Long Haul vs Short Haul For Pilots

Having flown short-haul and long-haul flights, in this blog I will try to highlight the differences with as little bias as possible. Besides the obvious differences, long-haul flights are usually (but not always) operated by larger jumbo jets and short-haul flights are usually operated by narrow-body aircraft.

There are exceptions to this rule, some airlines operate from the US east coast and Canada to the UK using narrow body aircraft. Also, Emirates and some Japanese airlines used jumbo jets on domestic or regional routes of less than one hour flight time.

Operational differences

From a pilot’s perspective, short-haul and long-haul operations are totally different. I guess you could say that the short haul lifestyle is more of a regular shift work, because with most short haul ops you’ll get to work and be home the same day and sleep in your own bed every night.

Some short-haul operators make overnight stops, but most do not. Sleeping in your own bed every night is not to be underestimated! Every rider is different and their views on what constitutes a good lifestyle can be totally different. I have colleagues who have tried both short-haul and long-haul, and our opinions seem to be divided.

Workload and leave for long and short-haul pilots

If you’re a long-haul pilot, you’ll likely find yourself at work on average once a week, which can allow you to live some distance from your home base. In fact, some pilots may live on another continent! In non-stop short distance work, you can expect to get to work 4/5 days a week, although most reporting times are off peak hours.

Long-haul pilots will generally get more days off per month simply due to restrictions on days off after a shift that has a considerable time change.

Under EASA regulations some destinations that have large time differences will require 4 local nights back at home base to readjust time zones before you can report back to work. Long-haul pilots also burn their maximum hours over a shorter period and all pilots have maximum monthly and annual hour limits. For example, this week I will show up for a 3 day trip to Vancouver from London and in those 3 days I will have flown over 19 hours. It would be unusual for a short-haul pilot to accumulate so many hours in 3 days.

Short-haul before long-haul?

Typically, newly qualified pilots will fly short-haul operations early in their careers simply to give them more exposure to the operation. In short haul, I could potentially fly up to 6 sectors per day, of which at least 3 would be my sectors, so I would perform takeoff and landing.

You also get familiar with destination airports very quickly, as you might end up flying to some of them every week. On long haul, I can sometimes lack recency and end up being signed up for 30 minutes in the simulator to perform takeoffs and landings to renew my motto. In an average month, I can only perform 1 to 3 take-offs or landings per month and even less in one day!

Rusty Skills!

You can get rusty very quickly in long-haul operations and even if you’ve been operating for over 20 years, you’ll never really get to grips with destinations or regions.

In my opinion, it’s really the lifestyle that is different. I’ve flown both short haul and long haul and it really depends on what you and your body prefer.

Who gets paid more for long-haul or short-haul pilots?

Generally, you will be paid longer haul as you need more experience and operate larger aircraft with responsibility for more passengers. You will also fly for the largest national companies.

Some struggle with jet lag on long-haul flights and nights out of bed. If your body is struggling to cope with this, you’re less likely to be able to take advantage of the extra time that long drives give you.

Personal preference

Personally, I much prefer the long-haul lifestyle to the short-haul. I remember often doing a series of 4 early departures in a row, these tasks required me to set my alarm clock around 3am and on the longest days I might not get home until 4pm- 5 p.m. due to traffic. It would then be about grabbing some food and going to bed as I was too tired to do anything else. So even though I was home every night, I couldn’t do anything else, but I generally slept well in my own bed!

An advantage of long haul operations is not only that you get an average of around 14 days off per month compared to 9 or 10 with a short haul flight roster, usually many flights land early in the morning. I’m usually back in bed by 9:00 a.m., up by lunchtime to have the rest of the day free in addition to my other days off.

My experience has definitely been that I have more free time to do what I love on long trips than on short trips. Long haul flights can have an impact on families as every time you go to work you are usually away for at least 2 nights although it can be up to 4 or 5 some families or should I say partners, it can benefit their relationship and others may struggle with it. I know my partner and I like having time apart, so we’re not always in each other’s pockets, or so I think anyway!

The pace of operations

The style of operations is also very different. Long-haul pilots are generally much less current, and the pace of operation is much slower. The briefings will be longer, you will probably never have flown with the rest of the crew before. Most decision making processes also take longer on long hauls, you have more passengers and crew to manage and a diversion airport can be hours away.

On long haul we are less exposed and perhaps less frustrated with delays. If we are delayed once on departure it usually only affects that flight, whereas on short haul you are dependent on the plane arriving on time to start your day. time, and delays can accumulate throughout the day, sometimes adding hours to your finishing time. Air traffic control slot restrictions are rare on long haul because it is so difficult for different ATC authorities to coordinate.

Normally the destinations are more varied in long-haul. When I flew short haul I was lucky enough to have an overnight layover in some great European cities, but many pilots only had 30 minutes to an hour at the destination airport before return to their home port. On a long haul trip I could be in South Africa tasting wines in summer and winter and the next trip I could be lying on the beach in Rio de Janeiro. It’s hard to get these experiences over short distances, but while you’re indulging in these experiences, you’re miles away from your loved ones.

Long-haul vs short-haul, the summary

In summary, I believe every individual is different and if the opportunity arises, you should try both. Most of my friends and colleagues prefer long drives for many of the reasons I’ve given above, although that’s probably just wine tasting and sunbathing! Pilots who have tried long haul and don’t like it normally would because they struggle to deal with sleeping in berths on board and the impact jet lag/time zone has on your body which would then have a negative effect on their way of life outside of work.

Having done both, my vote goes long term.