If job stability is very high on your list of priorities, aviation is not the field for you. It's a cliché, but the one constant in this industry is change, and that goes for employment as a pilot too. It's pretty rare for a pilot to go through a whole career without at least one furlough, liquidated employer, firing, medical hangup, or FAA problem. The key is to realize it will happen to you, and be ready for it by being flexible in your plans.
When airlines have too many pilots for the scheduled flying, they furlough the excess pilots. While many union contracts contain a "no-furlough" clause, most also contain an exception for "extraordinary circumstances" that essentially gives the company carte blanche. Currently, the following major carriers have thousands of pilots on furlough: American, ATA, Delta, Northwest, United, USAirways. Several regionals have also recently started furloughing in response to reduced flying from bankrupt parents; Mesaba and Comair are two of them.
At unionized companies, furloughing is done by seniority, starting at the bottom of the list and working its way up. Recall is done in the reverse order, with the most senior furloughees being recalled first. Companies may offer voluntary furloughs or leaves of absence so the furloughs don't go so deep. Unions sometimes ask their pilots to not pick up extra flying so that recalls come sooner, but it's a sad fact of life that many senior pilots will happily screw over their furloughed "brothers" for an extra couple bucks.
Furloughed pilots may retain some benefits, such as partial health care coverage or non-rev travel benefits.
Finding another flying job while on furlough can be tough. Nobody wants to invest money in your training if they know you'll likely return to your former carrier. Many companies require furloughed newhires to give up recall rights at their former employer. Of course, you'll start at the bottom of the seniority list at your new carrier. Many pilots leave flying altogether while on furlough, taking up jobs from real estate to bartending. A few find themselves making better money in the "real world" and pass up recall opportunities when they arise. For most, though, furlough is a major financial challenge that causes them and their families a lot of stress. Given the odds of a furlough at some point in your career, it behooves one to start planning for that eventuality early on.
Losing Your Job
Furloughs are mostly unique to airlines, particularly unionized operations. For other jobs, if your employer decides they don't need you, they'll simply let you go. Corporate flying for small companies is infamously unstable in this regard: when financial troubles hit, the company plane (and pilot!) is the first thing to go. Most instructing and freight flying is also "at-will employment." In some ways, though, losing your job is preferable to being furloughed, since you can collect unemployment and you don't carry the furloughee stigma when looking for a new job.
Of course, even unionized employees with furlough mechanisms in place will lose their jobs if their employer goes completely belly-up. It's happened a number of times in the past 20 years, with Braniff, PanAm, and Eastern. The release of thousands of experienced pilots into the job market made it very hard to get hired in the early 1990's. With numerous airlines floundering through the bankruptcy courts, there is a good chance that at least one will liquidate in the next five years with similar results.
Losing your job due to a financially troubled employer carries no stigma when looking for another job. Getting fired, however, can be a major blow to one's career. You'll have to explain it in future interviews, and convince potential employers that they should take the risk of hiring someone that another company found unfit to work for them.
As an instructor, the following may get you fired: anti-social behavior towards students or coworkers; poor student pass rate; wrecking an airplane; your student wrecking an airplane; refusing to sign off a poor student for their checkride; refusing to fly unairworthy aircraft. Obviously, these firings are not created equal, and I'd wear the latter two as a badge of honor. The unairworthy aircraft issue has actually got quite a few pilots fired from entry-level jobs. Drop zone aircraft in particular are notoriously ratty. But even given an unjustified firing, finding the next job might be tough, and you'll need to explain what happened in all future interviews.
Once you move up in the aviation world, getting fired becomes increasingly serious. At the freight dog level, there are still operators that push their pilots on airworthiness or weather, so an unjustified firing is possible. But in general, at FAR 135 and 121 operators you have to do something pretty stupid to get yourself fired. The exception is during your probationary year at an airline. During that first year, the airline can fire you for any reason and the union won't make a peep.
