Opportunities for professional pilots are at record levels for civilian aviators. No matter what your goal, if you work hard, fly well, present yourself professionally and are flexible with schedules and work locations, chances are extremely good that you’ll find a professional pilot seat waiting for you.
It’s a “wild and crazy time” in airline-pilot hiring, says Kit Darby, president and publisher of Aviation Information Resources (1-800-JETJOBS, www.jet-jobs.com), a provider of airline-pilot employment info and stats. Recent months showed the “best pace of hiring” in a decade, with more than 13,000 turbine pilots hired in 2007, and “every segment is booming.” Many airline hiring classes are going as much as 50% empty, making this one of the best times in history to become an airline pilot.
The major airlines are once again in hiring mode, even the so-called “legacy” carriers like United, American and Delta. According to Darby, all furloughed pilots have been rehired (or at least all of those who are still eligible and willing to return) and all airlines have announced at least modest hiring for 2008. Low-cost carriers (Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran, Frontier) continue to be profitable and hire large numbers of pilots.
Almost all new hires at major airlines (about 3,000 in 2007) have come from regional/national airlines. A few major-airline first-officer slots have been filled by graduates of ab initio training programs. Military pilots, once almost the sole fillers of airline jobs, now represent less than one-third of all new airline hires—civilian career paths provide the vast majority of major-airline pilots.
Pay and benefits among the major carriers are excellent (albeit not on par with industry records). A second officer on a major airline’s smallest aircraft can expect a monthly salary range of $2,900 to $4,500 (yearly salaries average $37,500). Captains flying the largest aircraft for major airlines can average up to $178,000 yearly. Pay is also up for pilots at low-cost airlines (but down somewhat at legacy carriers); additionally, retirement programs have been restructured and appear solvent.
National (Regional) Carriers
“National” air carriers (sometimes called “regionals,” an evolution of what used to be called “commuter” airlines) have had the most consistent and dynamic hiring for the last seven years. Now the realm of the 50- to 90-passenger regional jet (RJ), these air carriers are usually independent airlines operating under code-share agreements to provide feeder service to the larger major airlines.
The shortage of RJ pilots is so acute that some major carriers are having trouble finding enough pilots. Most national airlines have lowered their minimums to interview pilots with as little as 500 flying hours, even some as low as 250. American Eagle recently reported it was actually cutting flights off its schedule, in part because of the shortage of pilots. As you can see, opportunities abound for pilots seeking jobs. Airline managers and the FAA are scrambling to assure a consistent level of public safety with these apprentice pilots in the first-officer seat.
Why are the national carriers hiring so many pilots? When air travel diminishes, major airlines turn many routes over to code-share RJ partners. When growth resumes, the majors hire pilots from the RJ pool. Either way, lots of pilots transit the RJ ranks. Whereas national airlines used to be a stopover on the way to the majors, more and more pilots are now realizing that they’re the most stable passenger-carrying jobs in the industry. With recent pay and benefit improvements for senior RJ pilots, you may decide the cockpit of a regional jet makes a good career destination.
Darby reports that high-end cargo airlines like FedEx and UPS offer “some of the best jobs in aviation,” with the highest pay and best benefits of all U.S. major airlines. In our economy, even if passenger traffic drops, the priority package must be delivered. Major freight carriers demand the highest pilot experience in exchange for these premium jobs.
