A Day/Trip in the Life…of an Airline Pilot
Greetings TPN! This post was started a while ago, before I wrote my Second Year in Review. I’d been trying to come up with something impactful or profound to write for you…and had failed miserably for quite a while. I’ve started work on a large-scale, exciting project, but it won’t be ready very soon. In the meantime, I figured I’d tell you about a recent day at work, and a little about the rest of that trip.
It’s easy to paint airline pilot life as being all unicorns and rainbows because, compared to the queep/lack of focus/careerism/waste rampant in the USAF, life as an airline pilot is pretty damn rosy! However, I think it’s worth showing the good and the bad. Part of making a decision on whether to leave the military or not (or to pursue an airline pilot job at all for you young civilians) is trying to get an idea of what the job is actually like. So, here’s a day, and a trip, in the life:
January 11, 2018, day 2 of 5
I wake up in a very nice Hyatt Regency in Crystal City near DCA. We’d finished late the night before so I’d gone right to bed and let myself sleep in. We have an uncharacteristically late show time of 11:20 am…plenty of time to get a workout, call home, surf the web, etc. There’s some sort of naval surface warfare conference happening downstairs. For once my double-breasted uniform jacket doesn’t feel totally ridiculous. A uniformed USCG E-8 in the elevator even treats me like a real Commander after noticing the three gold bars on my sleeves. It makes me chuckle.
The hotel is close to the airport so it’s a short van ride through the freezing cold. DCA is a great airport and we breeze through the Known Crewmember checkpoint. (At many US airports, airline pilots get to skip the regular security line altogether thanks to the KCM program. It’s glorious! It will give you back many hours of more meaningful life over the course of your career.) We intentionally took a van a few minutes early so that we’d have time to grab some lunch. After a bowl of delicious Mediterranean food we meander over to our gate. Meet the flight attendants, sign the paperwork, drag your bag to the jet, check the logbook for write-ups before anything else.
The crew arrival at the jet is a beautiful ballet to me because it contrasts so sharply everything about the analogous process in the USAF. Back in the day when I was a B-1 copilot we would spend a full day planning for a mission. That day would include several crew meetings where the Aircraft Commander (AC) gave or checked up on assignments. (Because we were individually incapable of figuring out what needed to be done or meeting deadlines, I guess.)
The day of the flight would include a 2-4 hour mission brief where the AC covered every minute detail of the planned flight, even though most of that brief never changed. (Because we’re bad patriots if we don’t brief The Motherhood ad naseum every time we fly, right?) At the jet, the AC would spend 5-10 minutes pouring of the aircraft logbooks (while the rest of us just stood around waiting) and briefing the crew chief about emergency signals and how the crew was going to enter the jet. (Because the crew chief probably didn’t know the signals, and cared deeply about the boarding order, right?) I could go on, but the point is: the process was unbelievably painful and much of it was unnecessary.
There’s no such thing in the airlines. Everyone knows what must be done and makes it happen. It’s so much more pleasant than anything I’ve ever known before. Everyone stows their bags quickly and without fuss. The flight attendants walk through the cabin, do a quick safety check, and make sure everything is ready. Frequently, cleaners and caterers will be doing their thing as we arrive. They’re always in the way, but it’s easy to be patient and make room for each other.
You want them to be able to do their job well…. The Captain does conduct a flight attendant briefing, but only because the FAA mandates it. It lasts 60 seconds (max) and generally entails the airline equivalent of “Standard. Questions?” Everything happens so quickly and efficiently that there’s generally time to chat and joke around. The flight attendants ask you if you want anything, offering your choice of drink and fancy first class snacks from the carts. (Assuming your airline has a first class.) You even have lots of time to chill and read through old issues of TPNQ while passengers start boarding.
There is no self-important commander, standing on high, majestically issuing commands to the troops because, finally, for once in my life, we’re actually trusted and respected enough as professionals to be left alone to do our job. No “leadership” or micromanagement required.
You military aviators out there can’t fully understand how much stress and frustration your organization injects into your life with this stuff. Someday you’re finally going to take that red pill. You’ll wake up and see how effortless life can be and you’ll angrily turn to me and say, “Emet! Why didn’t you tell me, you jerk?” I will then text you a link to this post without further comment, like a jerk.
I’m the FO and it’s cold outside today, so I get the walk-around. (Emet’s secrets to FO happiness:
- Nobody cares about what you did in your past life, Colonel;
- Embrace your current place, knowing what’s ahead;
- Never miss an opportunity to shut the hell up.)
