Recently, Cameron, a 14-year old future airline pilot, interviewed me for a school report about the “ups ‘n downs’ of an airline career. Coincidentally, I had been mulling a similar post on this very subject, to help those of you interested in an airline career. The interview went well, Cameron asked some stellar questions, and I think I came up with some semi-coherent and (dare I say) somewhat intelligent answers!*
CAMERON: What are some downsides to this career?
CAP’N AUX: Interesting you should start with this question, as there are many important caveats that come with this career.
I’ve always said I love my job but hate my career. The job itself is awesome, but If you want a STEADY, SECURE career, trying acting in Hollywood, LOL! In the 30+ years I’ve been in the business, I’ve worked for 12 aviation companies and airlines, moved and lived all over the U.S., been furloughed once, divorced twice, flown for 3 different bankrupt airlines, had my pay slashed in half overnight, etc. etc. This biz ain’t for the fainthearted!
The road to the “top” is rocky and full of deviations and pitfalls. First, you have to find a huge pile of money to burn away while getting all your flight ratings, through the ATP (Airline Transport Pilot.)
Got ‘em all? Good! Next, you’ll have build flight time by working some tough, low-paying jobs for years, flying long hours, often on the back side of the clock, for food stamp wages, crammed into “crash pads” with other pilots, sleeping on sofas and eating Top Ramen dinners. All for the OFF-chance that you MAY get lucky enough to land a flying job with a major airline and eventually upgrade to the Left (Captain’s) Seat—what most pilots consider the pinnacle of success in this career.
Unfortunately, the future ain’t what it used to be. In this Post-9/11, post-Great Recession economy, airlines have cut way back on pilot wages and bennies. I’d estimate the average pilot makes 1/2 of what one did 25 years ago—in actual dollars!
That being said, airline pilots on average are still in the Top 10% of wage earners across the U.S. (Don’t ever tell Management that the reality is, we’d do this job for free. . . we are doing what we love!)
|“Will fly for Food.” Cap’n Aux and Co. staring down the barrel of a furlough,circa early 90’s…
Finally, unlike most professions, if you lose your job for whatever reason, you start at the BOTTOM at the next airline. You may have been a SENIOR Check Airman Captain at Airline X, but at Airline Y you now become a lowly First Officer again—with the corresponding massive cut in pay!**
CAMERON: How often are you away from home?
CAP’N AUX: While your mileage may vary from job to job and airline to airline, on average I’m on the road 4 out of 7 days per week. Usually, though, from month to month I have a stretch of a week off here and there. So, I sleep in my own bed at home approximately 2/3 of the time. My average trip is a 4-day. Leave, for example, on a Friday morning, and return on a Monday afternoon. In between, I’m playing what I call “Airline ping pong”—bounce between the East and West Coasts and staying in hotels overnight! That’s if I’m lucky (and senior enough); many trips are Redeyes, and you’re actualy sleeping in the hotels “overday!”
Oh, did I mention I’ve been divorced twice? Living with a pilot is tough. For the loved ones in your life, an excellent blog to check out is http://comebackdaddy.blogspot.com , written very candidly about the realities of home life by a pilot’s wife.
And Hollidays? What’s that?! I estimate that, at this rate, I’ll may be senior enough to have Christmas off the last couple of years before I retire at age 65!
CAMERON: What airline do you work for? For how long?
CAP’N AUX: While I choose to avoid mentioning my employer here by name, it wouldn’t take too much brain power to figure that part out.***
I have flown for the same major U.S. airline since 1990, although it has since merged and may merge again. Despite the early years here having been a yo-yo (hired, upgraded, downgraded, furloughed, rehired, re-upgraded) I have been extremely lucky.
I upgraded to Airbus A320 Captain in early 2000, and have been in the Left Seat since. Again, I thank my lucky stars that my airline has survived this cutthroat industry, and am crossing my fingers that I will be able to cross the finish line—at the mandatory retirement age of 65—relatively unscathed.
