Most jobs in most countries have an average working time of 40 hours per week. However, the working hours of airline pilots not only include flight time but also time spent in non-flying activities they are required to cover.
Moreover, most jobs have an average of 40 hours per week distributed from Monday through Friday, thus meaning that most workers have their weekends free from work. However, we all know that this is not the case for airline pilots since many flights take place over the weekends.
Now, how many hours do airline pilots fly? And what about the non-flying activities? How many hours do they actually work? If you want to learn the answers to these questions, we invite you to keep reading as we give you all the details.
Airline pilots and their flight time
In general, there are misconceptions about how many hours an airline transport pilot works and their actual flight time.
For starters, many people believe that working hours refer only to the moment the pilot is operating the aircraft, sometimes called “stick time” in aviation jargon. However, pilots work beyond flight time, both before and after the flight, to guarantee the safety of their crew and all the passengers. For example, some pre-flight duties and post-flight activities include carrying out weather assessments, completing flight planning, conducting pre-flight checks, and filing post-flight reports.
In addition, the fact that the FAA, EASA, and other authorities pay careful attention to the amount of time a pilot can fly without rest, has made people think pilots work very little and rest a lot. In the United Kingdom, the media and even the members of the Parliament have publicly remarked that “airline pilots only work 17 hours a week and do not really work very hard.”
Yet, there is nothing further from the truth. Let’s see some numbers to illustrate this better.
Number of hours pilots fly
Based on the information from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average a commercial pilot logs 75 hours of flight time per month. This number of hours corresponds well enough to the limits imposed by the FAA in the United States and EASA in Europe of 100 flying hours in a period of 28 consecutive days. Clearly, the 17 hours per week mentioned before is far away from reality.
The truth is that the misconception comes from misusing the limits set by the authorities. In Europe, EASA establishes that the maximum number of flying hours per year is 900. So, if you divide that number of hours by 52, the number of weeks in a year, the result will be 17. Yet, this is only flying hours, not the total amount of time pilots work.
What are the total time airline and commercial pilots work?
We have already mentioned that the average airline pilot logs about 75 flight hours per month based on the information provided by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the total time, generally called duty time, reaches an average of 225 hours per month according to the same source of information. This totals to an amazing 2,700 hours per year.
Using this data, clearly, the 17 hours per week is way below the real number of hours pilots work. Performing the same division but now with the duty time instead of the limit of flight hours per year, we can get a total of 52 hours per week (2,700/52).
Among the ground duties a pilot has to perform, they are also responsible for:
Verifying the overall condition of the aircraft before and after every flight
Make sure that the aircraft is balanced and below its weight limit
Verifying that the fuel supply is adequate and that weather conditions are acceptable
Preparing and submitting plans to air traffic control.
While in some cases the first officer may rely on a second officer or flight engineer for some of these duties, verification and confirmation are always obligatory.
What about flight instructors?
Flight instructors are a completely different case when it comes to answering the question about how many hours pilots work. Similar to airline transport pilots who usually spend about 75 hours per week flying with a top limit of 100 hours, a flight instructor spends between 80 to 100 hours in the air.
Now, what may be more amazing is that pilots flying under a flight instructor certificate usually reach the 100 hours of groundwork, just 50 hours shy of the 150 recorded by an average pilot working for an airline.
The fact is that, when they do not log flight hours, they usually work on flight plans and specific flight routes for future lessons. Also, they sometimes work with flight training devices on the ground to train pilots enrolled in ground training courses.
Do pilots have free time?
Yes, pilots have free time, and the amount of free time they get depends on the level of seniority of the pilot. Junior pilots have a minimum of twelve days off each month while the average pilot has fifteen days off work a month. Senior pilots may enjoy up to 20 days of work, the most any pilot can get.
Another important aspect to consider is the type of flight the pilot is taking. While most pilots will have the number of days off mentioned above, short-haul pilots will normally have fewer days off between workdays compared to pilots taking long-haul flights, such as transatlantic or transcontinental flights.
Do pilots come home every night?
The answer to this question is that it depends on the type of pilot. Some short-haul pilots working for a regional airline may have the opportunity to come home every night, especially when the destination of their last scheduled flight coincides with the origin of their first scheduled flight. In other words, this is possible when the daily plan involves returning to their home airport.
However, for long-haul pilots, this becomes more difficult. Even for a mid-haul flight, given the fact that it takes more flight hours, flight duty will take them too far to make it possible to return on the same day.
Perhaps flight instructors are the ones that can actually be sure they will come home every night. This type of a pilot usually has a flight plan that involves taking off and landing at the same airport, and the actual flying time is normally shorter.
Therefore, it is easy to understand why many pilots who have a family to care for usually prefer to fly domestically or become instructors. Apart from being easier to get the corresponding pilot certificate when compared to airline pilots, they also get the benefit of staying close to home.
Final considerations about a pilot’s work
Flight duty seems to be the most demanding aspect of a pilot’s work. However, for most pilots spending time on the flight deck is not the time they consider work since that’s the time they enjoy the most. It is the hours a pilot spends in non-flight duties that usually become tedious.
Also, it is important to remember that flight assignments and the general working schedule are usually affected by seniority. But senior pilots do not only get perks and benefits, they also receive some more responsibility.
On the one hand, senior pilots usually get to choose the flights they want to take and the days they want off work. On the other hand, they are the ones that must fly longer routes and even take an ultra long haul flight. Yet, the bright side of it is that senior pilots usually fly fewer legs per week when compared to less experienced regional pilots who must fly many legs in a week to cover the flight time while flying domestically.
Finally, federal regulations normally try to take care of the professional pilot who transports passengers in order to guarantee their safety. Pilots must receive their schedules from their flight departments a month before their first scheduled flight or just a week or two in advance at least. However, despite all the precise planning by the airlines, the unexpected happens more than often and airlines must rely on deadheading pilots and crew to keep operating the flights without delay.
Moreover, their schedules must not exceed the limits established in the regulations and must include the corresponding days off and the hours for the respective rest period, usually 12 hours if the pilot has been on duty for the previous 8 continuously. When the duty reaches 16 hours, like in the case of long-haul pilots, the period must also be 16 hours.
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Jet pilot @NASA
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