Thursday, December 08, 2005

Flying Careers Part 7: Lifestyle

Lifestyle is a pretty all-encompasing subject. I'm just going to hit some high points and write what you can expect in some of the more common jobs. Note that some of the less common jobs may offer more of what you're looking for; as an example, if you'd rather fly like crazy for 6 months and then have 6 months off, aerial firefighting is perfect for you. Other examples about; it's just to avoid the more typical aviation lifestyles I'm about to write about, you may have to think outside the box.

Work Schedule

As a new CFI, your work schedule is pretty dependent on your students' needs. If they can only fly on weekends, don't plan on having weekends off. If it's July and your student needs some night cross-country instruction, you'll be out flying until the wee hours of the morning. As a general rule, the more "institutional" the school is, the better chance you have at a semblance of a M-F/9-5 schedule. Full time students are less likely to need to fly on the weekends or after work. At a smaller FBO, you may well work six days a week and simply have a lot of downtime on weekdays.

Some of the alternative starter jobs provide a more consistent schedule. Traffic watch tends to be a M-F job with set hours (during rush hour!). Dropzones are busiest on weekends, and many shut down completely during the week. The same goes for banner towing operations.

Should you choose to fly Part 135 once you have enough time, the schedule really depends on the kind of operation you fly for. At smaller charter outfits, you'll be tied to a pager 24/7; at bigger operations you may bid a schedule based on seniority, airline-style. If you fly for a scheduled freight op that hauls cancelled checks, your schedule matches the banks': Monday through Friday with banking holidays off. For small package feeder service, schedules tend to me Mon-Fri or Tues-Sat.

Corporate pilots, like charter pilots, are infamous for being married to their pagers. You fly when the big-wigs are ready to fly. On the other hand, larger corporate flight departments as well as fractional carriers tend to have set schedules, often with airline-style bidding systems.

At regional, national, and major airlines, you bid every month for your schedule based on seniority. Some airlines have preferential bid systems, where you specify which days you would like to work and which you want off, and these are awarded in order of seniority. Others have "hard lines" build by crew planning and subsequently bid for by seniority. There will be both regular lines and reserve lines, and a variety of schedules (weekends off vs weekdays off). Of course, weekends off go senior, and reserve lines go junior. The weekends-off reserve lines can go either way; sometimes crappy regular lines will regularly go junior to better reserve lines.

Many airlines have multiple aircraft types, with larger types meriting higher pay; this adds to the schedule vs pay choices available. Bidding up to a larger aircraft while still junior may increase your pay, but you'll be stuck on reserve and working weekends when you could have a weekends-off regular line in a smaller aircraft. The same choice goes for captain upgrades. At regional airlines, it's usually a no-brainer: upgrade ASAP for the turbine PIC time. If you're at the airline you want to retire at, though, it's not such a rush. You may choose to sit in the right seat until you'd be able to hold a decent line as a Captain.

The lines do tend to vary in the number of days they have off. Because they're usually built to the same number of block hours, the more efficient lines have more days off. At Horizon, regular lines have between 13 and 17 days off per 35 day bid period (reserves have 12 off). Some regionals allow for as little as 8 days off per month. Most major and national airlines build their lines as efficiently as possible, and their schedules are built to less block hours than the regionals', so they get more days off - 14 to 18 days per month is typical.

Time Away from Home

"Airline flying would be a great job if it weren't for all the travel," goes the old joke. And flying, airline flying in particular, does involve a lot of time away from home. Just how much can vary quite a bit, though.

