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 . . .

What is the Day to Day Life Like as an Airline Pilot?

Being a pilot 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 a piloting career as this could significantly impact on the type of flying you are best suited for and the airline you should aim 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 for Pilots

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.

Pilot Rosters

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.

Time Off as a Pilot

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 Aeroplane & 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.

Health Implications for Pilots

There are ongoing 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 Pilot Life

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 Pilot 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 Pilot Lifestyle

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 Pilot Lifestyle

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 Pilot Lifestyle

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 that we haven’t covered, feel free to email us.

I Want to Become a Pilot, Where do I Start?

If you’ve made the decision to become a commercial airline pilot, there are 2 things you should do first:

  • Get a Class One Medical. You need a Class One Medical Certificate in order to operate as a commercial airline pilot. There’s not much point spending lots money on any flight training until you know that you are capable of passing the Class One Medical Certification. Unfortunately, not everyone passes the medical evaluation. The initial medical examination is very thorough, and it will occasionally find an underlying issue that precludes people from obtaining the medical certification.
  • Secondly, 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 is right for you.

How Much Does it Cost to Train as an Airline Pilot?

Depending on which route you take, commercial pilot training can cost between £40,000 and £120,000. Integrated flight training courses usually cost between £80,000 – £120,000, whereas modular flight training can be completed for as little as £40,000.

You should also take into account that there are now many airlines who will charge you for your “type rating” when they offer you a job as a First Officer. A type rating typically costs an additional £20,000 – £35,000 which you may need to factor in to your budget.

For further information, please see our detailed article on ‘The Cost of Pilot Training‘.

How Long Does it Take to Train as a Commercial Pilot?

The length of time it takes to train as a commercial airline pilot depends on which flight training route you choose to follow. There are two different types of flight training called “integrated” and “modular” training.

With integrated flight 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, typically takes around 2 years. Completing this intensive flight training course would allow you to apply to an airline 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 can dictate the progression and time-line of your training rather than being given a set timetable by the flight school. This allows you to complete the flight training as and when you can afford it, potentially alongside a full-time job. You can still complete your training intensively and full time, but you have much greater flexibility over it. Modular flight training could take anywhere between 2 years to more than 5 year – it’s up to the individual.

How Many Hours do Airline Pilots Work a Year / Month / Week?

In Europe, airline pilots are limited to flying 900 hours a year. Elsewhere in the world, pilots are limited to flying 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, used to limit their pilots to 750 flying 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?

How Many Days do Pilots Spend Away from Home per Week / Month?

As a pilot, the amount of time you spend away from home varies depending on the airline you work for, and its type of operation.

Pilots 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.

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

If you are a pilot on a  long-haul fleet in an airline 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 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.

How Much Money Does an Airline Pilot Earn per Year?

Pilots are generally very well paid. First Officers typically earn a salary of 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 of money that 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 information on this subject, 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 to train a cadet with zero flying experience through to holding a frozen Air Transport Licence (fATPL) (which is the licence required to act as a Co-Pilot / First Officer for an airline) in a period of around 24 months. All the flight 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, airlines sometimes prefer to recruit pilots from an integrated flight training course. This is because integrated flight training courses are developed specifically to train pilots to become an airline pilot rather than providing generic pilot training (typically given during Modular training). Integrated courses are known to be intense and the quality of training delivered is conisdered to be high.

When obtaining a frozen ATPL through an integrated flight training course, you don’t need to fly as many flight training hours as you would when completing the modular route due to the regimented syllabus and high-quality training delivered during an integrated course.

Modular Flight Training

As per its name, modular flight 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. This means you can train as and when you can afford to pay for the training without taking out a large loan. It can be completed at a range of flight schools rather than it all being completed with the same organisation, thus offering more flexibility.

Modular flight training 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 throughout the modular route may be more variable than an integrated course.

However, more recently, some flight schools which have traditionally only offered integrated training, are now offering specific modular training packages. These remain a cheaper 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 the 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 to earn 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 aircraft’s 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 Captain who is authorised to provide training to the trainee when making the step from the simulator to the real life aircraft, 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 and 100 sectors (number of flights) which can take 2 – 12 weeks.