Behind the scenes every time you take a flight, from boarding to reaching your destination, there are numerous complex operations and concepts that are involved

From flight routes and paths to the roles of pilots and flight attendants, as well as ensuring airline safety and selecting the right aircraft, this article gives a complete overview of the airline industry and how airlines operate.

Understanding Key Flight Terms

Navigating the world of aviation can be complex, especially with all the various terminologies and concepts that can be confusing for newcomers.

Here are the most popular ones you should be aware of:

Transatlantic Flight

A transatlantic flight is a flight that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, typically between North America and Europe.

Due to the distance involved, transatlantic flights are usually long-haul flights that are operated by major airlines. They may involve different time zones, customs and immigration procedures, and potential jet lag


A layover, also known as a stopover, is a flight that involves a break in the journey whereby you stop at an airport, get off the plane, and catch one or more flights to your final destination.

Layovers can either be short (a couple of hours) or long (overnight), depending on the airline and your itinerary.

If your layover is long enough, you can leave the airport during the layover and explore the city, but you will usually remain within the secure area of the airport.

Round Trip

A round trip flight refers to a flight that starts and ends at the same airport – i.e. you are taken from your departure point to your destination and back to your original departure point.

Round trips are popular because you can save more money compared to booking two separate one-way flights, and they are more convenient in the way that you can manage a complete trip with a single booking.

Connecting Flight

A connecting flight is a flight that involves a transfer at an intermediate airport, where you change planes to reach your final destination.

Connecting flights have a layover, may require additional boarding passes, security checks, and may involve different airlines or aircraft.

Charter Flight

A charter flight is a flight that is arranged and operated by a charter airline or a private entity, where you can determine the departure and destination times and locations.

Charter flights are typically for a specific group of passengers or for a particular purpose, and offer much more flexibility from departure and destination times to even meal options.

Red Eye Flight

A red eye flight is a flight that takes off late at night and arrives early in the morning.

As red eye flights generally last between 4–7 hours, you can expect a lack of sleep, so you will arrive at your destination with fatigue and red eyes, hence their name.

International vs. Regional Airline

Simply put, an international airline is an airline that operates flights across different countries or continents, while a regional airline operates flights within a specific region or country.

Regional airlines may focus on shorter flights, connecting smaller cities or towns within a specific region or country, and use smaller aircraft; while international flights offer long-haul flights on larger aircraft.

Standby Flight

A standby flight is a type of flight in which you do not have a confirmed reservation, but you can wait at the airport to see if any seats become available.

You may have to fly standby if your flight is overbooked or canceled.

Passengers on standby are usually accommodated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Airline Hub

An airline hub is a specific airport that serves as a central connecting point for an airline’s flight operations, where passengers can transfer between flights

An example of an airline hub is Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, which is used by Delta Air Lines.

Airline hubs are strategically chosen to streamline flight operations, improve connectivity, and optimize scheduling

Flight Routes and Paths

When it comes to air travel, the flight routes and paths that airlines schedule and operate are critical.

As understanding the basics of flight routes and paths can provide insight into how air travel operates on a global scale, let’s take a closer look.

Before taking off, flight routes, that are the pre-planned paths that aircraft follow to get from one destination to another, are created.

These routes are designed to optimize efficiency, safety, and compliance with air traffic regulations, though can be affected by factors including air traffic control, weather conditions, and aircraft performance.

Interestingly, flight paths are curved. This is due to the earth’s surface, with a curved flight path providing the most direct route to a flight’s destination.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Planes Fly Over the Pacific Ocean?

Planes fly over the Pacific Ocean during transpacific flights, which is when an aircraft flies across the Pacific Ocean from either Asia or Australia to the Americas or vice versa, and when flying from or to countries and regions that are located in the Pacific Ocean

Can You Fly to Antarctica?

You can fly directly to Antarctica, though this requires chartering a flight, as there are no scheduled flights to Antarctica.

Do Planes Don’t Fly Over Tibet?

Planes rarely fly over Tibet due to the region’s mountainous terrain and high elevation, which makes it dangerous to fly over.

Additionally, planes can’t descend and land in Tibet as easily as other regions due to a lack of large, international airports.

Are Westward Flights Slower Than Eastward Flights?

Westward flights are slower than eastward flights due to eastward flights being able to take advantage of jet streams.

Jet streams are simply a series of fast-flowing narrow air present in high altitudes that planes can piggyback on to increase speed. 

The Role of Pilots

Airline pilots play a pivotal role in the safe and efficient operation of commercial aircraft, and have many duties and responsibilities.

