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Source - The truth about the profession
The real cost
Even if you're just beginning to look into becoming an airline pilot, you'll learn very quickly that it is extremely expensive to obtain your required flight training, never mind a college degree which is often required by the more desirable employers. Costs can vary greatly, but let's take a look at what types of expenses you might expect to incur.
Let's examine the costs of obtaining a college degree first. Are you going to go to college? Most desirable employers will "require" a college degree. I put require in quotes because even if a highly regarded employer doesn't officially require a college education, everyone you'll be competing against for those scarce good jobs will at least have a Bacherlor's Degree. So even though you technically don't need a college degree to become a professional pilot, in reality you'll probably need one. What's that going to cost? Costs can vary greatly, but an estimate of tens of thousands of dollars in total costs would probably not be far off base.
But in addition to that degree, you have to obtain your flight training. This involves obtaining your Private Pilot Certificate, then your Commercial Pilot Certificate, then usually a Flight Instructor Certificate. In addition to those certificates, you'll need Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings. So how much money are we talking about? Tens of thousands of dollars. Some non-university flight schools advertise all inclusive packages that will allow you to obtain all of those certificates and ratings for a total of around $60,000.00. A flight school at your local airport might be able to do it more cheaply. Some major aeronautical universities include the flight training in your yearly tuition costs, but the cost of the flight training remains about the same- tens of thousands of dollars. A la carte flight instruction usually costs around $30-$60 per hour, and a simple single engine aircraft can run in excess of $120 per hour, depending upon the region of the country you live in. By the time you are done with your flight training, you will likely have in excess of 200 to 300 hours of flight time that you will have paid for. You can see that no matter where you choose to obtain your training, it will not be cheap.
So as far as the realistic total costs of becoming a professional pilot, you're looking at a high five figure, potential six figure expenditure when you include the minimum required flight training and a 4 year degree. Unfortunately many flight schools and universities tap dance around this high cost, claiming that you'll be able to finance that amount or they will "downplay" the amount because you'll be able to defer payment of this debt into the future. Regardless of how the numbers are presented to you, understand that we are talking about BIG numbers, and the debt you incur will likely be far more than your peers in other non-aviation related professions. This debt, unfortunately, usually turns out to be a large albatross hanging around the neck of the unwitting new pilot, a point which I will discuss in depth in other sections of this site.
A brief discussion about the military: If you choose to enter a military flight program, you can avoid many of the costs above. Choosing to go into the military may reduce the amount you ultimately end up having to pay for college tuition, and if you are selected into a military flight program (it's very competitive), Uncle Sam will pay for your flight training. In exchange, you will be required to serve around 10 to 15 years in active military duty. So if you're willing to serve your nation, you may be able to avoid the tremendous debt associated with becoming a professional pilot, and when you are released from duty, the experience you will have gained during your military career will basically qualify you for just about any flying job out there.
Typical Career Path
There are a WIDE variety of professional pilot positions, but the three that are the most common career paths are airline, corporate, and military. I will try to briefly describe each.
The path to a corporate or an airline cockpit often starts off the same. Since the few desirable corporate pilot and airline jobs require a college degree and thousands of hours of flight time, most pilots start off by obtaining a 4 year degree (preferably in a non-aviation field) and obtaining the required pilot certificates and ratings as discussed in "The Real Costs..." section of this site. After obtaining your education and the minimum flight training, you are typically qualified to fly an airplane for compensation. Unless you "know someone" or your chosen flight education program provides a direct path to another employer, this typically involves flight instructing.
Most people will flight instruct for a year or two, give or take, depending largely upon the economy. At first, like anything new, flight instructing will be exciting, but most pilots quickly tire of the very low pay and long hours. After gaining some experience flight instructing, you will be applying for just about any other flying job out there just to do anything other than flight instruction. This may involve employment doing anything from flying freight to working for a small corporate flight department to working for a regional airline. Typically, this is where corporate and airline career paths can diverge....
Airline Career Path
If your career goal is the airlines, you will likely flight instruct until you have enough flight time to be considered by a regional airline, flying smaller aircraft than most of the major carriers to which the regional provides passenger feed. For some pilots, working for a good regional airline may be the extent of their personal professional pilot career aspirations and in some cases a regional airline pilot career can be quite fulfilling. From my experience, however, most pilots would prefer to fly for a large passenger airline or cargo airline as the pay and quality of life at regional airlines tends to be lower than that at the larger carriers. Regardless, once you are hired by a regional airline, you will start off as a First Officer (i.e. co-pilot) and you will work your way up to the Captain's seat as you gain experience- assuming, of course, that your airline is growing and has a future need for Captains. Everything is based upon seniority, which is your date of hire. Assuming you can pass the required checkrides, when/if a Captain slot becomes open and your seniority allows you to hold the position, it's yours.