Smaller cargo airlines are also hiring, providing an alternative career path for pilots who aren’t flying regional jets. Employing piston airplanes, turboprops and older business jets, freight forwarders like AirNet and Suburban Air Freight fly a regional link to major cargo carriers, as well as a wide network of their own. Hiring is brisk, with low experience requirements, and pay (and benefits) are improving. Because of the stability (AirNet boasts on its website that it has “never furloughed a pilot”) and improved compensation, some pilots may decide to stay with the small cargo carriers, usually flying older Learjets or large Beechcraft turboprops, at the pinnacle of their careers. Nonetheless, small cargo airlines realize that they’re usually a conduit to more lucrative flying jobs, reflected by statements on their pilot-hiring websites like this blurb from Suburban: “...builds skills that are well-known in the major airline community. Many of our former pilots are presently flying heavy, first line equipment for major carriers.” Entry-level positions abound in small freight airlines. Indeed, salaries at the regionals are competitive, ranging from about $31,000 for a first officer on a small aircraft to $111,000 for a captain on the largest regional jets.
|A Career With NetJets|
|Business jets and fractional-ownership programs are the bright spots in the current aviation industry. One of the largest operators of business jets is NetJets, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, and an overseas division in Europe. In addition to its preeminence in fractional-ownership programs, NetJets is also a prime career destination for commercial pilots.
Getting In The Cockpit
Once hired, the new pilot reports to Gorman for three months or more of indoctrination and training. Company training at NetJets’ headquarters emphasizes customer-service skills, followed by training with FlightSafety International, appropriate to the airplane type that NetJets selects for the pilot (NetJets operates 14 different jet models). Says Gorman, regardless of the pilot’s experience in type, all new hires go through the FlightSafety “initial” course for the airplane, trained “up to and including the type rating” for the aircraft to ensure a standard level of training for all NetJets pilots. After initial training, the pilot is assigned to one of more than 100 domestic domiciles “of the pilot’s choosing.”
What They’re Looking For
• An “uncompromising commitment to safety.” Without this, they say, nothing else matters.
Indeed, pilot interviews include meetings with owner services and other customer-service departments. According to Gorman, prior success in service industries, like hotels and restaurants, is a plus.
Want To Fly NetJets?
|For people who are professional and flexible with schedules, a career as a pilot can be extremely rewarding.|
The New International Market
Non-U.S. air carriers are a relatively new but phenomenally expanding market for U.S. pilots. American pilots have always been employed by overseas carriers. In countries like India and China, where networks of in-country air service are blossoming, there’s an acute need for pilots—far more than are being trained within the countries themselves. Consequently, foreign carriers are turning to the biggest source of pilots—the United States. The most desirable employees are experienced jet captains, not only for international routes, but also for midsized jets like 737s. But even first officers are being recruited in large numbers—nearly 1,000 in the last 12 months. Darby reports that pay and benefits for U.S. pilots in India especially are “outstandingly good.” First officers on 737s and even ATRs (turboprop) have been hired at $80,000 per year, tax-free in many cases.
Whereas foreign carriers now try to domicile international pilots at the U.S. end of their routes, domestic pilots usually must live in-country. Some foreign airlines are trying to accommodate U.S. pilots by scheduling them in ways that allow them to commute home at least several times a year (for example, two months on/one month off). Others, like Australia’s Rex (Regional Express), are funding new-pilot training, half of $100,000+ in low-interest loans and up to all of the remaining investment in scholarship money for pilots who sign a two-year employment contract upon certification as a turboprop first officer. This offer is part of an Australian government initiative aimed at addressing a massive pilot shortage Down Under.
Despite the pilot shortage, Indian authorities recently announced they would not employ pilots over the U.S. airline retirement age. But otherwise, India, China, Australia, African countries and even some European countries are becoming major new career destinations for American airline pilots.
“Bizav” (business aviation) is the true growth segment in professional aviation. Honeywell’s annual Business Aviation Outlook estimates that more than 14,000 business aircraft will be added to the worldwide fleet in the next decade, with 2008 aircraft deliveries exceeding even the record number of new bizav airplane shipments in 2007. Roughly half of these airplanes (and the career opportunities for flying them) will be outside the United States, according to Honeywell.
