Regular absences take toll on relationships

When people think of pilots, they usually think of Tom Cruise in a pair of aviators or Kenny Loggins’ ’80s hit “Danger Zone.”

People rarely consider the loneliness that results from constantly being away from home.

Airline pilots spend a great deal of time away from home – eating in restaurants and sleeping in airport hotels.

Being away so regularly is tough on relationships, not only for the pilots, but the ones that they leave behind.

Full-time airline pilots work anywhere from three to six nights a week. The frequency of separation can cause strain for a spouse.

“The hardest thing about being a pilot is the lost time,” says Ben Ewert, a pilot for WestJet.

“You’re away for half the month,” he says, “then you come home, and it’s tough to get that time back.”

Ewert, 37, started his flying career in Fort McMurray. When Ewert moved there from his hometown of Gabriola Island, B.C., he was in a relationship. However, things deteriorated and ended soon after his job took off.

After paying his dues up north, Ewert was hired by WestJet in the summer of 2007. He moved back to the west coast, and settled in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island.

Shortly after moving, he started dating again. The relationship moved very quickly and shortly thereafter they began living together.

Ewert says that his partner is “pretty cool” with all the time apart.

“That’s the way it’s been since we’ve known each other.”

Another couple has a similar story.

Meghan Ford began working as a flight attendant for WestJet shortly after high school in 2006. After getting married, she and her husband Zach, an aspiring helicopter pilot, sold their house in Calgary.Some airline pilots say they have difficulty maintaining relationships when faced with constant separation from loved ones.
Photo by:  Max Shilleto

The couple decided to move to Clyde, a small town located an hour north of Edmonton, while he trained to become a helicopter pilot. Their schedules started to clash when Zach got a job working for a helicopter company outside of town.

“Our worlds changed a whole lot,” Ford says. “We basically just started to live different lives.”

The home that the couple shared in Clyde was rarely occupied. The time they spent together was limited as they were both out of town because of work. Despite the couple’s best efforts, the separation became too much and they ended the relationship a few years later.

Dennis Orthner, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has done extensive research on the emotional effects of work separation demands. He says that the old phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is false and that absence actually “makes the heart wander.”

“When you’re going away for a long period of time,” Orthner says, “there’s a period of disengagement where you have to say goodbye to your family. The longer the separation, the more difficult it becomes to reengage when you come home.”

Orthner says that a spouse will experience something called ambiguous loss while the partner is away.

He adds that such loss occurs when someone leaves for a period of time, but because they’re still in your life you experience a period of ambiguity.

He adds that, eventually, the person becomes numb to this feeling. The longer and more frequent this loss occurs, the more difficult it can be for couples to overcome.

Orthner says that the most important thing for people to do when faced with work separation is to maintain communication.

“Communication really helps. It keeps that ambiguous loss from being ambiguous, and it keeps you connected to the ongoing rhythms of a family.”

Despite the difficulties of working away from home, both Ewert and Ford are presently in long-term relationships. Ewert, and his girlfriend still happily reside on Vancouver Island. Ewert loves his job, and says he “wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ford met WestJet pilot Steve McBain during a layover in Cancun. They decided to move in together last summer. She says she enjoys her job, and that she is very happy with the way things are going. While she was skeptical about getting involved with another pilot, she says he was too good of a guy to lose.

“I think it’s important to be with someone who understands what it’s like to be away all the time,” Ford says.

mshil403@mymru.ca