It probably seems extraordinary to be discussing pilot careers at a time when the worst economic turmoil in 60 years has dragged the airline industry to near-collapse and an insatiable media has spotlighted every ugly aspect of the profession. The questions on the table seem to be: Is becoming a professional pilot still a good career choice? Are commercial pilots still relevant in 2010? The answers, though surprising, are yes.
In May of this year, the NTSB (National Transportation and Safety Board) held a three-day conference titled "Professionalism in Aviation" that addressed methods of ensuring excellence in pilot performance. The board invited panelists from the airline industry, academia, labor and government in an effort to open frank discussions about everything from pilot screening to selection and training. After several high-profile airline accidents, beginning with 2004’s Pinnacle Airlines flight 3701 that crashed when both engines flamed-out following an unauthorized high-altitude climb, the conference hoped to examine how pilots were being trained and what could be done to improve that process.
The conference took an unexpected tack to discuss pilot numbers and hiring projections, yielding some interesting facts. One of them is the illusion in the public of too many pilot candidates. Because many pilots are unemployed, the thinking is that any number of future pilot openings would be filled quickly from that pool. The NTSB uncovered that, based on attrition and airline growth, there will be a demand of some 42,090 pilots in the next 10 years, over and above the number of current pilots.
In the 21st century, the model of the military providing new pilots to commercial carriers is outdated. It has been replaced by regional, or "feeder," airlines. When you consider that there are approximately 18,714 feeder airline pilots flying today, you can see that the current pilot population would need to more than double to meet the demand projected by the NTSB in just the next 10 years. Regional airlines simply aren’t prepared for that shortage.
Though 2009 was the worst year for airline hiring in history, 2010 is showing improvement, with 66 new pilots hired as of June. Industry experts see this trickle as the inconspicuous beginning of what will become a raging river of demand for pilots. The rule that extended retirement age from 60 to 65 years old is one reason why demand is increasing, as those pilots are now starting to reach 65.
"They can’t just keep raising the retirement age," says Louis Smith, former Northwest Airlines captain and president of FltOps.com, an industry hiring authority. “That pool is drying up.”
Manufacturing giant Boeing projects a dramatic increase in demand for air travel. In its just-released 2010 Current Market Outlook, Boeing (whose market-outlook predictions released since 1964 have been uncannily accurate) is forecasting delivery of 30,900 new commercial airplanes over the next 20 years. What it terms "single-aisle" aircraft (regional carriers) account for 69% of its projected deliveries. The growth of emerging economies like China and other countries is fueling this growth, as is the spread of the “low-cost carrier” model throughout the United States and the world. Even the FAA has announced that it will hire 15,000 new air traffic controllers in the coming decade.
The fact is that candidates who are now enrolled in aviation programs, or young students who might be considering aviation as a career, are in a unique position to take advantage of the unprecedented growth that will happen in aviation, which has just shown faint signs of life. The “mini”-shortage the airlines experienced in 2006 will be nothing compared to what’s projected.
The Airlines Have It
Flying for the airlines is the "brass ring" for most people. It comes from decades of being perceived as one of the most prestigious careers that a person could attain. Ruled by six-figure salaries, easy schedules and cushy retirement packages, airline pilots were the most elite of aviators. But recent years have tarnished the luster of airline cockpits, with first-year copilots earning only $20,000 per year and working breakneck schedules for it. Pensions are changing, and the media’s scrutiny of the profession has left a damaged reputation. But while some of the negative aspects are unfortunately accurate, many of them are not.
According to FltOps’ Smith, seasoned captains at the major carriers are still earning well into six-figure salaries with great benefits. “It’s an excellent career choice for the long term,” says Smith.
Aviation has always been about dues-paying, and it has never been easy for new hires, even in the "golden age" of airline flying. While first officers today may earn a low salary for the first few years, the salary numbers jump dramatically after five years, with five-year captains at major carriers earning in the high-$80,000 range. Ten-year captains at majors are easily earning six-figure salaries. That’s not a bad trade-off for some lean years.
The high cost of flight training and the students’ inability to pay back big loans have been a focus of many critics of airline flying. But much of it is misguided. ATP (Airline Transport Professionals) remains one of the largest airline-pilot-training academies in the U.S.
Dana Bussiere, marketing director for ATP, is frustrated by the public’s view of airline pilot training. "One issue we fight is the nationwide perception that flight schools are money pits," she says, "with training dragging on long past what the student was promised." Bussiere tells us that ATP is battling this perception with fixed-price training. “Our fast-track airline program is an oasis in a sea of dread,” she adds.
The most accurate examples of real-world training costs are airline pilot graduates themselves. Of the 66 airline pilots hired in 2010 thus far, 23 of them have been from ATP. There are those like Daniel Castillo, who was hired by American Eagle some 30 months after he began training. His total training expenses were $58,990. Jeremy Hale was hired by Ameriflight after he spent a total of $61,490 on training, and Bryan Devicenzi spent $44,995 from zero hours to right seat with American Eagle. Also, many college aviation programs offer lower-cost alternatives to big-name schools. So while it’s possible to watch your dollars get sucked up by endless flight hours, there are alternatives to ensure it doesn’t happen to you.