The biggest domestic market for bizav are the fractional-ownership programs, something of a cross between corporate and charter use. The niche is unique enough that a special section of the Federal Air Regulations, Part 91, Subpart K, was created to regulate the fractional model. Fractional aviation is extremely dynamic, with frequent, short-notice trips to destinations as varied as the passengers themselves. Fractionals, though, are not usually a pilot’s first jet job. According to Darby, the “hiring profile is almost identical to major airlines,” with 1,000 to 1,500 hours of turbine time in a pilot’s logbook being a common minimum requirement for an interview.
Helicopters (“rotary-wing aircraft”) are a unique subset of commercial aviation that continue to be used widely in law enforcement and medivac, aerial spotting (including natural resources and transportation support), industrial support (such as logging and heavy construction), transport to offshore oil rigs, executive transportation and other roles. Flying a helicopter requires a different skill set from fixed-wing aviation, so rarely do the two career paths cross (although many helicopter pilots earn fixed-wing ratings and eventually apply their expertise to the “other” kind of flying). Helicopters are typically far more expensive to operate than comparable fixed-wing aircraft, so even though the most successful line of aircraft in the world (Robinson’s R22 and R44) are training and light-duty helicopters, most (but not all) commercial-helicopter pilots learn to fly in the military.
Faced with the fantastic opportunities for professional pilots, it’s easy to forget that America is a nation at war, and we need many of our finest to fly combat and support roles in the armed services.
Military flying is extremely demanding, and the mission often dictates great sacrifice by pilots and their families. There’s perhaps no undertaking as exciting and challenging as military aviation. The stupefying expense of training a military pilot, however, means the armed forces generally require at least 10 years’ service after completing pilot training (itself an 18-month or longer process) to recoup their investment. With civilian-aviation opportunities at their peak, it doesn’t make sense to join the military if your sole goal is to train to become a commercial pilot. But if your motivation is to serve your country and you meet U.S. military requirements, then contact your local recruiting office.
Time To Fly
The year 2008 and the immediate years beyond provide a wide-open field for new and advancing pilots. Barring major changes in international relations, fuel price and availability, and the overall economic situation, pilots with aeronautical skills who are willing to relocate and make the personal and financial sacrifices necessary to pursue a flying career have perhaps the best job market in the history of commercial aviation. Whether you’re just starting a career or are in position to make a career change, now is the time to fly.
|The Instructional Challenge|
|“Pilot placement has never been better,” says Eric Radtke, President of Sporty’s Academy in Batavia, Ohio. An affiliate of Sporty’s Pilot Shop, the Academy provides professional pilot training for the University of Cincinnati degree program. Pilots have “always been able to find jobs, if they’re flexible and willing to move,” Radtke says. The difference now is that job offers are coming to pilots with 400 to 500 hours of experience, not 1,500 hours or more as has historically been the case. Further, these relatively low-time pilots are often getting multiple job offers from competing companies, so that pilots are “picking and choosing” from available employers. The trend in pilot training at Sporty’s Academy has been up in the last three years, recovering from a plateau that followed the 9/11 attacks, and Radtke expects 7% to 8% growth annually for the foreseeable future. “The biggest challenge” says Radtke, making an observation echoed by many training program managers in the industry, “is keeping enough seasoned instructors on staff to meet the demand.” Instructor pay has gone up, and benefits, almost unheard of in instructional circles until recently, are improving. Radtke notes that “nontraditional instructor pilots” are beginning to become more common—retired airline pilots and instructors retiring from nonflying disciplines who have always wanted to teach flying and now have the time to do so. This has led to a growing diversity of instructor pilots who are even better suited to training the great number of pilots needed by the industry.
For pilots aiming for the airline or corporate cockpit, this instructional challenge means greatly accelerated advancement. A year or less time working as a CFI is more than enough experience for airline interviews. That’s good news, at least once you get your instructor’s certificate. High CFI turnover may make it more challenging to earn your ratings up to that point. But this means that if you want a career as a teacher of flight—a long-term flight instructor who will be home nights and in high demand as a professional educator—you’ll be welcomed by any number of flight-training academies.