CAMERON: About how many hours per week do you work? How many of those are spent flying?
CAP’N AUX: Federal law requires a maximum of 12 hours duty and 8 hours flying time per day—NOT including delays dute to maintenance, weather, etc. Other restrictions are: 30 flight hours maximum per week, 100 per month, 1,000 per year. While this may sound a bit “cushy,” believe me, if I am close to these limits, I will be “dragging”! On average, I’d say I work an average of 10 hours duty time per day, and around 5 hours flight time.
When you look at pilot salaries, often expressed as an hourly wage, they can seem exorbatantly high. But these rates can be misleading; we only get paid during the time the plane moves, NOT during the downtime in between flights, preparing, inspecting, waiting, etc. Cut the hourly rate in half and you’ll have a better idea of a “true” hourly wage.
CAMERON: What is your favorite part of the job?
CAP’N AUX: Good question to end on! Just as there are many pitfalls to this business, there are many perks as well.
First and foremost, I have the best office view in the world! I can’t begin to tell you how many fantastic scenes I’ve witnessed over the years! The following is an exerpt from a post on my blog (A Pilot Looks at 50):
- “I’ve seen the full moon rise over the Juneau Icefield glaciers, and witnessed a 360-degree rainbow in an Alaskan rain shower. I’ve seen a comet blazing across a moonless night amidst the ethereal shimmers of the Aurora Borealis. The Andromeda galaxy, the farthest object visible to the naked eye, is doubly so from the clear, thin air at 39,000 feet. I’ve seen countless meteor showers, gorgeous sunsets and amazing sunrises. Lightning storms are incredibly awe-inspiring when viewed from above. I’ve piloted over 250 “flightseeing” trips over the Grand Canyon, each one different and equally spectacular. In the Virgin Islands I’ve spied eery, slate grey waterspouts—tornadoes on the sea—snaking across the water. On countless Alaskan flights from treetop level, I’ve seen moose, bear, eagles, and endless pods of whales, from humpback to orca to beluga. I once spotted a giant brown bear a hundred feet below as he took an angry swat at me. Unfortunately I have scant photographic evidence of these spectacular sights, other than that which is indelibly etched in my mind’s eye.”
|Cap’n Aux and his favorite toy!—JNU
Secondly, the travel benefits. I have an upcoming blog post entitled, “Around the World in 80 Jumpseats,” which chronicals some of the crazy times I’ve had traveling the world virtually for free! While I mostly relish my days off by staying AT HOME with my kids, I do enjoy the ability to travel cheaply and at will.
I also like the freedom to NOT be tied to a desk, 9-5, Monday-Friday. While I do try to keep some semblance of a regular schedule—working Sunday-Wednesdays all month, for example, I am always swapping trips with other pilots, dropping or picking up time. A pilot can often trade trips around to where he generates several weeks off in a row!
Related to that is the freedom to live one place and commute to work in an entirely different part of the world. I’d estimate 40% of U.S. pilots are based in one state, and live in another. I know one pilot who is based in PHX (Phoenix, AZ), who lives in . . . BKK (Bangkok, Thailand)!
|Cap’n Aux (Center) and Marksan (L) travel to Egypt with some other airline buddies.
While all this probably sounds glamorous, the vast majority of the time I am stuck in some random hotel in some random city, with lots of free time and no transportation but my feet. This can get tedious, but if you motivate yourself to get out and explore, you can really take advantage of the situation.
For example, just last month I visited the Philadelphia Art Museum and viewed a special impressionist art exhibit, as well as their well-preserved Japanese tea houses—two of my favorite art and cultural subjects! A few months ago, during an overnight in FLL (Fort Lauderdale) I met up with two old pilot buddies for sunset cocktails on the beach!
And Finally: two engines with 25,000 lbs of thrust each strapped to my butt. NEED I SAY MORE?!
