Jumpseat: Why be an Airline Pilot?

Present-day considerations for an aspiring aviator.

Airline pilots don’t have a 9-to-5 job. They can expect to work any day of the week, including holidays.Alamy

One of my favorite jokes about the airline pilot profession involves a mother who brings her wide-eyed, grade-school-age son into the cockpit for a visit. After the awestruck boy is given his tour, the mother asks her son if he would like to be an airline pilot when he grows up. The captain interjects and says simply, “You can’t do both.”

It’s certainly a tongue-and-cheek remark, but I would like to think my colleagues consider the implication a badge of honor if not a term of endearment. Maintaining a youthful spirit and a good sense of humor is a desirable attribute for an airline pilot.

In any case, much has been discussed about the upcoming pilot shortage. Although the major airlines are still finding qualified applicants, the regional airlines are already feeling the effects. Many are offering incentives in the form of sign-on bonuses, and some are providing employment-conditional loans to be applied toward flight training until such time the prospective pilot is qualified to fill the copilot seat of a regional jet.

For as long as I can remember, regional airlines (“commuters,” in my day) have been the internship for the industry. Their primary purpose of feeding passengers onto mainline carriers forces them to be competitive in order to obtain a viable contract with the majors. In that regard, compensation is at the bottom of their priority list. Regional salaries, especially for new pilots, have always been paltry compared to the rest of the industry. But the experience operating in an airline environment is invaluable.

It’s important to understand that although the pilot shortage is a reality that will become more prevalent in the next 10 years, the underlying reasons for this shortage are different. When I was hired in the early 1980s, the demand for airline pilots was mostly a result of carrier expansion in response to the opportunities presented by the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which virtually eliminated government control of routes, fares and so on.

In contrast, today’s U.S. airline pilot vacancies will be primarily a result of large attrition rates. My vintage hiring group is retiring in large numbers. What does that mean for an aspiring pilot? It’s simple. Get in the door ASAP, before the window closes. Seniority is extremely important. It governs almost every aspect of a pilot’s life, from monthly schedules to career advancement.

Another reason the filling of vacancies will be different from other hiring periods is airlines have learned from past mistakes regarding the frequency of flights on particular routes, and thus seats available. Carriers are more measured with their revenue structure. New airplanes are being added to fleets mostly as replacements for older, inefficient airliners rather than for expansion. When the economy suffers a downturn, airlines will be in a better position to wait out the financial storm. Unfortunately, an economic downturn can also mean layoffs for junior pilots — the nature of the beast for the profession.

So what advice can I offer an aspiring airline pilot? Rather than suggesting career paths, avenues that can be researched online and have been discussed in this magazine, allow me to present some real-world guidance. First of all, why fly airplanes as a career, anyhow?

For me, nothing is more gratifying than being able to successfully manipulate a complicated piece of machinery in a three-dimensional environment. The act of flying is pure enjoyment. Even after 33 years, I still turn around with a smile knowing I just landed a big machine. I consider it an honor that thousands of people have put their trust in my hands. That being said, I am still judged by the last 10 seconds of my approach. A hard landing erases all praise.

One of my favorite attributes of the job is that, for the most part, the work environment is a black-and-white world. Safety dictates very specific guidelines for operating an airliner. Adherence to checklists and procedures establishes the expectations for job performance, especially during an abnormal or emergency event.

Airline pilots don’t have a 9-to-5 job. We can expect to work any day of the week, including holidays. The day can start at 6 o’clock in the morning or 6 o’clock at night. On a lighter note, if you’re one that hates matching your tie with your blazer, or your blouse with your slacks, you’re in luck. A uniform eliminates those weighty decisions.

A given amount of stress is part of the profession. The stress can be in the form of job-performance requirements, the need to make immediate decisions, working long days or flying at odd body-time hours. Don’t let anybody convince you that fatigue is an aspect of the job to which pilots become accustomed. We just learn to tolerate it.

I consider it an honor that thousands of people have put their trust in my hands. That being said, I am still judged by the last 10 seconds of my approach. A hard landing erases all praise.

Today’s new airline pilot will face some different challenges. One in particular is technology. Advancements in flight controls make fly-by-wire airplanes the new normal. Although the old cable and pulley systems are disappearing from airliners, that doesn’t mean the basic skill of flying an airplane isn’t required. Now more than ever, it’s incumbent upon pilots to understand how their airplane control systems integrate with the intricacies of cockpit automation, namely the autopilot and flight director. The Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 accident in July 2013 at San Francisco International Airport is an unfortunate example of this lack of understanding.

And Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330 that crashed into the ocean off the coast of Brazil in June 2009, is another example of not understanding automated systems. But in that circumstance, an abnormal event involving erroneous displays of instrumentation was the culprit. Had the crew evaluated the situation with a better knowledge base, the tragedy might have never occurred. Manufacturers have designed incredible information-technology systems into cockpits, but malfunction events can task even the most skilled pilots.

OK, now for some basic advice, in no particular order. First, don’t burn any bridges. Aviation is a very small world. The lineguy who fueled the Cessna 172 you’ve been using for training could someday be your chief pilot at the airline.

Most airlines no longer offer a defined benefit retirement plan except for a 401(k). Understand your investment choices and how to wisely make appropriate decisions with your money. Hire a financial adviser, attend seminars and don’t get involved with businesses outside of traditional investments that seem too good to be true — because they probably are. For whatever reason, airline pilots are notorious for making bad business decisions. (I include myself.)

Consider an education in another profession as a backup plan. I have flown with attorneys, pharmacists, financial advisers, realtors, accountants and authors, just to name a few.

And finally, join the pilots union. Many pilots before you have sacrificed their time in the interest of benefiting safety and the airline-pilot lifestyle. Give back by volunteering for union work at some point during your career.

Want to be an airline pilot? Work hard. Stay focused. And don’t ever lose your sense of humor. Best of luck!