Aviation Career Update 2013
Careers in aviation are nothing if not dynamic. From the "golden era" of airline pilot jobs in the 1950s and 1960s, to the hiring doldrums of the 1980s and 2000s, the outlook for people who want to get paid to fly airplanes changes like a sunset. All along commercial aviation's timeline, the supply and demand for pilots graphs like a roller coaster. Today, as we charge forward through the second decade of the 21st century, aviation careers have taken on a still different character.
The biggest news today is the recent law affecting new First Officers on commercial air carriers. That FAA rule—which went into effect in August—sets some stringent requirements for new-hire airline pilots with regard to minimum hours and certification. We'll examine that rule later, but highlight it because of its impact on the pool of available pilots for regional carriers, the "minor leagues" in the airline pilot hierarchy.
Recruiters are going to many of the largest training academies, recruiting students even before they complete their training.
The new rule, plus the massive growth of passenger traffic in recent decades, the lack of military pilots feeding the airlines, the "age 65" retirement law and the declining number of student pilots are causing many within our industry to forecast a pilot shortage. In fact, we've been talking about that shortage for the past few years, while a steady rise in hiring has been evident since a low point in 2009. By all indications, 2013 is showing signs of a nascent hiring boom, with some intriguing evidence appearing in recent months.
It should be noted that a vocal minority does proclaim that a pilot shortage is non-existent and will never materialize. They point to several indicators and economic rules that support their view. This group presents as evidence the now widely publicized low starting salaries of regional airline First Officers. They say there can be no new pilots as long as airlines have pilots on furlough. This group includes some respected members of the aviation industry.
All the arguing and controversy begs the question of whether or not a career as a professional pilot is still a viable and lucrative choice for those considering it. To help answer this objectively, we decided to go to the front lines of the professional pilot world; the nation's top flight training facilities. These include aviation universities, flight training academies, simulator facilities and specialized colleges.
A New Day
"ATP's Airline Career Pilot Program has grown to near-record enrollment, just below pre-recession enrollment numbers," said Paul Templeton, Director of Airline Relationships with Airline Transport Professionals (ATP). ATP is the nation's largest flight training academy with 31 training centers across the country. Templeton added that airlines had already hired about 300 students from ATP as of July of this year alone, with more expected. Such numbers haven't been seen since the 2006 hiring boom when flight schools across the country were losing instructors to regional carriers so fast they had to scramble to find replacements. It signals a new day for professional pilots.
|The demand for pilots from international airlines is skyrocketing, with most training at facilities in the U.S.|
Since early this year, training schools are being contacted directly by regional carriers looking to recruit students prior to graduation. ATP just launched their airline-sponsored career track through "letters of agreement" with carriers looking to hire selected students long before they complete training. Programs like this guarantee a fixed flow of students to regional carriers, though they haven't been around for years. ATP isn't the only school where commercial carriers are scouting top talent and grooming them to their own standards.
Aerosim Flight Academy has a large and well-respected airline training program, including a degree program in conjunction with Jacksonville University, and a number of career aviation tracks. Hank Coates, the Vice President of Aerosim, tells us that early recruiting is exploding. "Regional airlines are coming to us with 'pathway' agreements that allow our CFIs to become their employees while they're still building time." Coates adds that it's not just one carrier, but most of the regional airlines that are coming to Aerosim to seek out pilots in this kind of "farm-team" arrangement.
Transpac Aviation Academy in Phoenix, Ariz., and US Aviation Academy in Texas openly talk about their new "pipeline" programs with American Eagle. The program allows qualified Certified Flight Instructors (CFI) at these schools to fast- track their career as an airline pilot by becoming employees of American Eagle while they're building time toward the new minimums required by the FAA. For pilots, it means they get medical, dental and vision benefits, as well as travel privileges on American Airlines and American Eagle while they're still instructing. Once Pipeline Instructors reach the ATP minimums and 50 hours of multi-engine experience, they're placed into new-hire pilot training at American Eagle.
Another huge development in recent months is the appearance of "signing bonuses" from some of the larger regional carriers. American Eagle and Republic are just two carriers that are upping the recruiting ante by offering a $5,000 bonus for pilots signing on with the carrier. Republic is offering an additional $500 referral bonus. These types of incentives have been absent from the airline industry for years, and they're another indication that regional carriers are bracing for a slump in available pilots.
