[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.
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.
What’s the difference between a cargo jet and a passenger jet?
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?).
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.
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.
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
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?
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…
Mrs. 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.
For more information about cargo flying, check out these other AeroSavvy articles: