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.
- Year 1: Getting Private, Instrument, Commercial, and Flight Instructor Certificates; roughly 250 hours of flying costing $30,000.
- Year 2-3: Working as a flight instructor, logging hours while with students; roughly 750 hours of flying earning $5-25 per hour.
- Job 1: Working at a regional airline as a first officer (copilot) earning $20,000 the first year.
- Job 2: Working at a regional airline as a captain earning $45,000
the first year, building up at least 1000 hours of Pilot-in-Command
time (1.5 years) before moving to Job 3.
- Job 3: Working at a major airline as a first officer earning $50,000 the first year.
- Job 4: Working at a major airline as a captain earning $80-200,000 per year.
- Age 65: Mandatory retirement from any scheduled airline job.
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.
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
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
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.
- Air Cush: high salaries, especially for captains; good schedules,
especially for senior captains; extra pay when a flight is delayed; good
training; employee wellness and self-esteem committees
- Air Cruella: low pay; 20-hour work days where you get paid for 3
hours of flight time; JFK-BOS pays 1 hour even if you spend 7 hours in
the plane waiting, deicing, waiting, deicing, etc.; management
conspicuously indifferent to employees
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
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
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!
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
About the Author
The author is an Airline Transport Pilot with some Part 121 experience
flying the Canadair Regional Jet (resume).
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