The family challenge

“If the military had wanted you to have a wife, you would have been issued one in boot camp.” A common expression around military bases, this statement could describe most airline jobs as well.

Single pilots taking an entry level job have a much easier transition to the airline world than married pilots. One of the biggest advantages is that the people they date immediately get immersed in the lifestyle as their new friend spends days away at work followed by several days at home. The lingo becomes a second language, and there is a certain excitement for a while as the one at home tracks their flights on FlightAware.

Families, on the other hand, don’t have it so easy. Whether it is Mom or Dad chasing the dream, it is a sudden and stark lifestyle change. Too often, it includes a significant pay cut as well. Spouses and kids suddenly have to deal with one parent being gone frequently, and the spouse at home has to juggle a number of schedules and keep up with routine chores. The frustration can turn to anger and resentment as the spouse on the road is enjoying the job and ‘living the dream.’

But it isn’t always easy on the one flying either. At-home issues that wouldn’t normally be problems suddenly become problems, and often require a lot of faith in your partner. It might be a major car problem, a problem with an appliance (my wife had to deal with a $700 plus air conditioning issue without being able to get in touch with me), a job-school conflict (if you saw the schedule of my wife and kids, you’d shake your head in disbelief), or even just a missed birthday (I’ve missed at least three, and I always have my kids choose whether they want me home for the birthday itself or for the party before I bid for their birthday months). And while you may be living your dream job, you do get homesick at times. Going home early just to go home is rarely an option.

One of the best ways to prepare for bringing a family into the industry is to talk to as many people as you can about the job (better yet, the specific company), and have your spouse do the same. In fact, have the spouse talk to an airline or corporate pilot’s spouse to ask questions and find out what it’s really going to be like. Go over everything, from the days away, the possibility of moving, to the impact of commuting on the whole family (this is especially true if the commute will cross time zones) and what you plan to do on your days off. Don’t forget—the number of days off is one of the perks of the job, but you also spend some of that time just playing catch-up and getting ready to leave again. Read online bulletin boards (take them all with a grain of salt, but recognize that there is some truth to them). Talk to pilots and flight attendants. If you are moving for your new job, get into a network of others from the company as quickly as possible. Like the military, only other families that share your situation can truly understand it.

Much is easier in this day and age as well. Cell phones mean you can still call whenever you want. Skype or other video messaging systems are light years ahead of the old days. I can see my kids every day, even if I can’t kiss them good night. A few years ago, that was just a dream. Today, I can even use it to check their homework or listen to them practice their piano. Very cool stuff indeed.

Flying is a great career, but it takes patience and understanding from everyone involved. And for all the challenges, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

–Chip Wright