Day to Day Life As an Airline Pilot

Day to Day Life of Commercial Pilots

What’s good about being a pilot and what you may not have considered . . .

The 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 is 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.

Flight crew undertake intensive and expensive training to develop a highly unique and perishable skill set. As a result, pilots are generally well paid, 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 go, the greater the pay.

Most airlines will offer excellent staff travel packages, with flag carriers typically offering 90% off their ticket prices for you and your family.

Rosters

A typical day for an airline pilot can vary considerably. One day you may start work at 5 am and only work for 4 hours whilst other days you might start work at 12 pm work for 13 hours.

In terms of time off, the rosters are also generally quite good, offering 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.

Some of the Positives

There are of course many positives and negatives to the job in general terms across the industry. Being trusted to operate a state of the art multi-million-pound aircraft alongside healthy a remuneration package and having the opportunity to travel extensively are some of the obvious benefits. You get to see some truly fantastic sights from the air – sunrise at 35,000 feet is something you will never tire of.

Health Implications

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 vary in stability depending on which airline you are working for. With some airlines, they might hardly change at all after they’ve been issued, at other airlines, they might be changed right up until the last minute.

            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 doing plenty of manual flying when compared to operating on a long haul fleet. Short sectors can be demanding due to the high workload placed on the flight crew.

As a low cost short haul pilot, you will operate to a range of destinations, often to smaller airfields that are less well equipped which can make the flying quite demanding.

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

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.

Common Questions about Becoming an Airline Pilot

Becoming a Pilot – The Common Questions

How to Become an Airline Pilot – Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions on the topic of becoming a commercial airline pilot. These questions are designed to get you started with some basic information. All of these questions are expanded on in further detail throughout the website.

If you have a question on a subject we haven’t covered, feel free to email us.

If you’ve done plenty of research and you’ve decided you want to become a pilot there are 2 things you need to do first.

  • The first thing to do is to get a Class One Medical. You need a Class One Medical to operate as a commercial airline pilot so there’s not point doing any training until you know you are capable of holding the medical certificate. Unfortunately some people do not pass the medical process. The initial medical examination is very thorough and occasionally it finds an issue that excludes people from obtaining the medical.
  • The second thing to do is decide whether you want to complete your commercial flight training through the Integrated or Modular route. There are advantages and disadvantages to both routes and you need to decide which is the right type of training for you. When making this decision, you will need to factor in how you intend to finance your commercial light training. Once you’ve decided which route you are going to take, find out which flight school(s) is right for you.

Depending on which route you take, you can expect to pay between £40,000 and £120,000 to train as a commercial airline pilot. Integrated flight training courses are usually between £80,000 – £120,000, where as modular training can be completed for as little as £40,000.

There are now many airlines who now charge you for your “type rating” when they offer you a job as a First Officer which is typically costs an additional £20,000 – £35,000 which you need to factor in to your budget.

See our detailed article on ‘The Cost of Pilot Training

This depends on which flight training route you select. There are two different types of flight training called “integrated” and “modular” training. With the integrated training, you complete all of your training in one full time, intensive course with an Approved Training Organisation (ATO).

From having no flying experience, to holding a commercial airline pilot’s licence, it typically takes around 24 months / 2 years. Completing this intensive flight training course would allow you to apply to airlines as a First Officer. However, on acquiring your first flying job, you would need to complete a type rating before flying passengers on a large commercial aircraft and this would typically take an additional 2 – 3 months.

If you complete modular flight training, you dictate the progression and time-line of your training rather than the flight school. This allows you to complete training as and when you can afford it alongside a full-time job if you need. You can still complete your training intensively and full time, but you have much greater flexibility. Modular flight training could take anywhere between two years to five plus – it’s up to the individual.

In Europe, airline pilots are limited to flying 900 hours a year. Else where in the World, pilots are limited to between 900 and 1,000 hours a year. The number of hours you actually fly can vary significantly between airlines. For example, some airlines, like Virgin Atlantic limit their pilots to 750 hours a year.

Both short haul and long-haul pilots will typically fly between 700-900 hours a year. Cargo and business jet pilots tend to fly much less, usually between 300-400 hours a year.

Pilots usually get between 9 and 15 days off a month with long haul pilots normally requiring more time off to recover from large time zone changes and deep night flights.

See are article on how many hours a day can a pilot work?

As a pilot, the amount of time you spend away from home varies with the airline you work for and it’s type of operation.

At low cost, charter and short haul airlines (such as Ryanair, Vueling, TUI or easyJet), you can expect very few night stops and will typically be home most nights.

At legacy short haul airlines like Lufthansa, BA, KLM etc. touring rosters are common where you might spend 2 – 4 nights away per week staying at European destinations.

On long haul fleets airlines like British Airways, Emirates or Cathay Pacific, the length of trips vary, but you can be away for as many as 10 days at a time on on a longer tour. You tend to get more time off after a trip as a result of being away for longer.

For more detailed information, have a look at our article on a Pilot’s Typical Roster.

Pilots are generally very well paid with a First Officer typically earning between £/€ 35,000 and £/€ 120,000 a year whilst airline Captains can expect to earn between £/€ 80,000 and /€ £250,000 a year.

