain that flying a plane isn’t just about takeoff and landing, he said: ‘Flying is still a very hands-on, interactive experience. The tasks have changed over the decades, but it’s still very work-intensive. Takeoffs and landings tend to be the busiest … but things can get surprisingly busy over the ocean in the middle of the night. Course changes, altitude changes, communications issues, all of these things can make the cockpit quite busy at times.’

Despite the increasing prices of airline tickets, pilots have actually not gotten a significant portion of that pie. While veteran pilots with decades of experience can make up to $100,000 a year, pilots who are just starting off make enough to qualify for food stamps.

According to a Wall Street Journal article in 2014, rookie pilots make between $15,000 to $25,000 a year. If the pilot was the primary earner in the family then they would be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Program which is food stamps.

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