Your Airline Career
By Rod Machado
Now that you've acquired all the necessary flight instructor ratings, you're ready to think about becoming qualified for that airline job. Normally, you should think about getting hired with a regional airline first. This allows you to build the turbine time necessary to qualify for one of the major air carriers (i.e., United, American, Delta, etc.). To meet the basic (and I do mean basic) qualifications to fly for a regional airline you'll need the following:
- A minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time
- An Airline Transport Pilot certificate
- About 200 hours (of the 1,500 total hours) should be multi-engine flight time
- A four-year college degree
*Note: These requirements might be lower depending on the supply/demand characteristics of the market. As it stands now, regional airlines are hungry for pilots and some older pilots (individuals in their 50s!) are being taken by regional airlines with no college degree.
At the moment, the Federal Regulations now require that anyone wanting to fly for the airlines (those companies operating under FAR Part 121), must have 1,500 hours of flight time. This requirement is lowered to 1,000 hours for graduates of certain aviation colleges and the flight time is even less for military pilots. So 1,500 hours is the general minimum flight time you'll need before applying for an airline job. Of course, given the pilot shortages forecast by the Wall Street Journal, it's clear that the airlines are already in need of pilots. I've been in the aviation business for over 46 years and it appears that we will actually have a truly authentic pilot shortage as of 2016. And don't believe everything you hear about this shortage, either, especially if it comes from the Airline Pilot's Association (they have a vested interest in maintaining this shortage, thus downplaying it, since doing so means more leveraging power for this union). Here's a link that debunks what the Airline Pilot's Association says about the "faux" pilot shortage.
Acquiring The Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
The Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP) is the black-belt of aviation ratings (which doesn't mean you get to punch pilots with lesser certificates--unless, of course, they really want to be punched--most don't). This is the rating you'll need to fly as a captain for a major airline. To obtain this rating you'll need to be at least 23 years old, have a minimum of 1,500 hours of total flight time, a minimum of which is 500 hours of cross country flight time, 100 hours of night time and 75 hours of actual (in the clouds) instrument flight time. There are several other requirements, but this gives you the general idea of what's necessary.
You'll also need to pass a written test and take a checkride. I recommend a good test preparation course for this written exam. If you don't want to attend an actual ground school and prefer to take study a video program, then consider any of the fine DVD/video or computer-based training series available for ATP exam prep. You'll also want to take your ATP checkride in a multi-engine airplane. How much does this entire process cost? Since there is no minimum preparation time for the ATP certificate, I suspect you should plan on spending anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000 in preparing and training for this rating. You'll probably need at least five hours of multi-engine simulator training and about five hours of actual multi-engine training to adequately prepare yourself.
What About the College Degree? Here are a few things to think about. First, it's possible to attend one of the many fine aviation colleges located around the country. After three to four years you're likely to end up with all your flight instructor ratings, an ATP certificate and a four-year college degree. The cost? It depends, but you're probably looking at sums from $30,000 or more a year for four years ($120,000+ total). I'd like to say it's cheap, but it's not. Since this is college, you're more likely to obtain to financial aid. Please read my blog titled Young People and Career Choices.
There are a few other benefits to attending an aviation college, too. As I mentioned earlier, a few of these colleges have a working arrangement with their local commuter airlines to hire graduates from that institution (you'll have to contact each college individually to determine which ones have this option). This means that, after graduation, you can be flying for a regional airline with less than 1,500 hours of flight time (i.e., 1,000 to 1,200 hours of flight time). These colleges also offer you the opportunity to associate with a large number of people having interests similar to yours. This allows you to create a network of friends that can help you in obtaining that airline job.
Can you acquire your four-year degree at a non-aviation university? Absolutely. I can't say that the airlines show any special preference for those applicants having aviation degrees compared to those having other degrees. The fact is that it doesn't make much of a difference what your degree is in as long as you have one. On the other hand, it's logical to assume that no one can deny your interest and enthusiasm for aviation if you've majored in it. Nevertheless, as far as the airlines are concerned, you just need a four-year college degree (keep in mind that this may change based on the supply and demand of the aviation industry).
It's also possible to attend one of the fine community colleges around the country at minimal expense, and obtain your two-year degree. There are many two-year colleges that offer a very impressive aviation education. Once you've earned your two-year degree, you can attend a four-year college at much less expense (you've already finished two years, right?) while earning your four-year degree.
