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Pilots have all sorts of ranks and titles that it’s hard to know who is who and what you should say to them. So how exactly are pilots addressed?

Commercial airline pilots are addressed as Captain, “sir”, or “ma’am”. Even if you see the First officer standing by to bid you farewell, it’s not customary to address them as anything but these three. Military pilots are almost exclusively addressed according to their ranks.

Have you ever had the awkward moment of not knowing what to say to a pilot while you’re deboarding? In this article, we’ll make sure you learn how all different pilots are addressed so that you never have that problem again. Commercial pilots, military pilots, and even personal aircraft pilots. We’ve got you covered.

On this site, we strive to provide our readers with only the best content that they can find on the web. So to answer the question of how pilots are addressed, we combined our own personal knowledge with input from pilots from all over. This way, you only get the most accurate content possible. When you’re finished with this article, go forward with confidence that you’ll know how to address the pilot next time you need to!

Table of contents


What Should I Call The Pilots On A Commercial Plane?

This is more than likely the main reason that you’re here. You’ve probably deboarded a plane at some point in the past while traveling and you've seen the pilot (maybe both pilots) standing at the front near the flight deck, waiting to say goodbye as you go. But what exactly do you say to them? How are you supposed to address them?

Well, that may or may not depend on which pilot you’re actually making that awkward eye contact with.

What Is A Captain And What Is The First Officer?

On the vast majority of commercial flights, there are actually two pilots flying the aircraft. One is known as the Captain, and the other is the First Officer. This is just their official rank within that airline, but the Captain is the higher ranking of the two. Beyond just their ranks, there is not that big of a difference between the two.

I mean that in a very general sense, as in both of them fly the aircraft. Don’t think that the Captain flies the plane and the First Officer is just there as backup. In most cases, the flying duties are split depending on pilot rest, who’s eating meals when, and more. The difference in rank is typically stemmed from experience and superiority. But again, both of them fly the aircraft.

So when you go to deboard the plane and you see the pilot standing there, don’t just assume that it’s automatically the Captain instead of the First officer, or vice versa. The vast majority of passengers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference (number of bars), nor are you expected to! Therefore, it’s commonly accepted to address either pilot in the same way.

But how?

How Are Captains And First Officers Addressed?

The easiest way to address the pilot on a commercial flight is by referring to them as Captain, regardless of if it’s actually the Captain or the First Officer. This is for a number of different reasons, but the first being that the vast majority of passengers will not know the difference between the Captain and the First officer to begin with, and most people will just say Captain.

Also, as alluded to above, the Captain and the First Officer more or less have the same actual ranking within the aircraft. Both fly it, both are trained on it, and both are co-pilots of one another. You typically wouldn't go up to the First Officer and say “thanks for the great flight, First Officer…”, instead of calling either one Captain is more than acceptable.

And of course, to avoid any sort of confusion over what the actual rank of the pilot you’re talking to is, you can take the rank out of how you address them entirely. This goes back to the old faithful of using “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing someone. If the pilot is male, saying “thank you, sir” is perfectly acceptable. Conversely, if they’re a female, then a nice “thank you, ma’am” is commonplace.

In any case, just don’t overthink it when you’re trying to address the pilot! In most cases, just about anything you say that is kind and courteous will be graciously accepted, regardless of if you’re talking to the captain, First Officer, or any other crew member.

How Are Military Pilots Addressed?

Military pilots are quite a bit different from commercial pilots in many ways, of course including the ways that they’re addressed. Most people walking the streets will never actually have to address a military pilot in any way whatsoever since they won’t be on a military installation talking to the pilot in any case.

So this makes it a bit easier from the start, since most of the time military pilots will only be addressed by other members of the military. And the way in which members of the military address each other is very simple, no matter the branch — by rank. This is especially common for a higher rank addressing a lower rank.

If it’s the other way around, and a lower rank is addressing a higher ranking member in the military, they’ll most often just address them as “sir” or “ma’am”. But for the most part, you can expect military pilots to be addressed by their ranks, not as Captain or First Officer or anything like that. Especially since Captain is a rank in itself! So when a pilot gets out of a military aircraft, just address them as “sir”, “ma’am”, or their rank and you’ll be solid!

Does this ring true when a military aircraft is piloted by more than one person? What if an aircraft lands and two pilots get out?

Is A Pilot And Co-Pilot In The Military Addressed Differently?

This one’s easy! With military pilots, as stated above, the safest way to address them is just by rank. And since the vast majority of the time only other military members ever need to address military pilots, it’s very easy since they’ll all know the ranks. And even if you don’t know the ranks, resorting to “sir” or “ma’am” is always a safe bet.

That’s because just because one pilot is flying the aircraft and the other might be riding along as the co-pilot, that does not automatically mean that the one flying the aircraft is of higher rank! Whether it’s training, standard operating procedure, or one of many other reasons, the pilot flying the aircraft could very well be a lower rank than the co-pilot. So it’s best to just be consistent in the ways you address them.