A while ago, a fellow airline pilot told me emphatically that "if I knew then what I know now, there is no way I would have gone into this stupid industry." That got me thinking. This pilot started flying about the same time I did, although his airline career began a few years before mine. He, like I, chose an aviation career at a time when senior airline captains were commanding salaries into the $300,000 range, major airlines were hiring like mad, and aviation analysts were predicting a severe pilot shortage stretching on into the foreseeable future. At that time - the late 90s - "airline pilot" was an enticing career indeed, and it was an easy decision to make for many of us who were young and enthusiastic about aviation. Since then, we've seen a major terrorist attack involving the airlines, a recession, a ton of lengthy furloughs, bankruptcies, an unbroken string of concessionary contracts, the outsourcing of much of the airlines' capacity to low-paid regionals, a few mergers and the threat of more, a likely second recession, and now the slowing of retirements due to a change in the retirement age. All of this has served to take the luster out of a once lucrative profession. I personally don't regret going into aviation because the primary attraction for me - the actual flying - is still as enjoyable as it was when I chose this career. That said, if I had a crystal ball back around 1998, and knew what was going to happen to this industry, it is quite likely that I would've pursued my other interests at the time and gone into law or perhaps architecture.
Over the time I've been writing this blog, I've come to realize that many of my readers are new or prospective pilots considering a career in aviation. Although I originally set out to write for the traveling public, I've come to accept this demographic as my "target audience," if you will, and tend to write with them in mind. I've written about the changes the profession has seen, the challenges we face, the downsides to the job that aren't always apparent to outsiders. My goal has become to educate those entering the industry, giving them a realistic perspective that is seldom provided by the flight training industry. Throughout all this, however, I've tried to avoid advising my readers for or against a career in aviation. Now, though, I'm ready to revise my neutrality.
If you are considering a career in aviation, here's my honest advice: you should absolutely go for it.
I haven't gone off my rocker; hear me out. If you've been paying attention the last seven years or so, you've seen the very worst that the industry can dish out. If you've seen all that and still want to be an airline pilot, it is for the very best reason: a love of flight and a wish to make it an integral part of your life. From where the profession is now, I fail to see how things can get much worse. Salaries can't get much lower without pilots quitting in droves. Major airline pilots are finally realizing what a threat outsourcing is and are unwilling to let another slice of the pie go to regional carriers. All signs are that the global demand for air travel will continue to increase precipitously; while many pilot retirements have perhaps been deferred five years, they will continue apace after then. The problem for pilots of my generation is that we've only seen things get worse. For someone starting out now that has a clearheaded idea of where the industry is at now, things can only get better.
Furthermore, those starting now have a few advantages that those of us starting in the 90s did not have. A pilot starting today will not have to flight instruct for long; they will likely not have to fly freight. You will very likely be able to get a job flying a modern jet airliner with only a few hundred hours in your logbook. While I have delineated the reasons this is perhaps not favorable for the traveling public or the captains you'll be flying with, it really is good for you. Flight instructing and freight dogging are both hard, occasionally dangerous, often low-paid jobs. Those of us who did these jobs for years will point out that they provided excellent experience, and that's true - but this experience came at a price in both money and time lost. Some people paid the ultimate price; I knew several people who lost their lives while building experience for an aviation career. If you play your cards right, you have a shot at skipping this stage for a much easier job at a regional airline with a seniority number that will let you upgrade in only a few years with a shot at the majors shortly thereafter.
I'm not saying that your aviation career will be all roses; I'm not even saying that it's a good idea in all circumstances. I'm saying that if you love flying and want to make a career of it, this isn't a bad time to do it. I do, however, have some provisos for you:
1. Don't go deep into debt for flight training. Aviation is not as well paid as it used to be and with the greater expense of training it is no longer a great return on investment; therefore it makes sense to be frugal. I went deep into debt for training and if I have any great regret about my aviation career, that's it. I can tell you from experience that it is very tough to be paying $750+ per month in student loans on regional airline first officer pay. Skip the big name aviation colleges, whatever advantage they had in getting you an airline job in the past is gone now because the regionals are taking anyone with a commercial certificate and a pulse. Go for the cheap mom-n-pop flight school but beg for the best flight instructor you can find. Spread your flight training out over time if necessary to avoid going into debt; I personally think it's still going to be a few years before we see a real turnaround at the airlines, so take your time and sit out the rest of this downturn.
2. Study your butt off. Realize that you will be going to the regional airlines at a far lower level of experience than those before you, and you need to make up for your low experience with a high level of knowledge. Get your hands on every aviation text you can and talk to experienced aviators at every opportunity. There are a lot of opportunities for networking with airline pilots that weren't available a few years ago, such as aviation message boards. Make it a point to learn not only about the technicalities of flying but also the history and responsibilities of your chosen profession.
3. Be choosey about the regional airline that you fly for. In the past the conventional wisdom was that you take the first seniority number that comes your way but these days they're all hurting for qualified applicants. Your ideal airline is the one that offers the best combination of quick advancement and good pay/working conditions. My years at Horizon are a good example of how great pay and working conditions are all for naught if there's no advancement, but a bottom-feeder airline that uses and abuses you will kill your love of aviation and the fast advancement is a moot point then, too. Find a happy medium.
4. Keep a humble attitude. You will be flying with captains like me who flight instructed and flew freight for years to get on with a regional. We'll be a little skeptical of first officers who waltzed into their first job with a few hundred hours of flight time, but the only people we'll really have a hard time with are those who think they know it all. I remember how confident I was at 500 hours and how it seemed that there was little left to learn; only since have I realized how little I knew. Be as helpful as you can be to your captain, but realize that your first year or so as a first officer is really just another step in your training; keep an open mind and stay trainable.
5. Be involved in your profession. You need to realize that while the aviation industry will turn around, airline management will do their utmost to ensure that only they and the stockholders whom they have a fiduciary duty to will reap the benefits of the turnaround. It is up to you to ensure that pilots also benefit. Whatever your thoughts on unions, they are the only mechanism pilots have to look out for their interests in this cutthroat industry, and they cannot function effectively without an involved membership. Do your part.
One last piece of advice: be willing to relocate globally. The greatest expansion in aviation, and the greatest shortage of qualified pilots, is outside the US and Europe. The Middle East and Asia, particularly, are full of lucrative opportunities for qualified pilots and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Those with the greatest flexibility towards seeking work overseas will be the most able to withstand further instability in the aviation industry in western countries.