The job of an airline pilot gets mixed reviews! On the one hand, there are plenty of movies, TV series and articles written about heroic aviators wrestling the controls and saving the day. Equally, there are plenty of articles bemoaning pilots “not doing anything as the autopilot flys the plane”. Some pilots are so bored they can’t even stay awake!
As an airline pilot, I’ve heard my job described as being “too boring” from engineers, passengers and sometimes even colleagues! So, what’s the truth? Is being an airline pilot boring?
The arguments for a pilot’s career being boring usually revolve around three areas:
- Flying the plane (or the lack of actual flying)
- Operating to strictly controlled procedures
- Plenty of time downroute stuck in hotel rooms
In this article, we will look at — and hopefully challenge — these assumptions. And we’ll explain how far from boring being an airline pilot can be!
It’s not like it used to be — boring flying!
You must get bored because these days all you do is watch the autopilot, right?Numerous passengers…
It is true that autopilot is a wonderful safety feature, but watching it fly is far from being the only thing the pilot is expected to do. An autopilot is there to provide an additional layer of safety and workload relief, but is a long way from doing all the work itself.
In fact, modern pilots need to be constantly monitoring and interacting with the autopilot even whilst it is engaged. All takeoffs, and virtually all pilot landings, will be manually flown. Landing a commercial aircraft is a challenging task, and one that is very rewarding when you get it just right!
OK, but aside from the takeoff and landings, is it boring in the cruise?
Especially when it comes to longhaul flying, there is no denying that pilots will spend a significant portion of the flight in the cruise. Far away from the ground — or the exciting bit! — this is often where it is assumed pilots get bored. In fairness, there is a degree of truth here, and at periods of low workload pilots will find time to read a book, or do a crossword to keep themselves awake!
However, while there are less “pilot” tasks to do, when reaching cruising altitude in a modern airliner, the job is far from done. The pilot is still expected to monitor systems, and watch for traffic or weather, and crucially, plan ahead for any eventualities. Every single flight is different, and the regularity of having to avoid thunderstorms, or address medical issues with passengers, would surprise the average onlooker.
Stuck in hotel rooms
While pilot social media accounts might show a glamorous lifestyle of action packed adventures and beach getaways, the reality is more mundane.
The majority of airline crew will spend their time away in anonymous hotel rooms with no view, and while one or two trips a month might be instagram worthy, there will be plenty that won’t be!
Does it make this aspect of the job boring? The answer largely depends on your perspective — is the occasional time away from home a disadvantage, or is it an opportunity to explore new places and make the most of the time spent away?
Crossing time zones, trying to get sleep on the plane, and the resultant jet-lag, often means that pilots will be awake in the middle of the night and wanting to sleep in the day. So, you could have a boring career, sleeping through the majority of your layovers. But in reality, most pilots make the effort to get out and explore new areas, even if this is at the expense of sleep!
Are the pilots as bored as the passengers?
Pilots just tick things off a checklist
The final assumption frequently heard is that pilots must be bored because they don’t do any actual thinking or decision-making. Unlike management roles, or creative careers, pilots must stick to their strict procedures and rules.
In regard to strictly sticking to procedures, it is true. In any highly regulated, safety focused industry, there are pages of regulations and rules, and it can feel like pilots are not so much making decisions, but simply ticking items off a list. It’s a career that practically invented checklists, after all!
But is it boring? And, is this box ticking the majority of a pilot’s job? I would argue no. The procedures are there for the safety of everyone on board, and they must be rigidly followed at times — such as correctly operating the aircraft at certain phases of flight. However, in other aspects of the job, there are plenty of varied decisions that are made entirely by the pilots on the day.
Which airfield to divert to? When to offload passengers? How much fuel to take — and of course the different ways to fly the aircraft and approach to that airfield — are all decisions where the Captain has the final say. As a co-pilot, decision-making can take a back seat, but any good Captain will continually use their first officer’s knowledge and experience to help them arrive at the best decisions together.
So, is being an airline pilot boring? Not in the least. But, like any career, attitudes to work, and the airline you work for will greatly affect your experience.
Airline pilots experience a unique and exciting lifestyle which is both challenging, rewarding and can be hugely varied. Most pilots will agree there is nothing quite like it. Yes there are periods of boredom stuck in hotel rooms. But, for most, the flying, views, and the privileged position to explore the globe adds plenty of excitement.
With the increase in automation, has the flying part got more boring? Sure, there is a lot of autopilot flying these days and modern aircraft are designed to require less handling from the pilots, but that doesn’t mean the job is without its challenges. A nice landing, and even operating the aircraft smoothly using the automatics, can still bring a smile to your face.
In summary, then, it is entirely wrong to assume that modern airline pilots are generally bored with their job because they follow checklists or use an autopilot. Like any career, there are still complaints, and always a few who will find themselves disinterested. But, in my experience, the vast majority of airline pilots love their job.