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 “1,500-hour 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 wake-up 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 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, aerial-application 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 search-and-rescue, survey work and law-enforcement patrol. The aircraft flown are generally fixed-wing airplanes on wheels, floats or skis, but there are also some helicopter operations. While there are full-time 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. Aerial-attack 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.
Pursuing a Corporate Pilot Job
Ask most young pilots their ideal employer and nine times out of 10 they’ll answer flying for one of the major airlines, primarily because the airlines spend enormous amounts of money on branding and they usually get to fly the largest aircraft. They also pay pretty well. Business aviation, on the other hand, prefers a low profile for corporate privacy. So low is their visibility, in fact, many new aviators may have never heard of such a thing as corporate flying. But a segment where you can fly $50 million jets all across the globe deserves a close look.
Business aviation, sometimes referred to as private or corporate aviation, is the airborne transportation system used by hundreds of Fortune 500 companies to speed senior executives, midlevel employees and customers to and from locations often inaccessible on the airlines. Businesses operate their own or share a fractionally owned aircraft to buy back hours and often days of valuable time their employees waste trying to conduct business using the circuitous routes created by the airlines, a transportation system that serves approximately 500 or so general aviation airports around the United States.
Business aircraft normally fly direct from their home base to their destination, often one of the other 4,500 U.S. airports that airlines don’t use. Why fly from Colorado Springs to Denver to Chicago and switch aircraft again to end up in Peoria, Illinois, and later Moultrie, Georgia, an itinerary that would be agonizingly long on the airlines, when a business jet can carry a handful of executives from Colorado Springs direct to Peoria in a few hours and on to Moultrie long before dinner. If the meetings go well, the entire crew can be back home in time to read the kids a bedtime story. On the airlines, this trip would cover days of flying combined with lots of driving.
Many pilots are looking closely at business aviation because this segment — normally operated under Part 91 — doesn’t demand an ATP certificate to apply, and there’s no mandatory retirement age. That doesn’t mean business aviation’s standards are low. Pilots operating Gulfstream G650s or Falcon 8Xs on 14-hour segments around the globe are some of the most experienced aviators around. But not every company flies such heavy metal. A small manufacturing company might operate a King Air 200 with just two or three pilots on trips that keep the aircraft within a thousand miles of home. Qualifying for the right seat in a King Air 200 isn’t quite as difficult as a large jet, making the pilot with a commercial certificate, an instrument rating and less than 1,000 hours total time a possible candidate. Pay and benefits in a corporate job can be some of the best, including retirement.
Before you dive in thinking business aviation is everything you’ve been searching for, you should know this segment demands much more from a pilot than simply attendance, as some claim at the airlines. A business aviation pilot’s life is very hands-on and personal. These pilots are involved in every aspect of the flight, from checking weather to filing flight plans to helping passengers stow their bags and golf clubs on board. Corporate pilots usually order the catering the boss’s wife prefers and ensure the cans of soda in the cabin remain in plentiful supply.
Because business aviation is so people-focused, pilot positions in this segment demand different job-hunting skills than those to secure an airline interview. The grapevine, one pilot talking to another, is often how the best job information is shared. That means an applicant must go where business aviation pilots gather, such as FBOs or business aviation events or bizav websites like nbaa.org. A business card with all the appropriate contact information is a necessity, as is a bit of personal salesmanship.
How to Build Flight Time Fast
When the clock chimed 12 in the early morning hours of August 1, 2013, job-search strategies for pilots in the United States took a hard right turn. That’s the infamous date when the FAA’s National Order 8900.225 took effect, requiring all Part 121 pilots to possess an ATP certificate, including first officers. That meant every pilot needed a minimum of 1,500 hours in their logbook. Obtaining an ATP also became harder, with new and costly training requirements. Prior to the summer of 2013, new pilots with as little as 300 to 400 hours were receiving class dates at regional airlines and the minimum time required was just 250 hours.
With exceptions to the 1,500-hour limit only being handed out to accredited university graduates and former military members — who can obtain what is called a restricted ATP license — many career seekers are wondering how they’ll ever qualify for an ATP, short of buying a Cessna 120 and flying in circles for a few years. No question, an airline career in the 21st century demands a dose of reality and quite a few doses of patience, because airline hiring is just now beginning to accelerate, more than it has for many years.
Racking up hours in a logbook isn’t a new problem. While airline pilots weren’t required to hold an ATP until recently, it wasn’t all that much easier to get hired in the 1990s or early 2000s. ATP or not, companies wanted pilots with experience. And there were thousands who had it, meaning some low-timers got hired prior to 2013, but not all that many. The best advice is to get busy and fly wherever and whenever you can. And be ready to move for the right job.
The most common time-building method for pilots has always been to earn a flight-instructor certificate since the only requirements are a commercial pilot certificate, an instrument rating and successful completion of the knowledge and practical tests. The industry in the United States today is hungry for instructors, just about everywhere.
But be forewarned, teaching people to fly means more than simply showing up to start logging hours. Instructors have a fiduciary responsibility to their customers — their students — to give them 100 percent of their talent every hour, even when a student makes nine awful landings in a row, or when they can’t remember half of what you taught them about flying on instruments, or can’t seem to choose a suitable emergency-landing field.
Flight training is expensive today, and we’re still seeing three-quarters of student pilots drop out of the pipeline before earning their private certificate — and poor instructing skills are a part of that problem. If you can’t pour your heart and soul into teaching for a few years while you build flight time, do everyone a favor and go fly freighters.
Want a little adventure while you build those hours? Try towing banners or piloting a skydiver jump plane. Banner-towing operations tend to hover around big cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando and seashores. Skydiving schools are everywhere.
Towing banners is riskier than most all other kinds of flying, except perhaps agricultural work and aerial firefighting. Banner aircraft tow huge drag-producing signs from the back of a Piper Cub or Aeronca Champ or Ag-Cat. That’s a learned skill, so investigate who can teach you the business — especially the safety side — and be sure to check out the financials of the company you might work for with the Better Business Bureau and through personal recommendations from pilots who’ve worked there.
The search for skydiving schools can begin by visiting the U.S. Parachute Association’s (uspa.org) drop-zone locator. If they’re dropping skydivers, they’re probably using an airplane for the job.
Part 135 charter flying, meanwhile, will usually teach you the crew concept of flying, not to mention get you paid to learn the ins and outs of the nonscheduled world of passenger flying. While flying heavy iron under Part 135 demands considerable amounts of experience and an ATP certificate, smaller charter companies flying single- and twin-engine piston aircraft and turboprops will often look at candidates with much less flight time. That might mean moving to far-flung locations like Springfield, Illinois, or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of course. The Air Charter Guide is a good place to start your job search.
Here is another idea for time building, albeit a bit unusual. Years ago, I created a flyer I’d stick on the door of airplanes that I knew hadn’t been flown from our airport recently. I offered to exercise the owner’s airplane once a month. I told them an hour or two a month would help keep their airplane engine in top shape. Sometimes they’d pay me, sometimes not. But they covered the expenses and I logged the time. Surprisingly, I almost never got turned down.