As mentioned previously, some pilots are perfectly content to spend their entire careers at a regional airline. But if one desires to move on to a larger cargo or passenger airline, that pilot will generally need to gain experience as a Captain in a turbojet powered aircraft- typically at a regional airline. So once that pilot gains about 1500-2000 hours as a Captain (minimum), which equates to about 2 to 4 years of additional experience (minimum), he or she will then start to become competitive for a job at a larger carrier. Just like any other job, you fill out the application when you meet the minimum requirements and wait for the phone call offering an opportunity to interview. Again, depending upon the economy and your qualifications, it could be a short wait or a very long wait- sometimes 10 years or more. It's not uncommon for a quality, desirable passenger airline or cargo carrier to have thousands of applications on file when it only needs to fill sometimes less than a hundred positions a year. The competition can be fierce for those scarce, high quality, lucrative positions.
Corporate Career Path
If your career goal is a good corporate job, after gaining some experience, often by flight instructing and/or flying for a regional airline (and in reality it could be obtained in many different ways), most will apply for an entry level position with a corporate flight department. In my experience, the corporate jobs that are open to pilots with lower levels of flight time tend to be the least desirable. They often have low pay and perhaps require a pilot to be "on call" and available for a timely departure many days during a given month. Sometimes these lesser desirable jobs come attached with menial additional duties like washing the airplane or doing office work. I've heard of some corporate flight departments that only allow their pilots a few days free of duty each month, which makes it difficult to schedule life's normal activities.
Like any other undesirable job, a corporate pilot will use that experience to build flight time and eventually apply for more desirable corporate jobs. Often, more desirable corporate jobs include flying large, advanced business jets for established and well regarded corporate flight departments or working for a fractional corporate jet operator. These types of jobs tend to provide better salaries, benefits, and quality of life.
Military Career Path
The military pilot career path is a different animal than described above. Although I am not a military pilot myself, Jeff from Airline Pilot Central and a few other contributors (thanks guys!) put some information together for me. From this information, I'll explain some career paths that could lead to becoming a professional military pilot. Admittedly, the information below has an Air Force slant.
Getting accepted into any of the military academies is difficult. The students accepted by these highly respected institutions tend to be very successful in high school, both academically and outside of the classroom. If you choose this route and are accepted, Uncle Sam will pick up the tab for your entire college education. Further, since the standards of academy acceptance are so high, these academies tend to get the most pilot slots. Life as an academy student, especially in the first and second year, is extremely demanding and regimented. Academic standards are high, and in addition students are expected to be physically fit and active in athletics and other activities outside of the classroom.
Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)
If one wants to become a military pilot, another path that can be taken is through a ROTC program. If you are selected for a ROTC program, you would attend a university and obtain your Bachelor's Degree, but you would also attend college military classes and weekly leadership labs where you learn to become a military officer. During the summer of your sophomore year, you also attend a 4 to 6 week "boot camp" where your officer training continues.
As a ROTC cadet under scholarship, Uncle Sam pays for the majority of your tuition (depending upon how expensive your school is) and you also receive a small monthly stipend to help with your expenses while at school. In exchange for this financial assistance, you will have a commitment to serve after you graduate from college. Also, a student who has successfully participated in a ROTC program is generally looked upon favorably when the military is awarding pilot slots. Participation in a ROTC program, however, does not guarantee selection for a pilot slot. It's very possible that if the military is not looking for pilots when you graduate from college, or if you are not chosen for a pilot slot, that you could be placed into a non-flying position. Remember, you still have your commitment, so if a pilot slot is unavailable, you'll be flying a desk until one becomes available to you, if at all.
Another way one can become a professional military pilot is by joining a Reserve or Guard unit after you graduate from college and have already gained flight experience on your own. These positions can be difficult to obtain as an "outsider," especially desirable fighter unit positions, as these units tend to hire from within. For example, in order to be competitive for an Air Force Guard/Reserve Unit, you must score very highly on the AFOQT (Air Force Officer Qualifying Test), have quality flying experience, and then pass an interview board.
UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training)
Note: I'll be using the Air Force as my examples below….
If you are selected for a flying position from one of the above paths, you will be sent to UPT. It's about 13 months long, and is broken into two cycles. The first cycle everyone goes through, which involves flying the T-6. After this cycle, pilots are divided into different training groups, depending upon whether they are going to go to fly fighters, heavy aircraft, or propeller powered aircraft. Some pilots may even go fly UAVs.
After going through UPT, you'll likely go into military active duty, flying the aircraft you ultimately trained in. As an active duty officer, you can expect to have a commitment of over a decade, and you can expect to have to move your family during that time about every 4 years. As you move up in the ranks as an officer, you tend to fly airplanes less and desks more, which could prevent you from building flight time if you're planning on going to the airlines after the military. You have to make sure that you stay in good physical shape, with 2 physical fitness tests each year. You also are required to participate in many military exercises, and you could be sent anywhere in the world, including combat zones. However, you will receive quality training, a steady paycheck, and other good benefits, including the ability to retire with a pension and health benefits if you put in the required time.
Professional Pilot Saleries
Airline pilot salaries are probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of the profession when discussed by the non-flying public. If I had a nickel every time I saw or read incorrect information concerning how pilots are paid, I think I'd be a very wealthy person! I'll discuss how much newly minted pilots, fresh out of university and/or flight training can expect to make, and then I'll discuss salary ranges for airline pilots. Unfortunately, I think many aspiring airline pilots are going to be surprised as to how low civilian pilot pay can go.
Hourly Pay Rates: What They Really Mean...