The Numbers Game
Several indicators are used to forecast the number of pilots needed in the future. Fundamental is Boeing's Current Market Outlook, which has been accurately predicting commercial aviation needs for more than four decades. Boeing's well-publicized report shows a need for 460,000 new commercial pilots by 2031, along with 601,000 maintenance technicians. 70,000 of those pilots will be needed domestically, while international carriers will absorb the rest. Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics project a more moderate growth rate of 11%, with a need for 11,500 more pilots by 2020.
Regardless of which source you believe, exploding growth in air travel across the globe means that air carriers are ordering massive numbers of jets (more than 35,000 aircraft worldwide in the next 20 years), and somebody has to fly them. The recent Asiana crash in San Francisco, where a simple visual approach was apparently bungled by pilots who may have been inadequately trained, illustrates the challenge in finding the right people to train as pilots. Airlines understand this and see a real potential for not having enough qualified pilots to fly their aircraft. After screening, only a fraction of applicants go on to become First Officers for the best airlines.
|FLIGHT TRAINING SCHOOLS As requirements and regulations change, so must the type of flight training available to prospective pilots. We're fortunate to live in a nation that has such a good training infrastructure that other nations send their students here to get the best training available. Our industry is also one of excellence, and a few training academies have been around since the early days of aviation, building a legacy that continues to this day. Students have a lot to choose from, but this list should offer a good start.|
|Academy College of Aviation||www.academycollege.edu||4-year professional pilot degree programs||Bloomington, Minn.|
|Aerosim Flight Academy||www.aerosim.com||Cirrus training center, degree program with Jacksonville University||Sanford, Fla.|
|AFIT||www.afit-info.com||Accelerated programs for ratings through multi||Instructors come to you|
|Airline Transport Professionals (ATP)||www.atpflightschool.com||Nationwide locations, all ratings, largest academy in U.S||31 locations|
|American Flyers||www.americanflyers.net||Primary training and finish-up programs||9 locations|
|Baker College||www.baker.edu||4-year college aviation program||Muskegon, Mich.|
|Baylor Institute for Air Science||www.baylor.edu/aviation||Private Christian university; many degree programs||Waco, Texas|
|Eagle Jet International||www.eaglejet.net||Time-builder and international programs||Miami, Fla.|
|Embry-Riddle||www.erau.edu||Nation's largest aviation university program||Multiple campuses|
|Everglades University||www.evergladesuniversity.edu||Many degree programs including Masters||3 Florida campuses|
|FlightSafety Academy||www.flightsafetyacademy.com||Dedicated aviation campus. Fleet of almost 100 aircraft.||Vero Beach, Fla.|
|Florida Institute of Technology||www.fit.edu||4-year degree program. Army ROTC. FAA ATC training center.||Melbourne, Fla.|
|Hillsboro Aviation||www.hillsboroaviation.com||40-aircraft training fleet includes King Air C90. Huge international program.||Hillsboro, Ore.|
|Kansas State University||www.salina.k-state.edu/aviation||Affordable tuition, King Air C-90, pilot, ATC and technician programs||Salina, Kan.|
|Middle Georgia College||www.mgc.edu/aviation||Helicopter, fixed-wing pilot and technician programs. Bachelor's and Associate degrees.||Eastman, Ga.|
|Minnesota State University||http://ed.mnsu.edu/aviation||4-year degree programs, glass-equipped fleet||Mankato, Minn.|
|Nova Southeastern University||www.nova.edu||4-year degree program. Flight training through American Flyers.||Fort Lauderdale, Fla.|
|Oklahoma State University||http://go.okstate.edu||Various degree programs, low student-aircraft ratio, Cessna and Piper fleet||Tulsa and Stillwater, Okla.|
|Parks College||http://parks.slu.edu||Has Center for Aviation Safety Research (CASR), 80-year history||St. Louis, Mo.|
|Southern Illinois University||www.aviation.siuc.edu||Undergraduate and graduate degrees. Program owns a 737.||Murphysboro, Ill.|
|Spartan College of Aeronautics||www.spartan.edu||Long, rich history, many aviation career tracks, extensive technician program||Tulsa, Okla.|
|Sterling Flight Training||www.sterlingflight.com||Small flight school with Micco SP-20 and Tecnam P2006T aircraft||Jacksonville, Fla.|
|Transpac Academy||www.transpacacademy.com||American Eagle Pipeline program, Piper training fleet||Phoenix, Ariz.|
|University of Cincinnati||www.uc.edu||Multiple career tracks and degrees, public research university||Cincinnati, Ohio|
|University of North Dakota||www.aviation.und.edu||Widely recognized program, 120 aircraft fleet, UAV program||Grand Forks, N.D.|
|US Flight Academy||www.usflightacademy.com||Former Air Force Base, 22-year accident-free history, 2- and 4-year degrees||Big Spring, Texas|
|Utah Valley University||www.uvu.edu/aviation||All-Diamond training fleet, state of the art simulators, established flight programs||Provo, Utah|
|While many in the industry fear a growing pilot shortage, others insist that no shortage exists, and pilot ranks will be filled by those on furlough or currently in training.|
"Airlines come to us because we do quality checks upfront," says Hank Coates of Aerosim. "You can't just pick somebody off the street and say, 'You can be a commercial pilot.'" ATP's Templeton adds that airlines looking for quality candidates see flight instruction as a big plus. "Second only to military pilot training, flight instructing is some of the best experience any pilot can gain," explains Templeton. "It provides a strong foundation on which to build in airline new-hire training. Plus, the airlines appreciate the pilot-in-command and aeronautical decision making skills that are part of daily life as a flight instructor."
