Wed, 6 Dec 2023



Understanding the life of a pilot
Published on: Tuesday, August 04, 2020
By: Capt Nizam Gandhi
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Credit: (for illustration purpose only)
There is a general perception amongst people about Airline pilots being overly paid and lead luxurious life style. I would like to clarify some things and address your curiosities which hopefully change your perceptions and clarify your doubts.

Do you know that:

• Pilots have to follow very uncertain and odd time schedules. So, it becomes difficult to maintain the biological clock. There are long term consequences on one’s health after following such unpredictable schedules.

• Have to be available 24/7 to operate flights except minimun rest time decided as per regulations to recover from physical and mental fatigue. Most of this rest time goes in recovering from fatigue and jet-lag. Flying at higher altitudes so frequently and exposure to UV rays in itself is a greater health hazard.

• There are a lot of limitations and regulations to be followed regarding time duration a pilot can perform his/her flight duties. In case of extensive delays which are beyond the control of pilots, lead to a situation where ONE can’t operate the flight NOT BY CHOICE but BY REGULATIONS. If not followed, ONE loses the licence. REMEMBER,you are employed because you have a VALID licence.

• Pilots have to be medically fit at all times. Regular medical check-ups are required to continue flying. Even for small injuries to small variations in medical test results like blood tests, urine examinations, sugar levels, stress test, ECG or BMI a pilot may temporarily or permanently lose his licence. In turn, being jobless for a few months to permanently losing ones job.

• Pilots are tested for alcohol breath analyzer before/after operating each flight. Even if someone is tested positive falsely, he/she may lose the licence.

• Airline Pilots have to be vigilant all the times about the safety and security of passengers and aircraft. There are no provisions or exemptions of errors in following technical and non technical procedures and protocols. There are many instances in a pilot’s life when they have to face different emergency situations like medical emergency, technical emergency, very bad weather conditions etc. 

You have to be quick enough to take only a right decision with limited resources. One wrong decision may be a question of life and death for a few hundred passengers and an aircraft worth a few hundred million dollars. There is constant monitoring and inspection from authorities for any shortcomings from pilots even in normal operations. So, a sword is always hanging on pilot’s neck as a challenge, not to lose ones licence because of even any smaller mistakes.

• To maintain their proficiencies in any normal, non-normal or critical emergency situations, pilots have to constantly undergo training sessions and proficiency checks, failing which again lands ones licence in trouble. Effectively, no flying and no money leading to stressful mental and finacial situations.

• Pilots have to finish a lot of paperwork and other formalities before flying an aircraft so, normally required to report at airport office atleast 1 to 2 hrs prior to the flight. Many times pilots have to stand in long queues to complete immigration, customs and security check formalities before and after long international flights of 14-15 hrs, and then wait for long times to get their transports to the hotel or back home. 

Effectively, the total duty period of a pilot flying international destinations becomes 20-24 hrs at times. However, pilots flying on domestic sectors have to carry out multiple take off and landings which increases the workload in a short span of time.

• Pilots are not offered normal health and life insurance policies. Insurance companies charge almost twice to thrice the amount of normal insurance policies to cover for risk of life involved in aviation. Also, need to pay extra amounts to protect yourself in case of loss of licence due to temporary or permanent medical conditions.

• While a lot of money needed to complete all the courses, training and exam,it is still very uncertain to get a job. People struggle to get the opportunity for years, mean while again losing their flying currencies. which again needs a lot of money and studies when he/she gets an opportunity to apply for an airline job.

Most of the pilots take heavy loans to meet these financial requirements and not getting a job becomes a nightmare. You may be surprised to know that more than 12,000 airline pilot aspirants are sitting idle at home even after getting their Basic commercial pilot licences which involves 40-50K today.

Most of the airlines today provide Type rating to the new joinees and recover the cost from their salaries later. 

Cost of these type ratings ranges from 25K to 30K so, the overall cost to become an airline pilot becomes 70K to 100K which becomes a big liability for decades as most of it is done by taking huge personal and education loans with higher interest rates. 

Any delay in repayments draw heavy penalties and interests. I’m sure you may guess the estimated monthly installments a pilot has to pay for such huge loans which have to be repayed within 5-7 yrs.

• Aviation is a highly dynamic and uncertain business which continuously poses challenge to it’s employees to lose their jobs at any moment of their lives. And pilots don’t have a luxury of opening their own airline or any other aviation venture.

• There are different types of contracts offered by different airlines to it’s pilots. some offer higher fixed basic pay and then allowances at hourly rate basis depending on the number of hours flown. However, some other airline may offer lower basic pay with higher allowance rates. 

A pilot gets to fly number of hrs as per company requirements which is not in his/her control, subsequently gets his total take home salary which has great variations. While In few months of the year one may get higher pay by doing more flying just like doing overtime in any other profession, or one may end up getting very low payments because of lesser flying in some other months.