Let me start off by discussing hourly pay rates. Very often, you'll hear a pilot school recruiter or a TV reporter or read in the media a quote or statement that a professional pilot, "earns XX.XX amount per hour...." For example, one time on CNBC I heard a regional airline management representative trying to defend entry level regional airline pilot wages by proudly claiming that a new pilot at his airline earns twenty dollars an hour! Now to the general public, that's a pretty good wage. I mean, just doing round numbers in your head that's ($20/per hour) x (40 hours per week) x (52 weeks per year), right? That's over 40 grand a year, right? Wrong!
Pilots aren't paid like any other hourly worker in other professions. Despite the fact that professional pilots work 8, 10, 12 hour+ days just like any other professional, they are only compensated for the time considered "in flight." For most flying jobs, unless it's a salaried position, that usually means that they are paid from when the parking brake is released at the departure point until the brake is set upon arrival at the destination. It's not uncommon for a flight instructor or an airline pilot to work a 12 hour day and only actually get paid for 5 to 6 hours of that time- and sometimes less!
So, armed with that knowledge, where does that leave us? Well, as a rule of thumb, which works well for most airline jobs, take the hourly wage you're looking at and multiply it by 1,000 to get a rough estimate of your annual wage. So in my CNBC example above, the regional airline management representative who said his airline pays new pilots 20 bucks an hour was really only paying his new pilots about $20,000 per year. That's a "little bit" different than what he was trying to get his listeners to believe. You'll find that flight school salesmen, university recruiters, and airline management like to discuss pilot salaries publicly in "dollars per hour" because it doesn't make low annual salaries sound as bad...but I find that incredibly misleading.
So when you're talking to that slick-talking university representative or flight school salesman about future anticipated earnings, your antennae should go up when they start talking about wages in terms of "dollars per hour." Once you hear that, you'll know you're probably getting fed a line...
The Professional Pilot Salary Ladder - Airlines
I'll start at the bottom of the civilian pay tiers and work my way up. As mentioned in the "Typical Career Paths" section of this site, many professional pilots start off flight instructing. Flight instructor pay tends to be very, very low and unless you are fortunate enough to work for a very busy flight school, many flight instructors have to work a second job in order to make ends meet. Wages of around $10 to $20 dollars per hour (remember what I said about hourly wages above!) are not uncommon. This wage often includes no benefits like vacation, sick leave, or health insurance. In some states, flight instructors will qualify for public assistance. Keep in mind that many flight instructors have just graduated from college and/or have recently finished all of their flight training and are now required to start paying back all that debt, which can amount to payments that are several hundred dollars per month. All I can say is that it can be as financially difficult as it sounds- long days, low pay, and a crushing debt load from all that money you needed to borrow for your college education and flight training. The flight school and university recruiters likely didn't mention that low salary part to you, did they?
You can see why I mentioned previously that nobody wants to stay as a flight instructor for long. This is also the point where the reality of this profession starts to kick in. Many pilots wander off into different careers in an attempt to make ends meet, never returning to the pilot profession again. Hopefully, at this point in your career, the economy is going strong, airlines are hiring, and you don't have to flight instruct for long. Right now, unfortunately, as I write this in early 2011, this is not the case.
The next rung in the salary ladder pilots might find themselves standing on after flight instructing is probably flying charter for a small commercial/corporate flight department or flying freight. Again, low wages and poor quality of life prevail. A person working for a small business participating in the above commercial activities might earn an annual salary in the high 20's per year or the low 30's if they're lucky, with perhaps some meager benefits like the ability to obtain health insurance through their employer. At this point, you're probably two to three years out of college, maybe longer if the economy is doing poorly.
If your next rung in the salary ladder is at a regional airline instead of a small commercial/corporate flight department, unfortunately, you're not doing much better. Entry level wages for a regional airline First Officer range around $20/hour, which equates to around $20,000 per year. This salary, however, often includes some benefits like health insurance, a meager 401K match, and sick leave. So the salary remains low, but there are now some benefits attached to that low hourly rate. Senior First Officers, with at least several years of experience, can expect to make around $30-$40/hour, or $30,000 to $40,000 per year.
As mentioned in the "Typical Career Paths" portion of this website, depending upon the economy and the financial condition of your employer, you may spend a short period of time as a First Officer, or a long period of time. Some regional airline First Officers at one large regional airline are approaching a decade as a First Officer with no real upgrade opportunities in sight. For your financial sake, hopefully your stay as a regional airline First Officer is a short period of time! Once you upgrade to Captain, at most regional airlines you can expect to make in the $35,000 to $50,000 range annually as a new, junior Captain, with the lower rate applying to Captains of turboprop aircraft and the higher rate applying to Captains of turbojet powered aircraft. A senior regional airline turbojet Captain with 15 to 20 years at his or her regional airline can earn a high 5 figure salary to a low six figure salary, depending upon the airline.
