An inside look at the possibilities of future aviation careers.
THE PILOT SHORTAGE IS ABSOLUTELY REAL, MAKING NOW A PERFECT TIME TO PURSUE A CAREER AS A PROFESSIONAL PILOT
THE PILOT SHORTAGE WE’VE ALL BEEN TOLD WOULD MATERIALIZE ANY DAY? IT’S FINALLY A REALITY. DON’T BELIEVE IT? JUST LOOK AT HORIZON AIR, WHICH CANCELED HUNDREDS OF FLIGHTS THIS SUMMER BECAUSE IT COULDN’T FIND QUALIFIED PILOTS TO FLY ITS Q400 TURBOPROPS. OR SKYWEST, WHOSE CEO RECENTLY WARNED CONGRESS NOT OF A LOOMING PILOT SHORTAGE BUT OF A “GROWING” ONE. OR SEAPORT AIRLINES, A SCHEDULED PART 135 CARRIER THAT SPECIFICALLY CITED THE PILOT SHORTAGE AS A FACTOR WHEN IT RECENTLY FILED FOR CHAPTER 7 BANKRUPTCY.
Clearly, regional airlines are suffering the brunt of the effects of the shortage as they face not only a dearth of qualified applicants but forecasts that call for a hiring surge at the major airlines, which holds the potential of stealing away pilots already on the payrolls. What that means for young, aspiring professional aviators is that now is one of the best times in the industry’s history to embark on a career track that should provide decent pay right out of the gate and a chance to rise quickly in seniority to the left seat of the heavy iron, where the really big bucks can be made.
That’s a complete turnaround from just a few years ago, when regional airline first officers started out making less than somebody flipping burgers at Mcdonald’s and were just as likely to be out on the street on furlough as sitting down for an interview with a major airline. Today, many regional airlines are offering twice the starting salary as before the shortage began and even offering signing and retention bonuses. Suddenly, starting salaries of $60,000 are being reported for first officers, and some airlines are offering signing bonuses that can add another $20,000 to the bottom line.
Why the sudden shift? There are three reasons, mainly. When Congress raised the mandatory retirement age for pilots from age 60 to 65 in 2009, that only delayed the inevitable crisis we see today. Now, as baby boomer pilots retire in large numbers, younger pilots are moving up in seniority to fill their place. Regional airline captains, meanwhile, are moving from the left seats of turboprops and small regional jets into the right seats of bigger Boeing and Airbus jets.
Another factor affecting the industry is the requirement that airline pilots hold an ATP certificate rather than a commercial license, which requires 1,500 hours of flight time (unless you have a college degree from an accredited aviation college or flew in the military) before you can land your first airline job. The third primary reason for the current shortage is worldwide growth of commercial air travel, which is exploding. Boeing’s 2016 Pilot & Technician Outlook predicts a need for 617,000 new pilots worldwide over the next two decades, with Asia Pacific requiring the most, at 248,000.
Congress enacted the so-called “1,500hour rule” that requires Part 121 airline pilots to hold an ATP in response to the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York, in 2009. Ironically, both pilots involved in that landmark accident had well over 1,500 hours. Accident data shows that no recent airline crashes have involved pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours. As a result, some are asking whether it’s time
to modify the requirements to make it easier for budding pilots to reach the right seat. The pushback by pilot groups, led by the Air Line Pilots Association, has been immediate and vociferous, however, so it looks like the current standards are here to stay.
If you dream of attaining a job in an airline cockpit as quickly as possible, the good news is that a college degree from the right school can make a big difference. All the major airlines require a four-year degree, but they don’t really care what you majored in. Many pilots advocate going to school for something completely outside of aviation so that you have a career to fall back on in case of a furlough or unforeseen medical issue. But if you attend a four-year school like Embry-riddle Aeronautical University, Liberty University, Letourneau University, the University of North Dakota and scores more, you can earn a restricted ATP (R-ATP) much sooner. Accredited four-year schools can get you to the promised land with 1,000 hours in your logbook, and approved two-year schools with 1,250 hours.
