What It's Like to Be a Pilot During the Holiday Season
The holiday travel season is one of the most stressful and rewarding times to be a pilot. You are essentially the one in charge of taking families “home for the holidays” or to some incredible destination for their long-awaited vacation, suddenly giving you a very small but important role in making their trip all the more special — I enjoy announcing updates on the whereabouts of Santa's sleigh from air traffic control to passengers on Christmas Eve, for instance. This time of year, the airports all seem to have an interesting dynamic of road warriors striding confidently to their connecting gates while once-a-year travelers walk a serpentine path to the gate while taking in all the holiday decorations in the terminal. There's usually a historic snow event at a major hub or widespread winter weather to add to the excitement, too. So, what's it like to be the person flying the plane during one of the most chaotic times of the year?
It's Not All Bad, Thanks to the Kindness of Strangers...
The fun part about holiday flying is the entire crew becomes a big, extended family. The pilots and flight attendants are all in the same boat so generally we will all try to make up for being away from home. One Christmas Eve, I called ahead and made reservations at a restaurant a few blocks away from the hotel so we could all get together and have a great dinner. The captain’s wife put together little gift bags for the whole crew and, although it wasn’t much, the sentiment was definitely appreciated. Most times, hotel staff members are also sympathetic to our plight and will set up a special dinner or breakfast for the crew as a special treat. Another year at Christmas, our hotel had put fruit baskets in the hotel rooms of our crew members, which was another nice surprise. Sometimes, hotel bar and restaurant staff — with the promise of a good tip when the night is over — will stay well past their advertised closing time to take care of us “holiday hostages.”
One of the major downsides to holiday flying (for pilots) is the reduced airline schedules. The day after our memorable Christmas Eve dinner, we found ourselves sitting through a 30-hour layover. Predictably, everything around the hotel was closed and the hotel services were greatly reduced. Breakfast and lunch options were scarce. After a morning of watching "A Christmas Story" for four hours, the captain and I got in a cab and headed to the nearest movie theater. I was chatting with the manager about what brought us to the movies on Christmas Day and he ended up inviting us to watch as many movies as we wanted. All in all, it wasn’t a bad layover.
...But It's Not Easy Either
Of course, the worst part of working during the holidays is being away from your family. The misery factor is even greater when you have kids — it’s hard to explain to your children that mom or dad won’t be there for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas morning because of work when everyone else's parents are off. As a result, most airline families have floating holidays — in other words, Thanksgiving sometimes falls on a Monday that year and sometimes Santa comes early. My kids will attest to the fact that Santa does "practice runs" in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and while making those, he'll stop by some houses where parents are away on the big day.
Other times, you can work the system a little to make the best of the situation. When I was newly married, I had the opportunity to take my wife with me on a long layover in 2000 during Y2K. It was a pretty fun experience and we got to stay in a nice hotel on the company’s dime. Since no one wanted to fly during the turn of the century, traveling standby was not a problem.
Attitude is Everything
Everyone in the industry knows that missing holidays, weekends, birthdays, anniversaries and various other important events (especially with your kids) is the price you pay for choosing this type of lifestyle. You have to accept that there's a good possibility you will work during a few holidays in your career and this year's Christmas meal may be a microwaved sandwich from the 7-11 down the street.
For their part, though, the airlines generally do what they can to make life bearable for us, offering plenty of food for crew members as we transition through hubs throughout the day and even handing out little goodie baskets. Some airlines provide higher priority standby travel for family members trying to fly with their working crew members. I think we all pretty much do our best to stay positive and spread a little holiday joy. I hope all your holiday travel is safe, smooth, on time and as pleasant as possible — peace to you all from the cockpit!
Is there something you'd like to know from our TPG Insider Pilot, "Marty McFly"? Let us know in the comments, below.