Mystery Solved: What Do All Those Airplane Flight Crew Titles Mean?

Mystery Solved: What Do All Those Airplane Flight Crew Titles Mean?

Know your F/O from your FA.

By Karen Gardiner

You may board each flight with interest only in getting some good rest or turning out and taking advantage of the in-flight entertainment offerings. But, while you are snoozing or catching up on the latest series of your favorite show, there is a tight team working hard behind the scenes. Here's who's who.


The pilot in command of a flight is called the captain. They usually sit on the left hand side of the plane and are responsible for the aircraft, passengers, and crew. In the alarming event that the captain is incapacitated, the first officer will take command.

First Officer

On any commercial flight, there must be at least two pilots, precisely for the reason named above. That means that when you fly, there will be, at minimum, a captain and a first officer in the cockpit. Contrary to a common misconception, the first officer is no less of a pilot that the captain. However the pilot who has the title of captain likely holds seniority within the airline. Both pilots take turns flying the airplane and cockpit duties are divided between the Pilot Flying (PF) and the Pilot Not Flying(PNF)/Pilot Monitoring (PM). On a long flight, there may be three or more pilots on board (relief crew) so that there can always be two pilots in the cockpit even while one is sleeping.

[listicle title="Flight Engineer"][/listicle]

Their jobs have largely been replaced by computers but, as How Stuff Works points out, "most airliners built before 1980 have a cockpit position for a flight engineer, also called the second officer." Typically, the article continues, "flight engineers are fully trained pilots, but on an ordinary trip, they don't fly the plane. Instead, they monitor the airplane's instruments and calculate figures such as ideal takeoff and landing speed, power settings, and fuel management."


An oddly named but essential role, usually only found on foreign aircraft, a purser is more or less what U.S carriers would call the lead flight attendant. They oversee the entire team of flight attendants, assigning each of their work roles; ensuring that service standards are up to scratch and completing all the paperwork for both the aircraft and crew. Like much in life and travel, the term is a holdover from the seafaring days of old when the purser was responsible for the handling of money on board.

Flight Attendant

These are the crew members you are most likely to interact with on your flight. You might still hear the terms "air host/ess" ("hostie" in Australia), "steward/ess" or worse ("trolly dolly?") but the gender neutral "flight attendant" is the increasingly preferred name these days. Your flight attendant may appear to be there merely to deliver on-board services and make sure that you are comfortable, but there are a hundred other things (involving safety, for example) that are on their minds while working — so you can bet they've got their eyes on you.

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