For pilots attracted to new equipment, varying destinations and a bit more stability in crew scheduling, corporate flying is the ultimate. Corporate pilots fly aircraft owned by businesses or well-heeled individuals. Corporate flight departments usually employ small, fast jets or the latest turbo-prop aircraft to transport their executives to meetings and events across the country and around the world. Corporate flying could mean working for a giant corporation or, in the case of celebrities, a single client. The types of corporate flying jobs are as varied as the businesses themselves.
Corporate flying can be especially demanding, with the need to fly in almost any weather and with availability around the clock. Because destinations can be anywhere in the world, corporate pilots usually stay at least overnight and are frequently away from home for long stretches. Pilots who fly for corporate departments that have a fleet of airplanes might enjoy a more regular schedule than those flying for individuals or smaller companies. While airline pilots fly routine routes and know their schedules in advance, corporate pilots fly anything but routine. It might be a fishing trip in Baja today and a conference in Ohio tomorrow.
Another interesting revelation from the NTSB’s “Professionalism in Aviation” conference was that corporate hiring departments tend to be more subjective and thorough in hiring pilots than their airline counterparts. It seems corporate pilots frequently undergo deeper background checks, multiple interviews, and have to show greater flying proficiency than many airline new hires. This greater scrutiny highlights the fact that, in the corporate world, captains have to make final decisions about weather, loading and destinations themselves, without the benefit of dispatchers or large flight departments. Some corporate cockpits are single-pilot.
Landing a corporate flying job is very different from the commercial airline applicant system. Many corporate jobs aren’t even posted and rely on word of mouth between pilots. Networking is important for those seeking a corporate flying gig, and staying close to someone “on the inside” at a corporate flight department is a great idea. Pilot recruiters who specialize in business aviation are also an alternative (an Internet search will bring up many), as well as the NBAA and pilot organizations like Women in Aviation International (WAI—incidentally, not just for women). Salaries and benefits for corporate pilots are gaining—and sometimes surpassing—the airlines, so it’s an area with a bright future.
Charter And Air Taxi
Charter and air taxi flying used to be the province of the rich. The cost of chartering an airplane to go on a short hop was too prohibitive for most people. But as airline travel has become an endless litany of poor customer service, delays and security hassles, more middle-class travelers have turned to air charter. It’s an area that experienced exponential growth since the events of 9/11 and continues to expand.
There are some interesting charter companies out there, like JetSuite Air (www.jetsuiteair.com) that operates a brand-new fleet of Embraer Phenom 100 jets. While business-jet sales have dropped considerably, the downturn has made prices come down and has resulted in a surprising benefit: Suddenly, jet charter is affordable to the well-off, not just the super-wealthy. This is good news for pilots who seek the allure of an air-conditioned, glass-panel, luxury, mini-jet cockpit. To boot, most charter pilots are home every evening, and flights are generally of short duration.
Air taxi is another rapidly growing market segment that specializes in ultrashort hops and airport-to-airport transportation. Interesting developments include companies that use four-seat, technically advanced aircraft (TAA), like the Cirrus and Diamond, as air-taxis. They employ pilots who may not have as much multi or turbine time as would be required for corporate departments or regional airlines. Air taxi and charter are usually stepping stones to corporate or airline cockpits.
Fractional jets usually are categorized with air taxi and charter. Since most fractional aircraft owners aren’t pilots, they need pilots to fly their aircraft. This is a growing area, with companies like Xojet, Avantair, NetJets and others. Most of these companies require between 1,500 and 3,000 hours total time, with a minimum of 300 to 500 hours of multi time, to qualify as a pilot. Air taxi and charter salaries are all over the board, with many starting between $30,000 and $50,000.
There are many other areas for professional pilots to look into. Pipeline patrol, wildlife work, traffic monitoring, banner towing and seaplanes are just a few. Pilots who fly these areas are even more passionate about their jobs. Maybe flying taildraggers off glaciers in Alaska is your cup of tea, or flying low-and-slow pipeline patrols, or perhaps piloting helicopters in fire suppression, or wildlife service tagging? There’s an almost endless variety of jobs for pilots with a passion to fly for a living. The doom and gloom, while real at the moment, is giving way to a bright future where training will meet opportunity.
“The time to train is when the industry is slow,” says FltOps’ Louis Smith. “If you’re ready when the demand hits, you’ll have your pick of flying jobs.”
2010 Pilot Training Programs
Gateway Programs: 21st-Century Pilot Training
With airline safety and professionalism in question today, new gateway programs are a model for future pilot training
|As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, change for commercial aviation is in the air. One of the most discussed topics among industry experts, academics and business analysts is training and developing new pilots for the commercial market. With declining numbers of student pilots, new methods have emerged for finding and training pilots for commercial cockpits.
