Can Pilots Have Successful Relationships?

Airline Pilots Sound Off

Pilot Fatigue
Pilot Fatigue. Getty/Westend61

For pilots, marriage can be complicated. 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 there are also challenges.It can be difficult for a pilot's family and friends to understand what, exactly, they are up against while they're in training or on trips. How hard can it be to fly around the world, indulging in drinks at hotel bars with fellow crew members?

And why does their schedule always have to be so complicated?

I caught up with a few airline pilots on Facebook, and they sounded off on pilot marriages and relationships. 

Sarah E. is a first officer for a major airline. She says it's hard for outsiders to understand what pilots go through. "It's hard for people who don't live the airline life to understand it. They think that while we are away that we are on vacation and partying. It's difficult to convey the amount of work we do.... it's fatiguing and challenging, especially for a wife and mother. Sleeping in a hotel and living out of a bag isn't the most fun, but we are pilots and have a passion for what we do. It's in our blood, and it's part of who we are. " 

For an unlucky number of pilots, their relationships or marriages end due to one or more of these challenges leading to misunderstandings. Some of these can be blamed on the rigors of the job, which is difficult for any non-pilot to comprehend.

And those that are trying to make a marriage work often spend their time explaining the ins and outs of the pilot career to their significant others left behind, often left alone to deal with the challenges of raising a family. The details, like why pilots spend an enormous amount of money on fast food and why they were scheduled during the family's yearly vacation to Hawaii even though they bid for a different schedule, can become sources of contention, and often times, family members behind feel left out and misunderstood themselves.

 

"This is likely a major reason for pilot divorce - the lack of comprehension on what the job entails," says Melinda W., a married first officer at a major airline. "One captain clued me into best management practices for a content spouse, 'Remember, the weather is always crappy, the hotel is a dump & the crew is a bunch of idiots. Your spouse doesn't want to hear you're having a good time on a trip while they're home dealing with a backed up toilet, a car problem, a sick kid, shoveling snow, or the dog got sprayed by a skunk!'" Maybe so, but spouses don't need to be protected from the daily lives of pilots. Pilots just need to convey the truth, that while the weather in Hawaii is nice and yes, they did enjoy a cocktail at the hotel bar, that they're exhausted and yes, still committed to their marriages. And even though they try to explain it, many pilots wish their significant others understood what happens around them every time they fly.

As a first officer at a major airline, Evelyne T. knows the process well, too. "It's a long-term education process. I found that by talking and telling stories and explaining in detail, openly and candidly my work experiences, trials, tribulations, and adventures I can give my family members and friends a window into my world...

I don't ever dumb anything down and give lots of backgrounds."

For others, their best-laid relationship plans didn't work out in the end. A number of pilots responded to my request for information to say their significant other ran off with a flight attendant, or that it just didn't work out for one reason or another. Life happens. Schedules don't line up. Dreams get in the way. And for airline pilots, it's not difficult to see why.

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 built their experience in the civilian world - flight instructing or towing banners or something similar - they're just as new as the rest of the family and probably a bit clueless about the process themselves.

But one thing is for sure: It's called a "fire hose" for a reason. Days are long, the books are thick and the absorption rate of the material is fast. It's intense. Pilots 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 new coworkers 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 all of the sudden checked out. 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's 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 partner 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 leaves pilots in a zombie-like anti-decision-making state of mind. They really don't care where you eat. They'll eat anything at this point... except maybe McDonald's. 

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. This 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 base 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, your pilot is just as annoyed as you might be about this situation. He or she is living with a host of other male or female pilots and flight attendants who are loud, up at all hours and also cranky that they're not at home with their families. It's not the most glamorous life. 

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 shift that the senior pilots don't want to bid. This is also temporary and is dependent upon how quickly pilots are retiring and how fast new pilots are being hired. And even line pilots have their challenges. The job itself 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 the trip through the time zones and a bad airport diet, and the body quickly fatigues, too. 

And then there are the relationships they're working to uphold back home. Like anyone else, pilots have lives beyond flying, and there is often an added stress of worrying about kids and spouses and finances while they're away. Jealousy can play a role in a pilot's marriage (or lack thereof), too. Maintaining a friendly relationship with crew members of the opposite sex without causing their significant other to become jealous can be a challenge. 

And then there's commuting.

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, he or she might not want to leave home, which is why a pilot might balk at the idea of taking a family vacation on his or her week off. Often, the last thing he or she wants to do is hop on another airplane. 

A pilot that has 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 really 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 a pilot's marriage can last through the random scheduling, the missed holidays, the jealousies and other various challenges involved with becoming an airline pilot, then maybe, just maybe, they'll see relief. As an airline pilot gains seniority, he or she will be able to gain more control over his or her schedule, allowing more scheduled time for family and other hobbies. With seniority comes a pay increase, and any money arguments that were there before may subside. And eventually, a pilot will be able to be home on holidays and keep important dates.

The pilot lifestyle is challenging. There are many happily married pilots out there, but the secret to a happy marriage is probably less about pilot scheduling than it is about basic marriage virtues. Understanding the pilot's lifestyle is just the beginning.