Most probationary firings are due to unsatisfactory progress during initial training or IOE. If this happens, it's not the end of the world, especially if it's at your first regional. Get some more experience before applying to another airline and then during interviews be candid about why you weren't ready the first time and what you've done to make sure you're ready this time.
After probation, you have to mess up badly to get fired, particularly at unionized carriers. Gross incompetence resulting in a dinged airplane will do the trick; a long string of unsat training events will too. Occasionally some doorknob gets fired for sexual harrassment or brawling with coworkers. Any of these kinds of firings will guarantee an early retirement from the aviation field, other than perhaps Nigerian B707 freight dog jobs.
Losing Your Medical
As I mentioned in Part 7, a flying career can really take a toll on one's health. Even if you manage to get proper nutrition and exercise, flying on the backside of the clock can take years off a pilot's life. Few international pilots seem to consistently get the rest their bodies need.
Of course, perfectly fit and rested people get sick all the time. It's pretty common to have a cold or flu ground you for a few days. That's what sick time is for. More serious is chronic illness or disease that results in you losing your FAA medical.
A few things will ground you more or less permanently. Chronic heart disease, stroke, epilepsy, or diabetes are a few. If your vision deteriorates to the point that it cannot be corrected to 20/20, that's also disqualifying. Many problems, however, are temporary. A pilot will be grounded while undergoing treatment for cancer, for example, but will likely be able to obtain a medical once given a clean bill of health.
Other than doing your best to stay healthy, there are a few things you can do to prepare for potential medical problems. Pay attention to your company's short term and long term disability benefits, and ensure that your coverage is adequate. Use a FAA medical examiner that you trust to help you handle any problems that come up. AOPA offers an excellent medical consultation service to it's members. If you're an ALPA member, you'll find your dues to be money well spent if you ever have a medical problem, as they have been instrumental in working with the FAA to return grounded airmen to the skies as quickly as possible. They also offer loss-of-medical insurance.
If you fly Part 91 out of uncontrolled airports, your visits to the medical examiner's office will probably be your sole contact with the FAA. Good for you. Unfortunately, most of us are in the fishbowl day in and day out, with a pleothera of potential screwups to bring the wrath of Big Brother down upon us. For starters, there's air traffic control. Although a pretty decent lot, they are employed by the FAA, and under obligation to report anything that appears to be a violation of regulations. Altitude busts and runway incursions will definately get you dinged. Every once in a while you'll find a fed riding your jumpseat or conducting a ramp check. Even though you can't see them, you can be sure the FAA is occasionally auditing your flight paperwork. Improperly done weight & balance forms have come back to haunt pilots months after the fact.
Sanctions can range from a letter of counsel placed in your FAA file for a few years to a temporary certificate suspension to a certificate revocation. Using a NASA ASRS form may spare you from having the punishment being carried out, but it will still be on your record. Getting a future job will be problematic if you have a revokation or serious suspension on record. Any incident that gets you fired and brings down the wrath of the FAA (wrecked airplane?) is career ending.
One solution is to fly every flight as though the FAA is watching over your shoulder. When they actually are, it'll be no problem. That said, even the most conscientious pilots mess up, occasionally while someone is looking. This is one time that working for a unionized carrier (particularly ALPA) can be a huge help. They have lengthy experience in representing airmen during brushups with the FAA. A fairly recent development is the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). This program, implemented at individual operators, offers pilots significant protection from FAA action in return for voluntarily submitted aviation safety reports. I've talked to pilots at airlines that have ASAP, and the reaction is uniformly positive.
It's possible to obtain loss of license insurance (through ALPA, among others) although I personally don't feel it's neccessary.
In closing, aviation is a dynamic industry that doesn't lend itself towards job stability. As you weigh an aviation career, keep that in mind. If you do choose to go into aviation, have a backup plan and remain flexible in your career goals. And when it does happen to you, take heart in knowing that it's happened to many before you, and they made it through - so can you.
Next Up: Getting Started, from First Flight to First Job