An airline pilot has the chance to explore the world. This is a job where travel is unavoidable, and some pilots have the opportunity to discover parts of the globe that many of us can only dream about.
But while travel and adventure attracts new pilots to the role, all that time exploring the skies does raise one major question: exactly when do pilots go home?
Flying a plane is both tiring and time-consuming, and at the end of the working day, many pilots are miles away from their home — and their bed.
Many pilots will spend several days on the job, without returning home at all, and then have an extended period of time off. But other pilots are able to return home every day.
Strange working hours across long distances reduce the time a pilot can spend at home, and do take some shine off this often glamorous profession.
So what’s it like being a pilot who can’t fly back to your family each night? And how often do pilots get to go home?
What Hours Do Pilots Work?
Pilot hours are a little different from the usual 9 to 5. Anyone who has ever taken a long haul flight, flown overnight, or set off early in the morning will understand that pilot working hours are quite unusual.
Take a look at the flight board at any airport, and you’ll get a bit of a clue to the odd hours of a pilot.
Plus, pilots also have their hours changed and delayed by external forces.
The average office worker won’t take any notice of strong winds, but a stiff breeze in another country can completely derail the working day for the average airline pilot. Delays and cancellations mean even assumed hours can’t be guaranteed.
Short Haul Vs Long Haul Working Hours
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules allow pilots to only fly for 8 hours in a 24-hour period. They also insist on an uninterrupted 10-hour downtime period between shifts.
That’s not 10 hours between flights, but between 8 hour working periods. So, if a pilot has only flown two and a half hours between Orlando MCO and JFK, they’ll be expected to fly again almost immediately.
For short haul pilots, that means they can, potentially, return home every day. All domestic American flights are short haul, as they’re less than 7 hours long.
For a short haul pilot, it isn’t unusual to take multiple flights a day, often returning to the same airport base each night. This allows them to return home between shifts.
But how does it work for long haul flights? The current longest flights in the world take upwards of 17 hours with no stops, significantly more than the 8-hour rule.
On long haul flights, multiple pilots are on board to take over the flying duties when someone goes off shift. This gives the pilots time to sleep.
How many pilots are involved depends on the airline, time in the air, and countries involved in the flight. As a general rule, anything more than 9 flight hours will have more than 2 pilots.
These rules will ensure the pilot is still only working the correct amount of hours. However, the time off period will then take place in another country or city. Even though they might be given several days off, this time won’t be spent at home.
How Many Days Off Do Pilots Get Every Month?
The average working week involves 5 days in, and 2 days off, with an 8-hour working day. While an 8-hour working day might be fairly standard for a pilot, the working week looks a little different. Particularly for long haul flights.
The weekly working hours of a pilot vary depending on the airline, flight pattern, and even the time of year. Employers will make their own schedule, although all pilots should expect a number of days off per month.
Short Haul Vs Long Haul
Those who fly short haul typically have a much more fixed schedule than those who fly long haul. A short haul pilot will often work some variation of 5 days in, 4 days off, or 5 days in, 3 days off.
During the days on, the short haul pilot will still get the 10 hours downtime as required by the FAA. But these 10 hours can be spent in hotels away from home, waiting for return flights the next day.
The schedule for a long haul pilot can be much more variable, although they typically get more days off overall than the short haul pilot.
A long haul pilot might expect up to 15 days off every month. Hours and days off also have to accommodate for different time zones, to ensure pilots are fully rested before taking to the air again.
However, many of these days off can be spent away from home. This has both its positives and negatives. The pilot gets the opportunity to explore another city, but doesn’t get a chance to relax on home soil.
Variable schedules, including periods of time off in different cities and countries, means many pilots won’t actually return home for weeks.
When Do Pilots Go Home?
Returning home might not be the first concern of a new pilot, who is excited to get out and explore. But after a couple of months on the job, the question of seeing family, and seeing them regularly, becomes more important.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to say when a pilot gets to go home. For some, it might be almost every night. For others, weeks might go by before they get a chance to properly reconnect at home.
This would depend on the type of flight, where they were based, and how far they flew each day. Some airlines will offer more flexibility, while others have strict schedules.
It might even change seasonally. Some airlines will have their pilots working extra shifts during the busy summer months, for time off in the down period.
Short haul pilots will typically have a home base airport, away from their actual home. This will be the airport they fly from primarily, and they’ll spend their hours between shifts at a hotel on-site.
During their days off, these pilots will return home, and see their families.
A short haul pilot with rank will typically be able to work from a home base airport near their actual home. Then they can return home for the hours they aren’t working, even if they’re flying out again in a few hours.
But it’s completely different for long haul pilots. Even days off might be spent in completely different countries, and they won’t be able to return home for weeks.
But when they do get a chance to return, they can stay for longer periods of time.
A pilot might get to return home every evening, or they might not head back for weeks at a time. It depends on whether they fly short haul or long haul, their rank and experience, and the airline in question.
There are benefits to flying both short haul and long haul. Although the short haul pilot might get home more frequently, the long haul pilot can stay there for longer.
If you’re thinking of becoming a commercial pilot, consider all factors when making your choice.