• Pilots are often accused of blackmailing by going on strikes. However, the fact is that when the airlines make profits or require pilots for some specific operations, they are not paid any extra money as rewards. 

All the profits go into the pockets of managements and owners, on the other hand, they start deducting pilots salaries and allowances mostly unilaterally without honouring the contracts. In most of the cases even courts refrain from giving any reliefs citing losses in the business for various reasons. 

They keep on promising to pay the arrears at later stages while pilots are forced to wait endlessly under financial stresses, but how long? There are examples of pilots not getting their dues amounting up to 20-25pc of their salaries and allowances as per the contracts, for as long as 6-7 yrs till date. I’m sure most of you are not aware about this fact. 

Also, pilots have to sign bonds ranging from 50K to 120K to serve the companies for minimum 5-7 years. Even If you wish to leave the companies, all these unilateral pay cuts, and non payment of arrears are used to arm twist by threatening you to lose all your arrears and recovery of bond amounts. what are the options a pilot in this situation left with?

So, many of you who very conveniently suggest pilots to leave their jobs if they are not satisfied with the airlines, I would like to hear your suggestion keeping in mind the scenarios explained above.

• The fact of the matter is that pilots or other employees in an airline does not play much role in the profits or losses of an airline. It’s the BOD, MANAGEMENT and policy makers decisions and market conditions which makes an airline profitable or in loss. 

f they can not provide incentives during their profitable periods, at least honor the bonds by paying all the employees and pilots their full salaries and allowances on time, even when they are running in losses because of their own mismanagements.

• Most of the people have this perception that pilots and their families get unlimited tickets from Airlines. However, the fact is, there are only very limited number of tickets provided to pilots and their family members, which again are subject to availability of seats. It means, one gets to board a plane only if unsold seats are left. How many such seats do you think are available during peak festival, marriage or holiday seasons? NONE! Airlines put embargoes during these periods which means, these “PRIVILEGED” tickets can’t be used.  And yes...we pay all the taxes and surcharges for these so called free tickets.

So, you are welcome to travel when no one is willing to travel!

• Staying in a 3 or 4 star hotel is considered a luxury for pilots. However, it’s not about luxury rather it’s more of a compulsory requirement for them to be well rested and safe before operating a flight. 

Imagine someone staying in a 5 star hotel with none of his/her friends or family around for 10-15 days every month. When most of you are enjoying festival seasons at home, pilots are flying you back home staying away from their own family and friends in a so called 3-4 star hotel. 

When people enjoy peak holiday seasons, and airports are full of passengers, guess who flies them to their favourite holiday destinations? Most of the pilots are refused their annual leave in these precious moments which never come back! 

Do you really enjoy such times as luxury, staying alone in a 4 star hotel? As a pilot you are never in position to commit to your closed ones to attend any precious functions. Even, at times, you have to cancel your own festival, birthday celebrations at the last minute because of urgent flying requirements.

• Also, imagine their sacrifices of leaving a few months to a few years old kids at home and stay away for many days. It’s not a 9 am-5 pm job.

• If a company is over staffed, it reflects management’s failure to decide and carryout proper analysis of hiring of employees depending on the requirements of a company. 

No one goes begging for a job to the companies. It’s only when they come up with the advertisements for employment, people apply for a job. Joining a job is a 2 way contract which is suppose to be honoured by both. 

You can’t suddenly start firing people saying we are overstaffed now!

• While, being an airline pilot may not require a high level of intelligence, it certainly requires a lot of dedication, sacrifice, responsibility, time management, health management, stress management, alertness and constant studies, along with balancing family life through out his/ her career. I’m sure none of you want to travel with a pilot who doesn’t posses all these traits.

Now honestly think about it, If someone is having so much of uncertainties in his/her career, greater risk of life involved, expensive training cost, lesser social life and a lot of sacrifices of precious moments, why is it a question mark on pilots salaries who honestly pay all the taxes and want to lead a good life. 

There may be a few who might be having luxurious lives due to their family’s strong financial back grounds, similar to any other professions. However, it’s not true for most of the pilots. Most of the pilots fall under middle or upper middle class categories. 

While many people argue that chosing a pilot career is by choice, people should understand that if someone has taken so much of financial and life risk, should not they be paid appropriately for their services? 

Are we paid for sitting idle at home or have an option of work from home, even in the times of crisis or Pandemic? NO!...then why question our salaries? And to those sitting in safest closed chambers with Air Conditioning on, taking wrong and random decisions, blame and penalize pilots who work honestly, even in times of crisis!

* Capt Nizam once served the Sabah routes and currently pilots the A380. He was inspired to become a pilot after watching his late dad, Captain Gandhi Nathan, taking the profession seriously. Unfortunately Captain Gandhi died in the June 6, 1976 crash (Double Six).


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