While this article comes from our Learn To Fly issue published in late 2019, and pilot hiring is on hold for the foreseeable future, it’s a great time to plan for and work towards an aviation career so that you’re poised to act when the current situation changes.
By now, you have probably heard the aviation industry is experiencing a pilot shortage. That translates into companies everywhere not being able to find enough qualified cockpit crewmembers to fly their aircraft.
The shortage hasn’t hit the major airlines, at least not yet, but just about every other portion of the industry that needs pilots is having trouble finding them. So desperate are some companies, they’re actually poaching personnel from one another.
Because employment with the aviation industry always has been cyclical, it’s next to impossible to know how long the current shortage will last. But even if the shortage hole is patched, the industry will always be recruiting new pilots to cover the attrition of more-experienced aviators. There are never guarantees of employment in aviation, though—or any other industry come to think of it—but flying jobs won’t wait for the pilot who postpones flight training until the economy looks perfect.
Most people view a job that pays them to fly as the epitome of why they learned to fly in the first place. There are just a few idiosyncrasies of the flying life, however, that some new pilots may not have considered that are worth mentioning. There are no cubicle dividers in the cockpit of an airplane, so privacy while flying doesn’t really exist, which makes this environment different from many other workplaces. A cockpit’s atmosphere when both pilots enjoy each other’s company can be a blissful adventure, despite the fact that their elbows are a mere 12 inches away. However, if the pilot you’re flying with for six to eight hours each day becomes annoying, it’s impossible to move your workstation elsewhere. You have to live with them and them with you—or find a job that lets you fly single-pilot.
Ask almost any promising aviator their long-term goal, and the most common response is airline pilot—often, as it turns out, because that’s the flying job most familiar to them. And what’s not to love? Airline pilots operating under FAR Part 121 (or similar international operations) usually fly the latest and largest airplanes from Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bombardier. These are usually new aircraft equipped with the latest in cockpit electronics. Airline-training and major-airline pay scales are some of the best worldwide. Any discussion of Part 121 carriers must include the large cargo companies such as FedEx, UPS, and others with names that might not be quite as familiar including Atlas Air and DHL. These airlines also operate under Part 121.
Currently, pilots for regional airlines, such as Envoy, SkyWest or Republic, are being recruited from major flight schools in the US, where CFIs are often logging 100 hours per month teaching new pilots who want to follow in the tracks of their instructors. Often by the time a full-time CFI is within sight of the 1,500 hours needed to earn an airline transport pilot certificate, a regional airline has already offered them a new-hire training slot. Among the big advantages to training with a major flight school such as FlightSafety International, ATP or a major aviation college are their alliances with the regional airlines that offer CFIs a chance to interview early in the process. Those early interviews often open the door for a regional pilot to eventually flow through to a major such as United, Delta or American without another interview. Of course, the big flight schools come with a big price tag, but the advantage is a solid opportunity for a job. While regional-airline pilots will likely never be paid as much as pilots at the majors, the pay rates for regional pilots are much better today than they were just five years ago. A valuable information resource on both major- and regional-airline-pilot employment is Future and Active Pilot Advisors (www.FAPA.aero).
Airline schedules normally pair cockpit crews together for a month at a time with only the occasional change for a mechanical or weather problem. Carriers build schedules in blocks of trips, so crews are seldom away from their base more than three or four days, although some international flying can demand more days away. Some pilots think knowing their flying schedules a month in advance, allowing them to plan family events, is the biggest benefit of flying for the airlines.
There are pilots for whom the prearranged life of an airline pilot spells the end of the adventure and spirit of opportunity that drove them to learn to fly. Thankfully, there is an important outlet for those so driven called business aviation.
To set the stage, an often-overlooked fact is that the US airlines regularly operate from about 500 of the busiest airports in the nation. There are more than 5,000 other airports that don’t often see airline traffic. Business aviation—companies that operate their own general aviation turboprops and jets carrying employees and customers—often make up a significant percentage of the air traffic at these other airports. If a search for flying jobs has never brought a new pilot face-to-face with aircraft built by Gulfstream, Textron, Pilatus or Dassault (to name just a few), it is well worth the time to begin researching what business aviation has to offer.
The National Business Aviation Association says, “The vast majority of businesses in this community—97 percent—are small to midsize businesses and other entities including nonprofit organizations.” Business-aviation aircraft typically carry between two and 15 passengers. Much like their airline counterparts, these aircraft can be the most modern with sophisticated cockpit avionics that equip them for long-range navigation and flight anywhere in the world in almost any weather conditions.
What makes business-aviation flying different from the airlines is that the flight departments responsible for a company fleet are usually much smaller than those of the airlines, sometimes even just one airplane with two or three available pilots, although some are much larger. Business aviation is known to pay top-notch salaries and benefits to its flight crews, often because of that same pilot shortage.
Business-aviation trips often occur with much less formal planning, the same way they might if you worked in a corporate office. The flying follows the needs of the employees who ride on a business airplane, people who might range from the CEO of a Fortune 100 company to middle-management staff, and often that company’s customers.
If the boss needs to be in New York on Monday morning, a business airplane based in Dallas might depart the night before or very early in the morning on Monday and remain in place as long as it’s needed. After a quick meeting, that airplane might return to Dallas later that afternoon, or it could head to Chicago for a midafternoon meeting before returning to Dallas. Very few of the scheduled destinations are ever set in stone.
