Airline Flying: Cargo vs Passengers

[Updated: Feb, 2015]

I fly for a large package express company. Cargo airlines are a bit of a mystery to the general public. Everyone is familiar with passenger airlines; it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t taken a ride or visited an air terminal. Those that haven’t are at least familiar with the routine thanks to movies, TV and the news media.

Cargo airlines are a bit different. The public rarely has a chance to see a cargo aircraft doing its thing. The airplanes are often parked far from passenger terminals so the day-to-day operations are usually out of sight.

In this feature, I’ll shed some light on what it’s like to fly for a cargo airline. I’ll highlight some of the similarities and differences between cargo and passenger operations.

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When I’m at social gatherings with people outside the aviation community, a few questions and comments always seem to come up.

  • Do you want to fly for a commercial airline?
  • Do you fly the same kinds of planes that passenger airlines fly?
  • There are only two of you in that cargo jet? What if something goes wrong?
  • It’s nice you don’t have all the “responsibility” that a passenger pilot has.
  • What’s your schedule like?
  • Are you allowed to eat? What do you eat?
  • Does your family fly for free?

I’ll tackle these one by one as well as adding some additional fun details.

Do you want to fly for a commercial airline?

I already do! Folks that ask this question are usually trying to ask: “Do you want to fly for a passenger airline?”  The answer surprises a lot of people. Even though I’m qualified to fly for a passenger carrier (the regulations that govern cargo and passenger airlines are the same), I’m not looking for another job. Many of my cargo-carrying-colleagues left their jobs at passenger airlines to fly cargo aircraft. My previous job was flying passengers. Compensation offered by the big cargo airlines like FedEx and UPS are competitive and sometimes higher than that of passenger carriers. Freight companies enjoy high profit margins, even in tough economic times, making them an attractive career choice.

Do you fly the same kinds of planes that passenger airlines fly?

You bet. Cargo airlines fly the same familiar models of heavy jets (MD-11, 747, 767, 777, A300, A330, etc) but in a cargo configuration. Aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus build passenger and cargo versions of their popular models.  Another source of cargo jets are older passenger jets that have been converted into freighters in an extensive overhaul process. These jets are as good as new when they are ready for cargo service.

777-AA
American 777 – Source: Matt Hintsa
777-fedex
FedEx 777 – Source: Frank Kovalchek

 

What’s the difference between a cargo jet and a passenger jet?

cockpit
Freighter flight deck during preflight

If you were to step onto the flight deck of a freighter, you probably couldn’t distinguish it from the flight deck of the passenger model; it’s the same front office. There is one minor but critical addition; at the back of our cockpit we have a small, private lavatory. It has the flushing blue water just like the passenger planes. Woo-hoo! Piloting a freighter is identical to flying its passenger counterpart. They both require the same FAA Type Rating (special license) and experience.

Step out of the cockpit and you’ll see a world of difference. The most visible exterior feature on a freighter is the large cargo door on the side. The door allows loading equipment to quickly load and unload the freight from the main deck. Large belly doors under the main deck allow more cargo to be loaded on the lower deck. Every inch of available space is used for payload (did I say our lavatory is small?).

UPSA300Door
UPS A300 – Source: Tomothy Rezendes
belly door
767 Belly door – Source: Author

 

Boeing’s 747 freighter variant has an option for a very special cargo door. When the nose is raised, really big stuff can be loaded; cars, trucks, military tanks and even small aircraft.

Cargo-In/Cargo-Out
747 Nose Cargo Door – Source: Lance Cheung

 

Behind a freighter’s flight deck, the familiar cabin of the passenger plane is gone; no seats, no windows, no overhead storage.  Just a huge empty space that is carefully designed to enable efficient loading and unloading of cargo. The main deck (where passenger seats would be) is covered with rollers and latches to allow pallets and containers to be rolled then locked into position. These two photos are both shots of a Boeing 767-300 interior.

interior-cargo3
767 Freighter main deck – Source: Author
10-767_pax
767 Passenger Aircraft – Source: Author

 

Take a walking tour of a freighter!

Here’s a short walking tour through the inside of a Boeing 767-300 wide-body freighter. The video begins in the very back of the main deck and continues to the front with a quick view of my office. The distance from the back of the aircraft to the flight deck is about 130 feet.

