A historical preconception is that the lifestyle of a pilot is glamorous and exciting. Unfortunately this can be far from the truth; in reality, there is often little if any glamour in the life of today’s pilot. On a whole a pilot can work long irregular, anti- social hours, often at very short notice periods and unless the crew is provided with a roster well in advance, it is often difficult to plan any form of social/private life around the duty roster.
The airline industry is a highly competitive market driven on the whole by finance and profit. As businesses, airlines are trying to push down costs to compete in the current market, and crews in general are being asked to work to deliver increased productivity every year for what appears to be relatively less reward.
The overall lifestyle does largely depend on the type of flying career but the number of permitted duty hours are strictly controlled by the Flight Time Limitations regulations.
A maximum number of hours a pilot can fly in a rolling year (from chocks off to chocks on each sector) is nine hundred and this in our opinion should be viewed asthe safety limit, but a number of carriers now appear to see this as a target to hit to achieve maximum productivity. Those nine hundred flight hours are then often split into limits that can be flown in the day, week and month.
A pilot is only allowed to do a certain amount of hours’ duty time in a twenty four hour period that varies depending upon certain factors. These are the pilot’s start time, how many sectors the pilot has to fly and their relative acclimatisation to the time zone they find themselves in.
Generally you can break down the type of operations into four categories: Long-Haul, Short-Haul, Regional and Charter and all come with a differing lifestyle attached to them.
On short-haul/regional operations, four or more consecutive sectors can be flown on one duty period, without leaving the aircraft. This will result in a busier working day with more take off and landings to be achieved than long-haul which is usually only one sector and many pilots only achieve one landing or so a month. The upside to short-haul is that you will mostly be at home by the end of the working day, home at night and it is good for building experience with short sectors to a range of airports. However, although you might be scheduled to fly to great cities such as Budapest or Barcelona which might sound glamorous and exciting the reality is that all you will see is the airport which you will have left within 30-40 minutes of arriving there.
Charter flying often involves many night sectors operating in and out of challenging airfields, and mid-range flights which can be very tiring during the summer months but usually quieter during the winter with opportunities to undertake contract work abroad (such as the Hajj in Indonesia for three months).
Long-haul operations can provide an attractive lifestyle if you do not mind being away from home and can cope with the numerous time zone changes that can be experienced as you traverse the planet. These types of operation will require the crew to be on duty for various lengths of time resulting in a limited number of flights per month. For example, the crew may be rostered on a four night trip to New York followed by three local rest nights at home before heading off for a nine day Sydney trip via Hong Kong or Bangkok. Increasingly though, long-haul may involve ‘bullets’ which involve flying out to a destination on day one, overnighting and then flying back overnight day two to three which can be gruelling. Due to the long sector lengths flight hours build up quickly so a long haul pilot could expect an average of four or five trips a month.
Larger network carriers usually have a bidding system for flights and unfortunately the lower down the seniority list you are the less choice you have to choose from. So expect to be flying the times and flights everyone else higher up the seniority list doesn’t want for the first few years.
On short-haul operations a pilot will tend to complete blocks of flights. Generally you will be rostered on several early flights back to back that will start at around 0500 in the morning and finish around 12-1600 in the afternoon. Or on afternoon flights that will start at around 1100-1400 and usually finish around midnight, delays and weather permitting. Both these duty periods will generally consist of multiple sectors. If you are lucky, your company will have a stable roster and you could expect to have a six on three off or five on four off shift pattern for example.
If a fixed roster pattern is not in place then the flights can be completely random with minimum rest periods between duties. Theoretically there should always be enough time to rest before you go back to work the next day but managing fatigue can be a challenge for the modern pilot.
Most airlines also have standby periods. This is where you will be on call and be available to fly with approximately 90 minutes notice, if for some reason the airline is short of crews that duty period. When on standby you will be required to remain a commutable distance from your base and be contactable throughout this period.
With most carriers the peak of operations is during the summer holiday season so you need to be prepared to work hard around this time, especially if you are employed by a low cost carrier or charter airline. The rest of the year can still remain busy with business travellers, domestic routes and peaks can be expected around the Christmas/Easter and half-term periods.
Whilst rosters are usually published with at least two to four weeks notice, these are subject to change and many airlines have a great deal of disruption at times. Some of this is outside of their control such as volcanic ash events, ATC strikes, bad weather etc but some can be self-inflicted (such as crew shortages, etc). Whatever the reason, the knock on consequence is that this brings significant disruption to your lifestyle, family and social life. At times it requires very understanding relationships to deal with the resulting disappointments and multiple changes of plan.
The examples listed above are a broad overview of the current expected lifestyles and rostering of a pilot today. But as always, there are exceptions and when the recession in 2007 began, ‘pay to fly’ contracts were introduced by some carriers. These generally involved the pilot being on-call but being paid for flying time only. Pilots would be given little visibility of future flying requirements and can be picked up and put down at will.
This led to uncertainty and could be coupled with a very small unstable income. These contracts were designed to provide flexibility to the carrier and usually involve all the training costs being met by the applicant as detailed earlier in this booklet. At present (2023) these contracts cease to exist in the UK, however the industry is ever changing and it is important to keep an eye out for such contracts and to avoid them.
Once you have gained some good airline experience you will need to consider how your career might progress. Do you stay with your current employer or will you have to change employers to gain more experience on a different type in a different environment? Often any change of employer is likely to also lead to a need to relocate as there will be a change of base involved.
This is also likely if you wish to take up a command with an existing employer as it is likely that the command vacancy will not be at your current base. Whilst you might wish to wait until an opportunity arises at your base this could mean many years delay in your promotion and resulting financial implications. With many operators the need to relocate might also necessitate a move abroad which brings a plethora of additional complications – language, tax, finances, mortgages etc.
This can be hugely disruptive to your family life, especially if you have to take into account children, when such decisions are compounded by house sales and schooling arrangements. Many opt to commute back and forth until a command becomes available at their original base but again, this can take many years to materialise and can cause huge strain in the interim period whilst family units are dislocated.
The job of a professional pilot is still hugely rewarding and challenging, but unfortunately the days of 10 day trips to an exotic island are almost history.
Comment from Captain:
“I wish this booklet had been available before I started training.”
“A historical preconception is that the lifestyle of a pilot is glamorous and exciting. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth…”