Airline Career

by Philip Greenspun; updated December 2008

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This article explains how to get a job as an airline pilot and discusses the smartest ways to build an airline career.

The Basic Path

Note that the job does not become a high-paying one until Job 4 is obtained. If salary is important to you, it therefore becomes critical to minimize the time spent at intermediate jobs.

Start Young

If you start at age 40, you can still enjoy the challenge of an airline career, but you are very unlikely to make it to a captain's seat at a major airline. It is thus important to start an airline career at a young age. Ideally you would do your flight training at age 15, solo at 16, earn your Commercial certificate and begin instructing at 18 and begin instructing.

Be a Woman

It is mostly a man's world out there in aviation, but the airlines are trying to change that by discrimination in hiring. For any flying job, the typical airline will hire the best of the men who apply. Before they do that, however, they hire any woman who has the minimum certificates and hours. A woman should be able to advance through this career roughly five years faster than a man with the same ability. Some very desirable employers will only hire ex-military pilots unless you happen to be a woman, in which case they will hire you if you meet their bare minimum qualifications.

Note that being a woman is only helpful when moving from job to job. At any given airline, promotion is based on seniority rather than skill or personal characteristics.

Get a Bachelor's Degree

Airline workers and management don't tend to be intellectuals. You won't hear people discussing the poetry of Rimbaud in the corridors. Nonetheless, a candidate with a bachelor's degree in French Literature will get hired ahead of someone with no college degree. One of the rules of our society is that young people should go to college, regardless of its relevance to job performance. Airlines like to hire people who follow rules.

It doesn't make sense to spend a lot of money on a bachelor's degree if you intend to work as an airline pilot. A Harvard or Yale degree won't get you further than an online degree from Utah Valley State College that costs 1/10th as much and can be obtained more quickly.

As you achieve seniority at an airline, it is possible that you'll have enough spare time to work at a side job. If you want to have a second source of income, study something that can be done part-time, at odd hours, and from a computer connected to the Internet. That way you can work if you're parked in a hotel for 24 hours. Software Engineering or Computer Science is an example of something that you could study in college for which there is a market for hourly workers.

Try to finish high school early, dropping out if necessary, and transition to college as soon as possible.

Learn to Fly

Ideally you would do this at whatever flight school is near your high school or college. The U.S. has 13,000 airports and many of them have flight schools. If you've already graduated from college and need to make up some time, consider a professional flight school where you will do flight training full time. An example is Comair Academy in Florida.

Teaching Flying

The Federal Aviation Administration allows both the student and the instructor to log hours while on a teaching flight. In choosing a flight school, don't compromise on safety and standards. You are already a professional pilot. The aircraft, maintenance, and procedures of the school should meet your personal standards. The second most important factor in choosing an employer is how many hours you'll fly per year. Look for a school that is very busy and/or one that is short of instructors. Airlines don't care how long you've been flying; they want to know how many hours you have and what kind of experience.

Make friends with local airplane owners and try to catch rides with them. In most cases you'll be able to log the time either as sole manipulator of the controls, safety pilot, or instructor. This will give you experience with more types of airplanes and flying than taking a Cessna or Piper around in circles with yet another primary student.

Apply at the cruelest or newest regional airline

Consider two potential first employers: Which is the better place to work? The captains at Air Cush are so happy that they might not leave until they reach mandatory retirement age. You'll wait 6 or 8 years to upgrade. The captains at Air Cruella hate their job and the schedule pushes them to the limits of human endurance. They will quit as soon as they reach 1000 hours of PIC time. You will upgrade after 1.5 years and be that much closer to your goal of becoming a captain at a major airline.

Do not compromise on safety, however. Do not apply to or work for an airline that cuts corners with the regulations.

A better alternative to an airline where all the captains are quitting is an airline that is brand new and expanding. These are high-risk jobs due to the high mortality rate of young airlines, but you can afford the risk early in your career.

