One of my Cockpit to Cockpit readers sent me an email recently in which he asked me “if the grass is really greener on the other side?” He is still on active duty with about 2.5 years left on his active duty service commitment and he wanted to know if the airline pilot lifestyle is worth leaving active duty. He sent me this email while serving in a deployed location in the Middle East during the Christmas holidays. My response to his question is written below. I know he’s not the only one out there asking themselves this question so I wanted to share my response here on an open forum for all airline hopefuls to learn from:
An airline job is a completely different animal than being a military pilot. I guess it depends whom you ask and what their circumstances are, but for me it’s a resounding “yes”…the grass really is greener. There are a few other pilots in this business who would tell you the opposite, they would tell you this job sucks rotten eggs, you’re better off to stay in the military. It’s all about how you choose to approach this job and the attitude you bring with you to work. For me it’s a conscious decision when I put on my airline uniform to be a professional, and stay as positive as possible in my interactions with my Captain, my crewmembers, and especially my customers because ultimately they pay my salary (which is really good and getting better all the time).
That’s not to say that it’s all sunshine and lollipops at the airlines. There are certain aspects of this job that can be tough. Obviously you’re on the road a lot away from your family because that’s what you get paid to do. Sometimes the days are long, the weather is bad, and your schedule changes, or you are stuck in a crash pad in New York City on reserves. Again, it’s what you get paid to do and you knew the deal upfront when you signed on to do it. So you can accept those things and make the most of it, or you can choose to be miserable. That’s a choice. The good news is, unlike the military, you are free to walk away at any given time if you decide this is no longer for you.
I’m also not saying that my time in the Air Force was all bad…it wasn’t. Just like any job there were ups and downs but overall my military experience was a great one, mostly because of the people and the flying. One thing I loved in the military that just doesn’t exist in the airlines was the squadron camaraderie. That gets left behind when you take off the flight suit and go to the airlines. There are no roll calls, naming ceremonies, First Fridays, etc. The best you can hope for is a lively push to the hotel bar at the end of the day by the dozen or so crews that are staying at that hotel on any given night. The company does a couple functions a year for employees and families but it’s not the same.
The pilots I have flown with in the airlines are 95% great guys/gals that I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few days with. Of course there’s always that 5%. That’s one of the downsides of an airline job. When you get stuck with a 5% pilot you are usually stuck with him/her for the next 3-4 days. Make the most of it; try to learn something from their experience, then when you get home put them on your avoidance bid so you won’t get paired with them again. I think most airlines have this option.
Airline flying is never going to compare with the rush of a 4 v X DACT, pulling Gs, and dropping bombs on bad guys as I did in my past life and you’re doing now. So yes, I miss that stuff, but as I think back on my Air Force career it was about a 1:12 ratio as a conservative estimate. For every hour I spent flying, I spent about 12 hours busting my ass doing all sorts of non-flying work that never seemed to be enough for the Air Force. Some of it was queep, and some of it was genuinely important work that needed to be done to keep Big Blue running or somehow improve it, but all of it pulled me away from my one true passion…being a pilot.
In my airline job I get paid to do one thing and one thing only, take paying passengers into the air and return them safely to the earth. If I can manage to do that and get them where they wanted to go on time with all their stuff intact, well that’s just a bonus. The point is, I show up, I do my job, I go home (or to the hotel). That’s it. There is no email to check at the end of the day, no queep, no performance reports to write. I know who the Chief pilot is but I never have to see him unless I’ve really screwed up (hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood sts). You get the picture. This is truly a job you don’t have to take home with you. My days off are fully mine to spend with my family or however I choose.
In my opinion, this job is all about quality of life. The beautiful thing about that is you get to decide what that means to you. For some pilots, quality of life means being able to live in the city of their choosing because their kids get to stay in a good school (or whatever other reason) and being able to commute to work easily. For others (myself included) it means living in domicile and driving to work. Some pilots may define it as the ability to have a flexible schedule so you can take a week off if you want to just by trading some trips around with the company or other pilots. Others may define it as the almost unlimited ability to pick up extra trips to make some serious $$$ when they want to. In all cases, your seniority is directly proportional to quality of life because as your seniority grows, you will get better schedules, better domiciles, faster upgrades to other airframes, more vacation time, etc. Here again, it comes down to choices. For example, you may become eligible to upgrade to a wide-body higher paying airframe based on your overall system seniority, but you will be the most junior FO in that airframe in your domicile if you take the upgrade and therefore have the worst schedules and be on reserve again. It’s all about choices.