Pilots must:

  • Conduct pre-flight inspections
  • Check the aircraft’s systems and controls
  • Verify that all safety measures are in place before takeoff
  • Monitor the aircraft’s performance and make adjustments as needed
  • Communicate with air traffic control
  • Manage flight routes
  • Optimize fuel consumption
  • Handle emergencies
  • Manage the onboard crew to ensure that all tasks, such as communication, navigation, and performance monitoring, are carried out effectively

Pilots must therefore possess several skills and qualities to become a pilot, including situational awareness, decision-making skills, communication skills, the ability to work under pressure, attention to detail, and adaptability.

Pilots must also be able to handle an often challenging schedule, as an airline pilot’s work schedule can be hard if they have a family.

This includes all commercial pilot ranks and all the pilots on a plane, from Captain to Second Officer.

It’s fair to say that becoming an airline pilot is no walk in the park.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Pilots Know Where to Fly?

Pilots know where to fly by relying on various methods, including flight planning, air traffic control, navigation systems such as GPS, charts and maps, and visual references.

As pilots can’t see at night, they must depend on navigational instruments to find their way.

What Do Pilots Do On Long Flights?

Pilots do several things on long flights, including tasks focused on navigation, communication and systems operation.

A major part of long-haul flying isn’t flying the plane, so pilots will rest too.

Do Pilots Carry Guns?

The only airline pilots who can carry a gun are those who have completed the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, which is approximately one in 10 U.S. airline pilots.

What Does a Co-Pilot Do?

Co-pilots mostly help fly aircraft when the captain is unavailable or during emergencies, with commercial aircraft having co-pilots to ensure there’s a backup option in case the captain isn’t available.

How Many Pilots Are There in the World?

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) estimates there are as many as 500,000 airline pilots in the world, with over 90% of pilots being male.

Considering that many experienced pilots retire every year, there is a push to get more people into aviation, including women.

The Role of Flight Attendants

While flight attendants are mostly seen as those friendly faces who serve you snacks and beverages on the flight, there is much more to their job than meets the eye.

Flight attendants play a crucial role in the airline industry, taking on various responsibilities to ensure you have a smooth and safe flight.

This includes:

  • Greeting passengers
  • Assisting with boarding
  • Conducting pre-flight safety briefings, demonstrating the use of safety equipment such as seat belts, oxygen masks, and life vests
  • Ensuring that all passengers comply with safety regulations
  • Assisting with emergency situations
  • Serving food and drinks
  • Providing solutions to customer complaints or issues
  • Assisting in conflict resolution
  • Detecting and handling security threats
  • Providing medical assistance

There can be anywhere between 3 and 18+ flight attendants on a plane, depending on the size of the plane, the airline, and according to regulations.

Becoming a flight attendant is very competitive, with the chances of becoming a flight attendant standing at just 1%.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where Do Flight Attendants Sleep?

Flight attendants have their own sleeping compartments on airplanes, which is usually above or adjacent to the passenger’s cabin.

Can Flight Attendants Fly for Free?

Flight attendants can fly for free – only paying the taxes and fees associated with the flight.

This usually means that a flight attendant will only have to pay 10% of the price of a standard airfare.

A flight attendant’s family and friends can also fly for free through the use of a buddy pass.

Can Flight Attendants Have Tattoos or Piercings?

Generally, flight attendants can’t have any visible tattoos, though it can depend on the airline.

Typically, flight attendants aren’t allowed to have piercings either, except for small, discrete studs and earrings that don’t call attention to themselves.

Pilots also can’t have visible tattoos.

What is a Flight Attendant’s Work Schedule Like?

A flight attendant’s work schedule can vary substantially depending on seniority and the airline a flight attendant works for.

However, flight attendants can expect to receive between 12 and 18 days off a month.

Are There Part Time Flight Attendants?

While it is technically possible to work as a part-time flight attendant, it is very uncommon, especially in the USA.

How Many Flight Attendants Are Male?

It is estimated that 16% of flight attendants are male, while 84% of flight attendants are women.

As long as a man is able to fulfill all requirements and successfully complete training, he has as good of a chance as a woman to become a flight attendant.

Airlines & Safety

Air travel is exceptionally safe, with Arnold Barnett, who is an expert in the field of aviation safety and risk and Professor of Statistics at MIT, stating “If you take one flight a day, you would on average need to fly every day for 55,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash.”

Additionally, the chances of a plane crashing is the lowest it has ever been in the history of commercial aviation.

