Why be an air­line pi­lot?

Present-day con­sid­er­a­tions for an as­pir­ing avi­a­tor.

Flying - - Contents - By Les Abend

One of my fa­vorite jokes about the air­line pi­lot pro­fes­sion in­volves a mother who brings her wide-eyed, grade-schoolage son into the cock­pit for a visit. Af­ter the awestruck boy is given his tour, the mother asks her son if he would like to be an air­line pi­lot when he grows up. The cap­tain in­ter­jects and says sim­ply, “You can’t do both.”

It’s cer­tainly a tongue-and-cheek re­mark, but I would like to think my col­leagues con­sider the im­pli­ca­tion a badge of honor if not a term of en­dear­ment. Main­tain­ing a youth­ful spirit and a good sense of hu­mor is a de­sir­able at­tribute for an air­line pi­lot.

In any case, much has been dis­cussed about the up­com­ing pi­lot short­age. Al­though the ma­jor air­lines are still find­ing qual­i­fied ap­pli­cants, the re­gional air­lines are al­ready feel­ing the ef­fects. Many are of­fer­ing in­cen­tives in the form of sign-on bonuses, and some are pro­vid­ing em­ploy­ment-con­di­tional loans to be ap­plied to­ward flight train­ing un­til such time the prospective pi­lot is qual­i­fied to fill the copi­lot seat of a re­gional jet.

For as long as I can re­mem­ber, re­gional air­lines (“com­muters,” in my day) have been the in­tern­ship for the in­dus­try. Their pri­mary pur­pose of feed­ing pas­sen­gers onto main­line car­ri­ers forces them to be com­pet­i­tive in or­der to ob­tain a vi­able con­tract with the ma­jors. In that re­gard, com­pen­sa­tion is at the bot­tom of their pri­or­ity list. Re­gional salaries, es­pe­cially for new pilots, have al­ways been pal­try com­pared to the rest of the in­dus­try. But the ex­pe­ri­ence op­er­at­ing in an air­line en­vi­ron­ment is in­valu­able.

It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that al­though the pi­lot short­age is a re­al­ity that will be­come more preva­lent in the next 10 years, the un­der­ly­ing rea­sons for this short­age are dif­fer­ent. When I was hired in the early 1980s, the de­mand for air­line pilots was mostly a re­sult of car­rier ex­pan­sion in re­sponse to the op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sented by the 1978 Air­line Dereg­u­la­tion Act, which vir­tu­ally elim­i­nated gov­ern­ment con­trol of routes, fares and so on.

In con­trast, to­day’s U.S. air­line pi­lot va­can­cies will be pri­mar­ily a re­sult of large at­tri­tion rates. My vin­tage hir­ing group is re­tir­ing in large num­bers. What does that mean for an as­pir­ing pi­lot? It’s sim­ple. Get in the door ASAP, be­fore the win­dow closes. Se­nior­ity is ex­tremely im­por­tant. It gov­erns al­most ev­ery as­pect of a pi­lot’s life, from monthly sched­ules to ca­reer ad­vance­ment.

An­other rea­son the filling of va­can­cies will be dif­fer­ent


from other hir­ing pe­ri­ods is air­lines have learned from past mis­takes re­gard­ing the fre­quency of flights on par­tic­u­lar routes, and thus seats avail­able. Car­ri­ers are more mea­sured with their rev­enue struc­ture. New air­planes are be­ing added to fleets mostly as re­place­ments for older, in­ef­fi­cient air­lin­ers rather than for ex­pan­sion. When the econ­omy suf­fers a down­turn, air­lines will be in a bet­ter po­si­tion to wait out the fi­nan­cial storm. Un­for­tu­nately, an eco­nomic down­turn can also mean lay­offs for ju­nior pilots — the na­ture of the beast for the pro­fes­sion.

So what ad­vice can I of­fer an as­pir­ing air­line pi­lot? Rather than sug­gest­ing ca­reer paths, av­enues that can be re­searched on­line and have been dis­cussed in this mag­a­zine, al­low me to present some real-world guid­ance. First of all, why fly air­planes as a ca­reer, any­how?

For me, noth­ing is more grat­i­fy­ing than be­ing able to suc­cess­fully ma­nip­u­late a com­pli­cated piece of ma­chin­ery in a three-di­men­sional en­vi­ron­ment. The act of fly­ing is pure en­joy­ment. Even af­ter 33 years, I still turn around with a smile know­ing I just landed a big ma­chine. I con­sider it an honor that thou­sands of peo­ple have put their trust in my hands. That be­ing said, I am still judged by the last 10 sec­onds of my ap­proach. A hard land­ing erases all praise.

