Life as an airline pilot
It’s a funny how things go in threes, isn’t it? Today’s “three” was a trio of enquiries all nearly identical: “Hi Alec, I have an established job in a professional field, I’m looking at my future behind a desk for the next thirty years, and I think I want to be an airline pilot instead. Can I have an introductory flying lesson to see if I’ll like it?”
No, I’m not kidding – three in one day.
My first thought was that of course an introductory flying lesson won’t inform you to even the tiniest extent about whether you’ll enjoy or be suited to a career as a high-flying jet pilot. The experience of flying a small plane is so far removed from the every day experience of a Boeing or Airbus pilot as to be positively misleading, I think. Here’s an analogy: I’m thinking of a job as a lawyer; lawyers write lots of letters, so can I have an introductory calligraphy lesson, to see if I’ll enjoy the law?
My second thought was that perhaps I should try to be a bit more helpful. If three people in one day picked me, someone who teaches the aeronautical equivalent of the alphabet, as their first point of contact to ask about the flying equivalent of librarianship, or literary criticism, then perhaps out there there’s a lack of honest information about what a career in the front of a shiny jet is really like, and I can contribute something useful.
So although I don’t have (and don’t want) that career, I do have some experiences, stories, contacts, and information from people who do, and using that I’ve written down some of the features of that job – some good, some bad, and some both good and bad depending on your outlook. If you work for an airline you’re fully entitled disagree with any or all of my assessment. In which case by all means send me a link to your own blog where you get to provide your own perspective. But this is my blog, and my perspective.
Firstly, the technology and machinery: the airline pilot gets to operate some of the biggest, fastest and most expensive civilian machinery that exists. To some people that’s a huge draw – and sometimes it’s the only consideration. If that’s you (and to be fair, if that is you, you probably aren’t reading this page) then nothing anyone could write will make you reconsider your desire to be an airline pilot. But in order to get to operate that heavy equipment you’re going to need a keen technical brain, to be good with numbers, comfortable with technical documents, quick to understand complex engineering systems and have the ability rapidly to decode, integrate and evaluate hard data from a wide range of sources in order to make rational and justifiable decisions based on hard criteria. If you’re more a feelings or impressions-based thinker then perhaps this isn’t for you.
Secondly the money: it’s poor to start with, for junior pilots at smaller airlines, and gets to be reasonable to excellent, for wide-body captains at big airlines. It will be a long time – decades – before you get to the top, but once you get past the first ten years it’s a reasonable living, or better. That of course may change, for better or worse, by the time you get to be a senior pilot.
The third thing, is another obvious one: the travel. If you work for an international airline then you will get a lot of overseas travel, and as your seniority (years of service at your employer) increases you will even get to pick the destinations. The downside of travel is that you’re likely to spend a lot of nights away from home and staying in hotels – often the same mediocre hotels, trip after trip. You might think right now that the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Rome’s Fiumicino airport is a glamorous place to stay – just as an Alitalia pilot might think the Holiday Inn on Dixon Road in Mississauga, next to Pearson Airport, is glamorous. And perhaps it is, the first half dozen times you stay there. I’m just saying.
The downside to the travel is all the time spent away from home, and the damage that does to friendships, marriages and other relationships. Pilots have terrifically high rates of divorce. They also historically have poor diets and very high rates of alcoholism and other substance abuse.
Next: you get a smart uniform, you are a member of an elite club, and you get a fair amount of respect from the public. Status is important to a lot of people, and airline pilots get some of that. In the class-obsessed UK (where I grew up) the advertising industry created a code for people based on their spending power and the social status of their jobs: people in category ‘A’ are higher level professionals, ‘B’ are senior managers, ‘C1’ comprises junior managers and administrators, ‘C2’ people are skilled working class, ‘D’ are semi- and unskilled labourers, and ‘E’ are pensioners, widows, and casual workers, with the lowest spending habits. Advertisers all seek the ‘ABC1’ audience, and TV shows are rated on their attractiveness to those groups. Airline pilots are in category B, with the dentists and middle managers. Not quite up there in ‘A’ with the lawyers and doctors, but not bad for a job that doesn’t need a degree and is paid by the hour.
Note however that the status and respect you get is all tied to your uniform: your passengers will love you and adore you for being their Captain, but definitely not for being Captain Steve, or Captain Yasmeen. They won’t even hear your name unless they listen closely to the announcements you make over the PA at the start and end of the flight; and even if they do listen they won’t remember. The days of the Captain stopping back in first class to chat to the good and great were diminishing even before the events of 9/11 slammed the flight deck door shut – both literally and metaphorically – on any opportunity for crew to engage in fraternization with the travelling public.
Hours and schedule
The hours (both quantity and quality) that you’ll work will vary across your career. At the start, you’ll be on shorter flights in smaller airplanes. As the planes you fly get bigger and the flights you make get longer, it’s possible to compress a working month into as few as ten or twelve days, in groups of three or four. A lot of flights are overnight, and crossing timezones regularly can play havoc with your body’s sense of time. The very strict regulations on the length and timing of a pilot’s working day are there because the fatigue and health issues can be severe. You may find that much of your time off is spent recovering.
