I was recently in a friendly debate with some friends on Facebook about the merits of flying cargo versus passengers, especially in the coming years as Amazon continues its stratospheric growth. Those who fly cargo tend to be absolutely devoted to that line of work. The common refrain is that boxes don’t complain, and the chief pilot rarely calls.
What are some of the pros and cons of cargo versus passenger flying? Let’s start with cargo. Yes, it’s true that cargo doesn’t complain, unless it consists of live animals, in which case it may very well complain or lose control of its bowels. But the point is valid. Passengers do a lot of bellyaching about the airlines—some deserved, some not so much. Boxes just sit there and take up space, and they don’t care if the ride is bumpy or if the cabin is hot or cold.
Passenger carriers generally have fairly set rules on leaving early. Cargo operations tend to be more relaxed about departure times. If the airplane is full 30 minutes ahead of schedule, chances are you can leave. That may not sound like much, but if you’re scheduled to fly all night, every minute of getting done early helps.
Speaking of the schedule, that is hands-down the biggest drawback to cargo flying. The overwhelming majority of the schedule takes place “on the back side of the clock,” also known as night time. While many cargo pilots claim that you can get acclimated to the schedule, the reality is that the human body isn’t designed to be awake at night for extended periods of time. You’ll be asleep when others are awake, which can be a challenge in hotels if they’re noisy. You will be forced to flip your body around when you get home in order to have any semblance of a family life.
But if you can make it to the big boys of cargo (FedEx and UPS), the benefits are tough to beat. The pay is fantastic (it has to be to attract pilots to that kind of work) and the health insurance and retirement are superb.
Even at the second-tier carriers, such as Atlas and Southern, there have been meaningful changes and improvements. Pay is going up, and schedules are getting better. Amazon is clearly trying to get a better deal on shipping costs by controlling its own airplanes, but it remains to be seen if the company can build a stand-alone delivery system. But even if it can’t, it can produce jobs that don’t currently exist. The downside? The pay is no match for the majors, and it probably never will be, even though it’s getting better.
Passenger carriers have their own pros and cons. Passengers do indeed complain, and it’s embarrassing to see your company on the news when something bad happens. The competition is cutthroat. Working conditions at the regional airlines are a far cry from what they used to be, but they’re not where they need to be.
The schedules can be somewhat sporadic, but outside of long-haul flying, they’re not nearly as hard on the body as cargo. Pay, however, is now much more reflective of the market for pilots, especially at the regionals. For some, the availability of pass benefits and free travel makes all the difference. I like to get the words of thanks and appreciation from my passengers when we get them where they want to go. Cargo may not complain, but it doesn’t thank you, either.
And the chief pilot? He rarely calls as well. And when he does, it’s almost always a justified phone call, and it’s the same phone call his compatriot at a cargo company would make.
There are pros and cons to both cargo and passenger flying. Both offer their own rewards. If you’re not sure which one you want to do, try them both, talk to pilots on both sides, and use that information to make a decision.—Chip Wright