Being an airline pilot is great. The job is fun; no two days are the same; the benefits are terrific. You get good health insurance—you’re a pilot, after all, and your health is your career—along with the travel benefits—which aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be—but the discounted tickets alone can make it worth it, even if you can’t fly for free on a given trip. On top of that, you get to travel for a living, and when you get where you’re going, you’re done, while your passengers are just getting to work.
But there are downsides to the schedule. Airlines have become 24/7/365 operations. Red-eye flights now run in both directions. West to east always made sense, because as a passenger you could take off late, sleep en route (in theory), land in the morning, and still make a full day (again, in theory). However, east to west is relatively new, and it is harder for me to wrap my mind around. North-south trips are frequently run at night as well, because the passengers can (again, theoretically) work a normal day, then get some sleep on an all-nighter from New York to Rio.
Working a schedule where you are on nights one day and days the next night is hard, even with the protections of the new FAR 117 rest rules in effect. But, in an industry in which the most expensive commodity (the airplane) only produces money when it’s airborne, this has forced the airlines to find ways to maximize productivity and utilization. My company added almost 60 red eyes across the system just for Thanksgiving. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people fell asleep while eating their turkey thanks to the combination of jet lag and tryptophan.
Some people are afternoon/evening types, and some are morning types. Airline scheduling computers seem to have figured out how to put each of those groups on the opposite schedule just to see what happens. Morning reports can mean wake-up calls as early as 3 a.m., if not worse.
The advantage of these schedules is that you’re done early, but that’s often little consolation to the person who doesn’t begin to function before noon. On the other hand, I tend to like the early reports and dislike the afternoon reports. This was especially true when I was flying RJs under the old work rules when you could work 16 hours no matter what time you finished the day before and no matter what time you started. Knowing that I might start at 2 p.m. but might not finish before 6 a.m.the following morning never did sit well with me. That didn’t happen often, but it did happen—and when it did, it was brutal.
If there is one advantage that working for the regionals offers with regard to the schedules, it’s the opportunity for more one-day trips for those that want them. The shorter range of the planes makes it possible to do a pair 2 or 3 hour legs and be home for dinner. At the majors, however, the planes have greater range, and it’s cheaper to fly longer distances, so one-day trips tend to be less common.
There ups and downs to every job, including this one. However, I find that the ups far outweigh the downs, even on those rare days that turn out to be anything other than what the brochure might have promised.—Chip Wright