I’ve been an airline pilot for just 1.5 years. I’m domiciled in Dallas where I live about 20 minutes from the airport. I was able to hold Dallas in just my third month and I was holding a line (off reserves) in my 5th month. In my first year, we took three amazing week-long vacations without having to use a single vacation or sick day. With the recent hiring wave, I’m sure other pilots at other airlines have similar stories. The industry is riding a historic high right now.
The time away from your family factor is a very real concern, but I honestly think that overall I have more time with my family now than I did when I was active duty because A) I don’t have to deploy for months at a time with the airlines B) My time off is truly mine, no additional duties.
As an example, in December I spent 22 nights at home. I worked a total of 15 days and had 16 days off. I still made good money with 103 trips for pay or about 115 hours of block time. I have to work Christmas day but I was home for Thanksgiving.
Keep in mind that my situation is a bit different in that I stayed on active duty until I retired. If you’re planning to Palace Chase or separate and start flying with the Guard/Reserve it’s a slightly different story because on your time off from the airlines you will be bouncing back and forth to your military job. Most of the pilots I’ve talked to who do this will tell you that can lead to burn-out pretty quick unless you structure it with both employers to make it manageable. I’m sure there are challenges associated with staying proficient in both jobs as well. Not to say that you should not consider it, there are some very good benefits to going that route also. You get to keep working toward a military retirement while getting your foot in the door and starting to build seniority with your airline. You also get to keep doing the “fun” flying in the military and experience the squadron camaraderie the airlines are lacking.
Before I leave you to chew on all this, I want to make sure I give you some additional food for thought about benefits and job security (or lack thereof). The benefits in the airlines are pretty amazing right now. FOs are starting out at the majors between about $75K-$85K per year. A far cry better than the $40K per year from just a few years back. Within about 5 years, you should be easily in the $145K-$165K range and as a Captain you can earn $250K+++ before too long.
Most airlines contribute between 12% – 16% monthly to your 401K without you having to lift a finger. That’s 12%-16% into your retirement on top of whatever you decide to contribute. Also many airlines give profit sharing which has been about 2 months salary equivalent in the past few years. Some airlines pay this as cash to you, others contribute it to your retirement fund.
Vacation time starts at 1-2 weeks paid vacation per year and usually grows to 5-6 weeks by the 10-year point. There are some scheduling tricks that will add an extra 3-4 days to every 1 week block of vacation you use such that you can easily turn 3 weeks of vacation into almost 5 weeks of vacation time.
You and your family (and parents) can fly for free, space available, anywhere your airline serves. Additionally, most airlines around the world participate in Zed Fares allowing you and your family (and parents) to travel space available on many other airlines for just the cost of the taxes associated with that ticket.
The health plans are good, but generally a bit more expensive than Tricare premiums.
OK, last thing. I mentioned job security. I would be remiss if I told you all these wonderful things about being an airline pilot without warning you about a major downside. The airline industry has a long history of instability. As I’m sure you are aware, words like strike, furlough, merger, acquisition, and chapter 11 are synonymous with the airlines. There’s no airline that is immune to these issues but some are more prone than others so choose carefully when you’re looking at airline choices. Another 9/11, oil prices returning to $100+/barrel, or an economic downturn can easily turn this historic industry high into another slump. Look at the history of that airline with respect to these words and look at their financial health. The Cockpit to Cockpit Support Package (http://www.cockpit2cockpit.com/shop/product-3-2) includes an Airline Comparison spreadsheet that allows you to rank order your airline choices using a points system based on the factors that are most important to you.
I could go on for days, and I already have but I hope this answers your question: “Is the grass really greener on the other side”. The bottom line is that it sure can be if you play it right. It’s all about choices, quality of life, timing, a little bit of luck, and keeping a positive outlook. It would be very easy not to be happy some days and fall into the trap of griping about everything as some pilots choose to do, but this job’s just too good to come to work pissed off!
You can find more articles like this one on my blog at www.cockpit2cockpit.com