There are also many colleges where you can earn your degree by something known as distance learning or independent study. This means you can study at home or in your home town without having to attend a distant institution. Some of these colleges have satellite campuses right in your neighborhood (no, you can't find them by using a satellite dish, either). One of these colleges with which I'm familiar is the Utah Valley State College program. This is an excellent program for those with responsibilities that prevent them from attending a traditional college campus.
I would, however, be very cautious about diploma mills. In other words, if a college has the name "Bob" or "Fred" in it, it's unlikely to be an accredited institution. Also, if the college is located in a van, then this doesn't look good, either, especially if the advertisement says that the college will come and park in your driveway if it pleases you.
Check the following Aviation College web site out for additional information on college degrees. Here are a few web sites you should research regarding college degrees.
What About Those Companies Offering "Zero time to ATP Certificate" Training?
Yes, there are several companies that offer a flight training package advertising zero-time to ATP qualified pilot for a fixed amount of money. Basically, these companies provide you with all the training necessary to become a CFI, then put you to work (often a very low wage) teaching other students who've signed up for the same program. In essence, once you acquire the CFI rating, you'll teach for these companies until you're qualified for the ATP certificate. Then, the company provides you with the training necessary to obtain this certificate. That's what you get for your investment, which typically ranges from $60,000 to $70,000 (and up!). Well, there's nothing essentially wrong with this process. Nevertheless, the critical factor is the reputability of the company offering these services.
If you're dealing with a reputable company, then give them your money and get on with the training. If you're not sure the company is reputable, then I suggest you never give anyone more money than you care to lose at one time (this is always my personal preference in any situation like this). I won't regale you with a few of the horror stories I've heard regarding folks who've lost $30,000 to $60,000 when the company to which they gave money went bankrupt. Therefore, if you are wise, you'll arrange for the money to be placed in some sort of escrow account and doled out in proportions that suit your idea of good risk management. This ensures that an adequate service is rendered before compensation is tendered. Sorry, but there are just too many stories of reputable organizations going broke from one day to the next. You just can't afford to take a chance with this sum of money, in my opinion.
On the other hand, how do you find the most reputable company offering this type of flight training? Do your homework, that's how. Just remember that reputation is everything. Talk to the company's recent graduates. Talk to the folks with which this company deals. Ask to see their records (no, not their Beatles or U2 records, either). Get an idea of the financial health of this company. Ask about their refund policy, too (although that wouldn't be my intro question if you know what I mean). Above all, ask and ask some more! As a general rule, the bigger the company and the longer it has been in business, the less the risk you have of losing your money and the greater the likelihood you have of getting what you want. On the other hand, newer and smaller companies are likely to offer more personalized service. There's no sure way to know which is best but there are lots of way to lose your money. So, talk with the companies involved to get a feel for the quality of service they offer and how they'll treat you.
So, think of these following items when choosing an accelerated "zero-time to airline cockpit" school:
- Choose the school that has been around the longest.
- Choose the school that has graduated the most students.
- Choose the school that has the most students placed with the airlines.
- Choose the school that offers the best money back guarantee.
- Choose the school that requires the smallest amount of money down.
- Don't put any more money down than you care to lose at one time.
- Choose the school that has a climate conducive to flight training.
- Choose the school that has older, more mature instructors.
Finally, ask yourself what these companies offer that you can't get on your own? Their biggest asset, in my opinion, is that they provide you with an instant and ample supply of students to train after you obtain your CFI certificate. Nevertheless, even if you don't work with one of these companies it's still possible for you to obtain an ATP certificate in a reasonably short period of time.
Additionally, take a look at this site Indeed.com. This is a web site designed to show you the major job listings found in newspapers across the country. On October 29th, 2016, I typed in the words "flight instructor" and left the location undefined. I came up with job 806 references. Now, most of these are for larger aviation companies like Boeing or Lockheed, but at least this can give you a sense of what's happening in the aviation market (which is not where you buy the things flight instructors love to eat, like Jujubes, Dots, Milk Duds, etc.).
Is It a Good Time to be in Aviation?
Now is an excellent time to be in aviation. After being in the aviation business for 46 years, I've heard of many false reports of "airline pilot shortages." At this time (October, 2016), the airline pilot shortage is REAL! And I do mean REAL!. In fact, one company wrote, "...you can become an airline pilot in just 2 years with full financing options, at least $11,000 in airline tuition reimbursement, and a guaranteed flight instructor job earning up to $42,000 annually to build experience." You read that correctly, too. It turns out that many regional carriers are now providing tuition reimbursement for those individuals who take pilot training at approved training facilities. So if you want to fly for a living, now is the time to start working toward that career.