Web sites where you can check to see who is hiring:

(Sadly these all require subscription fees, unfortunate when you consider that the starting salary at most airlines is under $20,000 per year.)

Consider a Foreign Airline

Asia and the Arab countries have much faster-growing aviation industries than the U.S. These countries have a much smaller pool of native talent on which to draw. In some cases, carriers in Arab or Asian countries can obtain lower insurance rates by using pilots from western countries, which increases demand for American-trained pilots. As a young person, fresh from your regional airline job, you won't have to compete with a lot of older American pilots who are too settled in with family and friends to consider living abroad for a few years.

Foreign carriers often don't lack the union and seniority arrangements of U.S. carriers. Pilots are on multi-year contracts. This is a positive for you as a junior employee because you won't have a schedule that is dramatically worse than a senior employee. The pain of reserve duty and crummy overnights will be spread around equally.

Consider Cargo and Part 121 Charter

When it is time to move on from your regional airline job, don't restrict your search to the major airlines on which you've been a passenger. Cargo carriers may offer more job security and more rapid promotion than the major airlines. Fedex and UPS have been much more consistent employers than American and United, for example.

Part 121 charter is also an interesting option. In the Depression of 2008, North American Airlines was growing its Boeing 757/767 operation while the rest of the industry was collapsing. What was their secret? Charter to the U.S. government. Most airlines check to make sure that none of the passengers are carrying guns; at North American nearly every passenger is carrying a rifle in his or her lap!

Consider Fractional

The schedules at NetJets and other fractional operators are more civilized than at major airlines. You work 7 days on, 7 days off. They buy you a real airline ticket from your home to wherever the trip starts, so you don't have to commute as a standby passenger. Pay is close to major airlines. You visit quieter airports with plush lounges for both passengers and crew. You don't have to deal with TSA security hassles (remember that an airline pilot goes through one or two TSA screenings every day!).

To position yourself for a job at a fractional company you must have some experience working directly with customers. The stereotypical grumpy airline captain makes a terrible fractional pilot. The guy is accustomed to slamming and locking the cockpit door, letting the flight attendants deal with passengers, and complaining operatically about scheduling, management, the union, the rampies, etc. The person who paid $5 million for a share in a Cessna Citation X doesn't want to hear that. There is no flight attendant, so if the pilots aren't welcoming and polite to the passenger, nobody else will be.

Get a job working in a retail store or restaurant on your days off if you want to apply to NetJets. Be prepared to talk about how much you love meeting customers and tending to their needs.

Why would you want the job?

What's good about being an airline pilot? Unless you are fortunate enough to pick an airline that prospers and stays in business long enough for you to build seniority, the money isn't very good, at least not adjusted for the number of hours that you devote to the job.

Flying a airplane from Point A to Point B is probably the hardest job that the average person thinks is trivial. After every successful flight or trip, you'll feel a deserved sense of accomplishment, even if the passengers think that the autopilot did everything. There is a lot of regulation and it is impossible to argue with management, the union rules, the whims of scheduling, etc. If you can accept all of that, once you're in the cockpit you are free from direct supervision.

The best evidence that being an airline pilot is a good job comes from the fact that a lot of people do it who don't need the money. Plenty of career pilots have spouses who are medical doctors and the incremental salary from the flying job is insignificant to total family income.

About the Author

The author is an Airline Transport Pilot with some Part 121 experience flying the Canadair Regional Jet (resume).


Reader's Comments

I find it interesting that you completely omitted Part 135 charter and Part 91 corporate flying as alternatives. I *entered* the 135 charter biz as a contract pilot on the Gulfstream IV, work 10 days a month at $1,000/day.

The 91 jobs are even better. I know many people who fly the same amount I do but don't have to pay for their own training or benefits. In this segment of the industry, if you change jobs, you don't go back to "square one".

It's truly beyond me why anyone would want to work for an airline.

-- Ron Rapp, January 25, 2014

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