Important too, business-aviation airplanes normally don’t use hub airports such as DFW, JFK or ORD and are much more likely to be based at a general aviation airport like Dallas Addison and operate to airports like Teterboro or Chicago Executive. It’s the “often not knowing for sure where they’ll be headed next” that many pilots love in stark contrast to their airline counterparts.
Corporate flight departments are just as tuned in to the need for a decent work-life balance, as are the airlines in order to successfully retain flight crews. A “BizAv” schedule might make a pilot available during an entire week on call and then have the following week, or a portion of it, as days off. During their normal workweek, however, pilots could well get a call from dispatch for a trip early the next morning, or possibly even the same day to a destination one hour—or five hours—away.
Not every company that uses business jets and turboprops has the capabilities to launch and maintain a complete flight department. Then too there are companies that simply don’t need an aircraft and crew often enough to justify the cost of owning an aircraft. For these companies, on-demand chartering is a much more cost-effective solution. Charter-flight crews might be on call for a portion of the day or night and have little to no notice of the next flight until their cellphone rings. The trip might be a quick out and back to drop the customer in another city, or it might turn into a three-day event, which means charter pilots usually keep an overnight bag near the back door or in the trunk of their car.
Charter companies normally operate under FAR Part 135 with much the same mix of business airplanes as traditional corporate aviation. They also tend to be based at a GA airport that gives them the flexibility to come and go with the shortest delays. Just like other sectors of the aviation industry, charter departments are struggling to find enough pilots to staff their aircraft. Salaries and benefits are good, but not normally on par with the airlines or business aviation.
Flying for the Fractionals
Fractional-ownership groups such as NetJets or Flexjets continue to grow on the flying front and fall somewhere in between traditional business-aviation and charter flying. Customers who fly aboard fractional aircraft actually own a piece of the aircraft but not the entire machine—a bit like having a partner in a GA airplane. How much aircraft availability the fractional customer sees is dependent upon how large a share they own.
Fractional companies are large users of business-aviation aircraft as well as the pilots needed to crew them. NetJets, for example, currently employs about 2,500 pilots to crew its 700 aircraft, nearly the size of Southwest Airlines’ fleet. FlexJet employs about 600 pilots for its fleet, which runs the gamut from the Embraer Phenom 300 light jet to the ultralong-range Bombardier Global Express and the Gulfstream G650. Not all fractional operators use jet aircraft either. Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based PlaneSense was created around a fleet of 40 Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops. WheelsUp, a membership-model company, operates a fleet of King Air 350is and Citation Excels. The fractional operators are also searching for cockpit crewmembers and pay well.
Flying jobs in the US are not limited to only the companies mentioned here. There are other segments, such as flying for the FAA or state governments or the more unusual jobs some pilots might not at first consider—for example, crop dusting or banner towing, but finding those requires a bit of research.
Who Needs Wheels?
Here’s a brief look at fellow pilot Holt Lindenberger and how, after earning all his ratings a few years ago, he decided the traditional route to the airlines just wasn’t for him.
Holt Lindenberger completed his professional pilot training at ATP Flight School in November 2013 and wanted to reward himself for all the hard work it took to earn his commercial, instrument and CFI ratings.
So, in October 2014, he headed to Florida and added a single-engine-seaplane rating following a weekend of fun splashing around in a Piper Cub on floats. Lindenberger admits that, at first, he never saw his seaplane rating as anything more than a fun way to blow off some steam.
But he recalled reading a surfer magazine once that “talked about the barefoot pilots of the Maldives. I thought that was the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of. These pilots would surf with some professionals and anchor off one of those reef breaks. I wondered if there was a way to get a job like that. That’s the kind of thing I’ve got to do.”
Lindenberger spent quite a bit of time as a CFI and did head out to a few regional-airline interviews, but he realized something just didn’t seem right. “I really enjoy flying little airplanes.” So out of the blue, Lindenberger, an adventurer at heart, realized his calling: “I was hooked on seaplanes.” He searched Google, thinking maybe he could “earn a multiengine-seaplane rating somehow or go fly in the Maldives.” He was eventually hired by Tropic Ocean Airways in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to help crew their fleet of Cessna Caravans on floats. “I actually flew right seat on the Caravan at first, which was also my first introduction to turbine engines.” In June 2016, he rose to captain of a Caravan on floats.
“I have nothing but good things to say about my time at Tropic Ocean,” Lindenberger says, but after 2 years, he was ready for the next adventure. “There are just so many opportunities for seaplane pilots these days,” he says. It’s a small community of seaplane pilots who possess any significant turbine experience, and Lindenberger quickly realized, “Seaplane jobs are paying pretty well.” In May 2018, Lindenberger went to work for Tailwind Air LLC in New York as their main on-demand Caravan floatplane pilot based at Long Island’s MacArthur Airport.
“Primarily, I fly people to the Hamptons from the 23rd Street seaport in Manhattan, where there’s only room for one airplane on the dock at a time. Some days, I’ve had as many as 10 airplanes waiting ahead of me to dock, when there also might be helicopters circling above.” In New York, the Caravan is the perfect airplane, he says, because a trip from 23rd Street to the Hamptons only takes 35 minutes. “On a bad-traffic day, it could take five hours to make the drive,” Lindenberger says. “I get to see all those cars backed up on the roads going out to the Hamptons. I hate traffic myself, but you gotta credit the traffic for keeping me employed. I really do like my quality of life and my experiences. So right now, I’m enjoying being the seaplane guy.”
This story appeared in the Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine