Monday, February 28, 2005

The Life of an Airline Pilot

I think that "airline pilot" is a likely candidate for #1 misunderstood job. Most of the public thinks they have an idea what we do, and very few actually have a clue. Typical conversation:

Them: So, what do you do?
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: least you only work like 10 days a month...
Me: Hahahahahaha
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.

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 Cred
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
Not 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.

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.


Daniel Goodson said...

Preach on Brotha.
I flew for ACA and then Independence.
The pay is lousy, you get to go to South Bend Indiana and Binghamton NY. I commuted on mainline coast to coast for 5 years.
Now I am a manager in a construction firm, working 5 minutes from home at over twice the pay and, best of all NO JET LAG and a schedule!
Airlines are now a glam job, not a career path. Sad, because my family is an airline family (UAL).

Anonymous said...

Sure some people, the money, the girls, the uniform, whatever works for them... but at the end of the day its an office job with a view... why are we pilots, why do we fly... because we love flying, it's what we do... and for the most of us, we love it, at least in the younger years...

Anonymous said...

Well, in Aer Lingus the case is sometimes even worse. So I agree with you

Jason said...

Thank you for your blogging on one of your trips - I am actually one of those 'younger minds' that have aspired to be airline pilots, but totally got my eyes open at what you had talked about in your blog.
-Thanks again for posting your blog, it really helped me out in realizing what it must really be like for those in uniform at the airport - though you guys are still a celebrity in my eyes-

Anonymous said...

Lets not forget to mention that once you get that 50 or 100K a year your airline furlogh's you or forces you to relocate to another state.

Anonymous said...

This type of detailed writing/sharing/journal is exactly what I was looking for. I live in Spokane, hired by Horizon for ground crew(worked at an FBO instead), started pilot training with no idea what it is like to be an airline guy, freight hauler, or charter pilot. Flight training is fun and challenging, but a huge financial burden. Imagine the sound of winning the slot machine in Vegas... but that's the noise of your hard-worked money spilling out of control from your pants into the flight school reception room. -At the same rate too. Like a thundering rain.
I also have been searching for "a day in the life" of military flying, similar to your blog, but nothing yet.
Thanks for your time!

Anonymous said...

thanks great info

Anonymous said...

I'm on training.I might never be able to afford my to get married and have children, but: Boy I want that job!!!

Miss Elizabeth said...

Thanks for posting! I'm currently in training to be a pilot and absolutely love it. I was interested and slightly worried about the schedule an airline would put you through, so thanks for opening my eyes on that aspect of flying. Although commercial flying has always seemed amazing, I currently love the little Cherokee 140 I'm flying. I'm a waitress right now and pull about 20/K so it seems crazy that flight schools cost 60+/K for a job which starts you at about 20/K. What a scam they are running!

Keep on flying!

Anonymous said...

I love flying.
Don't care if the pays bad or if the circumstances are unfair because at the end of the day its the most fun thing in the world

Anonymous said...

Would the anonymous poster above who loves flying care to explain him/herself please?

Are you a recreation pilot or a commercial career pilot?

Anonymous said...

I'm reading this as an MD, still in the post-graduate training years, and chose medicine over being a professional pilot. I'm going through a particularly hard time in my training and constantly have thoughts about doing what I love instead - flying. I have my private and instrument rating, and have money available to be part of a great partial ownership flying club, and get to do great flying. But, everyday I walk into the hospital I think "what if".

I'm fortunate to be in this position, but I think what I take away from this blog is that anything that's worth doing will come with some serious front-end dues. Medicine, aviation, law, business owner, etc. No free lunch.

Anonymous said...

tisk, tisk...and this is why I am choosing to major in radiology rather than being a pilot, sadly :(. It is my dream, but when something does not fit your values and in the end is not worth busting stress and money over, well its not the right thing to do as a career. Unless! you do not wanna be married within the next couple of years and live under moms roof! lol. I think to myself on a daily basis though, "damn, id so rather be studying for a career in the aviation field rather than this shit that i am not going to enjoy...". I guess for right now, I will remain on my radiology path. I am going to save aviation as a hobby and someday have my own little single prop and just fly for fun. I sincerely appreciate you pilots for all that you do! I cant help but to think, every time that i step into a chataqua flight, "man, i bet those two are damn tired :|".