For pilots that desire to go on to a large, major airline or cargo carrier, pay and quality of life can improve. A professional pilot with over a decade of experience and thousands of hours of experience as a Captain would be considered reasonably qualified for an entry level position as a First Officer at a large major airline or cargo carrier. Entry level pay can vary quite a bit, and often results in a pay cut if one is leaving a regional airline as a senior Captain. For most major airlines, entry level pay for a entry level First Officer is in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, whereas a senior First Officer can earn in the low six figure range annually. At some financially successful major airlines and cargo carriers, entry level First Officers can earn upwards of $60,000 per year and as a senior First Officer, they can expect to earn in the low six figure range annually as well. A few airlines still have a defined benefit pension plan, which is financially very valuable. Keep in mind that entry level first officers at this level are, on average, in their mid to late 30's and have been out of college slogging it out in the real world for well over 10 to 15 years- but sometimes much, much longer.
Now comes the financial pinnacle of the profession- what many pilots aspire to- becoming a Captain at a large major airline or cargo carrier. Junior Captains earn around $120,000 to $140,000 per year at major airlines, and at some financially successful major airlines and cargo carriers, slightly over $200,000 per year. Unfortunately, however, these men and women are at the tip of the pilot pay pyramid, and these jobs are extremely hard to come by. Many will read these six figure numbers and salivate, but unfortunately it is highly unlikely that the average reader will ever see a salary that high. There simply aren't that many jobs like this available, and there are tons of other variables that could come into play that can prevent you from ever becoming senior enough to hold a position like that at any time in your career.
Unfortunately, the six figure numbers in the previous paragraph are the salaries that are thrown around by the media, and the slick-talking flight school/university salesmen trying to get you to enroll in their flight program. Those salaries are assumed by the flying public to be the "average" or "normal" salaries for the typical airline pilot, and of course nothing could be further from the truth- although I wish it were true!
There are many good things that come with being an airline pilot....
Pilots Love Their Job
First of all, most pilots are very passionate about their profession and love flying airplanes. Of everyone I know in all kinds of different professions, no one enjoys their job as much as I do. And likely, if you do meet your career aspirations of becoming an airline pilot, you will realize the same thing. There are few things better in life than going to work and actually enjoying what you do. The job is always different, it's stimulating, interesting, and can be extremely rewarding. Frankly, it's probably one of the coolest jobs anyone could ever have short of being a brain surgeon or an astronaut :)
The schedule flexibility, especially the flexibility afforded to senior pilots, can be extremely beneficial. (and also extremely detrimental, which is why this listed under "The Bad" section of the website as well!) Airline pilots don't work the typical 9 to 5 schedule that many other professionals work. Very often, pilots have groups of days where they are "ON" and have groups of days off where they are "OFF." The quantity and the quality of these ON/OFF days is usually determined by one thing- seniority. A moderately senior pilot can have sometimes 18 days off, with these days off grouped together in a manner that would allow weekends and holidays off, or perhaps long stretches of time off by grouping "OFF" days together. There are very few jobs that offer that type of flexibility. Of course, you have to be senior enough to take advantage of these scheduling abilities.
As much as I have stated that for many pilots pay is very low, especially during the early several years of one's career, for some lucky pilots, the career can be very lucrative. It is possible, after many years of service, to earn high salaries sometimes well north of $100,000 per year. Of course, you have to be lucky enough to choose the airline that's not going to go bankrupt on you in your peak earning years nor be financially unstable in the future. Some airlines still have pensions, now becoming extinct in other industries, so becoming employed by one of these carriers could be financially beneficial to your retirement.
If you love to travel, then this job is for you. Not only will you have the opportunity to "see the world" on your company's dime as you "work for the man" as an airline pilot, but you also will enjoy travel benefits, like inexpensive space available seating to wherever your airline flies, or discounted airline tickets for you, your family, and your parents. Now I'll be the first to tell you that the travel benefits aren't as good as they used to be just 10 years ago, but for the most part they are usable if you travel smart. And if you're traveling alone as a pilot, you'll have access to the jumpseat(s) in the cockpit of both your airline and other airlines, usually for free. With this benefit, you can travel virtually anywhere in the world on your own.
Just as pilots usually love their jobs, you'll find that the other professionals you work with enjoy theirs, too. You'll meet many different people, cultures, and their associated ideas. There are few things more enjoyable than flying with a group of people who love their jobs and the airline biz.
Live Wherever You Want
Since pilots can fly very inexpensively on their own airline, or use the pilot-exclusive cockpit jumpseats on their own carrier or just about any other carrier for free, many pilots choose to live outside of the city they are based in with their airline. For example, a Chicago based pilot could live in Florida if he or she desires. As long as the pilot allows enough time to fly from their home to their airline's domicile to begin their trips, it's perfectly acceptable to commute and live wherever you choose. Some pilots, however, would find such a commute stressful and undesirable so therefore chose to live in their assigned domicile. Regardless, the pilot can choose to live "in base" or anywhere else, as desired. Few jobs offer that type of flexibility.
Many Airlines Don't Care About Your Age
This is more for career changers, but unlike other professions where once you hit a "certain age" it becomes more and more difficult to find employment, in the airline business the airlines don't really seem to care. In particular, during the short periods of time of airline economic growth where regional airlines get desperate for anyone to take their low paying, low quality, entry-level jobs, they'll hire just about anyone who meets minimum qualifications. You could be 50 years old for all they care. If you meet their minimum requirements and can withstand the financially difficult regional airline first officer lifestyle, the job will likely be yours!