Industry analyst and airline career consultant Kit Darby explained that regional airlines have implemented aggressive strategies to recruit talent because of the impact a real shortage could have. "Major airlines recruit from regional carriers to fill their right seats being vacated by retirement rules, growing fleets, higher demand and a lower availability of well-qualified pilots," Darby said. "Once the regional cockpits have been emptied, those carriers will have few choices left, and if they can't feed the routes major airlines fly, then everybody will have a serious problem." At current training rates, we will fall short of Boeing's projection by about 2,000 pilots per month.
Even the military, which is traditionally over-supplied with pilot candidates, is experiencing a shortage for the first time in memory. The US Air Force (which has about 3,000 active fighter pilots) revealed this year that it's short 200 fighter pilots, and fears it may face a shortfall of some 700 fighter pilots by 2021. To head off the shortage, the Air Force is offering an unheard-of incentive package that offer a $25,000 signing bonus for each of nine years ($225,000 total) and salaries ranging from $35,000 to $97,000 under the Aviation Retention Program.
The shortage on the military side is being fueled by pilots jumping from the military to the airlines because of better pay in the private sector. Many are leaving because they don't want to be re-assigned to unmanned aircraft ("drones"), and because of the stress of constant deployments. It's another sign that pilots are already in demand.
At its most basic, the new FAA law requires new airline First Officers to have amassed at least 1,500 hours of flying time and hold an ATP (Air Transport Pilot) certificate. Before, a first officer had only to have a commercial pilot certificate, which requires a minimum of 250 hours of flying. Minimum age for the ATP is now 23. There are concessions for military pilots and college degrees, but the increase in hours and certificate are the most dramatic.
Across the board, all the flight schools we talked to think it's a bad idea in terms of pilot supply. Richard Gabor, President of Eagle Jet International, told us, "These rules are not good for the industry because it's about quality of training, not total time." Gabor fears the impact the increased time requirements will have on candidates who have already invested large sums of money in training. "Politicians have out-priced students' careers," he added.
Kit Darby explains that the new rule hasn't given airlines enough time to adjust. "Major changes in time, cost, facilities, and equipment and flight experience, are required. Lead time for a professional pilot to get from commercial license (250 hours) to 1,500 hours and the ATP will be up to four years if employed full-time as a pilot; college education would take an additional four years."
A Time Of Opportunity
According to everybody we spoke with, the very fact that so many factors are converging to create this hiring boom is a phenomenon nobody planned on. "There is no way we can supply the number of pilots and technicians the Boeing report is calling for," notes Ryan Goertzen, Senior VP of Education at Spartan University, one of the country's legacy aviation institutions. "We know of places that are turning away customers. We can't find individuals with the talent for all these pilot and technician positions."
For prospective pilots, all of these factors result in untold opportunities. It's true that starting regional First Officer salaries are ridiculously low, and that benefit packages are changing, but for those who seek a job in the air, there's better opportunity right now than at any time in at least the past 20 years.
One intangible factor that none of the industry experts on either side of the shortage argument take into account is that for some, a life in the air has no question. For a lucky few, a career in the air is a dream whose benefits far outweigh its detriments. Call what's happening today a shortage, call it a hiring boom, call it an unexpected anomaly, this is still a great time to fly. As Kim Gale of Transpac Academy commented about all the turmoil in our industry, "This is just a super exciting time. Right now; this is when it's all happening."