Illustrations for The Club by Edu Fuentes


How do pilots plan their holidays?

Mark Vanhoenacker
Mark Vanhoenacker


From how to see a destination in record time to planning trips around a busy flying schedule, 787 Senior First Officer Mark Vanhoenacker reveals all to The Club

Tell us about your career as a pilot for British Airways
I joined British Airways on the short-haul Airbus fleet in 2003. My first flight was from Heathrow to Glasgow, and my first flight on the Boeing 747 came four years later, from London to Hong Kong – without a doubt the most memorable flight of my career. In 2018, I switched to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I love its fuel efficiency, quiet cockpit and large cabin windows.

How many cities have you flown to for work?
I’ve been to around one quarter of the world’s 500 or so largest metropolises. I find it reassuring to be reminded that even pilots don’t go everywhere, and that there are so many places for me still to discover.

How much do you know about the routes you’ll fly to in 2023?
The 787 is now flying the Heathrow to Buenos Aires route. I won’t be buying a pair of tango shoes just yet, but I’m looking forward to another destination where I can practise my Spanish. We’re also starting flights to Cincinnati, a new route for British Airways. My mother lived there in the early 1960s, and I’ll be happy to explore a place that was important to her.

How much time do you spend at a destination between flights?
Long-haul pilots and cabin crew almost always get a minimum of 24 hours’ rest ‘downroute’, as we say. Sometimes we’ll have 48 or 72 hours.

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Tips for seeing a place in record time?
On my first day in a new city, I’ll plan a walk of an hour or two that ends in a café or a breakfast spot – often a recommendation from a customer on board. Then I’ll seek out a view. Many cities have a prominent hill, historic tower or modern skyscraper that offers a bird’s-eye perspective.

What makes your experiences different to those of business travellers or regular tourists?
Flight and cabin crew have a unique perspective on cities. We know we’ll return, so we’ve no reason to rush to see their top attractions. Instead, we’re free to explore in a way that’s relaxed and arguably unique, and, over the years, we come to feel at home.

Of all the places you’ve visited, for either work or play, which is your favourite?
That’s perhaps the toughest question you could ask a pilot or cabin crew member because we see so many. A recent favourite is Delhi. Its history is long and multi-layered – indeed, it has been described as a ‘city of cities’ – and whenever I’m there, I know I could never finish exploring. I also love its rapidly expanding metro.

How do you plan your holidays around your flying schedule?
While pilots’ schedules vary from month to month, we can book annual leave up to half a year in advance, which allows us to plan our personal journeys. It also helps us to keep birthdays and anniversaries clear.

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Holiday plans on the horizon this year?
I’m looking forward to returning to Japan, a country that’s meant so much to me over the years. British Airways flights to Tokyo Haneda have recently resumed and – whether as a pilot or passenger – I’ll be so glad to get back.

Your new book, Imagine a City: A Pilot Sees the World, is described as a love letter to cities across the globe through the lens of your hometown. Why has Pittsfield, Massachusetts stayed so close to your heart?
A hometown is like a lens on every other place – especially for those of us who live far from where we grew up. For visitors, Pittsfield is a small but wonderful city in the heart of the Berkshires region that’s been a destination for generations of New Yorkers and Bostonians. Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick there and his farmhouse is well worth a trip.

You’ve chosen Cape Town as the cover out of the dozens of cities in your book. What makes it so special?
I love any city that combines mountains, water and great food – think Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and Cape Town. Cape Town is my favourite thanks to its Mediterranean climate.

Where’s somewhere you’ve never been and would love to go?
It’s hard to believe – even for me – but I’ve never explored Athens, despite having landed at its airport several times as a pilot. A dear friend who grew up in the city thinks this surprising blank space on my personal map of the urban world is unacceptable. I agree.

This article has been tagged Opinion, BA