Real Answers from Real Pilots

Flying Airlines vs Cargo

I’ve been curious about flying for a cargo operator (UPS, FEDEX, DHL, etc) vs flying for the airlines. It’s taken a lot of digging to find info on the cargo industry as it seems the focus (and possibly greater job market) is based primarily on airlines.

What I think I know so far about flying for Cargo Ops:

  • Doesn’t pay as well as airlines (if that’s your focus)
  • Tougher gig to acquire than airlines (?)
  • Hours are odd with majority of flights at night.
    and the list goes on.

I’ve always been curious about the inner workings of operations and transport and seeing the side of the world that most people don’t have visibility on, so Cargo has always been interesting to me.

My question is, has anyone on this forum had experience or exposure to this side of the flying biz? If so, I’m curious to hear your take on this.

Thanks!

Andre,

I do not believe that any of the mentors on this forum have had direct exposure to the cargo airlines. However, we are part of the airline industry in general and thus have some indirect knowledge about cargo flying jobs.

Yes, the largest emphasis in the airline industry in on flying for passenger airlines. At the minor league level a RJ job is a lot better than flying cargo by yourself in a propeller airplane in the middle of the night. At the major level the cargo jobs like UPS and FedEx are great jobs that any pilot would be thrilled to land. In fact, UPS and Fedex are some of the highest paid pilot positions out there. As such, the competition for them can be tough, but plenty of people get hired there. Cargo pilot of any level do fly strange hours, but airline pilots can too.

I would recommend setting out with the intentions of being a pilot in general and then you can focus on trying to get a cargo job. You might find after a few years of flying RJs that you really like the airlines, or you might focus your career goals on cargo. Both avenues provide great job opportunities.

Chris

2 Likes

Hey Andre,

I’ve never flown cargo but I have many friends who do so let me add a little to Chris’ answer.

As Chris said, UPS and FedEx pilots are some of the highest paid in the industry, making those gigs very tough to get (but again, not impossible). Atlas is probably number 3, they pay well (not great) but they’ve been hiring like crazy for years due to expansion and turnover. UPS actually has a different pay structure than most airlines. They pay strictly based on seniority vs aircraft type. Of course pay increases at all airlines as you gain seniority but also most pay more money for larger aircraft, so you’ll usually find the larger aircraft have the most senior pilots because they want to get paid. While this is all well and good, often pilots are “forced” to fly aircraft (and hence routes since they follow the aircraft) for the money vs what they like. Good example here at Hawaiian Worldwide has always paid more the Interisland but the gap used to be small so Interisland was actually very senior because the quality of life was much better. In the last contract the gap got significant and there was a huge shift in seniority. Anyway it’s kind of cool because at UPS you have pilots flying the equipment and routes they enjoy vs which pay the highest.

Now back to routes and times. Again all flying at all airlines including cargo goes by seniority and no not all flying is at night. It’s a great big World so logistically, if you think about it, it can’t be. The more seniority you gain the better routes and flight times you’ll get.

The biggest complaint I hear from my friends is the duration of the trips (again gets better with seniority). Obviously all carriers strive to be as efficient as possible and that’s more vital when you’re talking long haul. So while most airline flights will fly say from LA to Beijing and then return to LA, due to trade agreements, contracts and other factors cargo is often different. You may find yourself flying agriculture to Korea, then hoping over to China to bring textiles to Japan, then taking electronics from Japan to Asia etc etc. What that means is many cargo ops can (and sometimes) will have you gone for weeks at a time. On the plus side that’s usually followed by weeks off as well. Some pilots love it, some don’t.

Either way, as Chris says, unless you have an in with the CEO you should plan on starting at a Regional flying passengers first. You may find you like it? If not there are plenty of boxes waiting for you.

Adam

5 Likes

Thank you both. Well put and great insight!

I think that is a pessimistic view. I’m not offended by it, but I would
like to emphasize that there are only so many things pilots, or people in
general, can control. If a pilot is bothered by something that they can not
control I think that it says more about the agitated pilot than the
passenger.

Tory

Thomas,

I will take flying people any day. I start and end my work day in a terminal, not a cargo ramp. I have Flight Attendants that cook my meals and there is a certain prestige that comes with being an airline pilot. That being said, UPS and FedEx are darn good jobs if you can get them.

Chris

The vast majority of our delays are weather based. In twelve years of flying, I have had very few delays due to passengers. The vast majority of people just want to get to their destination safely and on time.

Thomas,

Honestly that’s always been my biggest concern as a pilot. We’re all highly trained to the vast array of emergencies. Lose and engine? a hydraulic system? a generator? You name it we’ve practiced it and there’s always VERY clear guidance as to what to do. It’s the stuff in the back that can be and often is somewhat “nebulas” to deal with. You pack 300 people in a pressured tube at 41,000’ with a very dry 8,000’ atmosphere and from time to time someone is bound to not feel well. Fortunately more times than not it’s nothing that a few glasses of water and maybe some O2 won’t remedy. The problem is first you’re not back there so all the information you receive is second hand. Second, frankly the majority of FAs are awesome and handle things exceptionally well but there are others who don’t. Years ago we had a Muslim passenger in the back who kneelt in the aisle to pray. My FA was from the South and had never seen or heard of such a thing. She called me up “Capt! We got a situation back here!”. I was able to talk her off the ledge but I swear if she was armed she would’ve gone Rambo. That all said if you check Hawaiian’s on time performance we do better than 90% consistently and the problems really aren’t that frequent. You have to understand there are literally thousands of flights in the air every day and when something goes awry it makes the news so it seems more frequent then it really is.

Now on to cargo. Well you’re right that boxes are very well behaved they have other issues. I have many friends who fly cargo and their number one complaint is the schedule literally ALWAYS changes. You’re supposed to be going LAX-PEK-FRA and you end up going LAX-CVG-LHR. You packed to go skiing in Japan and you end up in Africa and it’s 105deg out. One of my friends was flying a 747 full of cherries to Korean when part of their A/C system went out, they had to divert or they would’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cargo.

Bottomline is that’s one of the reasons they have pilots and not drones. They need people to make decisions because regardless of where, what or who you’re flying, stuff happens.

Adam

I’ve been flying at a regional for only 8 months, I would say at least 90%,
maybe 95%, of my flights have been on time. On occasion a flight can be
delayed because of last minute bags, or late passengers. When this happens
we are usually able to make up for lost time.

Tory

Sounds like perfect life for me: night owl with the passport and desire to travel.