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What Do Airline Pilots Do?

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The answer to the question ‘What do airline pilots do?‘ may seem obvious. They fly the aircraft and post selfies on Instagram. That’s right, isn’t it? Well, there’s a little more to it than that.

For a start, any pilot is part of a crew, usually of two on short haul routes. There will be a Captain, the senior pilot who has overall responsibility for the flight. The Captain’s responsibilities include not only the practicalities of the flight itself but also the safety of all crew and passengers.

He or she will be supported by a First Officer, a less experienced pilot. They will share the flying duties in order to give each other rest breaks. Long haul flights may have three or even four pilots aboard.

Duties & Responsibilities

All pilots will be familiar with the processes required to carry out the following pre and post flight checks:

  • Gathering all information about the aircraft, the crew, the passengers or cargo, and the weather both en route and at the destination airport.
  • Create a flight plan based on that information and calculate the correct altitude and fuel required for the flight.
  • Supervise the loading of the fuel and ensure the operation of the aircraft maximises fuel efficiency.
  • Carry out pre flight checks on all the safety systems on the aircraft.
  • Carry out pre flight checks on all the instruments and navigation systems.
  • Communicate with Air Traffic Control before the aircraft leaves the gate, during taxi, and after departure.
  • Conduct a pre flight briefing with the cabin crew.

During the briefing the Captain will summarise the flight time, gate number, taxi duration, altitude of flight, and any significant weather en route.

During The Flight Itself

  • Abide by any noise abatement procedures during departure.
  • Maintain regular contact with the cabin crew throughout the flight.
  • Make and maintain contact with the appropriate air traffic controllers en route.
  • Monitor and understand the aircraft’s navigational and control instruments.
  • Regularly check the aircraft’s performance and its position relative to the planned route.
  • Regularly check the weather for any changes and check on the location of other aircraft in the vicinity.
  • Keep the passengers informed about the progress of the flight and any deviations from the schedule.

If there are any changes in the weather or if there are any on board emergencies the flight crew will need to react quickly and efficiently.

Post Flight Procedures

  • Update the aircraft’s logbook with the hours flown and other data.
  • Compile a report about the flight itself and include any irregularities with the aircraft or any incidents that occurred.

For air crew there is about an hour of work on the ground after the flight.

Hours and Shifts

Being an airline pilot is not a 9 to 5 job and a large degree of flexibility is required. Pilots will often live within a short commute time of their base airport in case they’re needed at short notice to cover absent pilots. However, the airlines appreciate that everyone needs to be able to plan ahead and so they’ll inform their pilots on short haul routes of their shift patterns well in advance. For long haul pilots there are often single nights or perhaps a few days away from home with travel through various time zones.

There are limits to the amount of hours a pilot can fly in any day and in total throughout the year. The regulations vary around the world but for European airlines the regulations state that pilots should not fly more than:

  • 60 duty hours in any 7 consecutive days;
  • 110 duty hours in any 14 consecutive days; and
  • 190 duty hours in any 28 consecutive days, spread as evenly as practicable throughout that period.

Long haul pilots who travel through time zones will take rest breaks away from the cockpit, often in crew bunk beds.

What do airline pilots earn?

Salaries vary according to the size of the airline, the aircraft type, and the pilot’s experience. Here in the UK, a recently qualified First Officer for a small, regional airline can expect a starting salary of around £25,000 pa. Larger airlines may offer more and the salaries will eventually increase in proportion to the experience. For example, more experienced First Officers can look forward to £36,000 to £48,000 pa.

Once you’ve been promoted to Captain you can expect a salary of £57,000 to £78,000 for a medium sized airline. If your employer is one of the major operators then salaries of between £97,000 and £140,000 or more are the industry norm.

What Do Airline Pilots Do? More Information

Pilots are regularly tested to ensure they maintain the necessary skills required to fulfil all their responsibilities. They also have to maintain a Class 1 Medical certificate in order to keep their licences valid.

To find out more read our our other post, “How to become an airline pilot“.

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