Science | March 28, 2020 1:45 pm

Flying Mostly Empty Planes Offers a Challenge to Airline Pilots

From rearranging seat assignments to adding sandbags

Empty airline seats
In the time of coronavirus, pilots are encountering a new challenge.
En el nido/Creative Commons

There’s an art to piloting a passenger jet — and it’s one with more variables than simply those shown on the instrument panel. Qantas’s recent flight from New York to Sydney, for instance, had a carefully measured amount of passengers and baggage. Why? Because a flight’s weight can affect the plane’s maneuverability.

So what happens when a flight crew needs to fly a plane that’s mostly devoid of passengers? A new article by Mike Arnot at The Points Guy explores the challenges that pilots face when in this very scenario. As Arnot phrases it:

Airplanes function like a giant seesaw. By design, the center of gravity of the aircraft is near the main landing gear. But the center of gravity is not constant because fuel, passengers, baggage and cargo differ on each flight and for each airplane. The center of gravity even changes during flight.

There are certain settings on a plane — such as the stabilizer — which differ depending on the amount of passengers on that flight, and even where they’re sitting.

Another factor in flying a nearly-empty plane? The pilots might need to move the passengers around the cabin in order to achieve a more equal distribution of weight. Arnot talked with an Embraer E175 pilot, who told him that there are situations that can necessitate altering the seating chart. “When we plug in the passenger loads, the flight computer will inform us that we need to move a certain number of passengers from the rear section to the middle or the front,” said the pilot.

There’s one more option open to pilots as well: 50-pound sandbags which can be loaded onto a plane as a last resort. It’s an unexpected way of looking at the way science and commercial travel converge.

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