The Challenges to Having a Happy Family Life That Airline Pilots Face

Pilot looking at flight schedule
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Most airline pilots wouldn't trade their job for anything. After all, it beats sitting behind a desk, and it comes with a fantastic view, along with many other benefits.

But the job makes being married or in a serious relationship complicated. The erratic schedule, especially in the early years on the job, and the long periods away from home make it hard to maintain a relationship.

It isn't easy for the person who's married to or partnered with a pilot either, starting with the long initial training period away from home. And they may always wonder exactly what the pilot is doing while in faraway cities without them, perhaps while they're raising a family largely on their own.

Explaining the Pilot's Life

For an unlucky number of pilots, their relationships or marriages end due to one or more of the challenges that come with the job. And those who are trying to make a partnership work often have to spend a good deal of time explaining the ins and outs of the career to their significant others. The details can become sources of contention, and often, spouses feel left out and misunderstood themselves. 

Oftentimes, the truth is that being away from home for long stretches of time isn't all that exciting or fun. While the weather on that layover in Honolulu may have been nice, the pilot wasn't really able to enjoy much of the destination beyond their hotel room.

Training

An airline pilot's hectic schedule begins right away, usually during simulator training. If the pilot is coming out of the military, the training environment is one that they've probably experienced before. But if they've built their experience in the civilian world⁠—being a flight instructor, towing banners, or something similar⁠—they're probably as clueless about the process as their loved one.

Simulator training involves a "fire hose" of information that needs to be processed and learned. The days are long, the textbooks are thick, and the material comes at you fast and furiously.

Pilots-in-training are expected to learn a huge amount of material in a very short time with little time in between lessons. They go to class all day, maybe grab dinner with their fellow trainees at night, review notes for an hour or two, go to bed, and then repeat the process the next day. There is very little time for anything else, leaving family members wondering why their husband or wife has checked out all of a sudden.

And it's true: Pilots often put their partners on hold as they check out of family life and check into a crappy hotel for a few months. Luckily, training is temporary. And it will probably be worth it when they put on that crisp new uniform and epaulets.

Downtime

Once a pilot is done with sim training, they often just want to decompress. If their partner tries to hand them a "to-do" list, they'll sigh. If their spouse makes them breakfast with the hope that they'll join them, they'll sleep in. And if asked where they want to go for dinner, they might respond with "I don't care." Information overload, constantly being in a leadership position, and the decision-making faced on the job can leave pilots-in-training in a zombie-like anti-decision-making state of mind.

On Reserve

After training, a pilot's time home is often brief, and then they'll be off to their reserve location, which means that they have to live near the airport in case they are called upon to fly. It is also a temporary situation, fulfilled while the pilot waits to "fly the line" at their regular gig, but that doesn't mean it's not challenging. If they're lucky, the reserve location is nearby.

The majority of pilots, however, live in a crash pad in another city while on reserve. While crash pad living might sound like a party, many pilots find the situation annoying and lonely. They're living with a host of other pilots and flight attendants who are up at all hours and also cranky that they're not at home with their families. It's far from glamorous.

On the Line

After a few months on reserve, pilots get a spot flying the line, which means they can bid on their schedule and be at home when they aren't flying. Junior pilots⁠—those low on the seniority list⁠—will fly nights and weekends and any other shifts that the senior pilots don't want to bid on. This situation, too, is temporary and is dependent upon how quickly pilots are retiring and how fast new pilots are being hired.

Being a line pilot is the best part of the career so far, but it also has its challenges. The job can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. Flying, in and of itself, is mentally fatiguing. Pilots are responsible for hundreds of lives in a single flight, and they make important decisions about the safety of those flights. Add frequent trips through time zones and a bad airport diet, and the body quickly fatigues, too.

Commuting

Commuting is a part of the job for many pilots and involves them flying to their assigned domicile before their schedule even begins and is done on their own time, often adding a day to the beginning of the pilot's scheduled trip. And then they have to commute home, adding a day to the end of the trip, too. By the time a pilot gets home, they may not want to leave, which is why a pilot might balk at the idea of taking a family vacation on their week off. Often, the last thing they want to do is hop on another airplane.

Seniority

A pilot who attains seniority can bid for a schedule that suits their needs, making it possible for them to⁠—finally⁠—be home on Christmas and attend important school functions for their kids. And the good news for all pilots is that when they're home, they're home. Their time is their own when they're off the clock, which is not something that is true for many other professions.

Relief

If the relationship can last through the random scheduling, the missed holidays and milestones, the jealousies, and other various challenges involved with being—and being with—an airline pilot, then maybe, just maybe, the pilot and their significant other will reach a point of contentment and relief.