Loading and unloading: The quick turn

Cargo "passengers" ready to be loaded
Cargo “passengers” ready to be loaded

In air freight, just like in the passenger business, time and schedules equate to money. One fully loaded aircraft can represent thousands of customers whose iPhones, Droids, flowers, medical supplies, lobsters, and who-knows-what-else are guaranteed to be delivered on-time. The typical cargo jet will make one or two stops out of the hub before arriving at its final destination in the early morning. At each stop, as soon as the pilots shut down the engines, ground crews attack the jet from all sides. Mechanics, loaders, tug drivers and fuel trucks converge. Experienced ground crews are like NASCAR pit crews. These guys and gals can get a wide-body jet unloaded, reloaded, fueled, serviced and ready to depart in under 45 minutes. During that time, the flight crew completes checklists, reviews the weather, loads new data into the navigation system, guzzles coffee and runs the preflight checks. When all goes well, everyone finishes up about 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time. By 5 minutes prior, all the ground support vehicles are pulled away and a tug is hooked to the jet’s nose wheel, ready to push the aircraft back to the taxiway. It really is an amazing thing to watch.

There are only two of you in that cargo jet? What if something goes wrong?

This question always surprises me. Yes, there are usually only two of us in a cargo aircraft, even on many oceanic flights. Flights under 8 hours require only a Captain and First Officer. Longer legs require three or four crew members. This is the same for a passenger carrier. If something goes wrong on my cargo aircraft, it’s up to the two of us to sort out the issue and decide on the safest course of action. On a passenger flight, although there are Flight Attendants and hundreds of passengers, it still boils down to the two professional pilots up front to keep the airplane safe. Passenger pilots just have a bigger cheering section when stuff goes wrong! Which leads to the next comment…

It’s nice you don’t have all the “responsibility” that a passenger pilot has.

This comment gets thrown around a lot. The truth is that us pilots (passenger and cargo) are human (gasp!). We all have families and loved ones, we have places to go and we want to be home on our days off. And being human, it’s only natural that when a flight becomes extra-challenging for whatever reason, we do what needs to be done to keep ourselves safe (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs?). Apologies to the gentleman in 17D; your flight crew is not thinking about your well-being as they make a perfect landing in a raging Chicago blizzard.  Your crew is worried about their own safety, their own families and their own careers. As an airline passenger, that’s a good thing! If the pilots are worried about their own safety, chances are pretty good you’ll be just fine.

What’s your schedule like?

Passenger and cargo airline pilot schedules are very similar. In general, we both work 4-7 day blocks up to 2 week blocks with 10-14 days off each month. Depending on the duration of flights on our schedule, we fly anywhere from one leg a day to 4 legs a day (or night!).  Passenger pilots will sometimes fly up to 5 or even 6 flights in a duty period – now that’s hard work!

Are you allowed to eat? What do you eat?

Osaka_meal
Typical meal from Japan – Source: Author

Oh yes, we eat! You can’t fly on an empty stomach; especially on a 9 hour leg across the Pacific. The company I work for caters our flights. On all flights we have a cooler (a refrigerator on the larger jets) with water, soda and juices. On shorter, four-hour legs we usually get a cold box lunch – sandwich, fruit, chips and drinks. On long flights we have one or two hot meals and plenty of time en route to do a little cooking in the galley. Who needs a flight attendant? Pilots are great cooks!

If a pilot is cooking dinner, who’s flying the jet?

During a flight, a crew member is allowed to leave his/her seat for “physiological needs.” This means using the restroom, stretching, cooking, and eating. There is always at least one crew member in a pilot seat to handle the business of flying the aircraft. On long flights, we’ll usually take turns doing the cooking (I’ll cook lunch, you cook dinner).

Does your family fly for free?

One of the benefits of flying for a passenger airline are the free or reduced-rate travel privileges for employees and their families.  This is a nice perk and I used it quite a bit when I flew passengers. The only catch is that you must be flexible. When traveling non-rev (non-revenue) you are a second-class citizen; paying customers always come first. In addition to non-rev travel, passenger airline employees enjoy discounts offered by other airlines, cruises, and hotels.

For cargo pilots, flight benefits and discounts are slim. Pilots can jumpseat on passenger carriers and other cargo carriers (we have reciprocal jumpseat agreements with passenger carriers). A few airlines give us a small discount for tickets, but that’s it. There are no benefits for family members.

Funny story: A few years ago, my wife was talking to a reservations agent at a cruise line…

communication-ladyMrs. AeroSavvy: My husband is an airline pilot. Do you offer any discounts for families of airline employees?
Cruise Lady: Why, yes. We DO have a 20% discount! What airline does your husband fly for?
Mrs. AeroSavvy: He flies for XYZ Package Express.
Cruise Lady: Oh, we only give discounts to real airline pilots.