In terms of personal responsibility, the airline pilot ranks extremely highly: if you’re a lawyer and have an off day, you might write a lousy letter or email. With luck you can fix it the next day. If you’re an airline pilot and you have a really off day, people will die. The pilot must be able to adhere rigorously to standard procedures day after day, every time, without fail. There’s no room for “I don’t feel like bringing it, today”. On the other hand, there’s no work to take home with you. At the end of each flight – that flight is over. Good day, or bad day – it’s consigned to the past, and the next flight is a new opportunity.
Airlines pilot jobs are heavily unionized, with all the pros and cons that brings. Advancement and promotion, to bigger aircraft, and from the right (First Officer’s) seat to the left (Captain’s) are all based only on length of service at your airline; your individual abilities and skill count for nothing at all. Pilots with very poor skills (in theory) are weeded out early on – or better still, never employed, and for the rest, both the merely adequate and the ace-of-the-base who started on the same day progress towards the top jobs at the same pace. On the other hand (and there is always an other hand) you can get unlucky: if your airline goes bankrupt or is the junior partner in a merger or takeover you can find yourself instantly back at the bottom of a new very long list – your age and experience will count for nothing.
Worse still for job security: a medical issue that wouldn’t trouble (or even be noticed by) someone with a senior desk job can end a pilot’s career instantly. This latter possibility may seem remote and barely worthy of thought when you’re in your twenties and thirties, but the older you get and the more of your peers and immediate elders that you see suffer the effects of aging the less certain you’ll grow about your own invulnerability. While not many career lawyers find themselves unemployed at 55 for medical reasons, it’s not altogether unusual for a pilot.
As a flight crew member you’ll either be the junior (First Officer) or senior (Captain) member of a crew of two. Airlines put a lot of emphasis on teamwork, and flying is all the safer for it. This will suit you if you enjoy being part of a small team. It won’t suit you if you like to fly solo (pun intended) or feel happier as a small part of a bigger machine. It also won’t suit you if your long term goals are to be a manager of a larger team, with a lot of underlings to direct. On a more down-to-earth level: if you’re the sort of person that gets on with everyone, that will stand you in good stead. But if you’re picky about the company you keep, that four-day pairing with the over-opinionated pilot who enjoys offensive jokes too much and personal hygiene too little is going to be four days of hell.
As far as creativity goes: as a line pilot, you have none. Airlines want their airplanes flown precisely according to procedures and checklists that are worked out well in advance, the same time, every time. You’ll be tested on your adherence to those procedures on a regular basis, and punished, or removed from flying altogether, for deviations. You are instantly replaceable by any other equivalently-rated crew member, and there’s no place for “your way” of doing things. Only in the most extreme of extreme circumstances (think Sully landing in the Hudson River) would you be expected to think and act outside the box, and in such circumstances your life will be in serious danger; don’t be eager to find yourself with that sort of opportunity to excel. The positive side is that when your role is defined in relation to adherence to procedure – you’ll know when you’re doing it right, right away. You don’t need to wait months or years to find out whether your endeavours have been successful or worthwhile.
Prospects beyond your immediate role: some airline pilots move up to management positions within airlines: check pilots, deputy chief pilot, chief pilot etc. But flying airplanes isn’t an obvious stepping stone to any other discipline. As much as pilots like to consider themselves as professionals, comparing themselves easily to lawyers and accountants – those last two jobs often lead to other senior management roles, or at least to other interesting career options. I’m not sure that being an airline pilot is a very good way in to anything else.
The future for pilots
Many years ago, airlines had a flight crew of five: two pilots, a navigator, a radio operator and a flight engineer. Technology removed the need for the radio operator, then the navigator, then the flight engineer, and now we’re left with only with the two pilots. Eager airline managers are eyeing the second pilot’s role for the chop, aided by aircraft manufacturers and regulators who see the human input of pilots as both expensive and unreliable. Where this progress is going and how long it will take to get there is obviously unclear. If you ask the pilots of course they’ll tell you all the reasons why their jobs are safe and guaranteed to exist forever. I will say only that your guess about what the future will bring is probably as good as mine, and better than theirs: you and I are not so heavily invested in how that future turns out.
That’s about everything I can think of to say from this outsider’s perspective. If you are thinking about pursuing a career in the flight desk you obviously want to seek some opinions from people in that job. Just one caveat: the people who you are most likely to hear from in a positive way, are self-selected from the group of people whose spirit and character suits them to the airline job. You owe it to yourself to consider if you share those same traits, before you commit to this role.
Now – back to the idea of an introductory flying lesson. Basic flying lessons (which are the ones I teach) touch on very few of these criteria. There’s no travel, no uniform, no teamwork (you’re learning to make all the decisions by yourself), the technical side of things is deliberately as simple as possible, and as a student pilot society affords you no status or position. What you will learn is the techniques of flying an airplane – something of which the airline pilot flying their heavily automated jet does very little, by themselves. If that’s still something you want to sample, get in touch.