Thinking of becoming professional airline pilot? Other career choices surely hold more appeal, given the industry climate: Dismal economy. Airline consolidations. Bankruptcies. Furloughs. New regs with stringent pilot hiring qualifications.
Sounds dismal, but don’t give up the lofty dream there are signs of better times ahead: Pilot demand is growing as retirements increase and world fleets grow. Tomorrow’s pilots will operate the latest aircraft technologies in modernized airspace systems. Industry stakeholders are growing more aware of the need to maintain a pilot supply chain.
“The airline flying profession is perfect for someone who enjoys working with people, enjoys the stress and challenge of solving problems at 500 knots and can deal with the inherent bureaucracy and rigidity of airlines and their governing agencies,” says Louis Smith, president of Future and Active Pilot Advisors (FAPA). Smith, who started his flying career in 1971, is a former U.S. Air Force pilot and Northwest Airlines captain. He founded FAPA.aero, a Web-based career and financial advisory service for professional pilots and aspirants, and has helped launch pilot careers for more than 40 years.
“My airline career was an absolute thrill,” says Smith, “flying to places I would never have visited, making lifelong friends, and meeting some of the brightest people one could imagine.”
What are the chances of landing an airline job? In 2009 the worst year for pilot hires major passenger and cargo airlines hired only 30 pilots, according to FAPA.aero. In 2010, 408 were hired; in 2011, 748, and in 2012, 553.
The future looks brighter. This year’s hiring total is expected to be the highest since 2007, when 2,766 pilots were signed up. And 2014 is expected to be highest since 2000, when 5,105 pilots were employed.
In the next 20 years, the U.S. airline industry is expected to hire more than 95,000 pilots, according to the 2012 study, An Investigation of the U.S. Airline Pilot Labor Supply. Its authors include The University of Nebraska-Omaha, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Southern Illinois, LeTourneau/University Aviation Association, Middle Tennessee State University/Aviation Accreditation Board International.
However, a new FAA rule could drive aspirants away from the profession and leave airlines with empty seats on the flight deck. By Congressional mandate, FAA in 2012 issued proposed rulemaking that makes sweeping revisions to Part 121 (transport) pilot hiring requirements. (The action followed the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of Continental Express/Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., in which investigators uncovered pilot training deficiencies.) The final rule, called the “1,500 rule,” which is expected to be issued this summer, would require a first officer candidate to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate which requires 1,500 hours of flight time. Currently, a new hire with a commercial license and 250 hours could land a job in the right seat of an airline. Following the traditional step-ladder approach, the first officer would then accumulate hours on the line while graduating to more and more complex aircraft until he/she qualified for an ATP.
The university study notes that current conditions indicate there will be a shortage of 35,000 pilots in the next 20 years. In addition, “current projections indicate there will be disruptions in the pilot labor supply unless industry-market fundamentals change, more pilots can be enticed into an airline pilot career or the regulatory environment changes.”
The study notes a disruption in the pilot supply in the next 5 to 7 years could result in regionals competing for a shrinking pool of qualified pilots, and smaller communities served by regionals could face disruption or even suspension of services.
If you are intent on becoming a professional pilot, Smith provides stern warning: “Avoid planning an airline pilot career if your only reason is the money. The unhappiest people in the business right now are those who got into the profession just for the money. The money can be lucrative,” he adds,” but the buying power of airline pilots has declined considerably since 9/11 and may never return to the pay and benefits of those days.”
FAPA.aero financial planning division’s projections indicate a candidate hired at 30 and retiring at 65 could expect career earnings at major U.S. passenger and cargo carriers to range from $4.2 million to $7.3 million. The earnings projection for regional airlines, based on a composite of the largest regional jet airlines in the United States, is $2.5 million and a reason why plots are defecting from regionals to the majors. (The projections are based on 2013 U.S. dollars and current collective bargaining agreements at each airline and an assumed average of 78 pay hours per month. Cockpit seat hours industry-wide are projected to increase 1.7 percent annually.)
The study proposes solutions to keep the pilot supply chain healthy. For example, industry should adopt measures that outline a clear path from initial training to a major airline position. In addition, industry might also explore scholarship or “other remunerative methods” to attract the number of pilots to the profession.
Frances Fiorino, a Washington D.C.-based freelance writer, has more than 20 years’ experience as an aviation journalist with major publications. She holds a private pilot license and covers air safety and simulation/training issues in the transport and general aviation sectors.