One of the most interesting topics at the “Professionalism in Aviation” forum this year is the structured “gateway” training program being used by Cape Air, the largest independently owned regional airline, employing some 200 pilots (www.capeair.com)). The program has been wildly successful in feeding highly qualified pilots to JetBlue, using an innovative approach that major airlines are seeking to adopt.
The program begins with students entering one of the AABI (Aviation Accreditation Board International) college aviation programs like those at Embry-Riddle, University of North Dakota and others. In their sophomore year, they apply to the Cape Air gateway program. After a thorough screening based on factors as different as personality tests, stick-and-rudder skills, simulator training and background checks, the student is accepted into the program.
During the student’s third year (as a junior), he or she serves a Cape Air internship, learning the operations of the carrier and flying with Cape Air crews. Years 4 and 5 (senior year and postgraduation) are spent as CFIs at the AABI school. By now, the individual is 23 years old and has amassed 1,500 hours. At year 6, the pilot begins employment with Cape Air, gaining 2,400 hours in 30 months. Near year 8, the pilot goes through a jet transition course and, in year 8, he or she goes through a final interview with JetBlue, transitioning to their cockpits.
The program works, says Captain Craig Bentley, Cape Air’s director of operations, for several reasons. First, it identifies the best talent early. It then establishes a mentoring/training relationship that provides continuous evaluation for more than eight years. The Cape Air experience gives pilots an especially strong background, providing direct experience with paying passengers and with coordinating multiple departments. Cape Air pilots do six to 14 flights per day, making 300 instrument approaches and 1,500 landings per year. Most regional carrier pilots make 500 landings in a year.
The results of the program are so good that other airlines are hoping to adopt similar gateways. Cape Air’s washout rate of pilots went from 35% to 2%. Also, the major carriers—in this case, JetBlue—get a metered, steady flow of highly qualified pilots with excellent qualifications and known backgrounds.
The gateway-program idea is certainly a portent of things to come in the airline world. KLM and Lufthansa have adopted similar programs. With a declining supply of pilots, airlines will have no choice but to ground flights or accept lesser-qualified applicants, raising possible safety concerns. With professionalism in question today, successful gateway programs like Cape Air’s are quickly becoming the standard for future airline pilot applicants.
Emerging Solutions In Airline Training
Upcoming demand is shaping the future of airline flight training
|It’s always dicey predicting the future. Especially in aviation where wild ideas sometimes become reality and the more conservative ones disappear with a whimper, talking about the future is a hit-or-miss proposition. Still, it’s interesting to watch new ideas as they develop. When it comes to piloting careers, we thought it would be interesting to look at some of the new concepts in pilot training and where commercial aviation is going in the near, and far, future.
Still somewhat controversial, the Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL) has shown great success in beta tests. Essentially a fast-track, simulator-based training program designed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), it’s designed to step up flight training to meet the projected demand of 17,000 new pilots per year needed to fly an anticipated 2.6 billion passenger-miles by 2026.
The MPL is very different from traditional training based on flight hours and increasing complexity. The MPL program can turn out an airline pilot in 240 hours, 210 of it in a simulator. It can be done in 45 weeks versus 18 months to two years in a traditional program. Obviously, cost and speed are driving the success of the MPL, introduced in late 2006. The International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations, the International Air Transport Association and the Flight Safety Foundation all are looking closely at adopting the MPL permanently.
Some foreign airlines like KLM are offering self-subsidized training programs for flight students. Starting salaries are high, and tax incentives exist to help pay back the training. The airline provides $14,000 per year tax-free, and a pilot could pay back the training (estimated at $180,000) in eight or nine years. The training is even insured in case the applicant is later terminated. KLM employs a structured training program heavy on simulator time. This structured training, in combination with self-subsidized and insured training costs, is being examined by airlines here in the United States.
Crew fatigue continues to plague aviation safety, and the FAA is committed to establishing new crew work-hour standards. These sweeping changes will mean new regulations and guidelines for how long pilots can fly without rest. The FAA is expected to propose these new rules in fall 2010. Also, with concern growing over effective pilot-controller communications, the FAA has announced that it’s reestablishing a program whereby federal air traffic controllers can use “jump-seat” privileges to observe aircrew operations in the cockpit. Formal pilot training in radio phraseology also is being considered.
Paying for flight training is one of the greatest barriers to pilot candidates. Since financial aid is a science in itself, we offer some great resources to get you started. Most offer lists and information via the Internet.
|Paths To Commercial Cockpits
Most people still have outdated ideas of how to go about becoming a professional pilot. With sweeping changes affecting the aviation world in recent decades, the traditional methods of becoming a pilot are no longer the only way to go. If your dreams end up in the left seat of a professional cockpit, it’s important to know what options you have for starting your flight training.
Local Airport Flight School
As the world changes, local flight schools are becoming stepping stones for those pursuing an aviation career. Many pilots will use a local flight school to earn their private certificate, and then move on to a training academy or dedicated school specifically for advanced ratings and airline training. Local flight schools can be great or not so great, depending on where you are. Word of mouth is the key to finding a good one. Keep in mind that the easy-going training schedule available there could lengthen the time it takes you to earn your ratings.
Degree Flying Programs