Why is the Divorce Rate so High for Pilots?

Published: 09-25-2014
Finally! The day that you’ve been dreaming about has finally arrived. You put on your brand new uniform and grab your suitcase. You kiss the wife and kids goodbye and head to the airport for your first flight. You are so excited to be part of the crew that the five legs on day one go by quickly. At

Finally! The day that you’ve been dreaming about has finally arrived. You put on your brand new uniform and grab your suitcase. You kiss the wife and kids goodbye and head to the airport for your first flight. You are so excited to be part of the crew that the five legs on day one go by quickly. At dinner that night, the Captain rants about how much he’s paying his ex-wife in alimony, and how she is now living in his house with her new boyfriend. After dinner you retire to bed and quickly drift to sleep, dreaming of your new life as a real airline pilot.

After a few days off at home, you head back out on the road for your next trip. You are paired with a new Captain and he seems very nice when you meet in ops. As you walk to the jet, you overhear his phone call to his lawyer, discussing court dates and dividing assets. He gets off the phone, and you realize you have been automatically selected to be his therapist for the next few days. The Captain is in the middle of a complicated divorce, not only are they dividing assets but also dealing with custody of their young children. One thing you notice is the Captain kept mentioning many of his buddies (who also worked at the airline) and have gone through similar situations.

That trip finally ends and you go home to your lovely wife and two kids. You can’t help but wonder why you are surrounded by people going through horrible separations from their partners. Was it just these guys that you happened to be paired with, or was this truly a common theme among your colleagues? You are happily married and you can’t imagine living a life without your spouse. Surely this job would never interfere with YOUR relationship.

The divorce rate is high throughout the country, but you may be shocked to learn that in the transportation industry the rate is approaching epidemic levels. Nearly 75% of some pilot groups have been divorced at least once. Some have been divorced even two or three times. Are you kidding me? Why can’t all these individuals that have remarkable backgrounds, ranging from high ranking military positions to flying all over the globe, seem to make their relationship last?

Is it this job that is causing these relationships to fail? Is it the fact that we are gone form home so much? Perhaps it has something to do with our personalities? After all, most of us have had to be very determined and motivated to endure the challenges up to this point in our flying careers. Is that type of personality simply not conducive to a healthy marriage?

The reality is that the combination of our work lifestyle and our personality is very unique, and therefore requires special attention in order to be successful and beat the odds. Think about a typical day at work: you operate on a tight schedule, know what to expect from whom and when. If you are a Captain, you are put in charge to ensure the operation runs as planned. In the meantime your family is at home living life as usual. Your spouse is running the show just fine. After a few days you return home and now you have two people, both having been in charge over the past few days, meeting head to head. Who runs the show now? Ideally there should be no difference between dad or mom running things, but in reality sometimes those two don’t exactly match.

During my research I discovered that many spouses were frustrated to have things running smoothly while their partner was out flying, and then the moment they returned home the entire family had to adjust to a new set of rules. The transition is very difficult for many of us that spend half of our lives in a structured world. Nevertheless, it is much easier for you to adapt to their lifestyle when you are home than it is for them to adapt to yours. This is especially true when kids are involved.

For those of you that have been flying for some time, you know to never take investment advice from other pilots. We spend countless hours studying the markets and investments in our retirement accounts. We watch CNBC and listen to the so-called experts day after day. If you fall victim to a divorce (as over half of the pilots you fly with already have), then you will most likely lose over half of your retirement account. No matter how much you make in the markets, taking a 50% hit is huge and often not recoverable. Of course money is cheap compared to the emotional toll of a divorce. Why do we spend so much time studying and reading about finances, when the one thing in our lives which could cost half of everything, we neglect? Investing your time to improve and maintain your relationship is time well spent. Emotionally and financially.

I want to leave you with this final thought: We are lucky to have the opportunity to learn from others. Listen to their stories and learn from both the good and the bad. Take the good and try to incorporate it into your own life. There is no reason to make the same mistakes as many others have made. To maintain a healthy relationship in this career is challenging, but having others walk the path before you can help you make wise decisions.

Sven Zimmer

Sven Zimmer grew up in Cologne, Germany and moved to the United States to begin his flying career. His first job was at Express One flying the Saab 340. Express then became Pinnacle and Sven transitioned to the CRJ. After a few years in the left seat on the CRJ he was hired by Cathay Pacific on the B747-400.

Finally, Sven was hired by UPS and has flown the B757, B767, and is currently on the MD11 based in Anchorage, Alaska. Along the way he also instructed part time at Simcom on the Westwind and Eclipse Jet, as well as teach CRM and RVSM courses.

Sven is the author of First Class Marriage – Relationship Lessons from Life on the Road