24Hr emergency line +44 (0)20 8476 4099
Join Balpa

The REAL life of a pilot

by Captain Tim Pottage BALPA NEC

Films such as ’Catch Me If You Can‘, have a lot to answer for when people think about what a pilot is. They’ve fed in to the long-held stereotype of an airline pilot as glamourous, male, perfectly fit, paid huge wages, only at work three days every other month and then when they are on duty… travelling to exotic places. But in reality, the life of a pilot can be very different, so let’s bust a few of these.


There is no denying that there is good potential to earn in a career as a pilot. But the assumption that ALL pilots are taking home big bucks is a huge myth. Starting rates can be as low as £20,000 a year, and that doesn’t go far when you take in to account the repayments many newly qualified pilots have to make on the huge loans they take out to pay for training. In fact, with courses costing around £100,000 and some airlines requiring pilots to also pay for their type rating (another £30,000) the wages don’t go far. One pilot outlined how he managed to make ends meet in another BALPA blog.

And pilots don’t all start out with full contacts for the airlines they are flying for. Some are self-employed or take up jobs for agencies. This means they don’t get the regular wage and benefits you might assume.

So, in reality only a relative few senior captains at major airlines take home legendary pay packets. At the low end of the pay scale, some pilots for small airlines make little enough to make ends meet. Most salaries are somewhere in between. It all depends on your position, aircraft, airline size and time at that airline.

Exotic travel

How many people would say the best bit of their holiday was the bit at the airport? That’s the catch for many pilots, especially short-haul pilots when it comes to exotic travel. While they may be rostered to fly to one or maybe even more other countries in a day, they may not be able to venture out beyond the airport! It is increasingly about multi-sector rosters and quick turn arounds.

And even for those who are piloting long-haul flights the days of long layovers are one. Like any business, aviation is driven by a need for efficiency and productivity meaning pilots today have to fly demanding rosters with minimal time down route. Often there is barely enough time to catch up on rest after a night awake flying the plane.

There is of course the perk of staff travel which can help you see some pretty fantastic parts of the world in your time off.

It’s all white men

If you ask people to draw a pilot, nearly all will draw a white man. But times are changing and today, women and minorities are in all positions within the aviation job spectrum.

One of the most import criteria when selecting a pilot is skill and BALPA believes that the piloting profession should be open to all, regardless of things like race, religion, gender or ethnicity.

We have also recently highlighted how having to fork out the money to pay for training can put those from less affluent backgrounds off applying.

Our nextGen project is calling for airlines, the regulator and the Government to do more to make the profession accessible for people of all backgrounds.

Perfect fitness

The assumption that all pilots can’t wear glasses and must be as fit as a military commando is common, partly because in the past many pilots started their career in the military. But today that’s just one route in and not every pilot has to have the body and health of an aerobics instructor. However, we still have to be fit enough to pass a medical exam at regular intervals within limits a pilot can have glasses.

It’s easy!

Jump in, switch it on and the autopilot does the rest. That’s the image that some people have of a pilot’s job. Others have tried their hands at computer simulators and think they have it nailed. But that’s far from the reality.
Pilots are highly-trained and tested though out their careers. We need to understand the aircraft we are at the controls of, understand the many situations we face, and we have to be calm in an in dealing with an emergency.

And the job isn’t just about being proficient at flying. You also must be able to manage a team and provide customer service for passengers. BALPA’s Executive President Brendan O’Neal put it well in his blog: More than just a plane driver.

So, is life as a pilot really like it is in the films? Maybe not, but it can still be a great job