CAP’N AUX: I will add one more question to your list. Any last thoughts or advice for someone embarking on this career?
CAP’N AUX: Why, Yes, glad you asked!!
Pilots are always joking about the “Looming Pilot Shortage.”*** This supposed shortage has been “looming” ever since I’ve been in the business—over 30 years!
But this time around, the “pilot shortage” may indeed be “looming.” While this recession still has 1,000’s of pilots still on furlough, there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel.
China and much of the 3rd world is EXPLODING with demand for pilots. This is siphoning off the top qualified pilots, leaving room for more newcomers. Add to that a pretty decent alternative career as a RJ (Regional Jet) pilot, and more doors are opening up. Barring economic disaster, most industry experts are prediciting a severe shortage in the coming years and decades.
But in the end, really, what does it matter? You are already hooked on this business and will become a pilot because IT’S IN YOUR BLOOD!
|Cap’n Aux may be a tad too old to fly this future hypersonic, suborbital plane…but perhaps you can!!!
AND FINALLY, as I try to impart in my blog, this career is an ADVENTURE. Pilots tend to be GOAL oriented—get to the end of the flight safely, or get to the Left Seat at a Major airline asap—and forget to enjoy the journey. MOST pilots will NEVER reach this goal! Does this mean they “failed?” HECK NO!
SAVOR each and every moment of your journey. From the time you take that VERY FIRST FLIGHT as a student pilot, you have done something the vast majority of humans will never do: YOU HAVE FLOWN AN AIRPLANE!!! As comedian Louis C.K. aptly put it: “You’re sitting in a chair . . . IN THE SKY!”
. . . and you’ve experienced the DRIVER’S chair!!
|You’re sitting in a chair…IN THE SKY!!!
In my climb up the aviation ladder, I deliberately took several wild detours: I’ve flown Grand Canyon tours, the Alaskan bush, and the Virgin Islands, to name a few. You can’t possibly put a price tag on the wonderful experiences I’ve had!
Finally, I’ll impart to you my favorite inspirational quote of all:
“Life’s a Disneyland, made just for YOU!”
ENJOY THE RIDE!
*DISCLAIMER: Cap’n Aux is just a guy who gets to fly cool airplanes, and is by no means the “final authority” as to speculations on How to pursue a career in aviation!! There are plenty of websites out there dedicated to just this subject (See ****, below) that are VASTLY better informed than he!
**The reason a pilot cannot make a “lateral” move is because Seniority—i.e., how long you’ve worked somewhere—is everything. It affects your pay, your lifestyle, the type of schedule you fly, and your seat, equipment and base. Pilot performance is NOT subjective—you can’t say, “This pilot is better than that pilot, therefore he should be more senior.” All pilots either meet minimum qualifications and performance standards, or they don’t. Therefore, again, seniority based on length of service is the rule of the land.
***DISCLAIMER REDUX: I DO NOT represent any airline in this blog, in any way! I say again, I’m just a guy who flies cool airplanes and likes to write about it!
****BEWARE: there are many outfits out there who exploit your desire to fly airplanes, in order to separate you from your money. I couldn’t tell you the good guys from the bad guys, just be aware as you search these sites—there ARE some legit sites with good advice!
Posting 10/24 at 11:00Phx (18:00z):
SPECIAL MORBID HALLOWEEN EDITION!
THE DARWIN AWARDS—AVIATION STYLE!
“After throwing down a few at a local pub, the Private Pilot
hopped in his new Piper PA-3…”
Posting 11/14 at 11:00Phx (18:00z):
THERE I WUZ!: CAP’N AUX MEETS HURRICANE HUGO!
“We buzzed the island in our seaplanes. Debris strewn everywhere. Nary a rooftop intact. The entire island, once a lush, verdant jungle, lay brown and defoliated, as if an enemy army had dropped napalm.”
P.S.: DON’T FORGET THAT OCTOBER IS BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH!!!