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10-21-2010, 08:30 PM

(CNN) -- You hear their voices over the airplane speakers and you sometimes catch a glimpse of them as they inspect a plane before departure, but for the most part airline pilots remain a mystery.

Regal in their uniforms, locked in the cockpit, you know your life is in their hands -- but what are their lives really like these days?

Not so glamorous and often grueling, it turns out. Reader's Digest asked 17 pilots from major airlines and regional carriers to divulge some of the realities of their jobs, and many of the comments are chilling.

"The truth is, we're exhausted. Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That's many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can't pull over at the next cloud," a captain at a major airline told the magazine.

Another pilot said bad accommodations also make it hard to get enough sleep.

"When you get on that airplane at 7 a.m., you want your pilot to be rested and ready. But the hotels they put us in now are so bad that there are many nights when I toss and turn. They're in bad neighborhoods, they're loud, they've got bedbugs, and there have been stabbings in the parking lot," said Jack Stephan, a US Airways captain.
Pilots also spoke out about some of the cost-cutting measures airlines have implemented in recent years. One of the comments that most surprised Peggy Northrop, editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest, dealt with fuel.

"I'm constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I'm comfortable with. Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel. Sometimes if you carry just enough fuel and you hit thunderstorms or delays, then suddenly you're running out of gas and you have to go to an alternate airport," a captain at a major airline told Reader's Digest.

Pilots are really playing that margin very, very close, Northrop told CNN, a revelation that may make lots of fliers queasy.

And if you're afraid of those bumps that shake your coffee cup during a flight, take note that pilots avoid turbulence because it's annoying rather than dangerous. But pay attention to the signals on board.

"It's one thing if the pilot puts the seat belt sign on for the passengers. But if he tells the flight attendants to sit down, you'd better listen. That means there's some serious turbulence ahead," said John Greaves an airline accident lawyer and former airline captain, according to Reader's Digest.

There are also some secrets pilots want you to know, like the best time to give them a compliment.

"Most of the time, how you land is a good indicator of a pilot's skill. So if you want to say something nice to a pilot as you're getting off the plane, say 'Nice landing.' We do appreciate that," Joe D'Eon, a pilot at a major airline, told the magazine.

Secrets pilots won't tell you - CNN.com (http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/10/21/pilot.secrets/index.html?iref=NS1)

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