Ouch!  Mrs. AeroSavvy was not amused. (Sorry, honey!)

 

That being said… I don’t miss non-rev travel one bit. When traveling non-rev, a carefully planned family vacation can be trashed when a few extra paying customers show up at the gate. Nothing is worse than buckling up your kids and stowing your gear only to hear the flight attendant announce: “Will the AeroSavvy family in row 26 please collect your belongings and exit the aircraft?” It feels like the walk of shame as you drag your luggage down the aisle. I’m now happy to pay for my family’s positive space tickets and enjoy my vacations. 🙂

So there you have it. Lots of great cocktail party discussion about those mysterious cargo pilots who go to work on the other side of the airport.

Further Reading

For more information about cargo flying, check out these other AeroSavvy articles:

61 Comments

  1. Great Blog you got. I’m a private pilot instrument rated finishing my commercial multi. Would love to hear more stories about your job. Can’t wait to start flying for an airline. Keep posting and thanks!

  2. I retired in December after 25 years of being a cargo airline pilot and having flown most of the Northern Hemisphere. It was a great career and well worth the time, sacrifices and money to get there!

  3. Excellent article Ken! I’m out of the cockpit after 26 years (part of that time as a Kitty Hawk freight dog) and into the college classroom teaching Aviation to the new generation. For the FIRST time ever, that I’ve seen, you hit the nail on the head with your comments about Pilots wanting to keep themselves safe (awesome ref to Maslow.. I’m going to use that when teaching CFI candidates) and that anyone else onboard is along for the ride. You’ve had the same conversations at parties that I’ve had. Keep up the good work.

  4. Nice article Ken. It was an easy read and for those that aren’t as aviation savvy this article might just slow the questions down about us Freight Pilots. Have a great 2014 and Be safe out there.

  5. I’m not a pilot (IT guy) , but if I’ll be to be born second time definitely I’d like to become a pilot.
    Nice blog you have here and since I discovered few days ago I’m having fun reading it .
    Ken ,keep inform us with the life as pilot , at least I’m feeling that I’m “flying” with you.
    Thank you !

  6. What a great post! I used to work at LHR airport for various passenger airlines as ground crew and often stared in awe at the cargo carriers.
    I’ve travelled by cargo ship as a passenger from Athens to Hong Kong – THAT was fun. I doubt Cargo planes take passengers though eh?

    • Hi Bex, thanks for reading! I’ve read about cargo ship cruising and always wanted to do one (I’ll be reading your blog!). I wish we could take passengers/friends on our jumpseats. Before 9/11, we could take employees of our airline. Our San Juan and HNL flights were quite busy! After 9/11, the game changed. Now, only pilots, FAA, and essential company personnel. 🙁

      In case any of them are reading, we really enjoy giving rides to our friends from Air Traffic Control. You guys and gals are always welcome!

      • Yes – read my section about container ship trips: they can take up to about 7 pax max. and my cabin (single) was 25 square metres with en-suite! Not a lot of people know about container travel – I loved it…and NPR Weekend edition interviewed me about it.
        Look forward to reading more about life as a cargo pilot.

  7. Hi Ken H, i am an MBA student and an aircraft engineer, and i am working on my thesis now, looking to proof that the express market such as FedEx or UPS is taking control over the airlines cargo business, please if you have any useful information regarding the topic let me know

    Thanks and best regards
    Mohamed

    • Hi Mohamed,
      Your thesis sounds very interesting! I don’t think I can provide much information to help you. My airline business experience is limited to flying the machines. I know that business is very good for the big cargo carriers like FedEx and UPS. I’ve also heard that a few airlines are reducing their cargo-only fleets. I would recommend that you talk to people in the airline management field for more accurate information.

      Good luck with your thesis and MBA!
      Ken

  8. Great article, I often refer to my passengers as “self loading freight.”

    One point is that a few passenger airlines that also operate freight only flights will include a flight attendant who handles the heating of dinners and pouring of drinks, and the 15 or 30 minute “you need anything checkup?”.

    • Hi, Brad. Thanks for reading. Yep, all professional pilots that carry stuff for money (whether it be people or boxes) are freight pilots.

      I’m not sure I would want a flight attendent on long flights. Not much room on a freighter flight deck!

      Thanks for the comments!

