The Life of an Airline Pilot
Them: So, what do you do?At that point they usually walk away, figuring I'm some crackpot impersonating a pilot. I guess they're not that far off! Still, the average person is widely missing the mark by thinking pilots are overpaid, underworked playboys frolicking with the "stewardesses" (that's neanthandral for flight attendant) on the Hawaii layovers when they're not home with the missus for 20 days a month. In the interest of correcting public perceptions, and warning off would-be pilots who want to get into the profession for the money and lifestyle, I present: The Life of an Airline Pilot.
Me: I'm a pilot.
Them: Oh, like for United?
Me: No, a regional airline called Horizon.
Them: Oh, I've heard of them. You must make a ton of money.
Me: Not really. It's under $30k/yr.
Them: Oh my god! Why don't you quit!
Me: Because every other regional pays less.
Them: Well at least you get to see the world!
Me: Uh, I get to see places like Missoula and Spokane.
Them: Well...at least you only work like 10 days a month...
First things first: Pay. Nobody in the industry is pulling down $300k. The few that used to make that much have taken huge paycuts. Senior United guys are making well under $200k now, plus they've lost their pension. The junior people are making far less than that. You can argue that it's a correction for years of overinflated paychecks, but in my mind they were always worth what they were paid. I'll save pilot pay for another post, but suffice it to say these guys have a huge amount of responsibility, and had to survive years of very low pay to get to where they are.
Now, take away senior widebody captains at the majors, and pilots have never made as much as the public thinks. You can barely survive on the entry level positions. I averaged about $1000/month as a flight instructor, and that was while working myself to the bone. If you work for a freight operation - which, mind you, requires that you have significant flight time - you'll still be lucky to break $20k/yr. So lets say you finally get picked up at a regional. Good thing you're used to living on soup by now, because first year pay still averages around $20k/yr. It might be several years before you exceed $30k. Now after all that, you finally upgrade to Captain at this regional airline - a position of serious responsibility over several hundred lives each day - and you'll likely make somewhere around $50k/yr. Fly in that position for a few years, and you might be inching up towards $100k - but if you chose to go to a major airline, you'll be taking a serious paycut for your first several years. See, that major airline captain, who you envy his $200k/yr - he spent years and years making dirt wages, struggling along just to make it to the point where you can tell him that he's overpaid.
Glamour. If anyone in the public still thinks of this as a glamourous industry, their head is still in the 60's. Airline life, while still enjoyable to some, is hard. You're spending hundreds of hours each month away from home, and unless you're senior at a major airline, that time is more likely to be spent in Billings or Detroit than Hawaii or Europe. You're not staying at 4-star hotels, either (well, there are exceptions, but most crew hotels are simply accessible and functional). Usually, especially at regionals, the layovers are long enough for you to eat and get a good sleep - not really long enough to do any exploring, shopping, etc.
Schedule. International pilots - the rather senior ones - may work 10 days a month (they fly their maximum monthly hours in that time). The rest of us are working far more. I'm currently getting 12 days off in a 35 day bid. Even if you can hold 15 or 16 days off per month, you're still likely away from home for 250-400 hours. That 70 hr/wk lawyer down the street is probably home more than you are!
Oh, one more thing. Until you get some good seniority, you'll be working weekends and holidays. Hope the kids weren't too set on having daddy home for Christmas.
A Day in the Life...
Okay, so having corrected a few misperceptions, what is it really like? I picked a fairly average day from a recent trip of mine. Some days are better, some are worse.
10:30am: I'm at home, enjoying the uncharacteristically nice weather the Northwest has been getting this winter, when the phone rings. It's crew scheduling and they have a 4-day trip for me, with overnights in Sun Valley, Edmonton, and Calgary. Better pack warm! I throw a pizza in the oven, knowing I don't get into Sun Valley until 10:20PM and I may not get a chance to eat until then. After eating and packing, I leave the house about 35 minutes before my show time of noon.
11:45am: I pull into the PDX employee lot, located about 2 miles from the terminal. We use a shuttle bus to get there. You need to allow some time for this, since the buses can be slow and/or late. Now, the key to parking in the employee lot is to park somewhere you'll remember when you return late at night, four days later. You're usually totally fried by then, and I've spent more than a few minutes wandering around the huge lot looking for where I parked my car.