Lines can be built with daytrips, overnight trips, or three or four day trips. Many international trips are even longer, although lines containing these tend to have a lot of days off. How long the company tends to build it's trips largely depends on how much extra they have to pay the crew to do so. This is where trip rigs are very important, as I mentioned in my pilot pay posting. A 4:1 trip rig allows the company to keep you away from home for 24 hours for only 6 hours' pay; they'll probably get that much flying out of you anyways. A 3:1 trip rig, however, would pay 8 hours of credit for the same 24 hours, making it more likely that the company will minimize overnights. Lots of overnights also cost the company money for per diem and hotel expenses, so any pay rig under 4:1 will usually result in shorter trips, and more nights at home. For any airline you're considering flying for, check the pay rigs and ask line pilots what kind of time they spend away from base. I'd say that under 250 hours per month is good, 300 is average, and 350+ is bad. At Horizon, most of our lines are in the 350-430 hrs/month range.

Of course, if you are commuting to your base, you'll tend to favor longer trips since you'll get a free hotel room rather than paying for a crashpad or hotel bed in your own base. If you are a commuter, 4-day trips are your friend. Add in the time spent commuting, and you're probably looking at 500+ hours away from home per month. As I'll discuss later, commuting is a really bad idea if you value time at home.

Most non-airline jobs are quite a bit better. It's rare that a flight instructor spends a night away from home, and many freight dogs are home every night (or every day, for the nocturnal fliers). Fractional pilots fly similar trips to airline pilots; the corporate side varies a lot. On the other side of the coin, international contract pilots and aerial firefighters may spend several months away from home at a time.

Life on the Road

Like many other things in this career, road life is what you make of it. Lots of people really hate it, but others have a lot of fun with it. There are many crewmembers that, upon arriving at the hotel, go straight to their rooms and aren't seen until the next morning for the van ride to the airport. We call these "Slam-Click" crews, and they seem, to me at least, to be the ones that whine the most about being away from home. The truth is that if you make an effort, you can often find something fun or interesting to do on layovers - particularly if you have a good crew. Sometimes you'll make plans to go out to eat or for drinks, or just meet in the hotel bar for happy hour. Often there will be a mall or movie theater near the hotel, or public transportation to go explore the surrounding area. With a little planning, some layovers can be really memorable. Recently a friend of mine rented a sailboat in Eureka, CA, and took his crew sailing at sunset on the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, not every layover is fun and games. Often they are short overnights or they come at the end of long, exhausting days, and nobody is in the mood to do anything. The hotels do all start to look like each other. If you have a spouse and/or kids at home, that makes things tougher. Sometimes you can barely work up the motivation to go eat a stale sandwich at the hotel restaurant, much less do something fun or productive. I find that the best antidote is simply forcing myself to get out of the hotel, even if it's just a walk around the neighborhood. Many crewmembers cope by working out in the hotel's fitness room, which helps compensate for some of the health effects of this job.

One note about partying on layovers: there was once a day when this was the norm, and everyone would show up for work the next day hung over. Today random testing, increased FAA vigilence, and stricter company policies have put a damper on not only the excesses but more moderate drinking as well. A lot of people have been stung, even when they were abiding by FAA and company policies. So if you do drink on a layover, you'd be well advised to keep it in moderation and observe the following rules: do not pay by credit card, particularly in the hotel you're staying at; do not tell anyone you are an airline employee; do not leave alcohol containers in your room; if you're in a crewmember's room, keep the volume LOW! In other words, be discrete and use common sense.

Family Life

Airline life is notoriously hard on marriages and family life. Not only will you be gone for a lot of time, you'll be gone on important holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. There are some things you can do to help such as not upgrading or transitioning to larger aircraft until you can hold a good line, but this isn't a perfect solution - it may well put money stress on the family.

One solution is to forgo airline life altogether. There are many aviation jobs that are much better for keeping a pilot home. Or, if you must go the airline route, but family is important to you, choose carefully.


One of the supposed benefits to flying for an airline is the ability to live somewhere other than where you are based. One would suppose that a Newark-based pilot would want to live anywhere but Newark. The thing is, commuting causes as many problems as it solves. Let's consider an easy commute, from Denver to Chicago. There are four airlines that fly between these city pairs (UA, AA, F9, ATA), with flights leaving nearly every hour. The flight itself takes only 2 hours. Give yourself an hour for check-in and security at Denver, and we're talking a 3-hour commute, right?