Air travel is so safe due to stringent regulations, rigorous training, and airlines leaving no stone unturned when it comes to ensuring the safety of passengers and crew.

  • Regulatory Compliance: Regulations set forth by various authorities, such as the FAA and EASA, include aircraft maintenance, crew training and qualifications, operational procedures, and safety management systems, that all airlines must follow.
  • Aircraft Maintenance: Airlines follow strict maintenance procedures, including routine inspections, scheduled maintenance checks, and repairs that are conducted in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines and regulatory requirements.
  • Crew Training and Qualifications: All pilots and other members of the cabin crew must undergo extensive training and qualifications.
  • Operational Procedures: Airlines have well-defined operational procedures in place to ensure safe and efficient flight operations that cover aircraft operations, dispatch, communication protocols, weather analysis, fuel management, and emergency procedures.
  • Aircraft Technology: There’s no doubt that advancements in aircraft technology have contributed to air travel being the safest it has ever been. Aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art avionics, navigation systems, and communication tools to minimize the risk of things going wrong.

All of these factors have contributed to planes crashing not often at all. If we look at commercial aviation and look at the statistics for the last five years, we can see that there are approximately 10 plane crashes a year.

Even the most dangerous airlines aren’t dangerous to fly with at all. There is a much higher likelihood of being involved in a car crash, making planes much safer than cars.

In the event that a plane does crash, black box data is analyzed to learn the reasons behind the crash and avoid it from happening again.

Aircraft Airlines Use

Airlines use a variety of aircraft, ranging from narrow-body to wide-body, and from regional to long-haul aircraft.

Some of the most popular aircraft include:

  • Boeing 737: A narrow-body, short to medium-haul aircraft that can carry 100 to 230 passengers, depending on the variant.
  • Airbus A320: A narrow-body aircraft that can hold 100 to 240 passengers, depending on the variant.
  • Boeing 777: A wide-body, long-haul aircraft that is commonly used for international flights. It has a capacity of 300-550 passengers, depending on the variant.
  • Airbus A330: A wide-body, long-haul aircraft that has a capacity of 250–440 passengers and is commonly used for international flights.
  • Boeing 787 Dreamliner: A modern and advanced aircraft used for long-haul flights, with a capacity of 200 to 330 passengers.
  • Regional Aircraft: Airlines also use regional aircraft for shorter flights and operations to smaller airports. Examples include the Bombardier CRJ series, and Embraer E-Jet family. These planes can usually only hold 30–100 people.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Type of Fuel Do Planes Use?

The type of fuel planes use can vary depending on the type of plane and even the country. But aircraft used in commercial aviation either use Jet-A or Jet A-1 aviation turbine fuel, with jet A being the standard specification fuel in the U.S.

How Much Does a Boeing 747 Cost?

The cost of a Boeing 747 depends on the variant, flight hours, maintenance records, and overall condition.

The latest variant, the 747-8, costs around $450 million.

Do Airplanes Have Brakes?

Airplanes have brakes to help pilots slow down and land planes, in addition to helping pilots keep planes stationary on the ground.

Do Airplanes Have Horns?

Airplanes have horns that are primarily used as a form of communication between ground engineers and the ground crew while a plane sits in a hangar and undergoes maintenance.

Do Airplanes Have Headlights?

Airplanes don’t have headlights in the conventional sense as you see on cars and motorbikes, but they do have landing lights as well as several other illuminations.

The Future of Airline Operations

Due to changing trends, technologies, and customer preferences, it’s only natural that the airline industry constantly evolves and adapts.

  • Technological Advancements: Advancements in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, automation, and robotics are expected to revolutionize various aspects of airline operations.
  • Sustainability and Eco-Friendly Operations: With growing concerns about environmental sustainability, airlines are increasingly focusing on eco-friendly operations, such as reducing carbon emissions through the use of sustainable aviation fuels, investing in electric or hybrid aircraft, and implementing green operational practices
  • Improved Passenger Experience: It may not seem like it given how uncomfortable flying can be, but airlines are looking for ways to enhance the passenger experience. This is done through providing enhanced in-flight entertainment options, and implementing digital technologies for a smoother travel experience.
  • Enhanced Safety and Security Measures: Emerging technologies such as biometrics, facial recognition, and the blockchain are expected to further enhance the safety and security of airline operations.
  • Changing Business Models: The airline industry is always looking to improve load factor and maximize profit, especially due to airlines having such slim margins. Airlines may more widely adopt approaches such as unbundled pricing, dynamic pricing, and personalized offers to cater to changing customer demands and market dynamics in the future.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.