Airline Pilot : A Life of Irregularity

I’m an airline pilot, or at least, that’s my day job. Partly because of the nature of my profession, partly because of the nature of my work role (I’m a Check Captain and therefore I’m a slave to both the Aircraft and the Simulator, the airline schedule and the trainee pilot) – this involves a certain degree of irregularity.

For some this may come as a surprise. I work to a roster, which is based on an airline schedule known well in advance, resulting in predictable flights and training recurrences, published for a 4 week period at least a week in advance and once published, rarely changes – and when it does, the changes are usually short term (day or days), usually un-expected and occasionally pleasant. That doesn’t sound too irregular, does it? Then there’s the life this translates to …

For example, just yesterday I rose at 3:30am to head up to Sydney to teach simulator. I’d planned my yearly pilot medical prior to the sim session (turn your head and cough, $285, thank you very much) and so was in Sydney early. As it turned out, that was my downfall move because as I arrived into Sydney, I received a missed call notification – “The simulator is down” (the motion system had caught fire – how cool is that?) “You’re not required for sim for the next two days, stay home.” So there I am, up to Sydney, lunch in a Westfield shopping monster and then back down to Melbourne I went. Including the Medical, the day cost me about $400, no actual work performed. Ah well.

Ok, so that’s an extreme example. Mostly. With a planned life (at least out to the next 28 days) you’d think organising a play date with an old friend and his family for a weekend BBQ would be easy, right? Well, we tried all through December and January, but most of my weekends were taken by trips – headed to or coming back from LAX. The rest were taken up by commitments to my own family, such as … Christmas. It’s now the 29th of Jan, I have a roster out to the 3rd of Feb – and I’m still waiting for the Feb roster to come out to try again on an availability comparison with my five day a week, nine to five friend.

Month in month out, I will never know if I’m going to be available for calendar based events. Someone’s 50th – won’t know if I can come until a few weeks before. You’re getting married? I’ll let you know three weeks before. Kid’s school concert – same. Will I be around for Christmas? Ask me in December. At this point, making my own funeral is the only planning certainty in life, and while statistically flying is safer than using a Mac, there’s always the chance I won’t physically make that either. This has some long term impact on your mental processes. A friend of mine who recently retired from the industry has invited me to his 60th birthday party – 10 months from now in December.

Of course there are advantages to this life. Largely speaking, I can’t ever be relied upon, as my long suffering wife and kids have learnt that through frustrating experience. Although this doesn’t sound like an immediately positive life factor – I’m at least working from a lower common denominator than my nine to five peers, where last minute meetings or work commitments can break long held promises to family and friends. It only gets better from this point.

When I can be around – I am around. What I mean by this is that typically a pilot will have more days off (or at least time at home) that an average nine to five worker, and those days off can be devoted to your family (notice I say “can” … do you play golf/have a computer/own a boat?) There’s a reason for this – see “Jet Lag”, but in any case I do the walk to school with the kids when I’m here, do some pickups, do some drop offs, Frisbee in the park, walk the dog and jobs around the house as best I can. Since my wife has three full time jobs raising our kids, when I’m here, she’s available too for the odd illicit breakfast out after a morning school drop off, or a movie, or a walk with the dog. There are advantages. That said – deregulation has killed a lot of this. Pilots are working harder and harder, even as salaries have dropped significantly in real terms over the last decade.

But it’s a strange life. I’m present in my family’s life much more now than in my previous job. Between 2004 and 2008 I was based in Dubai flying to basically the rest of the world for a large Middle Eastern carrier, but commuting to Melbourne where my family lived. On average I would work 2-3 weeks and then have perhaps 10 days off to commute to Geelong and re-acquaint myself with family life. Despite it’s clear disadvantages, in truth that life probably had me around more than my nine to five friends who often left home in the morning when the kids were getting up and didn’t make it home until the younger ones were in bed, but what we found hardest was establishing a role for me. My family needs to continue on in its routines and responsibilities during my absences – so creating (or making room for) a role for me when I was around was so disruptive at times as not be worth it. I was Ancillary Man – nice to have around, but not really required.

Now I’m working for an Australian airline, albeit one that has me based in Sydney, so I’m home more regularly. After 3-5 days at home, I’m either off to Los Angeles or Abu Dhabi, or up to Sydney for 3-5 days of simulator, or a combination – perhaps 5-7 days away and then back for 2-4 days before the next rostered round of duties. I’m gradually becoming more relevant to my family. I’m involved in decisions, even present when some of them are made. I’m starting to keep up with the kids and what they’re doing day to day. It’s nice to be a Dad again.

Once away on a trip, the choice of regularity or otherwise pretty much becomes my own. On a Los Angeles flight which arrives into LA first thing in the morning (late at night Melbourne time), I usually choose to stay on Melbourne time. Since the long day flight over is exhausting with very little in flight rest for various reasons, sleeping the entire day away in LA becomes easy. Of course that means staying up all night in LA, which may sound glamorous, but when your airline places you in Long Beach (where you’re about a $150 taxi ride from anywhere at all; where you can’t even get a meal past about 10pm), the hotel’s room service after 11 is basically the food that wasn’t eaten during the day, reheated; and midnight TV consists basically of re-runs of JAG (you can’t even get Rage, or it’s US equivalent). It’s a sucky life, but it could be worse – I could be regularly trying to find something interesting to do in Long Beach during the day …

I’m looking for a conclusion to this article, but there isn’t one. To be honest, my job rarely challenges me mentally at all, and when it does it’s usually a bad thing for the airline and my passengers alike. Clearly it’s time to look for something else to do – but what? Any ideas?