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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Top 10 Downers of an #Airline Career

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Before/after shot of Tacloban, Philippines, a city of 220,000.
—  —  —  —  —
and now . . .
It Ain't All Fun 'n Games, you know!

People are always asking me what the life of an airline pilot is really like.

To many, it all seems to all be glitz 'n glamor.

Exotic locales. 

Bitchin' airplanes.

Smokin' hot flight attendants at your beck and call . . .

Not to mention the "Best office view in the world!"
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This baby taken just this week!

But is that truly the case?

   At the risk of sounding whiny or nit-picky, I will attempt to show you some of the downside of this profession—the warts, if you will. . .

   Now, I know that, no matter what I choose to mention, many of you aspiring pilot types will say, "Gee, I'd give my left (insert body part here) to have your problems!"

   Well . . . I fully understand! Been there, thought that!
   Even so, I want you to come into this business with open eyes. And for you "chairborne" types, I'd like to give you a better feel for "life on the road" (and in the sky.)
   Read on . . .
Holidays? What's that?
1.) Schedule: You're gone from home half a week at a time.
   When I get home after a 4-day trip, I always find my life has been going on without me. It always takes at least a day just to catch up. No time for rest till the mail's opened, the bills are paid, the cat box is cleaned, the sink unclogged and the trees trimmed.
   And don't even get me started on the laundry . . .

Vicious attack cat Tarzan,
   Oh, and, my vicious attack cat Tarzan scolds me for half a day as punishment for abandoning him for so long!

2.) Schedule 2.0: "9 to 5, M-F" does not exist.
   You will fly redeyes. You will fly Oh-Dark-Thirty departures. You may even do both in the same trip!
   Crossing multiple time zones will wreak havoc on your body. By the very nature of this business, you will age faster than everybody else.

   And no matter how "senior" your schedule, getting adequate rest is always a challenge.
Redeyes & Oh-dark-thirty departures—
in the same trip!
   FAA minimum rest requirements help, but they are just that—minimal. Many airlines schedule right up to these limits. Flight attendants have it even worse, with much less restrictive rest requirements.

3.) Schedule 3.0—or, "Holidays? What's that?"
   You will be gone from home, sitting alone in a hotel room on all major holidays, little Sally's 4th birthday party, and Timmy's championship Little League game.

   After 23 years at my company, I have yet to hold full weekends or Christmas off.
If you want job security,
shun flying & take up acting!
4.) Enough about the Schedule, already! How about that great paycheck?
   People often swoon over a pilot's seemingly exorbitant hourly pay rate. But what they don't realize is that a pilot is paid only for the time the plane is moving. You will work long hours, 10-12 hours a day or more, and get paid for less than half of that time. 

   Time between flights, even though you are busy planning, preflighting, briefing the crew or dealing with mechanical issues, are done completely gratis.

5.) Paycheck 2.0: Yeah, Cap'n Aux, but it's still pretty stellar! Right?
   Hmm, yeah, about that.  Pilots' paychecks are a fraction of what they once were—up to 60% lower than 20 years ago!
"Something tells me it's a bad idea to give the pilots a pay cut and a gun..."

   On top of that, the left seat of a major airline represents the Holy Grail of aviation. After spending many years and tens of thousands of dollars on education and flight training, only a fraction of a fraction of pilots will ever see it. And nearly every other flying job pays peanuts.

Starting pay, regionals—the last stop
before the majors. And for some,
the pinnacle of their flying career.
   Why? Because they can!
   Pilots are a dime a dozen. That "looming pilot shortage" has been "looming" for 30 years! And, all aviation outfits know that most pilots are merely building time to move on to a major. But even some of those lucky enough to snag the right seat of an airliner could still qualify for food stamps.

   Moreover, every six months, airline pilots must pass a rigorous medical exam. Flunk once, and you could be out for life!

   Ding an airplane or bust a single FAA rule . . . same result! 

   As I've always said: if you want a secure career, shun flying and become an actor!
After spending tens of thousands of $$$,
only a fraction make it to the majors.

6.) Paycheck 3.0: What Goes Up . . .
   Unlike most professions, pilots cannot make lateral moves. Quit, get fired, or the airline goes "Tango Uniform"*, and you start at the bottom at the next airline. You could have been a senior 747 Captain at Brand X Airways, pulling down well into the 6-digits, but now you're a lowly reserve FO at Brand Y . . . on  food stamp wages!
   Personally, for the first decade of my career, my paycheck looked like the flight of a Yoyo:
   Nowadays, if you're experienced enough, you may be able to find a fairly lucrative, 2-3 year Captain contract overseas. China in particular is really heating up. (I came a hair's breadth from taking one there.) But you will be saying good-bye to your loved ones for weeks, even months, at a time.
Relationships? What's that?

