Should You Consider Becoming an Airline Pilot?

An airline career is still viable.

Just 18 short months ago, pilots chasing an airline job had a nearly bottomless well of opportunities to draw from. Industry experts compared the scarcity of experienced cockpit crewmembers to the 1960s—when the major airlines were so needy, they actually subsidized pilot training. As 2019 drew to a close, it was fairly common for regional airlines to pay substantial hiring bonuses for the right pilot and then add another lump sum once they’d completed training.

Then, in the first quarter of 2020, the COVID-19 virus began choking the life out of the airline industry people had taken for granted as demand for airline travel plummeted to unheard-of lows. By mid-April, the TSA reported screenings at US airports had declined by as much as 96 percent year over year. Stories circulated among pilots who were flying nearly empty airplanes. International travel became almost nonexistent as airlines around the world began parking tens of thousands of unused airplanes. The pandemic appeared to ring the death knell for iconic aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. The US government stepped in with some financial assistance, but since March 2020, most airlines around the world have been limping along with traffic spikes and lulls that vacillated like waves on an ocean shoreline.

Calling the pandemic a punch in the gut to the people who saw their future in the sky was an understatement. Thousands of airline-pilot hopefuls simply gave up their dreams of ever seeing a jet cockpit. Almost without any fanfare, however, many senior airline pilots jumped in to help their companies and the new folks waiting to climb the ladder by accepting early retirement offers to help reduce costs. Others who’d been preparing for furloughs chose to take pay cuts and drastically reduced their flying schedules in order to remain on the payroll while gambling on the future. This is not the first time airline pilots have faced uncertain futures.

Professional Airline Pilot
The airlines are eager to hire pilots from a diverse range of backgrounds. Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock

Understanding Airline Hiring Up to Now

People with decades of industry history under their belts warn potential airline pilots not to lose sight of the cyclical nature of the business as a way to keep the hiring game in perspective.

As pilot Louis Smith said: “The PATCO strike in 1981 put plenty of pilots on the street, as did the 1991 Gulf War. The 9/11 attacks required government bailouts to keep the industry alive as more than 7,000 were furloughed from the major airlines.” Smith, a retired DC-10 captain, is the chairman and president of Future and Active Pilot Advisors, a professional-pilot career- and financial-advisory service. Between 2003 and the end of 2007, Smith said, the second Gulf War and SARS depressed demand, and this combined with high oil prices caused significant layoffs. “The change in the mandatory retirement age to 65 years on December 13, 2007, depressed airline hiring for five years while it provided senior pilots five more years to restore their personal balance sheet decimated by the airline bankruptcies.” In total, between 2004 and 2014, “more than 8,000 pilots watched their companies collapse.” But in 2019, airline hiring had taken off, bringing on nearly 5,000 pilots and 2,400 more in the early months of 2020 before the industry slammed on the brakes. To put the current pilot-hiring atmosphere into perspective, Smith said, “If all of these past events combined represented economic storms, 2020 and the resulting loss of pilots’ jobs has been a tsunami.”

A viable airline career today absolutely demands that individuals track industry news of the day and stay abreast of data pointing to where the industry is headed. For instance, some pilots might point to the bad news today that some regional pilots are still on furlough after a year. However, the better news that should go hand in hand with the plight at the regionals is that pilot numbers at the majors have actually remained pretty constant, more so than in many previous downturns. Southwest Airlines did not lay off a single pilot during 2020, nor did United or FedEx. American Airlines, Allegiant and Hawaiian did furlough some cockpit crew members, though.

Flying activity in early spring 2021 showed a major change, with much of it focused on freight carriers and low-cost airlines aimed at leisure flyers. “We expect the three freight airlines to hire more than 1,200 pilots this year,” Smith said. “Passenger-airline staffing representatives are still too shellshocked from the pandemic to forecast any precise numbers, but passenger-airline-pilot hiring will likely remain less than 1,000.” Detailing some additional good news in mid-March, Smith said that “the airlines do indeed have a pulse, as the regionals, [such as] SkyWest, began bringing back pilots from classes that were canceled last year.”

Commercial aircraft
Many GA pilots are attracted to the airlines for the opportunity to fly the big iron like this Airbus. Angelo Giampiccolo/Shutterstock

What Happens Now?

With 2020 headed for the history books as the worst downturn ever for the airlines, it’s critical that pilot applicants summon up serious amounts of patience. The industry continues to evolve positively, perhaps almost as quickly as the chaos began this past year. The key for new pilots is to not give up on their dreams and continue preparing for the flying that’s coming down the road.

Working toward any flying career requires time, training, and a belief in the strategy to keep flying no matter what it takes. Absolutely the wrong tactic right now would be to wait and see—or for a prospective pilot to convince themselves that they’ll wait to begin or continue their training until after the industry recovers.

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If you’re an airline hopeful starting right now from zero flight hours, it’s certain that the aviation industry will look very different a few years down the road when you’ve logged the 1,500 hours of flight required to qualify for an airline transport pilot certificate. For proof of that, compare the doom and gloom the industry was dealing with just one year ago to the mind-numbing news that some industry experts are already talking about a pilot shortage once COVID-19 has passed.

