Starting off as a commercial airline pilot is no easy task.

Jennifer Roth

To anyone on the outside of aviation, the life of an airline pilot sounds exciting and luxurious. However, that is just not the case, especially in the early years of a pilot’s career. Typically when a pilot begins their career in the airline world, they are probably carrying a load of student loans and surviving as best they can. And considering regional airline pay can start as little as $22,000 a year, it can be difficult for a person to afford much. Commuting, crash pads, time away from home as well as sitting reserve and allotted benefits from the airlines all affect the quality of life for a commercial airline pilot.

Commuting

With any job, commuting is difficult. The longer the commute, the more exhausting and draining it can be on a person. With commercial airline pilots, commuting will most likely be a part of life, at one time or another. Unless a person lives in a major city such as Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and so on, they will more than likely commute. And many times, even if they are living in a major city, they may not be able to have that city be their home base for a while so they will still be required to commute. Commuting can be difficult for a pilot regardless of their experience, but especially for a newer pilot who does not make a lot of money. Salary only includes scheduled flight time, so for a person who has to commute, that does not include the time they put in getting to the airport, making a flight and arriving at the location their actual scheduled flight will start. Weather also affects the ability of a commuter to get to their starting destination on time. If there is any weather at any point between where they live and where they work, it can cause a chain of events preventing them from making it there on time. Because of this, the pilot may have to commute a day early to prevent missing their scheduled flights. This is unpaid time and adds time to their trip as well as stress.

Commercial Airline Pilot Crash Pads
Crash pad for an airline pilot or flight crew
Photo courtesy of ABC News

If a person is commuting to a different city than where they live, they most likely will have to have a place to stay. Hotel bills can add up and, as mentioned, the starting salary of a commercial airline pilot is not much. Enter the “crash pad,” a term that pilots know well. It can be anything from a hotel room with multiple bunk beds, to an apartment with bunk beds in every room. This not so ideal living situation allows the commuter to pay a monthly fee anywhere from 50 to 100 dollars, depending on the living quarters, and it will provide a bed for them to sleep in. It is not ideal in the sense that you may not always have a bed (depending on how many pilots are there at the time) or you may be sleeping when other people are in and out, or your bed may be in a closet. This does, however, allow for an affordable alternative while stuck in the city and trying to get home. Many people have to rely on this to have a place to stay when either sitting reserve or stuck due to weather or maintenance issues.

Other pilots, or someone within the aviation industry such as a flight attendant, usually establishes crash pads. This is beneficial because these are the people who have had to rely on them, so they know what is needed as far as space, location and price. Without crash pads, pilots would be forced to either pay for expensive hotel rooms or sleep in crew rooms at airports. Pilots can usually find information about crash pads on airline forum boards, crew rooms, or even just word of mouth from other pilots.

The Commercial Airline Pilot’s Schedule and Time Away From Home

The airline’s totem pole also affects the pilot’s line. A line is their schedule for the month; usually, a new hire will have to sit reserve. So many times they only have a 2-hour call-out if they will be flying. For commuters, this means that on their days to fly they have to be in that city, so it is often the pilot who depends on the crash pads. Sitting reserve is difficult even if the pilot lives in the city they are based in. They may be home but they cannot really make plans because they have to be on call whenever they are on duty. As they increase in seniority, they are able to hold a line and therefore can plan their time off or time away more accurately. Reserve, unless specifically requested by a pilot, usually occurs for new hires if they have plenty of pilots to fly lines, and then again once they upgrade to captain. They fall back down the totem pole for the captain position and may have to sit reserve again depending on how many pilots they have working or their seniority number at that point.

Time away from home is the time that is spent working but not necessarily flying. Sometimes a person may have a flight but once they arrive at their destination, can have a 22-hour sit, or layover. On occasion, this can be fun for a pilot, giving them a chance to see and explore the city they are in. But many pilots have families and time away is difficult, and when they are not getting paid for those hours being away from home, it can be frustrating. Also, a 22-hour sit in Fargo, North Dakota may not have the same excitement that San Diego, California, would. So time away is not always fun for a pilot. Many experiences have shown that a pilot can be gone many days but only accrue a small amount of paid hours to bring home.

Because of this, as many pilots gain in seniority and no longer have to fly reserve, they work towards moving to the base of their choice, which allows them to use their own home instead of a crash pad or hotel, leading to a better quality of life.

In Conclusion

Now, with all this being said, there are many benefits to being a commercial airline pilot. The office view really doesn’t get better than the one they have. From mountains to oceans, farmland, forests, mountains, gorgeous clouds and sunsets, pilots often have amazing picture worthy days. They also have the benefit of flying free. If a seat is available, they can jump on almost any airline to any destination that airline flies to, whether in the US or overseas, such as Europe. They can also have these benefits extend to certain family members as well, so they can often travel with their spouse, children, and / or parents. And not many people get the opportunity to see as much of the United States as pilots do. Finally, as a pilot advances in their career, their pay does go up, especially as they transition from flying with regionals to major airlines. Many commercial airline pilots are able to very comfortably retire after a career with the airlines. And even with all of the struggles, it is a proud accomplishment for a person to say, “I am a pilot”.

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Featured Image: Keven Menard

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