7.) Relationships? What's that?
   Once upon a time, a girlfriend complained, "I can't handle this long distance relationship!"—even though we lived in the same town. It shocked me into realizing: As long as I fly for a living, I will always have "long distance relationships."
   The nature of this business demands a helluva lotta trust from both parties. Remember, you're sleeping in hotel rooms thousands of miles away, several times a week—and they're home alone.
   This career will create stress in any marriage or relationship!

8.) Layovers—Slam-click!
   Rome, Paris, London, New York . . . exciting, exotic locales! Who would not want to visit these amazing places on a regular basis?
   Yes, any one of our layovers has the potential for adventure. Occasionally, you gel with a crew, and all of you go out and see the sights, or party till dawn. Those are some of my fondest memories.

   But even the most exciting of world destinations get old after the 20th or 30th time. And who among us can get excited about  our 30-hour Detroit layover, especially in the middle of a blizzard?

   After a long day of fighting through the storms and turbulence, sometimes you just wanna trudge to your hotel room and Slam-click!*

Airport Appreciation Time in KLAS!
In the middle of a 3-hour sit between flights.

   Oh, and speaking of down time, you know those annoying, hours-long layovers you get between your connections? We have them too—nearly every day.

   It is not uncommon to sit 3 hours or more at an airport, waiting for your next flight. We call this, airport appreciation time.

   And our airports get get plenty of crew appreciation.

   Yes, I'm complaining here about free time, but I can tell you first hand: long sit times create fatigue. And the F word is poison to pilots.

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Last year CareerCast named "Airline Pilot" 3rd most stressful job—behind 1. Enlisted Military, and 2. Military General.Oh, and their "Average income?" LMAO, ya, right!
9.) Deadheads—Not exactly Grateful (Deadhead: Riding in back as a passenger from Point A to Point B to work another flight from Point B to C.)
  Depending on the airline, some pilots get paid 1/2 or no pay for these flights.

   All too often, you get stuck in a coach middle seat between two ginormous, sweaty Sumo wrestlers.

   OK, so we all get stuck there from time to time . . . but doing this every week gets old mighty fast!

Jumpseating: If you're lucky, you'll get a seat in back!
Home? What's that?

10.) Commuting—or, Home? What's that? (Commuting: Riding as a passenger—either in the cabin or cockpit jumpseat—between Home & work.)
   Let's go full circle, back to Number 1—being "gone from home."
   As you chase your airline career, be prepared to move—again and again and again.
Commuting for fun & prof—
well, for work, anyway!
   I spent my first 22 years on this planet in Arizona. In the next 10 & beyond, I lived in: Juneau, AK, St. Thomas & St. Croix, USVI's, Denver, CO, Washington, DC, Albuquerque, NM, and back to AZ (several times.)
   The moment you put money down on your new house in Boise, ID, your airline will transfer you to Buffalo, NY. The moment your first child is born in Seattle, you'll snag that dream job in Florida.

   You have two options: move, or commute across the country twice a week on an airplane jumpseat. (See my post, "Around the World in 80 Jumpseats.")

   If you choose to commute from home, you'll most likely be renting a one-room "crash pad" with half a dozen other pilot-commuters at your airline's assigned base. Have fun with that!

What's a "Crash Pad"? Don't miss this ABC News exposé:

(Note: personally I think ABC gets way too melodramatic in this, with their "undercover videos" and "exposés." But this is a very true depiction of life for upcoming, Regional, and commuting pilots.)

   By the way, at my airline, at least 40% of pilots are commuters . . .

That reminds me of a funny story:
We used to fly a lot of redeyes in and out of KLAS (Las Vegas.) At about 2 or 3 in the morning, all these flight crews would deadhead back to home base on the last flight.  We would have dozens of pilots and flight attendants onboard, sometimes more crew than passengers! We dubbed this flight, The Crew Hauler.
One time, a befuddled passenger, mystified by all these pilots riding in the back of the plane, asked me, "Do you guys just ride in back because you love flying so much?"
Well, I wouldn't go that far . . .

But, despite my profession's many ugly warts, the dirty little secret is . . .
it's still the greatest job in the world!

Besides . . .
—Christmas with the kids can be rescheduled;
—Families or significant others can come along on those exotic overnights (Marry me, fly free!)
—All that down time is good for a hobby or 2nd job (where do you think Cap'n Aux gets all his free time to write his books 'n blog?);
—Find the right, understanding spouse, and your "long distance relationship" can be a rewarding one. After all, absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
—As a pilot, you have the freedom to work and live in different parts of the world. With a wonderful home and family to return to, even crash pads and commuting can be endured.