It’s not as bad as I expected and I’m back upstairs within a few minutes. That amount of time was about twice what the captain needed to load the FMS and do all the interior checks, so we have the next 45 minutes to not do much more than sit around, chat, and sip from bottomless cups of free Starbucks brand coffee.
We push back on time. Engine start is a simple procedure on the 717. The checklists are also relatively simple and smooth. The taxi to RWY 19 is easy, and before you know it we’re blasting off for Detroit.
DTW is a short flight from DCA and the air is smooth. We get assigned a runway we weren’t expecting so there’s about 60 seconds of conscious work reloading the FMS and briefing the new approach.
The landing and taxi-in are uneventful. We’re early and our next jet hasn’t arrived yet (as usual) so I end up spending a few minutes talking to my wife, reading MMM, and relaxing at an empty gate. When the jet does arrive, we repeat the boarding/preflight process all over again with a new set of flight attendants. Easy peasy.
Our next stop, AUS, is about as far away as the little 717 can handle. We’re topped off with gas and I’ll admit I’m dreading a planned 3.5 hours in this seat. I rate aircraft seats in hours until serious discomfort sets in. The B-1 had a 2- or 3-hour seat. The U-28 had a 4-hour seat, extendable to 5 hours if you have an extra cushion from Oregon Aero. The T-6 has a 1.5-hour seat. That’s perfect for most flights, but makes it a less-than- ideal cross country airplane. The E-11 does not have a 9-hour seat, but the fact that you’re luxuriating in pajama pants and slippers at FL470 makes you notice it less. The 717 has a 1.5-hour seat. DTW-AUS is a long flight for my scrawny backside.
Thankfully though, I have a good captain. We share some common background and end up deciding that we’re both avid readers. We swap war stories from teaching UPT and each end up with several titles and authors excitedly added to our to-read lists. We start hearing reports of turbulence both on the center frequencies and from our company through ACARS (a handy, text-based datalink messaging system so common in modern airline ops that even the archaic MD88 has it.) We have a very cool proprietary app on our tablets that shows us a graphical turbulence model based on real-time data from every aircraft in our company and NWS data, fed by a secure/hidden channel on the jet’s satellite internet. We use the app to choose a different altitude and end up with a far smoother ride than we’d expected. Though far from anything that might fit the definition of “taxing,” the process of pursuing excellence in our jobs by avoiding turbulence is engaging and helps pass the time.
My seat tolerance has definitely expired and I’m ready to be on the ground when we start hearing things like “min fuel” and “divert” on the radio. It seems that Houston just got slammed with some thunderstorms (in January!) and a lot of aircraft are having to go elsewhere. That’s about the time we get a “Ding!” from ACARS with a message from our dispatcher: “Houston has weather and traffic is diverting. There is a jet at your gate at Austin right now. It should be just a gas & go, so hopefully it won’t affect you much.”
Great. We had a relatively short turn time scheduled here. We’re both looking forward to food from Salt Lick BBQ, and don’t want a big delay getting to our final destination, MSP, that night. We’re also flying into a 100kt headwind while all this is happening. Dispatch had planned for the winds, but they have unavoidable psychological effects too. We have an easy arrival and approach at AUS and land on 35R. We see three aircraft clogging the taxiways near the end of the runway. We get sent in a circle to line up on a parallel taxiway behind another Delta 717 waiting for a gate. I’m at 3.5 hours and counting in this seat….
Despite the fact that there’s a company jet in front of us, we get cleared to our gate as soon as it opens up because we were scheduled for it and they weren’t. #sorrynotsorry There’s an AeroMexico Connection E190 sitting all by itself at the absolute departure end of the taxiway. They keep calling company and ground asking what gate they can expect and how long it’ll take. The gates are jam-packed and ground both doesn’t know and doesn’t care. The company side is an interesting story.
One of the many reasons that Delta has massive profits, minimal debt, and a market cap as large as the other two major airline competitors combined is that our execs are great strategists. They’ve set up a bunch of “Joint Venture” (JV) arrangements with major airlines around the world. These aren’t just codeshares. These are arrangements where we buy as much as 49% of the company. This usually buys us a seat on their board, a share of that airline’s profits, and exposure to that airline’s risks. This gives Delta execs more control over a global airline strategy and they work hard to give our passengers reason to connect on JV partners for routes that we don’t cover with our own metal.