A recent Oliver Wyman study on the airline industry—”After COVID-19, Aviation Faces a Pilot Shortage”—said: “For carriers that were struggling with pilot supply, this [the COVID-19 crisis] has provided a momentary reprieve. It will not last, and decisions taken today to survive the coronavirus pandemic may threaten the ability of airlines in some regions to recover and grow in the future. The global in-service fleet has already recovered in size to 76 percent of pre-COVID levels.” Wyman polled companies in 2019 and learned that 62 percent listed a shortage of qualified pilots as a key risk with conditions differing by region. The root cause in the United States is “an aging workforce facing mandatory retirement, fewer pilots exiting the military, and barriers to entry, including the cost of training.” The Wyman study makes it clear that more pilots will be needed—soon.

Pilot standing in an airport
Despite the pandemic, now is the time to begin training for that airline job. 4 PM production/Shutterstock

The most important question according to the Wyman report is not “whether a pilot shortage will reemerge, but when it will occur and how large the gap will be between supply and demand.” The report said its creators believe there will be a global gap of 34,000 pilots by 2025, possibly increasing to as high as 50,000 in extreme scenarios. Eventually, the impact of furloughs, retirements and defections will create very real challenges for even some of the biggest carriers. “One cushion airlines have created consists of 100,000 pilots still on payroll but flying-reduced schedules or on voluntary company leave. In the US, such programs have been very popular and will provide the airlines some flexibility once the industry begins to recover.” With an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements in North America, the shortage reemerges quickly and is projected to number more than 12,000 pilots by 2023—13 percent of total demand. The study recommended that in order to avoid a pilot shortage in the near future, carriers should “reinforce the pipeline by continuing to invest in training programs and pilot recruitment.”

While hiring still has a long way to go to match that of 2019, it does appear the logjam is beginning to break—albeit slowly—which means future pilots should pay close attention. With a number of COVID-19 vaccines in distribution, the airline executives are preparing for the future, as should pilot applicants.

The latest FAPA hiring data shows that Air Wisconsin has started hiring first officers off the street. No classes have yet been scheduled, but some are expected to be announced shortly. CommutAir is hiring FOs and has a new class beginning every two weeks. Endeavor Air is also hiring new first officers and plans to hire 450 pilots this year, though no class dates have been published. GoJet Airlines is hiring FOs and has new classes already scheduled. Horizon Air had a hiring window in March that has since closed, but the carrier is planning new-hire classes soon. Mesa Airlines has not restarted the initial hiring process just yet but has been recalling pilots with contingent job offers from this past year. Mesa’s first such new-hire class began on April 6. Piedmont Airlines is accepting applications and has plans to begin new classes in April. PSA Airlines is aggressively hiring FOs off the street and has plans to fill classes every two weeks starting in April with 30 candidates. SkyWest Airlines has begun recruiting new pilots. Finally, as of press time, there was no word on hiring activity at Envoy Air or Republic Airways. Louis Smith said Atlas, FedEx and UPS hired more than 100 pilots in February while the major passenger airlines hired zero. But, as noted above, there had been a good start from the regionals.

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A Wall Street Journal story in mid-March—”Is Airline Travel Coming Back?”—in the midst of spring break, quoted Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian about the increased passenger demand the carrier experienced following a weekend when airport passenger volumes hit their highest levels in a year. “We’ve seen some glimmers of hope over the last year, but they’ve been false hope,” Bastian said. “But this seems like it’s real. Bookings began picking up five or six weeks ago as people began making plans for spring and summer.” In the same story, executives from both United and Delta said that while they remain cautious, they believe their airlines might soon stop hemorrhaging cash, another positive sign. So keep the faith and keep flying.

Tales from the Front

Many a new airline-pilot hopeful has probably spent a portion of the past year wondering if, in a post-COVID world, they might not be better off considering a future in over-the-road trucking rather than aviation. While airline traffic in the US hasn’t returned to pre-COVID levels yet, Ashley Pillon says, “The future [of an airline career] definitely looks bright.” Pillon is the manager of airline and corporate partnerships at Jacksonville, Florida-based ATP Flight School. ATP works closely with some 1,500 enrollees across its 55 locations. Pillion’s optimistic outlook comes from hard data: “Many of the regionals are in the works of revamping and restarting their cadet programs, as hiring resumes.”

Mike Arnold, ATP’s director of marketing, offers additional hope. “The pilot job market we see today is not one that aspiring pilots will be looking at in the two years it takes for them to become a qualified airline pilot. That job market is two years in the future.” For those nearing the magic 1,500 hours required for an ATP certificate, the school has added new professional relationships with Part 135 charter companies as well as with Frontier Airlines under the Frontier Direct Program, while strengthening ties to most of the nation’s regional carriers.

Chris Richards is president of the Academy of Aviation, one of the oldest flight schools out of roughly 13 at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, New York. The school operates additional campuses in White Plains, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Falcon Field in Atlanta, Georgia, for its 400 students. “We had to shut our New York locations in March [2020] due to COVID-19, but we quickly reopened last June. Our North Carolina and Georgia locations never stopped training, however.”

Student demand drove the reopening in New York and also helped the school expand for its career-pilot student body. AOA’s airline hiring strategy operates a bit differently than ATP’s and depends on qualified pilots taking the reins of their own career. “The airlines have such a need for pilots that we don’t need a direct line into any regional airline program,” Richards says. “We advise our students to pick the airline that best fits them. There is so much opportunity in aviation today that pilots can have an amazing career as long as they are passionate about it and apply themselves. There are always going to be hard times in life, but that’s what makes the good times so good.”

This story appeared in the 2021 Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine


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