Well, both Denver and Chicago are pretty prone to weather delays in all seasons, so you'll want a flight that arrives a good two hours before your check-in time in Chicago. Plus, most airlines' commuter policies require a backup flight, so now we're looking at getting to Denver a good 6 hours before your checkin time in Chicago. Of course, if you have an early show time, you'll need to fly in the night before and get a hotel room or use a crashpad. If you get done with work late at night, you'll have to wait for the first flight out of the morning. If the weather is particularly bad or the loads are heavy, you may find your easy commute taking a whole 24 hours on each end. If you have two days off between trips, it might hardly be worth coming home for.

Long-time commuters are typically eager to give the newhire a word of advice: Don't commute. I won't go so far as to say don't, but the truth is that every aspect of airline life that sucks, commuting makes worse. Consider the cost before you take the job.

The best solution is to find a job that will base you somewhere that you'd like to live, or at least wouldn't mind. Of course, for someone working their way up to the majors, this will entail a number of major moves over the years.


For as much research that's been done into pilot fatigue, and all the accidents that happened because the pilots did sometime dumb while they were tired, the world of aviation has yet to take fatigue seriously. The FAA regulations for airline pilots are pretty lenient. You can be given as few as 8 hours of rest, including time spent in transportation to and from the hotel, and follow that up with 16 hours of duty and 8 hours of flying. That's about 5 hours of sleep to do 16 hours of work on. Some union contracts contain better rest rules or fatigue provisions, but few airlines have done anything on their own to reduce the problem. The general response tends to be that it is the crewmember's duty to ensure they are properly rested.

Outside of the airlines, rest rules are even more relaxed, but most jobs have working conditions that are more conducive to better rest. If you are someone who needs a lot of sleep to function properly, it behooves you to do some thorough research before accepting any flying job.


There are a lot of overweight pilots flying around. It's not exactly an active job - you're basically doing nothing but sitting for hours on end. The most exercise you'll get while working is the aircraft walkaround between flights. Heck, sometimes I offer to do the walkaround for the captain just so I can stretch my legs. Back when I was a freight dog it wasn't so bad, because I'd be loading and unloading the airplane between legs.

Another problem is the poor eating habits of many pilots. As a CFI, I tended to grab lunch and/or dinner out of vending machines and scarf it down between students. Many airline pilots eat the same sort of stuff, either in the form of crew meals or onboard snacks. At Horizon, we don't have crew meals cooked on board the planes - we have dispensers in the crew rooms, along with microwaves. Typical is the Sausage Breakfast Burrito, which contains over 1000 calories and over 400% the daily recommended saturated fat! Marginally better food can often be purchased in the terminal, but there's usually not enough time on 30 minute turns.

Many crewmembers pack their own lunches, at least for the first several days of a trip. Several captains I fly with make their own healthy trail mix to snack on during flights. I try to keep the inflight snacks to a minimum unless it's something relatively healthy like dried plums.

On the exercise end of things, there's not much you can do about being inactive at work, but you can attempt to be active at the layover. Most crew hotels have fitness centers with treadmills, stationary bikes, and weight machines. Many have pools that one can attempt to swim laps in while avoiding cannonballing children. A good run or long walk is a good alternative depending on the weather. This summer when I spend a lot of time in Helena, I did quite a bit of hiking and exploring the mountains outside of town.

Besides poor nutrition and lack of exercise, the above-mentioned lack of rest has a way of catching up to you, with it's own detrimental health effects. Also, for pilots flying at high altitude, UV ray exposure is a legitimate health concern. Studies are somewhat inconclusive, but tend to point towards a higher rate of skin cancer in airline pilots than other professions.


Next post: Job Stability, or lack thereof.


Jason said...

I've enjoyed reading this series of posts so far, thanks! It's a side of aviation that a rec. pilot like me knows little about.

Sam said...

Thanks Jason, glad you like the blog!