How Pilots Live

An Examination of the Lifestyle of Commercial Pilots

by Simon Bennett (Author)
©2014 Monographs 283 Pages


This book paints a detailed picture of the commercial pilot lifestyle, from the struggle to pay for training to time spent down route to thoughts of retirement. Once a glamorous occupation, commercial flying is today more of a job than a vocation with many pilots working the maximum permissible hours for increasingly meagre rewards under evermore stressful conditions. Pilots talk candidly about acute and chronic fatigue, short-notice roster changes that leave them insufficiently rested, noisy and poorly serviced down-route hotels, long daily commutes to work, indebtedness, fear of losing their pilot’s licence, industry volatility, dread of lay-off or redundancy, the quality and agendas of airline managers, the impact of these and other stressors on family life and where they think the aviation industry is going. Despite these privations pilots remain enthusiastic – a testament to their professionalism and love of flying.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Chapter Two: The Realpolitik of Commercial Aviation
  • Chapter Three: Diarising Our Lives
  • Chapter Four: Quantitative and Qualitative
  • Chapter Five: The Lived Reality of Commercial Flying
  • Chapter Six: What Have We Learned?
  • Bibliography



As a piece of applied science the aeroplane has a place alongside the wheel, gunpowder, the printing press and the steam engine as one of the great levers of change in world history.

RENDALL, 1988: 7

We can pull and haul and push and lift and drive,
We can print and plough and weave and heat and light,
We can run and race and swim and fly and dive,
We can see and hear and count and read and write …
But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie.
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive –
If you make a slip in handling us, you die!

KIPLING, The Secret of the Machines


Commercial aviation is economically and culturally significant. It creates wealth and opportunity and allows the traveller to experience different cultures (Sarker, Hossan and Zaman, 2012). By bringing people together it reduces the chances of global cleavage. Commercial aviation is an artifact. As such it reflects the dominant ideologies and fashions of the day. Britain’s state-run airline Imperial Airways and its successor the British Overseas Airways Corporation served the needs of Empire. Aircraft were designed to serve the so-called Empire Routes.1 The post-War loss of Empire removed BOAC’s raison d’etre. Becoming British Airways in 1974 it was sold off in 1987 in a ‘yard sale’ of state-owned companies. The ownership pattern, ← 1 | 2 → structure and modus operandi of the industry cannot be divorced from its social, economic and political milieu. The praxis2 of commercial aviation both reflects and reproduces that milieu. In his 1984 book Empires of the Sky, Sampson charted BOAC’s metamorphosis:

Over … six decades Britain’s ‘chosen instrument’ [has] undergone every kind of metamorphosis: it [has] been a pioneers’ airline, an imperialists’ airline, a pilots’ and engineers’ airline, and now it [is] a marketer’s airline (Sampson, 1984: 219).

As the industry’s ownership pattern, structure and modus operandi have evolved, so has its culture and behaviour. The following quotations illustrate the industry’s cultural trajectory:

The airman … delights in the ever-changing patchwork of light and shadow on the earth’s surface, the toylike aspect of everything beneath, the wonderful variety of patterns which roads, rivers, valleys, forests and hedgerows provide in unbroken succession (Supf cited in Duke and Lanchbery, 1964: 243).

A Boeing 707 captain, looking back at the huge aircraft he [sic] has just brought down through fog to a silk-soft landing, has every right to be proud of the disciplined skills which enabled him to do it … If a magic sort of X-ray photograph that showed the psychological factors inside him could … be taken … they would reveal an intelligent human being, conscious of his enormous responsibilities …, highly skilled, courageous, conscientious–and very vulnerable (Beaty, 1969: 16–25).

Are we going to apologise when something goes wrong? No, we’re f***ing not. Please understand. It does not matter how many times you write to us complaining that we wouldn’t put you up in a hotel because there was fog in Stansted. You didn’t pay us for it (O’Leary cited in Johnson, 2004).

Commercial aviation, transformed by privatisation and market liberalisation, is a hard-edged business. It is as cut-throat and unsentimental as High Street ← 2 | 3 → retail. While pilots’ professionalism and romantic attachment endures, airline Chief Executive Officers maintain an unsentimental focus on the bottom line. The mantra of every airline CEO is shareholder value. Maximise it and you are a success. Fail to meet shareholder expectations and you might as well pack your bags. In this febrile atmosphere cost-cutting is de-rigueur. The author remembers working for an airline where cost-cutting measures included not supplying pilots with a small company diary (which when bought in bulk would have cost just a few pence) and not supplying pilots with a sustaining meal, even though most rosters involved flying between 23:00 and 07:00 (when food was unobtainable at en route bases) (Bennett, 2010a). While the first cost-saving measure had no safety implications, the second did: human beings need sustenance to function properly (British Air Line Pilots Association Medical Study Group, 1988; Rhodes and Gil, 2002).

