There's nothing better than flying for a living, unless it's not flying for a living. That seems to be the consensus of the 90-plus commenters who had their say over the last week or so on the U.S. News Web site, which listed "Commercial Pilot" as one of the "50 Best Jobs for 2011." We've heard a lot this year about the downslide in a once-noble profession: Sully Sullenberger told a congressional panel he didn't know any airline pilot who would want his or her children to chose a cockpit career. The Colgan crash threw a spotlight on the low pay and punishing schedules of regional pilots. Economic doldrums have downsized airline and corporate pilots with thousands of hours and six-figure salaries, who are left wondering if they should look for jobs in Dubai and Bangalore, or maybe at Starbucks.
Plenty of pilots commented on the U.S. News site about the downside of the flying life, and they attracted a fair number of responses to the effect that they are just spoiled whiners. It's true that flying is not the only profession that has seen major changes in work conditions over recent decades. When I worked in a newsroom 10 years ago, co-workers just a few years older than me had nostalgic memories of the good old days, when teams of editors would fact-check, fine-tune, and proofread every story, aided by separate teams of photo editors, copy clerks and caption writers. Today one overworked reporter is likely to take on all of those chores, plus shoot video and post Twitter updates. Benefits and retirement packages and humane working conditions are scarce for workers across the board, not just pilots.
That said, the pilot career path does pose unique challenges. Huge investments of time and money are required to qualify for entry-level jobs that pay poverty wages. Despite advances in technology, every pilot is responsible for the safety of everyone on board for every flight. The big payoff of a captain's seat with choices of routes and schedules plus a comfortable pension seems a mirage for most. Some can't take the years of dues-paying and the rootless existence, with more nights spent in hotels than home with friends and family.
So, is commercial pilot a great career path? I think several of the U.S. News commenters were on the right track when they said, sure, if it's what you love to do. If you think of it as a means to an end -- to a big house and a fat bank account -- you might be disappointed. But the same is true of just about every decision we make in life -- as much as we like to think we can plan ahead and make smart choices, the future is full of unknowns and surprises. Doing what you love at least ensures that today won't go to waste, and that's not such a bad return for anyone.