   Most important of all: no matter where you are in the vicious claw up the aviation food chain,
don't forget . . .
(& getting PAID for it!)

Cool meme courtesy of Swayne over at

I have yet to work a day in my adult life.

Swayne from also recently made a viral vid that really puts it into perspective, entitled, "Inspiration for Pilots - What Do You Truly Desire?"

* Tango Uniform—Pilot code for "belly up," out of business, stone dead, gone to meet its Maker. (The words that Tango and Uniform stand for are left as an exercise to the reader!)
*Slam-clickerParty pooper. An airline crew member that doesn't want to do anything but slam their hotel room door and click the lock shut!
*Quote by Louis C.K.

A late entry, by Michael Moore, on Pilot Pay, entitled, Pilots on Food Stamps.
A sad but true reality of our biz!

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    1. Great article Cap'n Aux! I love how pilots frequently go through the negatives of the job, yet never fail to close with "but... I still love it!"

      Always good to hear about some of the negatives, can't ignore those!

      Thanks for mentioning the video and me, appreciate it!

      1. Glad you enjoyed it, Swayne! And I'm glad to hear that other pilots, even talking about the negatives, say that. I remember that early on you had run into a lot of sour apples in the pilot you know that it's all about YOUR attitude! ;-)

        Of course you're welcome. You made a great vid and a great meme, and I'm always happy to share quality work!

    2. Great Artice Captain! It's great to here a perspective from the person who is living there dream, it's good to here this now as a student pilot who is getting ready for the airline world!

      1. Thanks, A Juarez!

        I'm glad to hear you're chasing your pilot dream, but I always want young folks like you to be aware of the pitfalls of this biz. Glad you stopped by!

    3. I love this. And... my take away... Those Freight Dogs make a shit load of money! lol. Okay... besides that. They do have the lowest life expectancy working all night.

      Slam clicking...time to sleep! Write! Tweet! Blog! I am liking that concept more and more. Sometimes I tell my hubby... I hope I have a bad crew so I don't want to go out with them!

      But one thing we all forget about is the intrinsic reward of being a pilot.. It's super cool to be a pilot. Not everyone can do it. And we have a lot of time off if we sit reserve on a major airline on an international airplane. The one thing everyone wants in their life more of, at the end of, is time. This job gives you more time to do other things.

      1. Good points, Karlene! I like the (relative) "stability" of having a line--ie, a schedule from month to month...but being an Int'l Reserve pilot has its appeal. My lowest golf handicap came when I was a reserve FO! Yes those poor freight dogs never get off the back side of the clock flying--another nail in the coffin. But they certainly do get compensated for it...

        Thanks for the post. Time to slam-click and get to bloggin'! ;-)

    4. Great post, Eric. The lifestyle of choice for some; others should run like hell. Only the truly passionate need apply. All professions have assets and less attractive components, but the lack of security almost demands that pilots have a second career in their pockets as a grounded pilot is worth pocket change. But... If you can make it work and survive long enough to earn a little money, it really is the best seat in the office. Regards, -C.

      1. So glad to hear from you here, Glen!

        I agree, a backup career is preferable. By the nature of our business, we have no choice but to put all our eggs in one basket. Sadly, this has led to many a ruined career.

        True, there are risks and rewards in any profession. This one, however, has a serious "beta"--a major deviation of volatility from the norm! In other words, the risks are great...and the rewards are great!

        It's always great to correspond with you, Glen. I hope to see you here more often!

    5. In a perverse way, I'm glad it's tough. For one thing, it weeds out those who don't really want it badly enough. But mainly, because if it was easy, everyone would do it. And the fact that it's tough somehow makes the good moments that much sweeter. It's like climbing a mountain. If just being on the summit was the end all, be all, why not just take a helicopter to the top

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    7. What you've got to remember is it's the most fun you can have with your clothes on! I've been banging around the airplane biz for more than 50 years (civilian, then military, then crop dusting, then corporate, then manufacturer demo pilot, then bankrupted 3 airlines, then aerial photography then back to corporate), and what these jobs have in common is airplanes and pure joy! I've been using your Confucius quote for a long time. The money can be great, but it ain't what drives the bus. I can't imagine doing anything else. My son flew in the Navy, was flying 737s for 'em and decided he hated out and opened a real estate business. He doesn't NEED to fly, but some of us do. Outstanding article!

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