A Day in the Life of a Mainline Pilot

F/O Costas Sivyllis

T minus 10 hours before departure 

My day begins with my alarm clock going off at 9:30 a.m. next to my comfortable bed in Florida. Today, I am scheduled to fly from Newark to Paris and have a show time of 6:00 p.m. That's the time I will meet with the other two pilots to begin flight planning for the journey across the Atlantic before our 7:30 p.m. scheduled pushback time.

Rewind back to waking up. Like many crew members, I don't live where I am based, and I will spend part of the day commuting to work. It is my responsibility to get work on time in whatever way possible. Today, I am utilizing another airline's jumpseat to get from Florida to New Jersey.

“Jumpseating” is an industry term that affords commuting pilots the ability to sit in a small, fold-down seat in the cockpit behind the pilots. If there are no available seats in the cabin, we can sit in this jumpseat to get to work. My company requires that I plan at least two flight options to get to work in case something goes wrong (e.g., delays, weather, etc.). 

I get ready at home, finish packing my suitcase for this three-day trip, and begin my hour drive to the airport. I pull into the employee parking lot in Florida just over an hour before my jumpseat flight's scheduled departure time of 12:30 p.m. 

T minus 8 hours before departure

I board my flight, and it's actually not full—so I look very much like a passenger in a window seat and relax for the two-hour flight to Newark. 

Upon landing, I take the airport tram to change terminals to my airline’s main area. There, I descend into the bowels of the terminal where our crew room is located. With computers, couches, and comfy chairs, this will be where I wait out the remaining time until my show time in a few hours. 

T minus 90 minutes before departure

Just before 6:00 p.m., I head upstairs to the terminal and enter the flight planning area, which is a room filled with long, high tables where pilots can stand and layout their various flight planning resources. I greet my two other colleagues flying to Paris tonight—one of whom lives in base (Newark). So, unlike myself that spent the day getting from Florida to New York, he had the day free and simply got in his car about 30 minutes from the airport to drive in around 5:30 p.m. 

Because this is an overseas flight, we are required to draw a map of the transoceanic route, and mark various points as a paper backup. We also review a paper flight plan, which is backed up on our electronic flight bag. A detailed look at the en route weather, airport weather, forecasts, fuel plan, maintenance items, and various other areas commences. Once comfortable with the flight plan, the three of us head out into the concourse and toward our gate. We are departing at 7:30 p.m. We get stopped along the way by a passenger looking for a particular gate—something that happens quite often. The uniform can be a sign to many that we are airport experts. Perhaps we are! 

T minus 60 minutes before departure

Upon reaching our gate, we greet the gate agent, meet with our 10 flight attendants, and walk down the jetbridge to the airplane. Thankfully, it has been on the ground most of the day, and it is fully catered, cabin cleaned, and ready for boarding. As a crew, the pilots and flight attendants, we brief in the cabin. This gets everyone on the same page for the next eight hours and increases communication—something vital in the aviation world. 

The flight attendants then proceed with their safety checks, and the pilots start their cockpit checks. This is a long checklist where the pilots perform various tests, put switches in the correct position, check any maintenance items, and program the flight management computer. 

As I begin loading our flight plan, the other first officer goes down onto the tarmac to begin the classic preflight walk around—something a keen traveler may see from the terminal. The pilot walks around the whole airplane checking for any damage or small items that we'd want to further check before taking flight. This includes the nose, engines, wheels, gear assembly, wheel wells, tail, and more. 

Once he gets back on the flight deck and tells us the airplane is good, we begin boarding. 

T minus 45 minutes before departure

Over 200 people now start flowing down the jetbridge and filling the first class cabin behind the flight deck, followed by coach. Many passengers have a look of excitement on their faces, as we are headed to Paris. Perhaps it's a vacation, a honeymoon, a family reunion, a business trip, or they are simply connecting to another flight. 

I'm busy coordinating with operations as we have a few meals that need to be catered and to ensure we are being fueled. 

T minus 30 minutes before departure

Now, it's crunch time—everyone is excited to go, and we receive our clearance from air traffic control (ATC). About 15 minutes later, the gate agent appears in the flight deck doorway to let us know we’re all set. We finished boarding early and are ready to push! I complete a before pushback checklist and call ramp control for a pushback clearance. 

T minus 5 minutes before departure

We push back early! This is great because not only is it an on-time departure, but our customers are happy and will arrive early, and the crew will get just a few extra minutes of time on our layover. 

