As the search continues for Malaysian Airline Flight MH 370, increased speculation has fallen upon the pilot and co-pilot. Are they terrorists? Did they sabotage the plane? Was it suicide? Is there something incriminating about one’s personal flight simulator? What about one pilot’s ties to a jailed opposition leader? Even if they are cleared of terrorism, their actions in the cockpit will receive extra scrutiny as we try to figure out what happened to the missing Boeing 777 plane.
To find out what it is like to be a pilot in this new environment, I interviewed a pilot, who asked to remain anonymous. He described what it’s like to be an airline pilot today, the hours, the likes and dislikes, the best and worst airports, and the impact of new regulations on flying hours.
So what’s a typical day like for an airline pilot? “Major airline domestic day pilots fly an average of 5 hours per day,” the pilot told me. “But with all of the preflight obligations and ground related things (doing a safety check of the aircraft prior to every flight, resolving passenger, cargo, admin, weather, and other issues), the typical duty day ends up being 12 hours domestically. Those airline pilot flying hour limits are regulated by the FAA.”
What’s the story with the new rule? “That new rule went into effect on January 1 this year,” the pilot noted in the interview. “The new rules have been criticized by a few airline companies for being too restrictive. But on the other side of the argument, the old rules were written in the 1930s, when only a few airplanes flew transcontinental, aircraft speed was 3 miles a minute then, now it’s 8 miles a minute. Three times zone flying was the max; now it’s virtually unlimited. Most major airlines pilots average 3 legs a day. The regional pilots fly shorter legs, but many more legs, 5-6 legs.”
Isn’t this just for domestic flights, or does it apply to international ones? “International pilots almost always only fly one long leg, its rare but I have done ‘tag on’ legs in the past. That is when you fly to a European city from the US, then fly a very short leg to another European city.”
So how have these rules impacted flying? “In the past if your scheduled trip didn’t exceed the rules, and you were late or delayed, you were allowed to over fly the rules,” the pilot said. “Airlines would regularly abuse this loophole, and extend your duty day sometimes as long 18 hours of duty domestic, and 22 hours plus international. The new rule has done away with scheduled versus reality. The new rules make the numbers hard, as you can’t exceed the new limits. These new limits are different from the past and are based on ‘body time’ the pilot has been acclimated to physiologically. So if your duty day will extend you even a minute over your max for the day, you can’t go. The typical day in a nutshell is that they are very long and fatiguing.”
So what are the best and worst airports? This anonymous pilot cited Denver as the best American airport for its design, and praised those airports found in Southeast Asia. “The best international airport is a toss-up between Hong Kong and Singapore.” Those cited as among the worst are the two airports in New York City, with poor international airports located in West Europe, like France’s Charles de Gaulle airport and London’s Heathrow airport (for being crowded). As for the day-to-day job, the main criticism involved noisy hotel rooms, not the work or companies themselves.
So is being a pilot a good job? “I still love to fly,” this pilot noted. “Also, I still love to explore and enjoy the destinations.”