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm sixteen years old, and being and airline pilot is my dream. But I guess I had the misconception that it was glamorous, had a good salary, and that I would have a lot of time off. Does it differ from regionals to major airlines? What about where you are based? And one more thing, I'm planning on doing Navy ROTC and learning to fly through that. Are there any perks in the airline industry for being in the military?

Anonymous said...

Nice blogging effort. More people should do it.

"Been there, done that" myself with a far less desireable carrier than Horizon. If I had stayed I'd be about #5 out of 600 pilots (when I left I was #77).

Although I enjoyed the actual flying for the most part, despite the boring nature of endlessly repetetive city groups (which is dead easy because you can do it in your sleep, every freq and route and clearance down pat), I was perpetually unhappy with the job, especially because of the deadly long duty hours. I kept track and 82% of my work days were 11+ hours, and 68% at 12-plus, with nearly 2,500 duty hours put in anually (25% higher than the typical 9 to 5 job), not including commute time, which added several hundred more hours. After several years of that hard grind rarely a day went by when I didn't have to take a short nap in the cockpit while airborne.

The company (management) itself was unbelieveably unsupportive and adversarial, with the attitude that there's always another sucker in line to take your job. Except for relatively new F.O.'s, everyone from rampers to captains was pretty much "bad attitude", yet they all worked like dogs out of personal pride (as most aviation folk do) to do a good job. That's the excellent aspect of an aviation career. 99.9% of everyone knows their job and does it well.

I got out finally, just up and quit one day on 3 weeks notice, with no other job to go to. The heck with that stressful, thankless lifestyle. I had job security due to seniority and a so-so retirement to look forward to, but I've probably avoided ulcers, premature gray hair and being the grumpiest captain in the universe until retirement. That was over 10 years ago. I've been much happier ever since, despite an unstable career in other types of flying.

After 24+ years in professional aviation I still haven't got my shot at the "majors" and am now pretty much past doing so. For any up-and-coming pilots reading this, approximately 40% of civilian pilots never do make it to the "big time". That's a fact. There are NO guarantees. I never have and probably never will make a six-figure salary. You'd be appalled to know my lifetime cumulative income as a pilot.

Part of it is because in 24 years I've also been furloughed once and lost my job twice, totalling nearly 1/5 of my flying career. These episodes were, of course, all in economic slumps where there was little to no hiring going on anywhere in the country. Two of them were "career" jobs that simply vanished one day with little to no notice.

Be aware that every time you start over at a new company, it's bottom of the seniority list and payscale, although over time I've gotten to better starting salaries. Even when you have the luxury of choosing the better companies it's a crap-shoot. One of my flying jobs (corporate) was
with a Fortune 100 company. Merger with a Fortune 50, flight department closed, sayonara senor! Don't let the door hit you in the tail feathers on the way out! And so it goes sometimes.

So what's the bottom line? I'd probably do it all over again anyway. It has been an interesting life so far. Aviation. It's not a profession, it's an illness, often an incurable one.

gino said...

After 10 years, I'm being recalled to the majors from furlough. Trying to remember why it was I wanted to be an airline pilot, I recalled the first day I arrived at the majors. A senior pilot presented the class with, "you've won the lottery. Congratulations on the last job of your life." Six months later I was in the unemployment line. 3-4 million dollars seemed like a lottery, but a lottery I'd have to work 35 years to get, give up family life and turn to booze to endure. Other than the turning to booze part, that's not a lottery. Is the aviation industry oversold? We'll, you'd better love your job, cause wait till ya see your paycheck. Send your family a postcard, bet it gets home before you do. My favorite saying is "if an airline pilot's first wife isn't a flight attendant, the second one is...and the third one isn't."
I'm now a Psychiatric RN wondering which career is crazier.

Anonymous said...

Because your'e born to Fly.

And I'll keep the same wife of my youth, or I won't give a fuck.