The amount a pilot can expect to earn varies significantly and can depend on a number of factors:

  • Experience. Generally speaking, the more experience a pilot has the more they get paid. A pilot starting out their career will earn a salary towards the lower end of the scale.
  • Length of Service. At some airlines, the longer you have worked for that airline, the more they will pay you.
  • Type & Size of Aircraft. Pilots who fly large wide-bodied aircraft are often paid more than pilots who fly smaller short haul aircraft. This isn’t because it’s any harder but because it generally requires more experience.

For more detail, have a read of our article on How Much Pilots Get Paid.

Integrated Flight Training

Integrated training is completed through a single approved training organisation (ATO) which is specifically authorised to conduct the intensive flight training course. It is designed train a cadet with zero flying experience through to holding a frozen Air Transport Licence (which is the licence required to act as a co-pilot / first officer in an airline) in a period of around 24 months. All training is completed at the same training organisation on a full-time basis.

Integrated flight training is more expensive than modular flight training. However, when recruiting pilots straight out of flight school who have not had a flying job before, airline generally prefer to recruit pilots from an integrated flight training course. This is because integrated courses are developed specifically to train pilots to become an airline pilot rather than generic pilot training. Integrated courses are known to be intense and the quality of training delivered is a known entity.

To obtain a frozen ATPL through an integrated flight training course, you need to fly less hours than a modular course as they are heavily regulated.

Modular Flight Training

As per its name, modular training is where the training is split up into different modules. For example, you complete your PPL first, then your ATPL theory, CPL, IR and MCC. These modules can be completed at a pace dictated by the student, such as completing it alongside work commitments which means you can train as and when you can afford to pay without taking out huge loans. It can be completed at a range of flight schools rather than it all being completed with the same organisation, thus offering more flexibility.

It has the advantage of being significantly cheaper than integrated flight training and you can complete the training as and when you can afford it.

In the past, some airlines have only recruited pilots (with no previous airline experience) from integrated courses as modular training is not always specifically geared up to train prospective airline pilots. The quality of the training may therefore be more variable than an integrated course.

However, more recently, some flight schools offer specific modular training packages. These remain a cheap option than an integrated course but provide you and your prospective employer some reassurances about the quality of training.

For more detail, have a read of our Integrated vs Modular Flight Training page.

Integrated Flight Training Advantages:

  • Historically favoured by various airlines such as British Airways due its level of regulation, intensity and quality of training.
  • Integrated flight schools usually have links with various airlines which may help with getting a job on completion of the training.
  • It’s quickest way to obtain a frozen Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL).
  • The syllabus is clearly set out with all the training organised for you.

Integrated Flight Training Disadvantages:

  • It’s very expensive, £/€ 80,000+. Usually requires a huge loan to be taken out secured against a property.
  • Once you start, there is no flexibility regarding the timeline of training completion. If a world event like the Covid-19 pandemic occurs during your training, which brings the pilot job market to a standstill, you can’t suspend or postpone your training. This may result in you being jobless on competition of training, with huge debts to pay.
  • Realistically, you will not be able to earn any money for the duration of the course resulting in lost earnings

Modular Training Advantages:

  • It’s significantly cheaper
  • Training can be conducted at a pace dictated by the individual
  • The timing of training can be adjusted based on airline employment market factors
  • Training can be completed alongside another full-time job
  • You can complete your training at various flight schools of your choosing

Modular Training Disadvantages:

  • Airlines tend to prefer integrated training rather than modular
  • Quality of training might not be consistent
  • Training may not be geared up to train a potential airline pilots at the earlier stages of training

Am I Too Old To Start Flight Training?

In short – if you’re under 65 then no you’re not too old, but the older you start your training, the more limited your employment options may be and the less money you can expect in return over the course of your career.

We discuss this topic in some depth on the following page.

Should I go to University before Flight Training?

You don’t need to go to University to become a pilot, but it may or may not be a good idea to so do.

There is no right or wrong answer as to if you should go or not, it is completely dependent on individual circumstances.

We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of getting a degree before starting your professional flight training on our dedicated University or Not page.

What is a Type Rating?

A Type Rating is a qualification to fly a specific type of aircraft. Any aircraft which has a maximum take-off weight of more than 5,700 kgs. or is turbine powered requires a type rating to operate it.

A type rating course consists of a technical ground school course covering the aircrafts systems and performance and a simulator course, where you learn to fly the aircraft in normal and emergency situations for approximately 30 hours.

A type rating normally takes between 1 – 3 months to complete depending on your experience level and type of aircraft.

What is Pilot Line Training?

Line training is an advanced stage of pilot training which takes place on the aircraft for which you have acquired the type rating. It takes place with passengers onboard whilst being supervised and trained by a ‘Training Captain’.

The Training Captain is a specially selected qualified Captain who is there to provide training to the trainee whilst when making the step from the simulator to real life, flying the aircraft during normal revenue operations.

This phase of training is designed to get the trainee up to speed with the normal operation of the aircraft on a daily basis, ensuring the student is familiar with company Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), flight profiles, manual and automatic handling whilst within a real-life commercial environment.

Line training for new pilots lasts anywhere from between 40 to 100 sectors (number of flights) which can take 2 – 12 weeks.