Confessions of a commercial airline pilot

My guest post today is from a commercial airline pilot who told me about his job and his insider’s view of the airline industry. Although he loves his job, you may not want to read on if you’re a nervous flyer.

How to become a commercial airline pilot
Historically the route to become a pilot was to get a basic qualification, build up your hours and become an instructor. As you become more experienced you move to frying 50 seat turbo props, then you move to fly  small jets like the 737. Most captains need to build up 30 yrs of experience before they’re allowed to fly the 757s and 737s are used for longer flights.

Fast track training
These days simulators are used to accelarate training and fast track pilots. Pilots love it because they can earn more money flying fast jets. But of the people who have already completed £70K worth of training, only a tiny percentage get through the rounds of selection to make it to flying big jets like 757s. Low hour pilots going too quickly on fast jets are bad news.

The airline industry is a closed shop
Training schools cultivate close affiliations with particular airlines in the hope of placing the pilots that they train. But it’s pretty much a closed shop. All the pilots I’ve met recently in jobs were from one of two UK training schools. They all had the same profile; A-levels, Degree, good exam grades, interest in sports such as sailing, ski-ing and rugby. All had some military or Territorial army connection.

Military connections in the airline industry
All civilian airlines are dominated by the ex miltary in the top jobs. The pecking order of the air force from fast jet fighters, to helicopters, to Hercules & Nimrods is replicated in the airlines. The guys in the top jobs are former fighter pilots. I joined the TA for a good reason and spent a lot of energy getting military qualifications for that reason. At the last 3 airline interviews I went to I was interviewed by ex-military and ended up talking about driving tanks.

Training establishments give unrealistic expectations
Plenty of pilots who are not good enough are given false encouragement to do the training. Training establishments train 10 times as many pilots to fly big jets than there are places and try to use their contacts to get people jobs. But for every 5 jobs there are 50 people being trained. They pay for their own training which costs £100-125K. They get massively in debt and then so many can’t repay their loan.

On getting paid
The reputable airlines will put their pilots on a good salary and pay them a small top up based on the hours they fly. But the low cost airlines use a higher hourly rate but pay no retainer when the pilot doesn’t fly.  That’s bad news because you need to fly every week to keep up your experience. The low cost airlines can’t cut their fuel & maintenence costs of running the flight, so they’ve ditched the salaries and pensions instead. They count on the fact that there are so many trained pilots out there desperate to get the experience.

The large airlines have the market sewn up
On mainstream routes the larger airlines have it all sewn up – there’s no competition and extremely rare to get a newcomer into the market. Richard Branson got his big break when Laker airlines collapsed leaving many pilots out of work. At the same time the government awarded him the contract to fly a new route to the Faulklands after the war had ended and forced BA to give up slots at Heathrow and awarded them to Virgin. Branson is a sharp and hardened businessman which belies his fun loving public image.

The pressure to use less fuel
When flying big jets, minimising fuel consumption is a huge consideration. As soon as you start your descent to fly at a lower altitude you start burning massive amounts of fuel. The best, most experienced pilots optimisise the balance between speed and altitude to get the best fuel consumption. But if you’re flying for an airline that’s cutting every corner on costs, you’re under massive pressure to leave your descent as late as possible. This can lead to other problems like coming too close to the plane landing in front of you or touching down towards the end of the runway. You get pushed into taking more risks. That’s another reasons why airlines need their most experienced pilots to fly big jets, as it can make a huge difference to fuel costs.

League tables in fuel consumption
In every airline there’s a league table of fuel consumption for pilots. If you’re consistantly at the bottom, you might get called in for a little chat and you certainly won’t be promoted. The computer calculates the average fuel based on the route, weather, time of day, winds and aircraft type. Normally the pilot will be able to use their judgement to decide if they need to carry extra fuel on top.  But certain low cost airlines, who are cutting costs to the bone, remove that option from the Captain and only allow them to take the amount calculated in the flight plan.

Subchartering between airlines
There’s a lot of subchartering between airlines – an airline could charter it’s plane, with or without crews, with or without fuels with payment in different currencies.  You can smell a rat when a plane is bought to fly a route for which it’s not obviously suited. Another tell-tale sign is the amount of rotations a plane will fly in a day. A commercially run company will try and rotate it’s planes 3-4 times a day in order to maximise the usage. When you see a company rotating it’s planes only 1 or 2 times a day and still posting a profit you wonder what’s going on.

On Bags of cash
It’s standard industry practice to pay for chartering flights between airlines in cash, sometimes around £50K. As a pilot working a flight that’s been chartered between airlines, I sometimes get handed a bag of money from the paying airline, to deliver to the rep from the airline that owns the plane at the end of the flight.

On my worst flight experience
I’m a conservative pilot, so I haven’t had anything really bad happen. Once I flew out of Palma into an electrical storm. The plane dropped altitude suddenly and I banged my head on the roof of the cockpit and could hear the passangers screaming. A plane in turbulance is like driving a car with flat tyres. I put on some extra power and flew through the storm.

On the Hudson river landing
That pilot was very, very lucky. Technically, you can’t land on water in a jet because the engines are under the wing and as soon as they catch the water, the plane will flip over onto it’s nose. Because the plane was on a very short flight, it had hardly any fuel on board. Also it landed with the current of the river which was already flowing at 15-20 knots. Because of the low fuel the tanks in the wings were full of air, giving the plane extra buoyancy and the pilot also shut off the outflow valve sealing air into the plane and keeping water out for longer. But that pilot had been flying for 40 years and he kept his cool. He made the best of the bad situation he had, but as he came down he must have thought this was it.

My pilot friend asked to remain anonymous and the views he expressed are personal ones and not necessarily those of  Heather on her Travels.

Thanks for the photos to John Wardell, bfraz, Ingy the Wingy

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  • Reply
    Fly Girl
    August 17, 2009 at 1:25 am

    I wasn’t a nervous flyer until now… This info is fascinating but also unnerving!

  • Reply
    August 17, 2009 at 3:26 am

    I spoke with an airline pilot some time ago who echoed many of the things I read in your post. Apparently there’s a lot of inefficiency in the industry and unless you’re in the top echelon you are not making much money and flying all the time.

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    GrinningFool@Pilot Costume
    September 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Always interesting to read more about the airlines. The low cost ones always make me nervous. How much are they cutting corners? Inexperienced pilots, low fuel, oh boy, makes me want to drive!

  • Reply
    Heather Cowper
    September 1, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    @ Grinning fool – yes – one hopes that they may cut corners in other areas but not on safety

  • Reply
    October 25, 2010 at 2:32 am

    If I get my own pilots license and fly myself places will I be safer than if I continue flying commercial? Is it safer to fly on charter flights now than big commercial flights?

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    November 20, 2011 at 9:54 am

    This guy is nuts. The Hudson river flow rate in NY – isn’t even close to 20 knots. I don’t think he’s ever flown in his life. He writes very poorly and is difficult to read. Hogwash, pure and simple.

  • Reply
    November 20, 2011 at 10:02 am

    @sesails Thanks for your comment – I wrote the article based on what my friend told me – perhaps I got the speed wrong, but I can assure you that he is a seasoned commercial pilot although not necessarily on the New York Route.

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