Commercial Airline Pilot – Mentor, Kent Faith
This mentor has been a commercial airline pilot with a major carrier for twenty-six years and has flown both domestic and international routes. He was drawn to commercial aviation because of his love of flying. But because there are many people who also like flying and want to make it a career, becoming a commercial airline pilot is highly competitive and the training can be expensive. The airline industry is also cyclical. Pilots with less seniority do get laid off when the economy is in recession. So it is important for anyone considering pursuing a career as a commercial pilot to understand this can be a difficult career even though job satisfaction among commercial airline pilots is very high.
While attending college, I wanted to learn to fly and trained for a private pilot’s license. About that time, my father died. He owned an insurance agency that I took over. His life insurance business led to a concentration in property and casualty insurance and then specifically to aviation insurance. At thirty-one, I decided I did not want to sell insurance for the rest of my life and began to train for the certifications to become a commercial pilot. This meant first getting an instrument rating and a multi-engine ratings. I was then employed in various aviation jobs including ferrying airplanes around the US to build flight time, 1,500 flying hours was the threshold you needed to be considered for an entry level pilot’s job at a regional airline. I applied and was accepted at three regional carriers and chose American Eagle. There I flew turbo props and worked my way up to Captain. After two years, I was hired as a first officer at American Airlines, and entered their training program.
Originally hired by American Airlines as a Flight Engineer on the DC-10, my original training was a difficult 6 weeks, including systems training, FAA Rules and simulator training. These company courses for their pilots were in part specific to a particular model airplane. Moving to another aircraft required additional ground school and simulator training. This is one reason why a domestic carrier like Southwest that flies the same equipment on all its routes has lower costs than an international airline. By keeping their equipment uniform Southwest does not have to re-train pilots on different airplanes, scheduling pilots also becomes easier. The disadvantage is that Southwest’s service is limited by aircraft to shorter routes while the international airlines like American Airlines with much larger aircraft fly all over the world.
To become a commercial airline pilot, you also must be physically fit and keep yourself in shape. You are required to take a flight physical once a year if you are First Officer and every six months if you are a Captain. All US carriers require recurrent training at least once a year, in this way you are constantly learning as a pilot and are able to keep up with the latest technology and regulations.
There are Federal rules similar to long haul trucking for how long a pilot can fly. For example, a pilot cannot fly over 8 hours a day on domestic routes and also has a regulated rest period. If you are flying internationally, some of the longer flights can be sixteen hours in duration. Depending on the length of the flight, the airline could have three or four pilots so that one or two could always be rested. But the airlines have stricter policies than the government and try to stay below the government limits.
Before you consider becoming an airline pilot, you have to understand that you can be gone from your family for several days in a row, something that can put a strain on marriages. While being an airline pilot is thought of by most people as a glamorous career, all the destinations a pilot flies to and the accommodations when you arrive are not always so glamorous. There is always the chance of staying in a hotel that has a very loud and busy convention, leading to poor rest.
Pilot seniority is important. When you start out you get the more difficult routes where you spend more time away from home. As you gain seniority, you have more opportunity to choose your schedule. A senior pilot can choose their route and can be home more often. For example, a DFW based pilot might have “turns” and can be home at night while a more junior crew member might be on the road 3 to 4 days at a time.
Choosing a Path to become an Airline Pilot
There are two primary ways to become a pilot:
- At one time about 80% of the commercial airline pilots came from the military. That rate has changed dramatically over the past 25 years in large part because the military now has a much longer commitment after flight school. Military training can still be a good route for some people. In most cases flight time is in larger, multi engine planes and jet aircraft. Getting this kind of training for a private pilot can be difficult and expensive. Also military training is exceptionally well regarded by the commercial airline industry, which considers military pilots to be safety-focused, highly disciplined, dedicated and skilled. You should also not discount the opportunity to spend twenty years in the military, retire and then apply as a commercial airline pilot. Pilots are working more days then ever. Benefits have also been reduced, including pensions and health care. At the same time, much has improved in the military. Compensation compares very favorably with civilian aviators as to retirement pension and health care benefits. I would say to young people who don’t have the money for a private aviation education that you can stay in for your twenty, get your retirement benefits and then apply to the commercial airlines where you can still work for another twenty years with the financial safety net of the military pension.
