Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Aerospace Careers Outlook

Top jobs with a promising future

For the first time since the great crash of 2008, we've heard nothing but optimism (though some of it was cautious) during interviews for our annual aerospace careers feature. That's driven by growth in orders for airplanes (particularly airliners). A 2012 FAA aerospace forecast predicts one billion air passengers by 2024, and that in turn means opportunities for a wide range of related professions.

Air Transport Pilot
Traditionally, the airlines have been seen as the ideal career route for pilots, with the ultimate goal being Captain at a major air carrier. While mergers and bankruptcies leading to lower wages have plagued most U.S. air carriers, this can still be a very lucrative career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual wage for airline pilots and flight engineers is $116,930. The BLS estimates that 68,580 pilots and flight engineers were employed by the airlines in 2010 with a low (less than 1%) annual growth rate. Higher pay may be available for pilots willing to relocate; at a recent job fair hosted by Pan Am Flight Academy, close to 100 experienced pilots were hired by airlines in China, which is seeing explosive growth in airline routes, receiving initial offers close to $200,000 per year.
A 2012 FAA Aerospace forecast predicts one billion air passengers by 2024, and that in turn means opportunities in a wide range of professions.
Until recently, the route to the airlines generally started with a commercial rating and as little as 200 hours flying time as a first officer (copilot) at a regional airline. In the wake of the Colgan Air tragedy, federal legislation directed the FAA to require increased qualifications. As a result, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) requiring all pilots in Part 121 (airline) flight operations to hold an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, a type rating for the airplane being flown, and—unless the pilot has military experience or graduated from a degree-granting aviation college or university—at least 1,500 hours pilot time. More than 1,000 hours of Part 121 time will be required before a first officer can move to the left seat as an airline captain.

The air-carrier work environment can be tough—pilots bid for route schedules, with those who have the most seniority getting first pick. Often, nights are spent in hotel rooms. When airlines downsize, low-seniority pilots are the first laid off, and in lean times may spend many days "on reserve" waiting for a telephone or pager call to report for work.

Commercial Pilot
Commercial Pilot
A slightly less lucrative job—but often with better working conditions—can be found in nonscheduled airlines, air taxi, executive jet and helicopter operations. An ATP may not be required for these jobs though it's often desirable. The average annual wage is lower—$73,490 in 2010 according to the BLS—but the growth rate is almost double that of airline jobs. And the work environment can be considerably better: Steve Brown, senior vice president for operations at the National Business Aviation Association told us, "The lifestyle is seen as attractive compared to entry-level airline jobs—you're usually home every evening. Commercial pilots aren't on a pager for call-out unless they're on reserve. They bid for a schedule several weeks in advance by salary, and at larger flight departments, the schedule is pretty stable. Smaller flight departments, with fewer pilots and planes, are more likely to operate on call."

Brown added an interesting point about job qualifications: "There's a real benefit in being well-rounded—that's more important than just being able to pass a test! Hiring decisions are often made to try and replace people who've moved or to fill in an area they feel they need. A new pilot with a commercial certificate and limited hours, who has a good safety orientation and familiarity with the latest technology, may win out over someone with an ATP and a lot of hours in just a few types."


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