Cashing in on the Pilot Shortage: Is Now the Time?

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Who wouldn't want to make $160,000 a year flying a well-equipped aircraft just 15 days a month? Now is your chance! Airlines are scrambling to put warm bodies in cockpits. There's a pilot shortage in the United States ... even none other than the well-respected Wall Street Journal recently said so. Well, maybe. As AVweb's Liz Swaine discovered, just because airlines need pilots, it doesn't necessarily mean they want you.

"With demand for air travel at record highs and many pilots facing mandatory retirement at age 60, U.S. airlines are desperately trying to fill their cockpits." The Wall Street Journal.

I don't know that there is a general aviation pilot alive who hasn't toyed with the thought of applying for an airline job, if only on a lark. Up until just a few years ago, though, airline standards were so high most of us GA wannabes could do nothing but dream. The majority of normal human beings don't seem to have 20/20 uncorrected vision, thousands of hours of multi-engine and instrument time, a college degree, an ATP, and one or more type ratings. The normal human beings I hang out with need glasses, contacts, or extremely long arms, are proud to say they have struggled to accumulate 500 to 2,000 hours of single-engine flight time, and if they are instrument rated, have spent more minutes popping through clouds to get to the VFR on top than hours slogging through the thick of them.

That's why the pilot shortage has been so, well, exciting! It seemed suddenly that there was hope for those mere mortals who dreamed of flying a plane for pay. To get a real sense of the job market, I spent a recent weekend at one of the ubiquitous Airline Employee Placement Service (AEPS) AirFairs being held almost monthly somewhere in the U.S., and tried to talk to most of the commercial airlines represented there. What I discovered is that there are jobs available for the right people ... but even if you are right, the job might be wrong. Wait a minute. Say what?

Qualifications, Please?

"Almost every carrier has had to lower flight-time requirements for new pilots, and take younger and fatter applicants." The Wall Street Journal.

Though much ado has been made about airlines lowering requirements to fill all their projected captain and first officer slots, one thing is certain. They are still not desperate enough to hire 500-hour pilots, no matter what you may have hoped or heard … and they will not so much as consider a candidate who does not meet their minimum requirements. What are the minimums? For the commuters like Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA), Northwest Airlink, American Eagle, and US Airways Express, you must have 1,000 to 1,200 hours total flight time, 200-250 hours multi-engine, IFR currency, a First Class medical, valid U.S. passport, and be at least 21 years old. American Eagle requires that you hold a flying job the 12 months prior to their hiring you and prefers you have a four-year college degree. Northwest Airlink would like you to have an ATP; US Airways Express wants 100 hours of actual instrument flight time. Even if you have the minimums — or more — it doesn't mean you'll get hired. It just means you'll be given the time of day.

"Right now, we're doing well," says ASA's Eddie Walker, who stole a few moments from running the ASA booth to chat between nearly nonstop pilot inquiries. "We've got quite a few pilot résumés on file." One of the ways ASA has attracted the attention of more pilots is by doing away with "pay for training," which is really sort of a misnomer. Up until recently, pilots paid ASA for the training. Now the airline pays the pilots. ASA funds the roughly $10,000 for new hires' training, and also gives them a salary of $2,000 per month during that period. The shock to many of the new first officers comes when the training ends and their salary drops to around $1,400 per month. "It's rough," says Walker. "You're actually paid more to train than to fly … at least initially." Therein lies the rub. Most people who are moving from another career — either military or civilian — and into a job with a regional carrier will need to tighten their belts, and maybe by more than one notch. The salaries offered by the commuters represented at the Dallas AirFair ranged from $17.87 to $19.84 per hour, 72-75 hours per month guaranteed. Some quick math shows you that it's going to take more than the minimum hours guaranteed to bring home $20,000 per year. You gave up what for that?

Low Pay And Lousy Bases, Still Interested?

Consider this, too: The regionals, just like the majors, work on a seniority system, meaning the guys and gals who have been there the longest get the pick of the bases and routes. At American Eagle, San Juan, Puerto Rico and New York's JFK International Airport are the "junior" bases. In other words, one of those airports is where you'll probably be flying out of, Junior, for your first several months with the airline. It takes seniority or luck to get DFW, LAX or Miami, all "senior" bases.

In spite of the lousy pay and even lousier choice of junior bases, American Eagle's Mark Brown is working on a stack of resumes that have been shoved his way during the two-day AEPS event. Though Eagle is looking to hire 600 new pilots this year and roughly 800 next year, they will not deviate from the set minimums. "When they come up to me, the first thing I ask them is how many hours they're flying a month. The next thing is how much of that is multi time?" After a high-time DC-8 pilot presents a resume and walks away, Brown openly wonders why the fellow wants the admittedly low-paying job. Here's where the it's-not-just-hours comes in.

"It's not just the flight time," he says. "We're looking for team players, for solid people. Just because someone has a lot of hours doesn't mean we'll hire him. We reject some higher-time pilots for other reasons." Brown is himself a 14-year veteran with Eagle, and knows that he is something of a rare commodity in the world of regionals. Many, if not most, of the pilots eagerly handing him their résumés want to sign on with the carrier to build hours for a jump to a major. Brown understands, but also urges them to reconsider. "After twelve years, a pilot is in the top 10 percent of seniority at Eagle and can call his shots. At 14-15 years, his salary is $100,000." Seniority has other benefits, as well. "Last month, for example," Brown says, "I flew three days a week. I have a great quality of life which means more to me than salary."