As you might guess, the pilot shortage is also affecting flight training. As the current pool of flight instructors logs the time they need to get hired at regional airlines, students keep coming through the doors to start on their career journey. Many flight schools have stopped renting planes to general aviation pilots because their fleets are staying so busy. Colleges and universities are facing the same dilemma, with some offering incentives like scholarships for flight instructors to stick around.
So far, the major airlines appear to be largely immune to the pilot shortage, but that’s only because the majors are the end goal for most aspiring professional pilots. But there will come a time when even the largest airlines look at the flow of future pilots and wonder whether young people will still be attracted to aviation as a career. Tens of thousands of airline pilots are reaching their retirement window, roughly defined as age 55 to 64. With fewer new pilots entering the pipeline, regionals will no doubt be forced to start parking airplanes, possibly leading to a cascading, systemic problem.
Embry-riddle, for one, has tried to tackle the problem head-on by hosting Pilot Supply & Demand Summits that are intended to serve as a wakeup call to airlines that they need to be thinking about the pilot shortage too.
Yet for all the apocryphal warnings, there remains one group that stands
IF YOU DREAM OF ATTAINING A JOB IN AN AIRLINE COCKPIT AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE ... A COLLEGE DEGREE FROM THE RIGHT SCHOOL CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE.
to benefit immensely from the pilot shortage, and that’s the pilots themselves. Captains flying big iron at the largest major airlines earn well over $200,000 a year. Now may be the last chance young, up-and-coming pilots have to take advantage of such a favorable job market. Many years from now, for example, Boeing and Airbus may switch from two-pilot crews to single-pilot airlines that receive digital and perhaps occasional human assistance from the ground. Drones may be used to fly cargo, upending that segment of the pilot job market.
The good news is that if you’re just starting out, you are in an ideal position to catch the current hiring wave and ride it through a successful career that will see you sitting on a beach with a drink in hand before robot pilots swoop in to take all the jobs.
Alternative Pilot Careers
If you are vying for the skies but have reservations about flying passengers on scheduled routes for a living, there are many other options you might consider. Earning a living as a pilot does not inevitably mean having to fly the same type of airplane each day, regularly spending nights away from home while dealing with unruly passengers. These are just a few alternatives that have potential to provide a good quality of life and a six-digit salary. And as the airlines suck up a growing number of pilots from the general aviation side, these jobs are likely to become more and more available.
If high-altitude IFR flying is not your thing, there are careers that allow you to fly low and fast, and use all of your stick-and-rudder skills. For the right applicant, aerialapplication jobs can be fun, exciting and well-paid. Aerial-application pilots generally fly small but powerful airplanes, such as the Air Tractor.
There are also opportunities for aerial-application jobs for helicopter pilots.
The National Park Service is another option for pilots who love flying low in the backcountry. NPS pilots transport personnel and equipment, and do searchand-rescue, survey work and lawenforcement patrol. The aircraft flown are generally fixed-wing airplanes on wheels, floats or skis, but there are also some helicopter operations. While there are fulltime positions, the NPS also hires contract pilots.
Air-ambulance pilots have one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs out there. Whether flying a helicopter picking up needy patients from emergency situations or a Learjet delivering an organ for a patient in need of a transplant, air-ambulance pilots enjoy healthy salaries along with the satisfaction of knowing they help save lives.
Another piloting job that offers satisfaction beyond the actual flying is firefighting. Wildfire-suppression jobs are often contract-based, and you could be forced to be away from home for several weeks while fighting a fire. But the pay is excellent, and since the work is generally seasonal, you can choose to do something else during the offseason. Aerialattack flying can be exhilarating as it involves flying near the ground and having to hit a precise target.
In addition to firefighting by direct aerial attack, pilots can be employed by the forestry service to drop smoke jumpers and cargo. There are also jobs such as aerial photo and infrared fire mapping within the forestry service.
If you prefer the city life to the woods, corporate and charter jobs are perfect for pilots who don’t mind a flexible schedule. These pilots are often on call and may be gone for several days at a time, which may not be acceptable. However, they often end up in the most desirable areas in the world. Corporate and charter pilots rarely fly the same routes, which makes the flying part of the job varied and exciting. The aircraft flown are generally high-end turboprops, such as Beechcraft King Airs, or anything from light jets, such as Citations or Embraers, to big Bombardiers and Gulfstreams.