The Flying Fahans: A Partnership at 30,000 feet

Pilots Joe and Margrit Fahan walk through New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport prior to their flight to Paris, France. Pilots Joe and Margrit Fahan walk through New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport prior to their flight to Paris, France.

The countdown has already started.

For the pilots commanding Delta Airlines flight 262 from New York to Paris, the work begins long before departure. In the next few hours, they’ll check the weather, their route over the ocean, and brief the flight attendants about the particulars of the flight. 

Once in the air, it will take a mere 6 hours and 15 minutes to transport the nearly 300 passengers across the Atlantic. For the aviation veterans at the controls, safety is always the top priority.

“It’s like a well-scripted play,” said Margrit Fahan, a JFK-based co-pilot. “The captain has his duties, the co-pilot has his or her duties, and the augmented pilot has a specific duty as well.  So, everybody knows their job.”

Fahan is a seasoned aviator. She has flown gliders, props and jumbo jets. She’s also developed a reputation for excellent landings.

“She always lands the plane ten times better than I do,” said Captain Joe Fahan. “It’s maddening.  She does a great job in the airplane.”.

If the last name gets your attention, it should. As husband and wife, Joe and Margrit Fahan are one of only a handful of married pilots flying for the major airlines. Tonight, the couple will be in the cockpit as they fly to France.

Married for more than 26 years, the Fahans have seen the world together. Athens, Rome, Zurich, Paris, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Beijing are just some of the cities they have flown to and visited together over the past few years.

Because both hold high seniority, the two are often able to share trips together. In the airline world, seniority determines who gets the first chance to pick what trips to fly and when. Joe is a captain. Margrit is a first officer on the Airbus A330-300, a twin-aisle jet she affectionately calls the “big bus.” 

The pair has developed a loyal following as the “Flying Fahans” on Instagram. With more than 6,000 followers from around the world, they chronicle their international journeys in the air and on the ground, attracting both “aviation geeks” and travel enthusiasts alike. They’ve been recognized by travelers as they’ve strolled through the airports in New York and Los Angeles.

At a time when the airline industry has recently dealt with a government shutdown, fluctuating oil prices, a pilot shortage, and political instability around the world, the Fahans still share a love for aviation, their careers, and each other. Through their reach on social media, they are able to mentor the next generation of aviators by providing guidance on training and managing an unconventional lifestyle. Despite the many miles they’ve flown, they’ve also raised a family and are now discovering a new facet to their relationship as empty nesters and as a couple frequently working together in the sky.

If you watch the Fahans walk through the airport ticket lobby, they look as if they were made for each other. Both stand about six feet tall and maneuver their matching black suitcases on wheels with ease. Margrit’s bag has a handle reading “queen of the road.” From a glance to a laugh, when we had lunch together at an airport diner, the friendship at the center of their relationship is palpable.

Aviation is in their DNA

The couple first crossed paths while working for a commuter airline in New Jersey in the ‘80s. Joe was a pilot.  Margrit was a flight attendant who eventually moved into the cockpit.  Both married before, their romance didn’t take off until years later when they ran into each other at the airport in Detroit. Both now pilots, “we started hanging out…the rest is history,” Joe said.  The two married after dating for one year.

The Fahans are not just spouses. They’re parents of two sons in their twenties.  Both followed their parents into aviation. One son is a pilot for the Navy, the other a pilot for a regional airline.

Raising two children with such a mobile job was far from predictable. The two never flew together, with one parent staying home while the other was working. That meant they flew on opposite schedules. Even though they had au pairs to help, the Fahans, essentially, were married single parents. Trips could last up to 18 days at a time.

“We used to joke about it, twenty years of our marriage we really were only married two years,” Margrit said.

Separation wasn’t the only turbulence. The family has had to make peace with the volatile nature of the airline industry. The Fahans navigated the merger of Northwest Airlines and Republic Airlines, various corporate bankruptcies, and pay cuts that required the family to scale back.  Yet, through the hardship came a teachable moment for their children.

“That was a time where we showed our kids, you know, hey, if you don’t really love what you do, it’s going to be a struggle,” Margrit said.

The Fahans have persevered, in part, because they are empathetic spouses. Who else could understand the uncertainty that comes with the job? They are now able to reacquaint themselves with each other. They now feel grounded after spending so much time in the air, literally and figuratively.

“When you get away from home and everything that goes on at home, you’re basically dating again,” said Joe, when describing their relationship.

Still, it’s fair to ask, what about the normal bickering and snipes that happen even in the best of times?

As far as squabbles at home extending into the sky, they stay in the house. Disruption on the job is not an option.

“We have a job to do,” Joe said, knowing that pilots are always under the microscope and must always be precise.

“Once you get on the airplane, it’s all business,” Margrit said

Aviation is part of their professional lives and now, thanks to social media, it’s part of their personal lives, as well. 

A glance at their Instagram page reveals a global travelogue. There are photos from the flight deck and the Eiffel Tower. You’ll see their family and even a shot of Margrit’s homemade Key Lime Pie.

What started as an Instagram page to update family and stay in touch with friends has become a conduit for mentoring. The couple gets messages and questions from young and aspiring pilots from around the world. “I just try to take a few minutes and write something that I would like to hear myself,” Joe said.

Even though the Fahans have been flying for three decades, the thrill of traveling to far-off destinations never gets old.

“International flying is all about the layovers,” Joe said.

Even if it’s a one-day stop, they make the most of their time on the road and their time together. They are explorers, often visiting historical landmarks in between flights.  

Joe has a fondness for French salted butter, while Margrit will tell you the olive oil in Athens is better than its counterpart in Rome.

While the couple jokes they have two hotel rooms waiting when they land, they do enjoy their time together. “We have a dinner buddy when we get there,” Margrit said.

They know what they’re enjoying now won’t last forever.  Under a government regulation, airline pilots have to retire at age 65.  Joe is 62.  Margrit is 58.

“One day you’re going to be retired, and if you can’t get along now, it’s going to be tough when you retire,” Joe said.