It's about catching air.

Anonymous said...

Being a pilot in europe is completely different. Being a pilot in general is completely different... Us pilots do what we do because we love it. It really is one of those careers that it takes passion for and that is something we must have. Flying is an amazing job... In my opinion anyone who hasn't attained a pilots liscence at least has missed out big time. High pay, glamour, free stopovers and all that comes with the job we do, it's all just added bonuses that we mustn't take for granted, but overall, we do what we do because we love it, and would you write this article if you had a passion for flying? I hope you find it again because anyone can be a good pilot and work their way to high saleries and glamour, it's just that with these reagional carriers it can sometimes take some perseverence. Love your job... Best reguards

Joshua pilot wannabe said...

If you are in the RAF, you can take airline pilot training for free. Plus, now you need a degree to get into British Airways. I'm 15 and have an extremely strong ambition in airline piloting. I have done so much research into it. I have found out that you don't have to have an A-level in maths or physics. You just need a grade c-a* in 5 gcse's. I don't really care about the pay at the start, because it gradually increases. I don't really want a wife because you can do whatever you like with your money.
Competition is stiff in becoming a pilot as there are loads wanting to be one. So if you get rejected, keep on trying, find other places, websites, etc.
No one can break your dreams!

Anonymous said...

I fly for a major African Airline. Im a first officer, in my fourth yr. I make US$126 000 a yr. I know that I'm very fortunate however if things are looking turbulent in the US try Asia. Countries like Vietnam , china are in serious need of experienced flight crew.
Unfortunately if you not experienced you gotta bite the bullet like most of us have ! I spent my formative years flying turbo props in deep dark Africa ! Not very glamorous at all !!!

Cessna 152 Performance and Specifications said...

That looks so sad. Money for some pilots are so hard but some do receive a good salary(only for those seniors). I now realize how hard it is to be a pilot. Your schedule is really hectic and so tiring. No enough rest and no good food during duties. Not really good for those who are already parents. Thanks for sharing this blog.

Anonymous said...

this really helped me on my school project

SheKatt said...

Great response! My ex... yes EX husband (I only throw that in because I was one of those unfortunate spouses who experienced AiDS "airline divorce syndrome") After flight instructing, hauling freight, paying to get type rated in 737 etc.. he was finally able to secure an FO position with Horizon Air. I was amazed at how ridiculously low the pay schedule was for starting FO's roughly 18k per year in 1995.

In my opinion, pilot's are terribly under paid for the amount of time, education and money contributed to secure a position with a decent carrier. Of course this does not even consider the tremendous stress, wear and tear on relationships and family and responsibility that come with the job.
I agree... this is a lifestyle more than a career, and if you don't love to fly, there are much easier ways to make money and not go into substantial debt for a career!
I'm glad it has worked out for you. Like you I agree this is a great blog for those considering a career in the airline industry!
I wish you all the best! Stay safe and keep the shiney side up, and the wheels down!
Las Vegas NV

pilot said...

Superb post. Informative for me.

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Anonymous said...

first year pilot at a regional. Looking at first year at 28k with per diem included and 800 hours of flying first year. This figure does include my 5000 bonus. It is rough with money and hard to get by. For the first couple of years in this career use craigslist for furniture and buy cheap at walmart for food and other things. Also get an economical car with no monthly payments. Subway is a great option for airport food or bring your food for the road. If you smoke or drink quit and pick up working out at a free gym or take up jogging or biking. Ask for clothes or money for the holidays so you can afford new clothes every once in a while. Learn how to cook and how to look on the internet for free stuff or reduced value things. If you can and live at base pick up part time job to make a little extra cash. Every penny counts first few years.

Anonymous said...

Home in PDX???

No longer in Minnesnowta?

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Become Pilot said...

It is dangerous for our flight

Annewow said...

Wonderful post. i am going to school at and i just love being in control and being "above it all" its breathtaking every-time. my life has'nt been the same. thanks for the post

Unknown said...

I have been through that. Work for the wadia group in india . Life sucks like shit

Pilot said...

Thanks great info!!!
Useful information.