Why Are Airline Pilots Sick So Often?

In his last item (see below), Explainer expressed amazement that something like 8 percent of on-duty American Airlines pilots call in sick on a typical February day. This means that an airline pilot working a five day week would need something like 20 days of sick leave per year, which is twice the standard office-worker’s allowance.

Friends and relatives of airline pilots wrote to chide Explainer for being insensitive to the special needs of an airline pilot. These correspondents point out that airline pilots can’t just slurp up a tablespoon of Robitussin and show up for work–it’s in everyone’s interest that pilots be fully alert at every moment. Indeed, the FAA prohibits airline pilots from taking a wide variety of medications–including most cold medicines–while on duty. In sum, a common cold is admittedly a bigger deal to an airline pilot than, say, a journalist who can legally bang out a column even after nip of Dayquil.

Moreover, most airline pilots’ contracts concede this point by giving airline pilots very generous amounts of sick time. The FAA says that pilots may only log 1,000 hours of flight time in a calendar year, and most major airlines give pilots 60 to 84 flight hours of sick leave per year. (Smaller airlines give something like 24 to 48 flight hours of sick time.) Finally, it’s worth noting that many physically demanding professions are equally generous with sick time. Seattle firefighters, to take one example, get 22 days of sick leave per year.

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