The Costs of Training Time

Chris Carey, a pilot for a major airline and creator of the website Chris Carey

Airline pilots take various routes to the cockpit of their aircraft, but many experts agree the fastest and surest is through a full-time program focused on training pilots for airline careers. To be sure, getting the required ratings and flight experience may be expensive, but the real costs to consider, according to these experts, are the earnings and career benefits lost by dragging out the training process in an effort to economize. That’s especially true today with a growing airline pilot shortage boosting pay and accelerating career advancement at the regionals and majors alike.

“We really emphasize to potential students, get a quality education, but get one that’s fast, and helps get you to the airlines quickly,” says Chris Carey, a pilot for a major airline and creator of the website, an online forum that offers advice from working airline pilots to career aspirants.

Data highlights the impact every extra year of a career can have on lifetime earnings. A first year First Officer earns an average of $59,970, not including per diem, health, retirement and other benefits, at 90 percent of the carriers in the Regional Airline Association (RAA), according to organization. If hired by a regional airline at age 28, by 35 the pilot can be flying for a major, and make captain in another eight years or less. At today’s pay scales, the average annual salary over the course of that captain’s career at American Airlines would be about $250,000; in later, peak earning years a senior captain “could easily make $400,000,” says Carey. This means that it could cost pilots $400,000 per year in lost earnings for every extra year it takes to complete training.

Moreover, compared to other potentially high earning, prestigious careers, the cost of the education is a relative bargain. “You can spend as much to become an attorney, but there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be partner making $300 an hour,” says Danielle Calnin, director of Airline Business Development at ATP Flight School, the nation’s leading supplier of pilots to regional airlines. “But there is a guarantee if you build your seniority at Southwest [Airlines], you’re ultimately going to make $300 an hour.” In fact, for every dollar invested in education, a doctor gets an average of $19 Return on Investment, a lawyer gets $30, and a pilot earns $33, according to RAA data.

That seniority Calnin mentions – the time of service a pilot has at an airline compared to its other pilots - is just as important as total career earnings as an argument for getting on the training fast track. “People hired at a very young age get very senior, and seniority determines everything in your airline career,” says Carey, who’s just been upgraded to Captain on an Airbus A320. A pilot’s choice of home base, schedule, routes, aircraft, and more are all based on length of service, or seniority.

A full-time program like ATP’s can have a new student ready for a job at a regional airline in just over two years, during most of which the aspiring airline pilot can earn up to $42,000 per year working as a flight instructor. But there’s a benefit to full-time programs beyond the accelerated pace, as Endeavor Air first officer and ATP graduate Stephen Kassing points out, “the pace of training, layout of lessons, and quality of material provided [at ATP] closely resembles and prepared me for my training at Endeavor Air.” Calnin further explains that “pilot skills are cumulative, and if you’re not consistently training and building your skills every day, there’s a tendency to take two steps forward and one step back, ultimately costing you more for flight training. This rigorous training is the way the military does it and the airlines do it, so when ATP students do get to the airlines, it’s a very natural transition to airline-style flying."

When evaluating programs, training professionals advise considering factors including:

Training costs – Ensure costs quoted for ratings cover real world training hours needed, not simply minimum requirements.

Fleet – Review the quality, and size in relationship to number of students; determine whether owned or leased. (ATP, for example, has an owned fleet of 300 aircraft.)

Financing – Inquire about the availability of financing through established lenders that can cover all program costs, ensuring uninterrupted training.

Career placement – Determine if the program is partnered with airlines that provide tuition reimbursement and can provide a direct path to airline minimums.

Sums up Calnin, "now's the time for an aspiring aviator to earn their ratings and take advantage of the pilot shortage.” Speaking with an aspiring pilot on, airline captain and pilot mentor Adam Feldman points out the most important reason to expedite career entry however, “I love my job and consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to earn a living doing something I enjoy.”


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