+20 minutes

After making our way through Newark Airport’s evening rush hour traffic, it's our turn for takeoff. Most European departures take off within just a few hours of each other, so we are one of many large airplanes taking to the North Atlantic tonight. I push the throttles forward, set the thrust, and away we go to the city of light! 

+2:00 

After flying over Hartford, Boston, and Nova Scotia, we coast out over the North Atlantic. Tonight we are flying on North Atlantic Track V, or Track Victor. Because there’s limited radar and radio coverage in this region, we fly published tracks that change daily and use longitude and latitude for navigation. We communicate with ATC via text message from our onboard computer and use high frequency radio as a backup. 

At this point, it’s time for my break. There are three pilots, so we fly in shifts, and the first pilot went on break shortly after takeoff. This way, there are always two pilots on the flight deck. I retreat to rest in our designated area, and a few hours later I go back up to relieve the next pilot. 

Throughout the night over the Atlantic, while the passengers sleep soundly or watch movies behind us, we carefully cross check our position, fuel, and flight plan to ensure we are exactly where we need to be. It’s a clear night above the clouds over the cold, rough waters below us. The stars are bright tonight since there’s only a crescent moon, and I see the flash of a few other strobe lights far away from other airplanes making this same journey to somewhere in Europe. It’s a peaceful calm—a sight I relished traveling as a kid overseas to see family, an annual journey that made me fall in love with flying. I take a moment to think about how I dreamt of this for years. Yet now, it’s a reality as I sit back and monitor the flight instruments and chat casually with the other pilot about our schedule for next month. 

+6:00 

Dawn has broken over the coast of Ireland, as we coast in over the city of Cork. The sun is beginning to get very bright! Soon, we are all three in the flight deck again to begin the descent into Paris. 

+7:00 

While it was very quiet over the Atlantic, the radio chatter is now almost constant as we begin to fly over the English Chanel approaching Paris. It’s rush hour here—just past 8 a.m. local time. If there’s any doubt we aren’t home anymore, the French accent on the radio reminds us we are certainly thousands of miles away. ATC begin to step us down in altitude as we approach the airport. We brief the arrival and configure the aircraft for landing. 

+8:00 

As I call for “gear down,” I can see the Eiffel Tower off the right side of the airplane in the distance. We are cleared to land on Runway 08L, where I touchdown and bring the aircraft to taxi speed. 

As the captain brings the airplane to a halt at the gate, I turn off the engines and turn off the seatbelt sign, which begins a mad rush in the cabin of passengers collecting their overhead items and processing off the airplane. That’s when the 200 “bye-byes” begin, something that I still enjoy doing. 

Once everyone is off, we board our crew bus and head into Paris. It’s rush hour in the morning not only in the air, but on the ground too. It takes us just over an hour to get into the city. 

We check into our hotel and a quick glance of the Eiffel Tower nearby confirms I'm not dreaming—I'm actually working in Paris! After flying all night, we are all overdue for some sleep and agree to meet for dinner at 6 p.m. 

I take a nap and venture outside around 1 p.m. to explore one of my favorite layover cities. Some great food, views, and culture are all around. I make a point to see some of the famous monuments and even snap some photos. 

At 6 p.m., I meet up with the crew back at the hotel, and we head out for a great group dinner. 

Alas, the layover is over, and we head to bed to get well-needed rest for our return flight the next morning. The process is almost identical in preparation, and we push back from Paris on time at about 1 p.m. local time in Newark.

The trip is done all during the day this time and the crossing goes just as smoothly. We coast in and descend into Newark, where the captain (his turn to fly this time) makes a nice landing and we taxi to the gate. 

For some of us, the day still isn’t over. Pilots who live nearby get in their cars and drive home. Others, like myself, now do the reverse commute. So, I wait for the next flight to Florida, get on the jumpseat, and when all is said and done, arrive in my driveway around 6 p.m., just in time for dinner. 

As I park in my driveway, I reflect that I just started my day in Paris, and now am parking at my home where I’ll watch the Patriots’ game that night and have the next few days off before I begin another trip to Europe. 

As I grab my suitcases out of my trunk and head inside, I find myself thinking, “I hope I never have to get a real job.”

We hope you enjoyed this insight into what a typical day in the life of a mainline pilot can be. If you have any questions, please contact ALPA’s Education Committee.

Read A Day in the Life of a Regional Pilot