Considering the intensity of airline competition and hostility of the natural environment, aviation is a remarkably safe form of transportation (Brookes, 2002; Rickard, 2010). Pilots underwrite aviation’s good safety record. Witness how Captain Chesley Sullenberger saved the lives of 150 passengers by landing his stricken US Airways Airbus on New York’s Hudson River. Despite the aircraft’s automatic features (a bone of contention for some pilots) it was the liveware component that saved the day. A case of deus ex machina? Because pilots are pivotal in delivering safe and efficient air service it is important that we monitor how evolutionary changes (for example, in employment practices and terms and conditions) affect their habits, morale, commitment, physical capacities and mental state. We ignore the nexus between what happens off the flight deck and what happens on it at our peril.

It is accepted in aviation circles that the pilot lifestyle is under-researched. There are few sociological studies of the lifestyles of the women and men who fly commercial aircraft, which is surprising given the size of the industry and the wealth and opportunity it creates. Understanding the pilot lifestyle is not only important from an academic or intellectual point of view. Understanding the pilot lifestyle is also important from a safety standpoint. It is important because regulations made without reference to the ‘lived reality’ of the pilot lifestyle create ‘resident pathogens’ or ‘latent errors’ – the necessary preconditions for incident and accident (Reason, 1990, 2013). ← 3 | 4 →

In 2010–2011 the author researched the pilot lifestyle using sleep/activity logs and an on-line questionnaire. The fifty-four question on-line questionnaire generated 433 responses. Many of the questions allowed free-text answers. The sleep/activity logs (SLOGs) generated a significant amount of data. One-hundred and thirty-three pilots kept a sleep-diary for three weeks. SLOGs contained up to 9,000 words of description. Pilots described their working life and home life. Finally, half a dozen pilots were interviewed. The longest interview took two hours. Responses were taped and transcribed.

Although participants were subject to the relatively strict Flight Time Limitation/Flight Duty Period (FTL/FDP) regulations that applied at the time (like the United Kingdom’s CAP371 FTL/FDP standard), the data revealed that pilots routinely experienced acute and chronic fatigue. If that was the situation under relatively strict FTL/FDP regulations like CAP371, what might happen under more relaxed regulations like those proposed by the European Aviation Safety Agency?

A Change for the Better?

In July 2008 the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) introduced EU OPS 1 Subpart Q. Intended to be the EU-wide FTL regulation, it was rejected by countries with more stringent FTLs. In a political compromise these countries were allowed to retain their FTLs:

As this new scheme … was considered by the UK and a number of other EU states to set standards well below those required by their current legislation, EASA issued a derogation permitting the UK to continue using CAP371 and for other states to continue using their current schemes if more restrictive that Subpart Q (Rickard, 2010).

By the early Spring of 2011 EASA had received some 30,000 comments from across Europe on its proposed new FTL/FDP scheme. The Agency took months to digest the feedback, publishing its Comment-Response Document 2010–14 on 18 January 2012. Discussions reached a crescendo. In a sharply polarised debate the European Cockpit Association (ECA) argued against ← 4 | 5 → the proposals (in, for example, its 2012 Barometer on Pilot Fatigue) while the Association of European Airlines (AEA), the International Air Carrier Association (IACA) and European Regional Airlines Association (ERA) argued for the proposals.3 ERA (2013a) claimed:


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
Pilot livestile work conditions airlines stress, workplace
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 283 pp., num. tables

Biographical notes

Simon Bennett (Author)

Simon Bennett has a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration from Sheffield City Polytechnic, a Masters in Communication and Technology and a PhD in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge from Brunel University, London. He has taught risk management at the University of Leicester for seventeen years. He works as a consultant to the aviation industry where he specialises in flight-deck human factors (teamwork, communication, leadership, morale, hierarchy, stress, fatigue, etc.). He has published in numerous academic journals and aviation periodicals. His books include Human Error – by Design?, A Sociology of Commercial Flight Crew, After Hubris, Nemesis: Why Flag Carriers Fail and Innovative Thinking in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management. Before entering academia the author managed an IT department in London.


Title: How Pilots Live
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294 pages