  9. Very interesting reading!
    I am a VERY nervous flyer (I never get on without prescription antianxiety pills) and I have a big flight coming up, so i was just googleing the usual stuff when I found this post. It’s so interesting (and comforting) to read about people who fly for a living – and I have always been fascinated with pilots of cargo planes, you go so far and fly so often, it’s just to actually know more about it!
    The funny thing is each time a plane gets bad turbulence and I start getting nervous, I say the exact thing to myself that you have said in your article – “your flight crew is not thinking about your well-being as they make a perfect landing in a raging Chicago blizzard. Your crew is worried about their own safety, their own families and their own careers. As an airline passenger, that’s a good thing! If the pilots are worried about their own safety, chances are pretty good you’ll be just fine.

    So that always makes me feel safer!
    Keep up the good work! 🙂 And thank you for this wonderful insight!

    • Hi Kris!
      Thank you for the kind words. Try not to be too concerned when the plane runs into turbulence. Pilots do their best to avoid it but some days it seems like it’s everywhere. As long as you have your seatbelt fastened, you’ll be safe in even severe turbulence.

      If you would like to read more about what pilots do during flights, take a look at the article I wrote for NYCAviation: “Come Along As We Cross The Pacific” http://www.nycaviation.com/2014/08/come-along-cross-pacific

  10. Hi Ken!

    Thanks for this fascinating insight into the working life of a cargo pilot. I have an assessment day and interview coming up as I work towards obtaining my MPL for a commercial airliner. Wish me luck! One of the questions I am anticipating is the ‘why passenger and not cargo?’ one, so I was especially interested in reading the main differences between the two.

    Keep doing what you, take care!

  11. Wonderful text, be a freight pilot looks really good! Now I know more about the Cargo Airlines, thanks Mr. AeroSavvy!

  12. Wonderful read,

    Just out of curiosity, how is it being a cargo/passenger pilot yet trying to have a family life with wife and kids?

    enjoy and keep well

    • The divorce rate in aviation (and other occupations that require a lot of travel) is high. It takes a very special and supportive spouse, along with mutual trust to make it work. I’m very lucky that my spouse happily puts up with my crazy schedule. She is the one that keeps things running smoothly when I’m away AND home!

      Thanks for reading!

  13. One thing I would like to know more about… do the Cargo Airlines make the aircraft mechanics ride the aircraft they fix? To your point about Maslows hierarchy of needs, it is good that pilots have to ride the planes, but it would be better if the maintainers had to ride them on a random but regular basis.
    Boss to aircraft maintainer: Yeah, you don’t have to fix planes today, you are going up on the one you fixed yesterday.
    Maintainer: ulp!!

    • Hi Rob,

      Maintenance technicians are not required to randomly ride on our aircraft. They do often ride with us when commuting to work or when flying on personal business.

      It takes a lot of people to get an airliner into the air. Pilots and maintenance technicians are just the tip of the iceberg. There are dispatchers, fuelers, schedulers, loaders, aircraft cleaners, ground equipment operators, instructors, meteorologists, air traffic controllers, and many, many more. Each and every one of these people play an absolutely critical role in the safety of every flight. What keeps the machine running smoothly is the pride we all take in our work.

      Thanks for the comment, and THANKS for reading!

  14. The most interesting plane ride I’ve had is from Anchorage to Barrow and back. That plane had 2 configurations. One for cargo and the other for passengers. Kinda cool.

  15. Hey Ken,
    Nice to read about the cargo pilot’s work.
    I found your blog by accident, I was actually searching for an answer to another question you probably know: Does a cargo aircraft still need pre-conditioned air for cooling when it is unloading/loading at the airport?
    I figured the loading doors will be open anyway, so cooling is not very effective. But is the flight deck cooled? Can image it may become pretty hot in some climates.

    • Hi, Tonny. Great question.

      In hot weather, there are times when we need to keep the cargo area cool when loading. An example would be when we are carrying pharmaceuticals or perishable goods that need to be temperature controlled. You’re right that when the big door is open, it can be challenging to keep the main cargo area cool. With both air conditioning packs running, we can keep it reasonably cool, and loading doesn’t take long.

      Much more important in hot weather is keeping the cockpit cool! The avionics and equipment in the cockpit are very temperature sensitive when they are running; they can easily overheat and be damaged. In hot weather, the cockpit has to be kept cool anytime equipment is turned on. Sometimes we use our APU and onboard conditioning packs, and in some locations we have A/C carts that can blow cool air into the cabin.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

  16. Hi Ken H,

    Nice article, though I am not in this career I can tell you I am very much fond of flights and flying, every bit of it excites me. Reading your article about cargo flights was very fascinating. Cheers!!! for what u do and wish u the best for ur future.