From a business perspective, these JVs are hugely successful. The crew dawg perspective is a different story though. On one hand, we’re pilots so we really like money. It looks like I’m going to get a check for about $15,000 of profit sharing on this coming Valentine’s day. Delta’s JVs are part of that. However, if Virgin Atlantic can make money flying a 787 between Seattle and London, why shouldn’t we have Delta pilots getting paid to do that profitable flying on a Delta 787? (We inherited an order for 10 787s from Northwest, but “thanks” to our JVs, there was no reason to take delivery. There are a grand total of zero 787s in our fleet, in case you’re wondering.) These JVs also make international nonrevenue travel less valuable for us. Sure, you can get on a Delta flight to Amsterdam, London, or Paris. However, once you’re there you’re effectively stuck. Active pilots have high priority for standby on Delta jets, but if you want to then fly Air France to Dubai or Mumbai, or somewhere else exotic, you have to pay $40 for the privilege of listing for what amounts to a buddy pass…a standby flying pass with priority so low that I won’t even give them to my friends because it’s just cruel.
Our current contract gives the company power to set up Joint Ventures without notice to or any input from our union. Only after the agreements are set up do we get to start working to ensure that the new JV doesn’t encroach on our flying. My union and company are going to be working on figuring out how to live with this JV strategy for a long time. I just don’t know how to feel about it yet.
As such, seeing a jet from our newest JV partner, AeroMexico, sitting all by itself presents a conundrum for me. Those passengers are essentially Delta passengers, but those pilots are poaching work I could be enjoying. I end up not shedding any tears as we taxi back out an hour later and hear them still asking for a gate. (Wow Emet, you are a jerk!)
I’m getting ahead of myself though. First: food! When we get to Gate 5, the captain says, “I want to get out of here ASAP to avoid being extra late into Minni. That doesn’t leave much time for food. How about you get the BBQ and I’ll take care of everything here?” You don’t have to twist my arm! I grab some glorious (if outrageously overpriced) pulled pork sandwiches in a terminal swamped with people. When I get back to the jet the passengers are already boarding, our professional flight crew having quickly prepared the aircraft without any drama or direct management from Colonel Iwannastar. We review our clearance and run the preflight checklist (conservatively a grand total of 90 seconds) and still end up having time to enjoy our food while the passengers finish boarding.
We taxi past at least a dozen United jets just sitting on an auxiliary pad on our way to 35L. I feel bad for them. Airlines are very territorial. American owns DFW in Dallas, United owns IAH in Houston and Southwest owns LUV in Dallas and most of HOU in Houston. SAT and AUS are mostly neutral ground, and each airline has essentially exclusive access to a few gates at each airport. United relies so heavily on IAH that they don’t bother with AUS much. That’s all well and good until half of their fleet diverts and there aren’t any gates for them. If any of you were there, I’m sorry you had such a long night! (See, I’m not always a jerk.)
We’re happy that AUS is on north flow because that points us toward our destination. We dial the speed up and hope that the 100kt headwind we had last flight will help us out this time. We get the tailwind, but at a price. We find ourselves in light to moderate chop and can’t find a good altitude, even with our fancy app. I personally don’t mind turbulence at all. I enjoy roller coasters, off-roading, and boxing. I know that turbulence terrifies a lot of passengers though. This turns out to be the worst turbulence I’ve seen since starting at Delta. It lasts for at least 90 minutes. We could get to somewhat smoother air up higher, somewhere around FL350. The problem is that we’re too heavy. The 717 is an outstanding airplane and it makes Delta boatloads of money. (Thanks SWA, for paying us to take them off your hands!) However, AUS-MSP is at the upper limits of its range. Our seats, baggage compartment, and fuel tanks are full, so we’re too heavy to get above FL330 on our little DC-9 wing. If only Boeing would build a modern 110-seat aircraft, or stop hypocritically blocking the company trying to sell us one…. (And you think I’m a jerk?)
It’s a long flight at the end of a long day. We’re definitely tired by the time we get there. (My seat limit has been exceeded for the second time in one day.) It’s my leg to fly and I’m ashamed to admit that I floated the landing a little. It’s still smooth, but certainly not the standard that I set for myself. Somehow, MSP feels colder than I’d expected on our way to the van. (The next morning we’ll notice snow drifts inside the jetways!) It’s nice to be done though. We pack up and get moving. Again, no dog & pony show of getting an entire crew to the hotel like there sometimes tends to be in the military. Everyone does their job, moves quickly without prompting, doesn’t wander off, and the van is there on time. It turns out that a buddy of mine is in MSP that night for work with a different airline. We meet downtown and spend a few hours catching up in Lyon’s Pub. It’s a pretty great way to finish off a long day.
Our layover hotel is the Marriott City Center…a nice hotel in and of itself. I’m assigned room 3121. Normally that’d mean the 3 rd floor—anything other than 1 st floor is fine with me. In the elevator, I see that we’re actually going to the 31 st (and top) floor. When I open the door to my room the first thing I see is a staircase. Score! I got a suite with two floors and extra fanciness all over. I’ll be honest, this doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve gotten the suite about 4 times in my almost two years so far. It doesn’t actually improve the quality of my sleep on a layover, but it is fun to enjoy some extra luxury every once in a while.