One of my fa­vorite attributes of the job is that, for the most part, the work en­vi­ron­ment is a black-and-white world. Safety dic­tates very spe­cific guide­lines for op­er­at­ing an air­liner. Ad­her­ence to check­lists and pro­ce­dures es­tab­lishes the ex­pec­ta­tions for job per­for­mance, es­pe­cially dur­ing an ab­nor­mal or emer­gency event.

Air­line pilots don’t have a 9-to-5 job. We can ex­pect to work any day of the week, in­clud­ing hol­i­days. The day can start at 6 o’clock in the morn­ing or 6 o’clock at night. On a lighter note, if you’re one that hates match­ing your tie with your blazer, or your blouse with your slacks, you’re in luck. A uni­form elim­i­nates those weighty de­ci­sions.

A given amount of stress is part of the pro­fes­sion. The stress can be in the form of job-per­for­mance re­quire­ments, the need to make im­me­di­ate de­ci­sions, work­ing long days or fly­ing at odd body-time hours. Don’t let any­body con­vince you that fa­tigue is an as­pect of the job to which pilots be­come ac­cus­tomed. We just learn to tol­er­ate it.

To­day’s new air­line pi­lot will face some dif­fer­ent chal­lenges. One in par­tic­u­lar is tech­nol­ogy. Ad­vance­ments in flight con­trols make fly-by-wire air­planes the new nor­mal. Al­though the old ca­ble and pul­ley sys­tems are dis­ap­pear­ing from air­lin­ers, that doesn’t mean the ba­sic skill of fly­ing an air­plane isn’t re­quired. Now more than ever, it’s in­cum­bent upon pilots to un­der­stand how their air­plane con­trol sys­tems in­te­grate with the in­tri­ca­cies of cock­pit au­toma­tion, namely the au­topi­lot and flight di­rec­tor. The Asiana Air­lines Boe­ing 777 ac­ci­dent in July 2013 at San Fran­cisco In­ter­na­tional Air­port is an un­for­tu­nate ex­am­ple of this lack of un­der­stand­ing.

And Air France Flight 447, an Air­bus A330 that crashed into the ocean off the coast of Brazil in June 2009, is an­other ex­am­ple of not un­der­stand­ing au­to­mated sys­tems. But in that cir­cum­stance, an ab­nor­mal event in­volv­ing er­ro­neous dis­plays of in­stru­men­ta­tion was the cul­prit. Had the crew eval­u­ated the sit­u­a­tion with a bet­ter knowl­edge base, the tragedy might have never oc­curred. Man­u­fac­tur­ers have de­signed in­cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion-tech­nol­ogy sys­tems into cock­pits, but mal­func­tion events can task even the most skilled pilots.

OK, now for some ba­sic ad­vice, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der. First, don’t burn any bridges. Avi­a­tion is a very small world. The lineguy who fu­eled the Cessna 172 you’ve been us­ing for train­ing could some­day be your chief pi­lot at the air­line.

Most air­lines no longer of­fer a de­fined ben­e­fit re­tire­ment plan ex­cept for a 401(k). Un­der­stand your in­vest­ment choices and how to wisely make ap­pro­pri­ate de­ci­sions with your money. Hire a fi­nan­cial ad­viser, at­tend sem­i­nars and don’t get in­volved with busi­nesses out­side of tra­di­tional in­vest­ments that seem too good to be true — be­cause they prob­a­bly are. For what­ever rea­son, air­line pilots are no­to­ri­ous for mak­ing bad busi­ness de­ci­sions. (I in­clude my­self.)

Con­sider an ed­u­ca­tion in an­other pro­fes­sion as a backup plan. I have flown with at­tor­neys, phar­ma­cists, fi­nan­cial ad­vis­ers, re­al­tors, ac­coun­tants and au­thors, just to name a few.

And fi­nally, join the pilots union. Many pilots be­fore you have sac­ri­ficed their time in the in­ter­est of ben­e­fit­ing safety and the air­line-pi­lot life­style. Give back by vol­un­teer­ing for union work at some point dur­ing your ca­reer.

Want to be an air­line pi­lot? Work hard. Stay fo­cused. And don’t ever lose your sense of hu­mor. Best of luck!

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