  17. Thanks for your article Ken H.
    Would value your opinion…I’m looking to relocate and will be needing two 24″ computer monitors. Would be handy to be able to have these go on the same flight (paying the extra baggage fee). However, I’ve seen passenger baggage getting thrown around pretty excessively on passenger planes. Are procedures for loading different (i.e. less prone to damage) when dealing with cargo flight? Thank you for any insight!

    • Hi Damien,

      If they were my monitors, I would package them in the manufacturer’s original shipping boxes (or similar) and ship them, insured, via ground or air with a major package delivery company.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

  18. Hi Ken
    Enjoyed the read. Thanks. I thought this would be a question that is always asked of you too. Is there any truth to paying passengers being able to book/take flights with cargo planes?

    • Hello Sam,

      Although many companies allow passengers to ride on ocean-going ships, I’m not aware of any cargo airlines that allow passengers on aircraft. There are numerous issues with safety, security, regulations, and logistics.

      Thanks for asking!
      Ken

  19. On some cargo planes there are windows upstairs at the front. Does that indicate there are seats available for a few passengers?

    • Hi Torsten,

      Most cargo 747 aircraft have a few seats behind the cockpit. Unfortunately, those seats can only be used by company personnel and are not available for passenger transportation.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

  20. First class article, I’m not a pilot but would love to be in a second life.
    I travel by air a lot and always wondered about the freight only airlines, thanks a million for
    taking the time out to answer all the questions

  21. Haha. Memories. I used to be an engineer and mechanic on C-130’s out of Barber’s Pt., HI, way back in the day. I can remember steaming along hour after hour watching the Pacific roll by with the plane on the Iron Mike and porpoising along on altitude hold. Those were the days. Sigh… Memories.
    I’d think the best job would be doing exactly that, flying across the Pacific for UPS, FedEx or the like on one of their 747’s or what have you. See the world.

  22. Wow, cool article! I’ll admit that I too haven’t given cargo aircraft much thought aside from seeing them parked at the outskirts of the airport. I actually always assumed that passenger service pilots would rather fly cargo. That could be the jaded part of my mind talking after too many years in public service. The logic is sound though; boxes can’t talk, get drunk or do other human lunacies.

  23. I have one question about pilot. How much pilot makes per year? which airlines pays the most money? I heard fedex and UPS they pays more then any other flights. is that true?

    • I’m sorry, but I won’t discuss specific contract and compensation information. Some of that information is available elsewhere on the internet.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

  24. Question for you. When flying cargo planes, do you need to go through security screening or are you at liberty and trusted to bring anything you like into your cockpit as long as your judgement tells you it wont destabilize or crash the flight or harm your buddy first officer? The security restrictions for us passengers these days are horrendous. Even a budget mineral water bottle is forbidden to fly.

    • Hi Gentleaura,

      Cargo pilots go through the same screening process as passenger pilots.

      When flying outside the United States, we usually go through flight crew security lines at the passenger terminals before riding out to our aircraft. Some airports have special screening areas just for cargo crews, but the screening is the same as for passenger crews.

      It’s actually OK too bring a bottle of water onto an aircraft. You must purchase it after the security checkpoint (I realize it’s more expensive, but those are the rules 🙁 ).

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

  25. Hi Ken, thanks for the elaborate article. Learned a new thing or two (or more) from it 🙂 One thing I would like to ask, though, what was the bidding system for cargo pilots/FOs like? When do you normally bid for the next schedules? Also, do you normally not know your flight destination until the D-day? My friend said he wasn’t told the schedule until very short moment before the flight itself.

    Also, would it actually be possible for cargo pilot to switch and become passenger airlines’ pilot in the future? Thanks in advance 😉

    • Hi Crystal,

      Bidding varies from airline to airline. Many carriers bid once a month. At my company, we bid every 8 weeks.

      The cargo industry is a little different than passengers. Some cargo carriers fly a variety of contracts. Pilots might bid only for days off and not know where they are going until the phone rings the morning they leave. I’m fortunate that my company has a mature network that carries our own volume. I know exactly where and when I’m flying 8 weeks ahead of time.

      Cargo pilots fly the same type of aircraft as passenger pilots (but without seats) and often under the same government rules. It is definitely possible for cargo pilots to switch to passenger airlines. Many cargo pilots will take a better job with a passenger carrier and many passenger pilots will take a better job at a cargo airline. It all depends on who’s hiring and how much they are paying 😉 .

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

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