You Don't Take Your Job Home with You
Many professionals, even when at home, are still chained to their company. Even on days off, they still may be required to answer e-mails, texts, or phone calls. For the most part, when you set the parking brake on the last leg of your last day, that's it. You don't take your job home with you. There may be some times where you might have to do a little "homework" for the job (like preparing for your checkrides or upgrades) but again, for the most part, unless you're on call you are not required to answer your phone or be "available" to the company.
The Up and Coming Pilot Shortage...
For those of you who are currently professional pilots and are reading this section, I am sure you are rolling your eyes and/or snickering to yourself as you read the topic above. Every professional pilot is fed this line at some point in their training. Again, if I had a nickel every time an instructor, a teacher, a flight school salesman, an admissions officer, an aviation publication, etc., repeated this ridiculous theory, I'd be typing this from my yacht in the Caribbean instead of from my basement in Alabama. (*note- not that there's anything wrong with Alabama)
For those of you considering becoming a professional pilot, let me make something perfectly clear- THERE IS NO PILOT SHORTAGE. There hasn't been one in the 23 years I've been flying, and there certainly isn't one coming in the foreseeable future (it's April 2011 as I type). In fact, just the opposite is true. Over the 23 years I have been involved as an active pilot, in training, and as a professional pilot wage earner, despite the numerous times I've been told that this shortage is, "just around the corner," or, "just a few years away," there has always been a huge SURPLUS of pilots available to work.
Now let me tell you how I know there currently is, and has been in past decades, not a shortage of pilots, but a huge OVERSUPPLY of pilots. I know because I understand supply and demand. Let me explain....
If you look at the "Professional Pilot Salaries" section of this site, you'll see that wages for pilots throughout the industry, except at the tip of the pyramid, are extremely low. They're especially low considering the expense (i.e. risk) the typical pilot has to incur in order to become a professional pilot. If there ever was a pilot shortage, wouldn't salaries be trending up and not down, as they have been in the past decade? If there ever was a pilot shortage, do you think flight instructors would still be earning poverty wages and regional airline First Officers would qualify for food stamps at $20,000/year, even during good economic times? What other job do you know of that requires a 4 year degree, tens of thousands of dollars of additional training, and only pays $10,000 to $30,000 per year in the first several years of one's career? How does "the man" (he-he) get away with paying such a low wage to pilots, especially new pilots?
Because he can! Because he knows that if you don't accept that $20,000/year regional airline job, there are 10 other guys behind you that will. That reeks of an oversupply of pilots in this industry. Between this poor economy, the thousands of highly qualified pilots on furlough, the recent change in retirement age from 60 to 65, and the thousands of new pilots the flight training industry continues to pump out each year with no jobs to go to, unfortunately the huge pilot oversupply problem is not going to change soon. In fact, in my opinion, it is getting worse!
If you are considering entering the professional pilot career, you need to understand that the laws of supply and demand are not in your (our!) favor at all, and won't be for the next several years- if ever! If flight training schools all across the country stopped producing professional pilots tomorrow, we'd still have plenty of pilots for years to come. If someone ever tries to tell you that a big pilot shortage is just around the corner, run away.
Also understand that if the regional airline industry in the future were to have difficulty hiring entry-level first officers, whether for a few months or a year or longer, that difficulty does not necessarily constitute a "pilot shortage." What you would be seeing in that case is a lack of willingness of qualified pilots to accept a job that consists of very low wages and a poor quality of life. It's very possible that in the future, whether tomorrow or next year when the age 65 retirements start at the airlines, that the regionals with the worst reputations in the profession will have difficulty filling classes. Again, that's not because there is suddenly a shortage of pilots. It's because there are many qualified pilots, sitting in the military or working a non-aviation job that will not want to give up their current pay, benefits, and quality of life for a regional airline that offers none of those things. Keep that in mind if there happens to be an upturn in the airline business and regional airlines start complaining that they can't hire enough pilots. When the regional airlines are forced, kicking and screaming, to raise entry-level first officer wages to a respectable level, and/or when the major airlines have difficulty hiring pilots, then you'll know a pilot shortage is at hand! Until then, the pilot shortage myth is just that- an 'oft repeated fable.
Now in the interest of providing both sides of the argument, I give you a link to a paper from the Journal of Aviation Management and Education. This paper has a different view about future "pilot shortages," although I would like to point out that it's currently 2010 and the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) "demand" forecast has already been blown (see table 2 on page 6 of the paper). Again, from where I sit there has not been, currently is not, and for the foreseeable future will not be a pilot shortage. Here is another link to a recent article about a potential "future pilot shortage." Again, I'll believe it when I see it as I have read articles like this again and again for a couple of decades now. Might there be a shortage in the future? Who knows!
Most Pilots are Paid a High Salary
The media paints a picture of pilot compensation that is usually not even close to reality. As discussed in the "Professional Pilot Salaries" section of this site, there is a small number of pilots, at the tip of the pilot compensation pyramid, who do earn high salaries. Of course, those are the guys/gals that are discussed in the media and other publications when the topic comes up. That then, of course, becomes "average" in a viewer's or reader's mind.