So, that’s one day in the life of an airline pilot. Not all days are that long. It was scheduled for 8+01 hours of block time and ended up being close to that with our delays at AUS. At first, you’ll think, “Yah, but you made a ton of money!” 8+01 hours x $121.59/hr + 10% profit sharing (conservative estimate for next year) + 16% company 401k contribution + 24 hrs per diem x $2.45/hr = $1,302.57. That’s pretty decent for one day’s work.
Well, yes and no. Our contract has a “daily guarantee” of 5+15 hrs. So, even if you only do a single, 27-minute leg from ATL-BHM, you still get paid for 5+15. That’s a great deal, except the contract also puts the word “average” in front of “daily guarantee.” My trip actually looks like this:
- Day 1: 3 legs, 4+27 scheduled block time
- Day 2: 3 legs, 8+01 scheduled block time
- Day 3: 3 legs, 7+15 sheduled block time
- Day 4: 0 legs. Long layover. Booya!
- Day 5: 1 leg, 2+15 scheduled block time. Done at 9:00 am. Booya!
It’s actually a pretty great trip. I make 5 days of pay for what I consider 3 days of work. (I’ll be home by noon on day 5.) If I’m away from home anyway, I don’t mind having a couple long days on a trip if I can get a full (paid) day off to relax in the middle of the trip and then finish early. After the average daily guarantee and some other contract gymnastics, the trip pays 26+15 hours. I’m happy with that, but if we could ever negotiate the word “average” out of the contract, this trip would be worth just over 31 hours of pay…a significant difference. What this all boils down to is: I actually only made $873.33 for my long day at work. Still not too shabby.
You can expect a “Year 2 in Review” post after I get my final profit sharing numbers next month. (Edit: here’s the link.) Overall, this pay is still great. I’m already making more than I would have been (per hour or per day of work) if I’d stayed in the Air Force, even with their hysterically small recent increases in pilot bonus and flight pay. I start Year 3 pay next month and I’ll probably boost it by bidding to a larger aircraft or a captain’s seat…more to keep life interesting than for the money. I continue to maintain my position that there is absolutely zero financial justification for staying in the military past your initial commitment. (I won’t fault you for staying…as long as you have a good, non-financial reason for doing so.)
This wasn’t an “average” day in my life right now…it was just “a” day. Most days at work are a lot easier than this one. Even most 4-leg days end up closer to 4 or 5 hours of scheduled block time. I bid for this trip specifically because: 1) the dates allowed me to be home with the kids on the days that my wife was working. No nanny or daycare required + more time with my kiddles = winning. 2) I love 30-hr layovers. It gives me time to sleep in, work out, enjoy good food, and even do things like writing this post. It’s like all the good parts of being deployed, without having to be in a God-forsaken shithole…and the accommodations are always single-occupancy and infinitely more comfortable. 3) I also like trips that end early because I’m a commuter. I love earning a full day of pay to fly one leg and be home in time to pick up my kids from school on early-release day.
This brings up a recurring theme that illustrates one of the beauties of this job. Scheduling works well because we all want something different. I’m a commuter, so I want a 4-5 day trip when I go. Someone who lives in base will bid for 1-days trips and be home every night. I don’t mind the cold, so I’ll bid for great places like Appleton and Cedar Rapids in the dead of winter and enjoy myself. People who can’t handle that can bid for West Palm and Cancun. Instead of accepting whatever the schedulers stick me with as “Needs of the Air Force” I get to bid every month for what I want. I know my seniority number and I can also strategize my aircraft bid based on the relative seniority I’ll have in a given category. This means I know exactly the quality of trips and days off I can expect to get.
I’m blessed to be married to a brilliant, talented, frugal sugar mama, so I don’t have to scrape for every penny I can get from Delta. I generally get scheduled to fly 4 trips each month, but I’ve recently had months where I dropped a trip to have more time at home, or go on vacation with the family. There are other pilots in my category who need the money, and they’re happy to pick up the extra flying. Everyone wins because everyone wants something different. Having the power to make these kinds of decisions and have this control in your life is truly wonderful.
You won’t even fully realize it until you swallow that little red pill. (Here. I’ll go grab you a glass of water.) In the meantime, thanks for reading about my day. I hope it shed some light for those of you debating what to do. Please feel free to pile-on or post questions in the comments.
Fly safe and I’ll see you in the world!
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