At ASA, pilots are asked to stay for three years so the airline will recuperate training costs. If they do not, the pilot is asked to pay a prorated portion of those fees. ASA's Eddie Walker accepts the fact that for most, ASA will be just a stopover. "We ask only that the new hires give us 110 percent while they're working and a fair heads-up when they're going to leave." 23-year-old Abhinav "Abhi" Singh is one of those who would like to use a commuter to build time and move up. Singh is an instructor at Dallas Aircraft Services at Redbird (RBD) Airport, who has logged 1,500 hours flight time, 250 of that multi-engine. Singh gave out so many résumés at the AirFair he ran out. He is hopeful of getting a job with American Eagle, but eventually wants to fly 747s on international routes for TWA. "I really hope I hear from Eagle by Monday," Singh tells me. "But I hedged my bets and put in my résumés with some other carriers, too."

Doing The Time To Make The Jump

"In the past, a pilot would typically need five to 10 years of seasoning before joining a major airline; now some are stepping up to big-jet cockpits in as little as two years." The Wall Street Journal.

Most pilots agree that bigger is better, faster is better and that more money is better. For those, a job with a regional carrier will continue to be nothing more than a way to build enough hours for one of the majors. That, however, is getting a little harder to do. TWA, Delta, World, and Alaska Airlines have an exclusive agreement with Universal Pilot Application Service Inc. (UPAS) to cull through résumés before sending them on. Let me say that again. To even be allowed to send information to those airlines, you must pay $100-$150 to fill out an online résumé supplied by UPAS. That résumé, says one pilot who has slogged through it, is the "résumé from hell." Expect to spend many hours poring over every log book you have ever owned, breaking down your flight hours into every conceivable combination. Three times a year, you can update your UPAS resume, presuming you are a current $150-level client. When your hours reach the minimums for the different airlines, UPAS will automatically forward it for you. Other of the 103 aviation-related companies that subscribe to UPAS troll its membership looking for pilots to hire, but do not use the service exclusively.

Southwest Airlines handles its own hiring, and at the AEPS AirFair no booth was as popular. Three SWA employees handed out information and answered questions while juggling handshakes. Southwest's Grace Ward has been with the airline just two years, missing on most of the huge employment boom. "We went from 11-12,000 employees six years ago to 30,000. In six years!" "People seek us out," chimes in Corporate Recruiter Cliff Polson. "We've got a lot of résumés. We've got a good reputation. It makes our (gesturing to the other Human Resources people in the booth) job a lot easier." Easier for them, yes, but a bit harder for anyone looking to come on board. There are opportunities, no doubt — the airline will hire 350-360 pilots this year alone. But don't dare send in a résumé on a wing and a prayer. If you don't get hired, you'll have to wait two years to reapply. Wait until you have the ATP, 2,500 TT or 1,500 turbine hours (1,000 of that PIC), and Class 1 Medical they want. If you're the right stuff, the airline will hire you even if you aren't type-rated in a 737, but you will have to get a type rating before you come on line. SWA will give you six months to do it, but the cost — $7,300 to $8,000 — will be yours to bear.

I Know They're Hiring, So Why Not Me?

"...there simply aren't enough seasoned aviators to go around." The Wall Street Journal.

Despite the fact that airlines are hiring, AVweb has gotten several emails from high-time pilots who can't seem to get a response from carriers allegedly desperate to fill cockpits. So what gives? All the participants at the AEPS AirFair say they try to turn résumés around and give answers as quickly as possible. But the "as quickly as possible" varies from airline to airline, company to company. Some try to let pilots know in weeks, others, in months ... but for a pilot eager for an answer, even minutes is too long. Several factors weigh in. Some of the airlines — SWA for one — do interviews on a first-come, first-served basis. Others, such as ASA, interview pilots with the highest qualifications first, leaving the lower-time pilots hanging a bit longer. Some airlines have a several-month backlog of résumés. At least one has a "Decision Committee" that meets just once a month to debate pilot hires and will need a background check that can take 90 days, and well, it's getting easier to see how weeks turn into months turn into more months.

If you've got what it takes, though, and have the minimums to start the process, by all means give it a go. The worst thing that could happen to you is that you could end up right seat in a turboprop flying out of San Juan making just a couple of bucks an hour more than minimum wage. The best thing that could happen to you is that you end up right seat in a turboprop flying out of San Juan making just a couple of bucks an hour more than minimum wage. Depends on how you look at it, doesn't it?

We Need Mechanics And Attendants And Agents And...

Though much is being made of the pilot "shortage," carriers cannot stay in the air with pilots alone. It you want to be around the big birds but aren't particularly interested in flying them, you can probably get a job tomorrow. There is a definite shortage of mechanics and flight attendants nationwide, and carriers are also aggressively searching for customer service agents (folks who sell tickets and issue boarding passes), provisioning agents (those who assure the airplane is stocked with supplies), ramp agents (those who handle cargo and direct a/c to the ramp area), reservation sales agents (phone reservations people), operations agents (coordinate ramp, operations, do weight and balance), and various headquarters staff. Delta starts mechanics at $38,000. ASA needs mechanics "yesterday," saying they'll talk to you today, start you tomorrow. Flight attendant pay is almost as lousy as the beginning pay for regional pilots and it never gets much better. If you can live on Vienna sausage and airline meals and travel is in your blood, though, that may be the job for you.

The bottom line is that jobs, all types of jobs, are available, if you're interested enough in going after one. ASA's Eddie Walker has advice for all job seekers: "Know a little about the company you want to get on with, be professional, and have your requirements before you come calling."

It also does not hurt if you know someone at the airline you're interested in. Who you know is still more important than what you know. And good luck. You could be the one standing in line the day the minimums drop to 500 hours VFR, and salaries bump up to $100,000, first year. Stranger things have happened. Just ask the Wall Street Journal.