What is it like to be a Commercial Airline Pilot ?


It’s been long since I wrote something using my quill but disappointment indeed. This again is not my production. A post on Quora by a veteran pilot with a hell lot of hosh-posh in commercial aviation of USA with about 5200 airports with the ratio of 1 airport : 60000 people as opposed to same ratio of 1:250000 in UK. The aviation policies in the west has been muddled with many times and since the deregulation has arrived on the scene, proportionality between money being poured in and the system being churned is touching the skies. Pilots are disillusioned because the whole ambience got distorted for them beyond repair. A somewhat brief and comprehensible account might help you understand how the life of a common commercial aviation pilot is like.

Jonathan Keith Marut

A legacy carrier, in the United States, is an airline that had established interstate routes by the time of the route liberalization which was permitted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and was thus directly affected by that act. It is distinct from a low-cost carrier, (a term fostered as a form of disparagement against post deregulation start-up air carriers, and the traditional airlines once heavily unionized work groups) which in the United States are generally new airlines that were started to compete in the newly deregulated industry.
To give you a point of reference for my answer to this question, you should know that all of my flying experience has been civilian (no military background). My airline experience was previously with a commuter/feeder/regional carrier for a major “legacy” U.S. airline, and now flying for another major “legacy” U.S. airline.

First, let me dissuade you from any idea that this is a glamorous job. Popular movies like Catch Me If You Can and the upcoming television show Pan-Am reflect the industry as it was decades ago, and although I was not in the industry at that time, I’ve been told that those depictions are fairly accurate. But we are several decades removed from that sort of industry.

For most pilots at the legacy major airlines, it is a very frustrating industry. Two major things have happened since those glamorous days- Airline Deregulation and 9/11. Those two items did more damage to the industry and this career than anything else.

Before Deregulation (Oct 1978), pilots were compensated at the same level as attorneys or physicians. It was a very lucrative career with great benefits. The aftershocks of Deregulation did many things to the industry, but the main thing was it eliminated many barriers to entry into the US market. Any investor with a bit of money was able to buy a few airplanes and begin selling tickets as an airline. There have been literally hundreds of “low cost” carriers that have come and gone since that time- every one of them cutting into the margins of the major carriers. It has been incredibly frustrating as a pilot to watch your buying power erode year over year. Most major airline pilots have watched as their pensions have been frozen or liquidated, and their contracts gutted thru bankruptcy or the threat of bankruptcy.

These threats became most acute after 9/11 when aggressive management teams at most, if not all, of the major US airlines went for the kill against their employees. Declaring that permanent and irreversible changes had occurred to the industry, these management teams began to dismantle decades of contractual language. Using bankruptcy or the mere threat of bankruptcy, most notably the hammer of Section 1113C of the bankruptcy code, which was found by a judge to prohibit workers from striking if their contract is thrown out. During this period of turmoil, which continues to this day, targets for cuts included pensions, health benefits, wages, and most critically, outsourcing. We see today that at several major US airlines, the majority of the domestic flying is no longer done by that airline, but rather by the “regional affiliates” that fly around planes that look a lot like the mainline planes, but are flown by the lowest bidder. This situation is referred to as a “race to the bottom” and harms not just the employees, who see their jobs outsourced, but also the consumers who see their cities serviced by ever-shrinking aircraft with ever-declining service.

If you get fed up with your airline or if, God forbid, your airline goes out of business, there is no job portability. If you move to another airline, you start over again at the bottom of the seniority list making $20-35k a year! This for a job that at the minimum requires a four-year college degree, plus an additional $25,000-50,000 in training costs and many years of experience to get hired in the first place. It is no wonder that many aviation colleges in the US are shutting down, while many financial aid providers are no longer funding aviation students.

If you are a person with a family, especially kids, this job can be lonely both for you and for your family. Most pilots will be flying several multi-day trips per month where they will be gone for several nights at a time, sometimes up to a week or more for larger international-type aircraft. When you are gone, you are gone — not coming home after work like most 9-5 jobs. You will undoubtedly miss many events — from birthdays, to holidays, and even vacations. Some of this is mitigated by seniority as you move up, but only the very most senior pilots can expect the kind of regular time off that most 9-5 folks take for granted. With that being said, some pilots are able to fly day trips and those schedules keep them home every night and are more like a regular job. However, these trips are the minority at most major airlines and are usually confined to smaller aircraft flying domestic trips. All of this time away from home isn’t great for a marriage, and is probably why pilots tend to have a higher-than-average divorce rate. Children of pilots also tend to not appreciate one parent being gone for long stretches of time — missing birthdays, holidays, etc. Exposed to this lifestyle, few children of airline pilots grow up wanting to be airline pilots, unless they’ve caught the dreaded “flying bug.”

Now, full disclosure, an old joke goes: How can you tell the difference between a pilot and a jet engine? When you shut off the jet engine it quits whining! With all of the previous bad news, you should know, the flying is great! The view from the office can’t be beat. In fact, many pilots say the flying part is free — the pay is just to put up with all the BS that goes along with it!  The job obviously lets you see lots of interesting cities in your travels. Although you might not get to spend a lot of time in any one city, it still allows you to get the taste of a place and visit again in the future on your off time. Speaking of off time: pilots, particularly those flying international schedules, do get good amounts of off time. It varies by airline, but most domestic pilots average 13-16 days off a month, while international pilots usually do a few days better. And when you are off, you are off. No taking this job home. And home can be anywhere. Upwards of 50% of the pilots in a base don’t even live there — they commute from another city. Although this can add to the stress of the job, it is a great benefit — especially with pilot bases opening and closing across the country fairly often. The whole “fly for free” thing is a good benefit too, although in order to get on the plane there has to be an open seat, and with the record load factors these days, that can be tough. One guy going to work, not too bad. A family of four going on vacation? Good luck!

Although I have enjoyed my career as an airline pilot, I often wonder how different my life would be if I had gone into another, more technology-oriented, career. Although I don’t have children of my own, most pilots I fly with who do have kids say they actively discourage their own children from pursing the same career.

Given my background, described in the intro, you should know that things are significantly different for pilots at foreign carriers, package delivery carriers like FedEx and UPS, and successful “low cost” carriers like Southwest.

If you are a smart young student contemplating getting into flying, my advice would be to go to law school, medical school, or some Internet start-up. Make your millions, then buy a Cirrus or a Citation Jet, and fly around for fun whenever you want. If you are a dot-com worker, or perhaps even an attorney or doctor wondering if you missed out on something, just remember the grass is always greener, and from my perspective you aren’t missing much. Except the great office view.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s