A Day in The Life of An Airline Pilot

A Day in The Life of An Airline Pilot

By Jordan Bullock, A321 Pilot

Well, you finally made it. You’ve achieved your dream. All the countless nights of studying, memorizing the FAR AIM (save time by using the NorthStar pre-tabbed FAR AIM), chair flying your maneuvers and endless stress over checkrides has finally paid off. You’ve been hired by a major airline and you can finally walk through the terminal at the airport in your flight uniform! 

While I was going through my ratings, I would constantly scour the internet for any insight into what being a professional pilot entailed. Learning about what the end goal is like makes it easier to get through studying. Something like "keep your eyes on the prize!" I’ve flown both sides of the industry: Commercial and Private. While both absolutely have their pros and cons, I figured I would share what a recent trip for a major airline was like.

Reserve Life

This particular day I was on reserve. Reserve is essentially on-call. You get assigned a block time of day during which the airline can call you in. Mostly, you get called in to cover flights that other pilots call in sick for. Based upon your airline the time frame can vary. For example, some airlines have a 6 hour call out, meaning, once you’re called you’ve got 6 hours to get to the airport for your flight. For me, it was a 2 hour call out.

On this particular day, I was on Reserve 1, which is 5am to 3:30pm. The latest they can call me is 3:30 pm, and the latest I can operate is 7pm. So, if I’m not called by 3:30 pm, I’m off the rest of the day. Today, however, I was called at 5 am sharp. I had to get to the airport by 7 am to fly up to Philadelphia and then right back to Miami. It’s a pretty easy turn, just over 2 hours each way. 

I’m pretty close to the airport so I have time to enjoy a coffee, flight plan and then get ready. Once arriving at the airport, going through security is a breeze for pilots as we have what's known as a ‘Known Crew Member’ line. After going through that, it’s time for another coffee. The pre-order feature at Starbucks is a life saver for pilots. Once I grab my coffee, its straight to the gate!

Upon arriving at my gate, I check in with the gate agent who verifies my badge. Being so close to the airport, I’m the first crew member here. The plane we are taking up to Philadelphia has been sitting overnight, so it's a cold dark airplane meaning I need to establish power to the plane via the APU or an external power plug in from the ground crew. Thankfully, the external power is already plugged in so I literally just have to push a button…and voila! The cockpit and cabin light up!


One of the best parts about flying the Airbus is the cockpit. It's huge! Coming from a Boeing 737 at my previous airline, it feels like I went from a studio apartment to a 4 bedroom mansion! In addition, the plane is controlled with a side stick instead of a traditional control wheel, leaving the space in front of my seat wide open. The engineers at Airbus really spoiled us by adding a pull out table under the displays. So while I get my nest set up, I have a table to store my coffee, iPad and notepad on. 

As the flight crew and the captain eventually roll in, I jump outside to conduct my walk around. As I come back up to the cockpit from the stairs just outside the jetbridge, I can see that passengers are already boarding. I scurry between passengers waiting to board. Now, back in the cockpit, the Captain and I run through our briefings and checklists. One of the best parts about working in the 121 world is that most of the paperwork is now electronic. My flight plan and performance numbers are all electronically uploaded to the computer system on the plane. 

After we complete boarding, the Captain and I finish our final checks and call for push. Within 7 minutes we are off the ground and climbing up to FL370! The flight up is pretty uneventful. The Captain and I get our approach briefed, send off for landing numbers via the computer, and discuss the current NFL landscape (he’s a Dolphins fan, I’m a Bucs native). Equally, the approach and landing are fairly uneventful. Once at our gate, I hop out and conduct my post flight walk around and then head back up to the cockpit. 

Quick Turn

We have one hour and 30 minutes on the ground in Philadelphia before we head back to Miami. After the walk around, it usually takes me about 10 mins to get everything set up in the cockpit for the return leg. With that done and some time to kill, it's time for another coffee. (Yes, pilots drink an insane amount of coffee!) I head out to the terminal and find a La Colombe coffee shop. I grab my latte and an enormous almond croissant and make my way back to the plane. 

Now back in the plane, we’ve been refueled and boarding is almost completed. I pull out the Airbus patented tray table and devour my almond croissant as passengers undoubtedly peak into the cockpit and judge me. Powdered sugar everywhere, but it was extremely good!

Once again, we go through our briefings except this leg I’m flying. Same process as before, with the one change being that once we get to the runway, the Captain relinquishes control to me. As before, we are up fairly fast and before you know it, we’ve got headsets off and we’re cruising at FL350. 

After briefing the approach, we start our descent down. Thankfully it's a beautiful VFR day and Miami is landing to the west, so we get to come in over the downtown area which sports gorgeous views. The autothrust and autopilot are a pilot's dream, coupled with the fly-by-wire system on this new A321NEO, and landings are much less stressful. After peacefully touching down, it's a simple taxi back to the same gate we departed from 4 hours earlier. 

Easy Day at The Office

Once at the gate, the gate agent steers the jet bridge up to the fuselage of the plane and the passengers disembark. I pack my things up and leave them in the cockpit while I head down for the post flight walkaround. Once complete, I head back up. As the Captain and I say goodbye to the crew, we head up the jet bridge where the next crew is awaiting. After a few mins of chit chat, it's back to the employee lot and my truck. 

All in all, I left home at 6: 30 am and I’m back by 3 pm. The Part 121 world can certainly have its stressors and things don’t always go as smoothly as they did today, but it was certainly easy money. Being on reserve I don’t fly as much as a line pilot (someone who has a given schedule) so I’m home more. Getting called for a simple day turn like today makes this my dream job! 

I hope you enjoyed reading about a day in the life of an airline pilot! Be sure to grab a pre-tabbed 2024 FAR AIM. In the 121 world you have many different regulations you need to monitor to ensure you’re legal to fly. Different rest requirements for different times of the day are a notorious checkride topic, so be sure to be prepared!

By Jordan Bullock, A321 Pilot

Northstar Aviation References brings you the Pre-Tabbed ASA FAR/AIMDIY tabs for your FAR/AIM and other pilot resources so that you can more easily study the regulations that form the foundation of your flying career or hobby. Have any questions? Check out our FAQs page or contact us. Check out other blog posts here.