Sunday, March 13, 2016

So You Want to Fly an Airliner? Career Advice for Pilots (Pt 1)

Aviation career planning is essential
Charting a path to a successful aviation career can be daunting.

I often get asked for career advice by aspiring and younger pilots and thought it might be helpful to condense some thoughts in a post on aviation career strategy. The Women in Aviation Conference was recently held in Nashville and I gave jumpseat rides to a number of younger pilots making their way out there for some face time with the recruiters who were there. This got me thinking about where a young pilot might find some career advice. There is quite a bit of change currently underway in the aviation career field, and plotting a path to a successful career can be daunting.

The Timing has Never Been Better to be a Pilot

So you want to become a major airline pilot? Well the timing has never been better in terms of demand for pilots. Due to the mandatory retirement age of 65, US airlines will need to replace thousands of retiring pilots in the next five to ten years. The numbers are staggering. Estimates run to a need for over 18,000 pilots to be hired just to replace retiring US pilots in the next five years. Those numbers don't account for airline growth nor do they factor in early retirements and should therefore be considered minimums.

And it is unlikely that many of these pilots will be hired from overseas as the pilot shortage is a worldwide phenomenon. Boeing estimates the worldwide need for pilots at over 500,000 in the next 20 years. The major airlines have or are about to embark on a hiring binge to replace the thousands of retiring Vietnam era pilots currently flying their airplanes. They are hiring primarily from the ranks of regional airlines who in turn are scrambling to keep their airlines staffed. The military, a traditional source of trained pilots, is doing a better job of holding onto their people so those numbers will be made up primarily through the hiring of pilots with civilian backgrounds.

One need only search the term "pilot shortage" to see stories of regional airlines having to park airplanes due to a lack of pilots. Republic Airlines even cited the pilot shortage in its recent bankruptcy filing. In the meantime, a bidding war has broken out between regional airlines for the dwindling number of pilots who meet the new 1500 hour minimum requirements. Those requirements are dropped to 1000 hours for pilots who have graduated from an accredited aviation school, but those graduates will likely be carrying the better part of a hundred grand of debt for their schooling, which is why there aren't many of them.

The following comments are directed at currently qualified regional, military or corporate pilots who are looking to make a jump to a major airline. I'll address the subjects of entering the career field for non-pilots and special considerations for military pilots leaving the service in parts two and three.

Seniority is Life

As an old tale from aviation lore goes, a wise old captain was once advising a young copilot on the things which contributed the most to a fulfilling career. The captain said that a career flying airplanes was, besides a love of aviation, about time off and money. And he made sure to emphasize and in that order. 

A career in aviation means being away from home. A lot. It is a tradeoff that all pilots make. And while we understand that we will be at the bottom of the seniority list when starting out, the hope is that given enough time, we will eventually earn those coveted weekends off and summer vacation blocks and an upgrade to the left seat or a widebody. And that means seniority.

There are two ways to become senior at any airline. The first is through growth. If the airline you get hired by doubles in size in say five years, you will upgrade to captain in five years give or take. The second way to seniority is through the retirement of those pilots who are senior to you. Given the current state of the four largest airlines which control about 80% of the US domestic market and are not likely to grow any faster than the overall economy, it is retirements which will likely fuel your ticket to watching football in your own living room and not in the hotel bar on a layover.

This means that during any extended hiring binge, like the one which is just getting under way, getting your foot in the door as early as possible is of supreme importance. Getting ahead of a hiring wave means you will spend most of your career in the left seat enjoying the pay and prestige that comes with that position. Get hired at the end of the wave and you will likely spend years throwing the gear for captains who are just a few years older than you.

My advice, then, is to get on with your preferred carrier at the earliest possible time. This means getting your required PIC hours as soon as possible through whatever means. There's a land rush going on out there and you don't want to miss out.

For you regional pilots toiling away with the hope of getting a job through a flow-through program, my advice is to ignore those and do whatever it takes to get your hours and to then get your resume out on the street. A flow-through program is just a promise and not worth the paper it is written on if things change, and things change all the time.

Which is the Best Airline to Fly For?

That's an easy one. The best airline is the one that hires you. Don't ever turn down a job offer from any airline offering you a job flying equipment that is larger than what you currently fly. Show up to training, act like that airline is the only one you've ever wanted to fly for, and then should an offer show up from where you really want to work, just walk out the door. Of course be polite and gracious for the opportunity, but never forget that this is your career and life we're talking about here. It's just business.

But all else being equal, and assuming that you get an offer from the airlines you're considering, there are a host of factors which will influence your decision. As I mentioned above, the existing demographics and pending retirements will be one of your biggest considerations. Next you'll want to consider where your prospective airline has pilot domiciles. Pick the one which has a domicile in a city where you want to live. Yes, commuting is possible, but a career of it will effectively mean extra years sleeping in hotels and crash pads which could be spent in your own bed.

Next you should consider the equipment that the airline flies. Widebody flying pays the most and generally has the most days off. It will take some time to get into a widebody, but if the airline doesn't own any, you'll never fly one. And if you ever get sick of flying international routes, bidding back to domestic equipment is always there if you so desire.

Furloughs. Yes, the "F" word. No one can predict the future and fuel shocks, mideast wars and recessions are always possible. And when they happen, you might find yourself back on the street. Southwest is the only one of the big four US airlines which has never furloughed any pilots, but they are resembling a legacy carrier more each day, so past performance may not guarantee future results. In any event, getting on early with an airline that has the most retirements will move you up the list and away from the furlough zone the quickest.

In Conclusion

I've just barely scratched the surface here but have touched on some of what I feel are the most important considerations for pilots who are looking for a job at the majors. Since the topic is so large, I'll be doing several additional installments where I give my advice to military pilots who are leaving the service, and also to non-pilots who may be hoping to explore a career in aviation. Stay tuned!

Lastly, please feel free to ask any questions you might have about your own job search in the comments. Is there something you'd like to ask about your own career progression? Just let me know. I'm here for you!

Update: Part 2:  Career advice for pilots leaving the military is here.

Update: Part 3  Career advice for those looking  to start a career in aviation is here.


  1. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Thanks Rob, good info and looking forward to more good info. Since it currently takes a decade for a new student to get to an airline cockpit, a potential new student will want to look very differently at this advice, than someone slogging through a regional pilot job. A new pilot with a career that will span 45 years or more can't possibly know what will happen to this profession in that time, or even in ten years, but at least they will have a realistic view of what it is like today.

  2. Hi Sherman,

    Yes, this first piece was directed at those already in the's a good time to be there. For those wishing to get into aviation, some serious soul searching and prognostication is warranted re the automation issues we've discussed.

    Published part 2 today on military pilots. Part 3 to come.

  3. Interesting stuff Rob. Good writing

  4. Do you know any pilots that went through the civilian path? I'm a high school student currently visiting colleges with aviation programs.

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Capt Rob