However, I could make the same analogy about actors, for example. There are some actors walking around Hollywood right now who earn extremely high salaries who we hear about all the time, but we all know that the vast majority of actors do not. In fact, the vast majority of actors probably struggle to survive (there's that oversupply rearing its ugly head again- too many people want to be actors so salaries are mostly low!). The same is true for pilots. As much as I hate to say it, many pilots struggle to survive, especially young flight instructors and regional airline first officers. During the Congressional hearings after the horrible Buffalo crash in December of 2008, congressmen were shocked to hear how little that regional airline's flight crew was paid. The First Officer of that flight was said to have lived at her parent's house on the west coast because she couldn't even afford to live in the northeast U.S. where she was based.
Hopefully if you have gotten this far, you've read the other sections of this website. For those of you that hope to become a professional airline pilot, I have some humble advice that will hopefully make the lean years a little better and in the long run save you some money...
For the Young Person
If you're in high school or perhaps kind of figuring out what to do with your life in the first year or two for college, consider the following:
1. Do not enter this profession unless you are absolutely passionate about aviation and becoming a pilot. As you have read, you will accumulate serious amounts of debt and work for many years for very low wages. The only thing that keeps most new pilots going is their love of flying. If you don't have that passion, you'll find that the "glamor factor" of becoming an airline pilot will wear off very quickly, and you will be tired, in tremendous debt, and will have wasted many years of your life. That's no place to be, trust me. I see it all the time. If you like airplanes but are not absolutely dedicated to the profession, get a job doing something else and join a local flying club or purchase your own general aviation aircraft. You'll be much happier, and you can still enjoy aviation.
2. Do not get a Bachelor's Degree in an aviation related field. It is very likely that at some point in your career you are going to be furloughed. Maybe twice. Maybe for a long time. I have found that furloughed pilots that have degrees in fields like engineering or accounting or nursing or education or other timeless "in demand" fields land on their feet better, and don't suffer the financial devastation that can follow that first or second furlough. A degree in "Aeronautical Science" or "Aviation Management" is great if you're going to work in the field of aviation, but if you're furloughed that means that the aviation industry is in the pits. That "Aeronautical Science" degree will be as useless as your Commercial Pilot Certificate when everyone is furloughing and no one in the aviation industry is hiring. Get a non-aviation degree that you can use for gainful employment when that furlough comes. You'll thank me.
And don't worry. There isn't an airline in the business that cares what field your Bachelor's Degree is in. You could have a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy from an on-line university.....your future employer won't care! As long as the degree is from an accredited college or university, you've checked that "Do you have a Bachelor's Degree?" box as far as an airline's human resources department is concerned.
3. Avoid high cost, "brand name" universities, even though many have great reputations as respected aeronautical universities**. Don't get me wrong. I went to one of those brand name, high cost, aeronautical universities. And I received an excellent education- probably the best money could buy at the time. But professional pilot compensation expectations and career progression has changed, for the worse, since I graduated form college more than 20 years ago so we should all adapt accordingly. Now don't get me wrong. If that "name brand" aeronautical university is going to give you enough scholarship money to make the cost the same as less expensive alternatives, go for it. But if it's more expensive to go to that "name brand" university, avoid it.
As stated above, airlines DO NOT CARE where you received your Bachelor's Degree from if they require one for employment. You could have a Bachelor's Degree from your local community college. You could have your Bachelor's Degree from the most reputable aeronautical university in the world. The airlines simply don't care! They only care that you have a Bachelor's Degree from an accredited educational institution. It's that simple.
Why do I suggest avoiding the expensive universities? Because unless you have someone else footing the bills, you are going to be very poor in the first several years of your career, and you will be carrying a tremendous amount of flight training and education debt. Since the airlines could care less where you received your degree from, why take on six figure debt for an expensive "aeronautical university" degree when a degree from your local state college system will be much cheaper? You don't want to get an aviation related degree, anyway, so your state university system will likely have a better variety of non-aviation related degrees to choose from. Debt is your enemy in this profession. Avoid it like the plague.
**For now, my advice to avoid high cost, brand name aeronautical universities still stands. However, due to pending legislation I have another item for you to consider. Presently, Congress is contemplating changing the minimum flight time requirements for an entry-level regional airline pilot First Officer from Commercial Pilot Certificate minimums, around 300 hours, to ATP minimums which is 1500 hours. In this legislation might be a possible exception to the 1500 hour requirement. The exception may apply to those who obtain their flight training from "qualified" educational institutions and programs. However, since this legislation isn't law yet and there is still much debate over it, no one knows who these "qualified" educational institutions will be nor what type of program a new pilot would have to go through. However, if there are any institutions that would likely be on that "qualified" list, it would probably be the big aeronautical universities and the big flight schools. We also don't know how much the 1500 hr. minimum flight time requirement would be reduced by if one were to participate in a "qualified" program. When I hear more, I'll post!