11:55am: I walk down to the crew room at the end of "A" concourse and check in at the SBS computer. I print out my trip key, which looks like this for the first day:
Date Flight Depart Arrive Eq. Blk Grnd Duty CredNot a horrible day: only 4 legs. It comes to just over 6 hours' flying and 9.5 hours' duty time. Our longest break during that time is 45 minutes.
25Feb 2308 PDX 1303 SEA 1350 400 47 45 ( 1
25Feb 2341 SEA 1435 SUN 1706 400 131 39 ( 2
25Feb 2408 SUN 1745 OAK 1845 400 200 40 ( 3
25Feb 2409 OAK 1925 SUN 2220 400 155 1505 (4
Rpt 1200 Rls 2235 SUN 613 935 613
I meet the rest of the crew and find out which airplane we'll be flying. It's coming into A6 at 12:30, so until then I hang out and chat with my friends Ryan and Jill, who are checking in for trips of their own.
2:00pm: The inbound airplane arrived on time, so we should've been able to depart to Seattle on time, but we had 70 passengers - some of whom were on tight connections - and boarding was slow. We left the gate about 10 minutes late.We were about halfway to Seattle when one of our FA's, Melissa, calls to say there is a loud vibration around Row 6. "Yeah, it's called a propeller," I crack. But apparently several deadheading crewmembers say it's worse than usual, so we write it up when we get to Seattle. I hate this kind of writeup, because it's probably nothing, and it's going to be hard for maintenance to duplicate the problem and figure out what's wrong, if anything - and meanwhile the plane is grounded. Fortunately, there's a spare airplane sitting in Seattle that we can take to Sun Valley - but the aircraft swap means our 45 minutes on the ground will be busy.
500pm: We're over the Sawtooth Range of Idaho on descent into Sun Valley. I take it off autopilot, punch "stby" on the AFCS, and hand-fly the airplane, "raw data." There's no reason to use all the automation in the cockpit when it's a gorgeous day over some breathtaking terrain. This is enjoyable flying. I fly over the eastern side of the Wood River valley, make a descending turn over the town of Bellevue, and roll out onto a 4 mile final, where we quickly configure the airplane for landing on the rather narrow runway. The touchdown is nice. We're a little late, so we'll have to hurry to turn the airplane around for Oakland.
7:00pm: I was totally looking forward to a gourmet burrito in Oakland - there's a great place just across from gate 8 - but when I got into the terminal: complete pandemonium. It's an absolute zoo, and every eatery has a line at least 20 people long. Looks like a late dinner for me. I head back out to the plane, where I grab some snack crackers from the back before heading back up to the cockpit to get ready for our final leg to Sun Valley. I grab a New York Times so while on the way there, I can see what the official mouthpeice of the Democratic Party has to say.
10:40pm: We actually landed in Sun Valley a bit early. Sun Valley is unique in that we stay in a condo rather than a hotel, and the crew gets its own car. After landing, we drove to the condo and changed really quick, and then three of us head to the Red Elephant Saloon to eat. I call Dawn and talk to her briefly. She's bored at home alone and is somewhat upset that I can't talk longer, but my stomach growled the whole way from Oakland - I gotta eat! I promise to call her tomorrow morning, since we don't leave the condo until around noon. I get an overpriced Beef Dip and a Long Island at the bar, then turn in shortly after we get back to the condo.
That's an average day. Other days, you might have only two legs followed by a 20-hour overnight, or you might have a hellacious 8-leg day followed by a reduced-rest overnight (under 9 hours) followed by another hard day. It just varies.
I'm not telling you any of this to make you feel sorry for me. Despite the downsides, I enjoy this job and am still glad I fly for a living. However, way too many people get into this business with an unrealistic expectation of what it'll be like, and get angry when reality doesn't match their dreams. Angry people aren't fun to fly with. Anybody looking to enter such a turbulent, troubled industry needs to take a long, realistic look at what the job is like before they expend significant time and money to pursue this career.
One more thing: Never, ever, ever believe anything that flight schools tell you about becoming a professional pilot. They are generally full of crap: they know a really balanced look at the career would disuade many people from spending tons of money at their school.