Day to Day Life of Commercial Pilots
What’s good about being a pilot and what you may not have considered . . .
The Day to Day realities of Being an Airline Pilot
Flying can be a very rewarding career, both financially and in terms of job satisfaction, but it is important to know both the ups and downs of the profession. It’s also important to know what you are looking for in the career as this could significantly impact on the type of flying and airline you may set out to work for.
Airline Pilot Pay
Flight crew undertake intensive and expensive training to develop a highly unique and perishable skill set. As a result, pilots are generally well paid, typically earning significantly above the average salary – varying between around £30,000 to over £200,000 depending on seniority, aircraft and airline. The remuneration can vary considerably from company to company, but generally speaking, low cost carriers tend to pay less than the flag carriers, and as one might expect, the bigger the aircraft and the further you fly, the higher the pay.
Staff Travel Discounts
Most airlines will also offer excellent staff travel packages, with flag carriers typically offering 90% off their ticket prices for you and your family. This means you might be able to travel from London to New York in First or Business Class for as little as £150.
One of the obvious challenges for a pilot is their roster. Being up at 4am or going to bed well past midnight is part of the territory.
A typical day for an airline pilot can vary considerably depending on the airline they fly for and the type of operation. Days can be very short or very long, be very busy or even be a bit boring.
As a pilot, you do tend to get quite a lot of time off to allow you to recover between flights. The numbers of hours pilots can work a day/week/month/year are limited by regulations to avoid fatigue.
The job typically offers more days off than your typical Monday to Friday 9-5 job, and better holiday allowances. The downside to this is that you may find yourself seldom having a free weekend; little or no summer leave and bank holidays are just another normal working day. Whilst this may seem minor to some, having to miss Christmas or family a member’s birthday celebration year after year can take its toll.
Maintaining a normal social and family life can be a challenge as you may often find you have your time off when your friends are at work or your children at school.
The Machine & the View
Being trusted to be part of an exclusive team which go to work and operate a state of the art multi-million-pound aircraft never gets boring. The satisfaction of flying a big commercial jet full of passengers to their destination, particularly when the conditions are challenging can be incredible.
You also get to see some truly fantastic sights from the air – sunrise at 35,000 feet or seeing the Northern Lights is something you will never tire of.
There are on-going debates about the occupation’s impact on long term health. Having a continuously changing body clock, being up during the circadian low and regularly experiencing jet lag (long haul pilots) all has negative effects on health.
Equally, spending a lot of time at a pressure altitude of 8,000 feet can be very fatiguing.
Other theories about contaminated cockpit air and cancer associated with solar radiation continue to circulate.
Short Haul Low Cost Pilots
Short haul pilots for low cost airlines typically start and finish their day at their allocated base. They do not tend to do night stops and therefore can expect to be back at home for the night. Technical problems or weather issues down route can of course have an impact on the operation which could result in an unscheduled night stop.
Short haul flights might last anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. Medium haul is defined as 3-6 hours.
There are usually two pilots on short haul flights, a First Officer and a Captain.
The roster is usually fixed with set days off, and this gives you the advantage of being able to plan your life in advance. The short haul rosters vary in stability depending on which airline you are working for. At some airlines, rosters might seldom change after they’ve been issued, but at other airlines, your roster might change reguarly which can limit your ability to plan your life.
Typical Short Haul Roster
Different airlines offer different opportunities. For example, a well-known European airline offers a 5 on 4 off roster at most of their bases, and there are no scheduled overnight stops. For some this can be great if you are at the base of your choice and want to be back home with your family every night, but can also be very challenging if you are based a long way from home and are commuting back and forth on your days off.
Rosters usually alternate from week to week, for example you will be on an early shift pattern one week, then switch to a late shift pattern the next.
Depending on the duration of the flight, short haul pilots can expect to fly between 2 and 6 flights a day. This has the advantage of having the opportunity to do plenty of manual flying (less use of the autopilot!) compared to operating on a long haul fleet where opportunities are less frequent. Short sectors can be demanding due to the high workload demanded on the flight crew – you have to fit a lot in a short amount of time.
As a low cost short haul pilot, you will operate to a range of destinations, often to smaller airfields that are less well equipped. This might mean having to fly visual approaches with less use of the autopilot.
Long Haul Pilots
A long-haul flight is defined as having a flight time of more than 6 hours.
Long haul pilots fly all over the world and can spend a lot of time away from home. Trips can last from a few days to over a week. The constant changing of time zones can be very fatiguing.
Long haul pilots will typically get more days off than short haul pilots due to the amount of time they spend away from home and thus the need to rest and adjust their body clocks.
To become a long-haul pilot, you would typically need to gain some experience as a short haul pilot. Long haul pilots might only get to land the aircraft a couple of times a month. To get to a skill level where you can achieve this, you require a good degree of previous experience flying short haul operations where take-offs and landings are frequent. This is why you typically progress from short haul to long haul operations.
There may be a number of pilots on long haul flights to allow the flight crew members to rest in the crew quarters on particularly long flights. Generally speaking, a long-haul pilot can expect to be paid more than a short haul pilot.
Check out our blog of a typical long haul flight from a pilots perspective.
Cargo pilots typically fly at night and work more consecutive days than short haul passenger pilots. However they tend to get more time off as a result. West Atlantic for example, offer a one week on, one week off roster.
Corporate / Business Jet Pilots
Corporate pilots are required to be extremely flexible as they could be called to operate a flight at any time of day or night and to anywhere – you are often completely at the disposal of the customer or aircrafts owner.
Once you arrive at the destination specified by the customer, you could spend a number of days in a hotel without knowing when or where you will fly next. You may also have to do additional duties such as filing the flight plans, loading the aircraft and greeting the passengers. As a result of the flexibility required, corporate pilots are usually very well paid. Whilst they are on “standby” for long periods (often 1 – 2 weeks) you are then given roughly an equal time off.