4. Try to choose a flight school that provides a direct path to employment, preferably to reputable regional airlines. Remember, if you want to become an airline pilot, you want to get turbojet Captain flight time as quickly as possible so that you can become employed by your desired airline at as young an age as possible. You also want to avoid low paying jobs, like flight instructing, if possible. There are many flight schools out there that offer direct paths to the regional airlines after successful completion of their programs, and some offer very competitive, all inclusive prices. Further, some schools will offer you employment as a flight instructor at the completion of your flight training if the regionals aren't hiring. Those are the flight schools that you want on your "short list" as you consider which school to send tens of thousands of your dollars to, all else being equal of course.
Some reputable (and likely expensive) aeronautical universities also offer direct paths to regional airline jobs. To me, they're still not worth the money. It's just as easy to go to a cheaper state university and simply find a good flight school when you graduate that will provide you with that same exact path. Again, why take on the extra debt when you're likely going to be living on low wages for many years?
5. Avoid giving flight schools large deposits or large "up front" payments for your training, even if they offer you a discount. The flight training industry, unfortunately, is just as fragile as the airline industry is financially. The flight training industry is full of flight schools that prey on young people who dream of becoming airline pilots. Just in the past year, many flight schools have closed and/or gone bankrupt, taking unsuspecting students' prepayments and deposits with them. Some students have fronted their entire $50,000+ training bill, lost everything, and never received anything more than a few hours of flight training before their school went under. When you do business with a flight school, treat it as if it will go out of business tomorrow, no matter how reputable and stable you think the school appears to be. Protect yourself and your money.
If the flight school you are considering won't let you "pay as you go" or requires large "up front" deposits, walk away. If you're getting a loan through or sponsored by your flight school, make sure the loan proceeds are deposited in an account that YOU SOLELY CONTROL, not an account that the flight school has access to. If the flight school refuses to do that, walk away. There are no shortage of reputable flight schools out there that will allow you to make small deposits or pay as you fly.
For the Career Changer
If you're currently working in an entirely different profession and you want to become a professional airline pilot, I suggest the following:
1. If you would be happy flying the rest of your career at a regional airline or "2nd tier" airline or cargo carrier, don't bother getting a Bachelor's Degree. Many of these airlines don't require one, and during good economic times, and I hesitate to say this, but some will hire anyone with minimum flight experience and a pulse, whether you have a degree or not. As you've read, you'll be struggling financially for the first few to several years of your career, so that's one way to save a large monthly payment.
2. If you can, don't start your flight training until you have enough saved up, in cash, from your current job. As I have stated repeatedly, for the first few to several years of your new airline pilot career, you will be very poor. If you can pay cash for your flight training and/or college education from the proceeds of your current job, you will be financially head and shoulders above most of your peers.
3. "Practice" living on two, $700 a month paychecks (after taxes and health insurance) if you're not sure you'll be able to make it financially as a new professional airline pilot. That's the wage you'll likely be earning when you ultimately make the career change and work for a regional airline. If you can't live on it now while you have the "safety cushion" of your current job, you likely won't be able to live on this salary when it becomes your new reality. Use the money you save while you practice living on this salary to pay for your future flight training or put it aside in a secure account in case you need to dip into it during those first difficult years as a new professional pilot.
General Advice for Anyone Considering the Profession
1. Keep your nose clean. No drugs, no traffic tickets, no DUI's, no trouble with the law. Drug offenses, felonies, and DUI's can be the kiss of death in this profession. You might be able to get a way with a few traffic tickets, but if an employer finds a pattern of irresponsible behavior, they won't hire you to fly their multi-million dollar aircraft if you can't even responsibly handle your automobile or your life.
2. Network and stay in touch with EVERYONE. Many good flying jobs are never even advertised, and if they are, an internal recommendation can be the difference between employment at your dream airline or slogging it out at an undesirable carrier.
3. Marry well. If you do decide to get married, make sure your spouse understands your future career goals and what that entails. You might want to explain to him/her what your salary expectations will be in your future, the fact that you might have to move, the fact that your spouse may be the main bread winner for many, many years, and that it's very likely you're going to miss many, many holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other important life events. Remember that this profession is like few others. If your spouse isn't "on board" with the dedication required by you to pursue your career, it will just add another layer of complication (and friction!) to your already difficult life.
4. Live a very financially conservative lifestyle, even after you think "you've made it." Again, you're going to be poor for a very long time, and even when you do make it to a good paying job and finally pay off all that debt, it's very possible that things completely beyond your control (the economy, terrorism, poor airline management, etc.) could send you right back out on the street, making regional airline First Officer wages. Unless you have an outside source of income or a spouse with a good job, keep your debt to a minimum and try to pay cash for everything. Most financial planners suggest that one keep 6 to 9 months of expenses in a liquid, insured savings account. In my opinion, a pilot should keep much more than that available. Our careers are far more volatile than others, so a significant financial reserve needs to be put in place to compensate for the special career challenges we face as professional pilots.
There's an old saying that was repeated to me when I was starting out in the profession. When you're a Flight Engineer, live as cheaply as you can. When you become a First Officer, live like a Flight Engineer. When you become Captain, live like a First Officer. That's good, conservative financial advice to live by.
For those currently in the profession
If you have some advice you'd like to include on this page, e-mail me at globalexpress123 at comcast dot net with 200 words or less. If you include your name, I will abbreviate it by using only your first name, your last initial, and a generic description of your current employer (i.e. "a major airline pilot" or "a regional airline pilot," etc.). Please give a very brief description of your aviation background so the reader can put your comments in perspective.