- You can also attend a college that has a commercial aviation degree program. There are several state supported universities that have these programs along with private institutions like Embry Riddle, a university that specializes in aviation. Almost all commercial airlines pilots have a college degree and this major does give you a step up. But when you get out of that college program, you still have to find a way to amass the needed 1,500 hours of flight time before you can get a job as a commercial airline pilot. In most instances a degreed pilot out of college will have only 250 flying hours and not in the type of aircraft required by the major airlines. Most college graduates will apply to either corporate flight departments or the regional airlines for advanced training and experience. Some will obtain a Certified Flight Instructor certificate and work for a couple of years to gain experience and additional flight time. Many more have to take other jobs like I did ferrying airplanes to build time. Once you are able to build your flight hours as a Pilot in Command, you can apply for a job at a regional airline. There you will continue to build flight hours and gain experience in larger turbine aircraft and regional jets. Keep in mind this route can be expensive relative to the investment and return. College and university flight training can cost between $50,000 and $100,000. For several years after graduation you will earn little money getting the flight time you need to get a job as a commercial pilot. My first job as a pilot paid just $1,000 per month. Regional pilots now starting out only make between $25,000 and $35,000 (a starting major commercial airline salary is in the neighborhood of $60,000 to $80,000). You have to reach the level of Captain to earn a salary in the range of $150,000 to $175,000. Not everyone gets to that level. Meanwhile you have a lot of debt to service if you had to take out student loans. So be careful and choose a route that will minimize the amount you have to spend to get your basic licenses.
Future Job Prospects for Commercial Pilots
The future employment trends in the airline industry fluctuate in part with the economy. The baby boomers are currently in the senior pilot positions and now a large number of these pilots are retiring. This is going to provide a great deal of opportunity for new pilots and for first officers to move up to the Captain positions. I entered the industry in 1990 when there was also a shortage of pilots. This means that the employment outlook is good for commercial airline pilots. Here are some statistics: Boeing forecasts the global commercial aviation industry will need 498,000 new commercial airline pilots by 2032. Of this total, some 85,700 new pilots will be needed in North America. The pilot demand is fueled by baby-boomer generation pilot retirements and steadily increasing airplane deliveries of commercial freight not just passenger traffic. Also the mandatory rest periods during flight duties will rise from eight hours to 10 and require pilots get a full eight hours of sleep between flight-duty segments, which will also help increase the demand for new pilots.
The increase in demand and the fact that the large commercial airlines only hire experienced pilots is starting to open up more opportunity with the regional airlines where the majority of these experienced pilots hired by the major airlines are now trained. The possibility now exists that you can get there sooner as many of these regional carriers are developing their own training programs to help feed pilots to the parent. To attract pilots, the salaries at this level are also starting to rise.
I love to fly and enjoy being an airline pilot. I like the travel and the training where you are able to learn something new every year. I now have seniority and better control over my schedule. But becoming an airline pilot is a lot like becoming a major league baseball player. You have to spend a lot of time in the minor leagues before you get to the majors. Getting the hours you need to get a job after your get your initial licenses can be a struggle and a financial strain on someone who wants to start a family. But according to most projections, the next several years are going to represent one of the best opportunities to enter the industry that we have seen since I was hired as a commercial airline pilot.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics on Pilot Salaries
The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $114,200 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $66,970, and the top 10 percent earned more than $187,200.
According to the Air Line Pilots Association, International, most airline pilots begin their careers earning about $20,000 per year. Wages increase each year until the pilot accumulates the experience and seniority needed to become a captain. The average captain at a regional airline earns about $55,000 per year, while the average captain at a major airline earns about $135,000 per year.
In addition, airline pilots receive an expense allowance, or “per diem,” for every hour they are away from home, and they may earn extra pay for international flights. Airline pilots also are eligible for health insurance and retirement benefits, and their immediate families usually are entitled to free or reduced-fare flights.
The median annual wage for commercial pilots outside the major airlines was $73,280 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,520, and the top 10 percent earned more than $134,990.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for commercial pilots in the top four industries employing these pilots were as follows:
Nonscheduled air transportation $73,660
Ambulance services $69,700
Technical and trade schools; private $69,500
Scenic and sightseeing transportation $66,550