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Is the life of a long-haul pilot for you?

Is the life of a long-haul pilot for you?

If you have been a pilot for any length of time or if you are considering becoming a pilot, you know there are various pilot jobs you can take. You can work for a small, regional airline or you can aim for the big time and find a job with a major airline flying large passenger jets.

What you end up doing turns out to be the result of a mix of things: what airline jobs are available, how much experience you have, the schedule you want to keep and a host of other factors. In general, you have a couple of different options: short haul or long haul.

Short Haul Pilots

Short haul pilots typically start and end their day at a particular base of operations. They usually don’t do overnight flights, so they are home each night, although they are occasionally exceptions. Flights generally last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, while medium haul flights last three to six hours. Your schedule is usually fixed, with planned days off, making your life easier to schedule. A typical pattern of work might be five days on and then three or four days off.


Depending on how long the flights are, short haul pilots operate between two and six flights a day. This involves lots of takeoffs and landings and a high workload for the flight crew. Smaller airlines will want to get as much productivity out of a flight crew as they can, so they will get close to the maximum number of hours allowed. You will usually fly to a range of destinations as a short haul pilot, often to smaller airports.

Long Haul Pilots

Long haul pilots, on the other hand, operate flights longer than six hours. They fly all over the world and spend a lot of time away from home. Their trips can last from a few days to more than a week, and the ever-changing time zones can be very tiring. They usually have more days off between flights because they spend so much time away from home – when they return, they need time to rest and reset their body clocks.

Long haul pilots usually start out as short haul pilots to gain experience before making the move to long haul. They need the experience first – as a long haul pilots, they may only have to land a plan a couple of times in a month.

Because the flights are so long, several pilots usually travel together so they can rest during the flights. In general, long haul pilots are paid more than short haul pilots.

So, which type of piloting is for you? Let’s take a look at few considerations you will need to think through before making the move to become a long haul pilot.

What Do You Like?

Part of the answer for you may come to down to this simple question – which type of flying do you like better? And, depending on where you are in your life, the answer may change. You may even like to mix it up during the same time periods. Some pilots do short, medium and long haul passenger service, while others like to specialize in just one type.

It’s kind of like different flavors of ice cream – your favorite will be different than the person next to you, and your favorites can change. If you want to be home every night to see your young kids, then you will prefer shorter North American turnarounds that get you back home in the evening.

If you enjoy traveling and visiting different cultures and the time away from home isn’t a problem for you, long haul is the way to go.

Much of the work of flying takes place in the preparation, takeoff and landing phases, so running through several of those cycles in a day can be more tiring that one long eight-hour flight, for example.

Federal Regulations

Because of long flights, the Federal Aviation Administration has developed rules (first put in place in the 1940s) that long haul pilots must follow regarding rest, the number of hours you can fly and the number of crew that must be on a flight. As a long haul pilot, you will have to be familiar with and abide by these regulations.

Domestic flight rules do not explicitly address how long a pilot can be on duty, but they do address flight time limitation and required rest periods. On domestic flights, pilots are limited to eight hours of flight time during a 24-hour period. This limit can be extended if necessary if the pilot gets extra rest at the end of the flight.

A pilot is not allowed to accept (and an airline cannot assign) a flight unless the pilot has had at least eight continuous hours of rest during the preceding 24-hour period. Individual airline regulations may be even more strict than these regulations.

For international flights operated by United States carriers, rules are more complex. These flights often involve more than a two-pilot flight crew because of their length. For international flights that involve more than 12 hours of flight time, airlines must establish rest periods and provide sleeping facilities outside of the cockpit so pilots can rest during the flight. Most well-known carriers have special bunk rooms or provide lie-flat first class seats for the pilot to sleep.

Long haul pilots may not fly if the assignment will make them exceed the regulatory limits. Both pilots and airlines are responsible to prevent pilot fatigue by following regulations and acting responsibly, which includes taking into consideration health and other personal circumstances that might affect a pilot’s job performance.

The FAA recommends that airlines include fatigue training as part of their management training programs.

Jet Lag and Schedule

The pace of long haul flying is different than shorter flights as well. Everything takes longer because the flight is longer and there is more of everything – loading the flight plan, listening to briefings, etc.

Managing rest on the flight is crucial because busy, crowded airfields such as New York or Chicago require full concentration. Avoiding fatigue requires planning ahead – a typical schedule will see you go to work when everyone else is going home. You’ll land somewhere after midnight, sleep and then you may fly through the night again.

If you have a couple of days off in the city where you landed, the extra time is nice but it is tough on your body to adjust. As an example, you might have a 12-hour flight to Japan and get to your hotel room at 4:30 p.m. Japan time. If you get to bed by 7 p.m. local time (that would be 3 a.m. in California), you’ll be doing well, but your body may wake you up in the middle of the night because it’s not the middle of the night at home.

Some pilots never quite get the hang of adjusting to time zones and jet lag, and they go back to being a short haul pilot so they can sleep in their own beds instead of in planes or hotel rooms.

If you are flying west after the sun, you will have extremely long days. If you fly east, you will create the shortest nights in the world. Flying south can leave you in the dark for a long time as well – a flight that takes off in the dark from Los Angeles for Sydney will land in the dark 15 hours later. This kind of extended darkness can make a mess of your natural sleep time in a 24-hour period.


One highly-rated benefit of life as a long haul pilot is that you get extended time off in new places and cultures, and if you run the same route regularly, you can become a regular visitor. This gives you the chance to get to know other cultures and ways of life. You can read the local papers, adopt a local sports team and find your favorite restaurants and out-of-the-way spots just like a local. This can be a rewarding experience that carries benefits far beyond how much you get paid.


Speaking of getting paid, we mentioned earlier that long haul pilots generally make more than short haul pilots. According to some data, long haul captains can possibly make within a range from $124,000 to $250,000, while long haul first officers (co-pilots) make a range of $94,000 to $187,000.

Short haul pilots come in a little lower level. Captains make between $109,000 and $205,000, while short haul first officers are from $55,000 to $109,000.

These are not absolute numbers, but they give you a basic idea of what to consider as you think about looking for a long haul pilot job.

Wrap Up

What kind of flying appeals to you? Short haul and long haul flying both offer pros and cons – you just have to decide which is a better fit for you at this stage of your life. If you have a chance to take an airline job as a long haul pilot, think about this article as you consider your options.

Your office will be the world, and the view outside your window will be tough to beat. You might even see the sun set, then rise, then set again on the same flight. Geography and meteorology will come to life in front of you, and you will have a front-row seat. You’ll be away from home and you might be tired, but you’ll be learning new cultures and having a great time doing so.

If this sounds like magic to you, consider making the move to become a long haul pilot!

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