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Work life balance week: The part-time pilot

by Nancy Jackson BALPA Media and Communications Officer

All this week we have been examining the challenges pilots face in achieving good work life balance. Andrew* is a short-haul captain with a major airline. He tells us how going part-time was the way to fix his work life balance.

Andrew's story

There is a common saying in my company that there are two types of pilot. The ones who are part-time and the ones that want to be! I am one of the ones lucky enough to be on a 75% contact and I made the decision to reduce my hours well before it became a bit of a trend. In fact, I was in my mid-thirty’s when I ‘semi-retired’ back in 2004.

I love my job, but I love my family too and it was clear from very early on that the strains associated with my career were putting pressure on my family. I have always worked as a short-haul pilot and over the years I’ve seen an inexorable drive towards greater productivity with pilots working longer hours more often. That has a distinct knock on affect for home life.

As the work increased I found myself working long days and having fewer days off. Time at home became of no value. I was at home for such a short time and much of it was trying to get some rest before the next flight. I wasn’t seeing much of my wife and the time we did have was low quality as I was often tired. It could also be disruptive as I was on different shifts to my wife. We often disrupted each other’s rest.

“My work was pushing us to the limits…”

I was working harder and longer and it wasn’t long before I started to notice the impact. I wasn’t seeing my friends, I wasn’t able to enjoy my hobbies, I had little down time and I was always tired. And it was not just me that suffered, but my wife too. She was struggling the constant strain began to affect her mental health. My work was pushing us to the limits and it was putting my marriage in jeopardy.

We realised that something had to be done if we were going to have a life together. I needed to spend more time at home so I looked at how I could manage my career to make that a possibility. I decided to go part time and reduced to a 75% contact. I had essentially semi-retired at the age of 32. But don’t be mistaken, the decision was not purely for ‘lifestyle’ but was a necessity.

“We now cut our cloth to fit our financial situation.”

Nobody wants to take a 25% pay cut and I believe we are underpaid for the responsibility we have in our job. But I’ve never really been all that money motivated. We now cut our cloth to fit our financial situation. We have moved to a place where we can have the lifestyle we want but affordably so. We now live in the north of England and I lump my work together in six or seven day blocks which means although I do spend a fair amount of time away from home, I also have some long blocks of days off too.

During the long stints off duty I am able to have a very good quality of life at home. My family has grown. We now have two children. Anyone with kids knows that whatever your circumstances, having children can be tough. Adding a pilot lifestyle in to the equation is an added layer of complication. But my 75% contact means not only am I at home for the family more often, but that home time is also better quality. I am not so tired, we enjoy our hobbies together and spend a lot of time as a family.

Part-time work has transformed my home life. By moving to an affordable area, I have ensured we are not under too much financial pressure. My wife has had to be flexible too. She has supported me and has had to alter her working hours to look after kids.  But essentially, rather than fit my home life in around my work, I carved my job to maximise my time at home.

I feel for the full-time guys I see who are under so much pressure. I see them working endless patterns of six days on with two off. Most of those two days are spent trying to recover. I see so many pilots who are struggling and whose marriages fail. Their work must be a contributing factor. For those people starting out as a pilot with astronomical debts and trying to get a mortgage it must be so tough. I am sure for many part-time work is simply an unaffordable dream.

“…the widespread take-up of part-time working is our profession's dark secret.”

Having a good balance between work and home life has always been a major driver for me. Some might say I have made some big sacrifices. But for me the choices I have made have been right and I believe firmly in making my job fit in to my life and not the other way around.

All of that said, I think the widespread take-up of part-time working is our profession's dark secret. It masks a problem. As I said above, nobody aspires to the pay cut and it can’t be normal to have the level of part-time working that we see in our company. In the past, the higher number of days off was fair compensation for the anti-social nature of our job but over the years that compensation has been eroded. It’s a symptom of an industry which works its people too hard and which forces them to make tough choices to maintain a healthy home and social life.

*Name has been changed to protect identity