I reserve the right to edit your narrative. If you are not happy with the editing, contact me and I will remove your comments.
Advice from Those Currently in the Profession:
I'm a grown adult with a family and also a career changer. I have several outside income sources (military, real estate, consulting in my previous career). Additionally I saved up enough to pay for my initial flight training. I could not possibly do this without my outside financial resources.
MANY of my fellow career changers have a military or law enforcement retirement (pension plus medical). Some simply worked real hard and became wealthy at an early age, a few got an inheritance. Just because WE can do this does not mean that YOU can do this...
If you want to change careers after age 30 (or at any age with a family) it is unrealistic to expect to be able to make it with only aviation income and no outside finances. Taking into account training costs (loans), you will not be able to support a family for ten years. You will need a VERY supportive spouse, who has a high-paying job skill which is PORTABLE...practically speaking this means an MD, PA, or RN with a specialty, accountant, etc. Lawyer doesn't work cuz she's not going to want to retake the bar every time you move.
Also make sure you are OK with the concept of being stuck at a regional for your entire career. Not all career changers will be, but the older you get, the harder it is to move on.
The most important piece of advice I believe I can give someone who is considering an aviation career is this...
Go get a Private Pilot License! Do it in your spare time at your local airport, and pay-as-you-go. Once you get the ticket, do some recreational flying on your own and think about whether this is really what you want to do. Still not sure? Get an instrument rating...
Too many people (usually very young folks with unrealistic expectations) jump into a "career pilot training program" (aka Zero-to-Hero) with no idea as to what flying is really all about. They show up at a regional airline and in short order end up bored and dissatisfied with their life....many wish they had never done it, and some seek out other careers.
Experience a little bit of what you are going to get into before you do it. Flying is not like an FPS video game or a modern youngster's data-overload wired life!
Chris R., major airline pilot
I have been one of the lucky ones in this career field who went straight from 8 years in the military to, as of today, 25 years at a major airline. Amazingly, over 20 years of that has been as a wide body Captain. Even with this good fortune, I would not dream of encouraging my two sons to follow in my footsteps. They are both currently enrolled in Engineering colleges. I am making the same pay today as I was in 1993. What else in this country still costs the same as it did 17 years ago? There is no future for this profession. It's heyday is past and the unstoppable wave of globalization will mean that very competent pilots from China, India and the like will be flying our airplanes for unbelievably low wages within the next couple of decades - i.e. during the working life of a pilot who is entering the profession today. Additionally, increased technology will take away the needed skill level for whoever occupies the cockpit of the future and this alone will drive down wages.......Every profession has its time and the time for the airline pilot has come and gone. Look for something that is on it's way up, not in decline. Good luck in life.
Tom P., cargo pilot
I started my flying career years ago by enrolling at an accelerated flight school in Florida. Fast forward 22 years…. I have been a flight instructor, single and multi-engine cargo pilot, jet co-pilot, laid off (jet sold), hog farmer, business owner, corporate jet captain, regional airline co-pilot, and major cargo airline flight engineer. I have three jet type ratings, no violations, and a reputation as a professional…..and by next weekend I and 400 other pilots I work with will be unemployed because of airline mal-management.
I have turned down two large corporate jet flying jobs over the past five years because I thought the future of my cargo airline was bright. Now, I will be fortunate in this market to have ANY flying job. I will survive because I started preparing for this about 9 months ago financially and otherwise. I have had some great adventures with some great people over the years. Mine is not an uncommon story in this profession! If you choose it, you MUST do this….prepare for the worst financially, work and hope for the best, and enjoy the ride, because it will most likely be a bumpy one. "The seatbelt sign has been illuminated."
About the author of this article
Eric H., airline pilot
First, here's a little about myself. I started my pilot career just over ten years ago at age 26 and am now an FO on the 777 for a major Asian carrier. In the summer of 2001, I had just completed my instrument rating and had about 100 hours total time. Five years and six jobs (and many moments of self-doubt) later, I landed a position as a second officer (cruise relief) in the 747-400. I have now been with the same company for five years.
If you still want to be an airline pilot, then here is some critical information:
1. Unless congress elevates the status of aviation colleges, don't go there. Find a good instructor, and Do it all part 61.
2. Network, network, network. I can't overstate the importance of keeping in touch with everyone. Two of my biggest breaks came from personal recommendations.
3. Pick a point early in your career at which you will stop spending money on flying. Beyond CFI, MEI or some other milestone, if you can't make money and advance with the qualifications you have, you should quit.
4. Write down your goals. For example, "I will be a regional airline or corporate FO by X date." I don't know how, but it really works. You should also write down you criteria to bail out and do something else.
Do not stagnate. Actively seek opportunities in growing areas of the industry (like Asia). If it doesn't work out, theres no shame in quitting. It's better to quit and start another career while you're young than to be a 10 year FO on reserve when the furloughs start.
5. Don't hesitate to go overseas. There isn't a pilot shortage in the USA, but there is a great need for experienced pilots in Asia and the middle east.
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