Read the Wall Street Journal article I mentioned above and this article by AOPA writer David Tullis(11/20/2015). If you want an airline career, now is a good time to start preparing for the job. Why? No sense letting anyone get hired ahead of you, which means you'll have more seniority over everyone hired after you. As I see it, a qualified applicant who desires to fly for a living will have a good chance at doing so. On the other hand, if
you're smart (and I think you are since you've read this far), then plan on flying for a living but always have an alternate plan just in case the economy takes a sudden downturn or you find out that you can no longer pass a first-class medical exam. After 9-11, many airline jobs were lost and many pilots were threatened with furloughs. Be smart. Always have a little something extra going for you in case the folks at your primary job tell you to beat it, hit the road, scat or get going.
What Are the Age Limits for an Airline Job?
Generally, you're looking at an age range from 21 years to the early 50's. Realistically, it's not likely that you'll be hired by a major airline if you're in your mid 50's. In fact, I just had a friend of mine who was hired by a regional airline at 55 years of age. He didn't have a four-year college degree, either. Keep in mind that FAR Part 121 (the airline regulations) require than airline pilots retire at 65. So, someone hired at 55 can still provide a regional airline with a stable employee for a good 10 years. To these regional companies, that's as good as gold given that younger pilots tend to run off to a major airline once they have acquired enough on-the-job experience flying regional equipment.
I'm often asked about how realistic it is for a person in their mid 30's to think about changing careers and flying for a living. As I see it, it's realistic--with qualification. At this point in time (2016) it's entirely realistic to be 35 years old with no flight time and begin training for an airline career and hope to be hired in the next few years to fly for an airline of some sort (a regional or national airline).
You can bet that non-airline flying jobs will be on the increase, too. Why do I say this? Because of something known as VLJs or very light jets. These aircraft are making it convenient for small business owners to cooperate in fractional ownership of VLJ aircraft. This means these business men won't need to take the airlines to go places (don't worry, there will always be folks who want to or need to travel by airliner). And that means that they'll need pilots to fly their small jet airplanes for them. You could be one of these pilots if you positioned yourself correctly in terms of gaining experience and building flight time. Furthermore, there are several small charter operations using smaller, four-place aircraft to provide transportation to these same small business owners. Someone has to fly these airplanes and, as an entry level pilot position, that could be you.
It's not unreasonable to assume that you can go from zero time to ATP rated pilot in 18 months. This isn't easy, however. It's more likely that you'll take two to three years to acquire the 1,500 hours necessary to become an ATP rated pilot. In one of my busiest years as a flight instructor, I flew a little over 1,240 hours, but I've known folks to fly 1,400+ hours as an instructor in a year. This means that a minimum of a year and a half would be necessary to obtain the qualifications for an ATP certificate. Therefore, if you're 35 years old and have the money to stop what you're doing and begin flight training right now, the odds are that you'll have a good chance at flying with a commuter airline in the next two to three years.
Additionally, the older you are, the more likely that you'll find it difficult to move beyond a regional airline, to a job with the major airlines. But don't get me wrong here. Regional flying is fun flying and the pay is increasing by the month, too (supply and demand is at work here). Flying for a regional airline also has several benefits not offered by the majors. For instance, you're more likely to become a pilot with seniority sooner. This means you won't be away from home as long (assuming you don't like to be away from home, that is. Trust me, some hotels are like Dixie Dumpsters with a checkout time. This gets old fast). As a general rule, you get to hand fly the airplane more often than you do the big jets. This is one of the reasons that regional pilots are very skilled pilots. Some regionals are equipping their fleets with larger and larger aircraft (no, not because the passengers are becoming larger and larger, either). So it's possible that you'll be flying airline-size equipment in a relatively short period of time.
Where Can I Go To Find Financing Information for Flight Training? Read the classifieds in AOPA Flight Training magazine . You'll need to have a subscription to do this. This is a very good investment. Also check out Avscholars Network for financial information.
Is There One Last Bit of Advice for Aspiring Aviators? Yes. Find a good flight instructor, be enthusiastic and have a lot of patience.
What's the Ultimate Advice for Successful Flight Training? Find a good flight instructor!!!!!!!!!! Nothing else matters more.
Here Are Additional Resources You Might Be Interested In:
Karen Kahn's Aviation Career Counseling [Capt. Kahn is great, too!]