Friday, February 08, 2008

Curmudgeonly Advice from a 26 Yr Old

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.


Big Country said...


Several comments to your post:

1. Discounting our separate views of unions, I think more outsourcing to regionals is one of the few ways the large carriers will be able to stay in business. Since most customers buy based upon price and the major carriers can't compete on cost (the reasons for which are numerous), they have to find some way to fly customers cheaper until the customers find some other point of differentiation that will convince them to pay extra.

2. Your quote: "You will be flying with captains like me..." Does this mean you caught your upgrade? If so, my best congrats!!!

Anonymous said...

"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."

They may be realizing it but, respectfully, I'm not sure there's a whole lot they can do about it. The flying is going to the 70 seat jets and smaller, like it or not (and put me in the "not" category for anything less then the 70 seat ERJ). I wonder what kind of contract United, Delta, et al will be able to negotiate when their current CBA becomes amendable. The industry is facing oil prices that really aren't going lower because of demand on the global market,a recessionary economy, and a string of losses by their carriers. Not really a good time to be negotiaing a CBAm and an even harder time to be dictating terms on who does what flying.

Unless of course the MEC decides they want to burn the whole thing down, at which point by all means fight the good fight.

As an side, this merger mania is absurd. If you're solving for the problem of increasing the bottom line because the hedge fund guys on your board want their money, then end to end mergers are not the way to do it. Instead, overlap mergers ar the way to go. Pull out capacity in markets you compete in, increase pricing power, and make your profits.

Sticking Delta on the end of NWA, doesn't solve any of your problems. All you've done is taken a set of problems that you had one day, and doubled them the next day. Oil is still the same price, you still don't have money to buy new planes, and you're still in the same boat. Your only savings are front office savings (CEO, COO, etc.).

The whole thing is shortsighted...

MathFox said...

Hello Sam,

Firstly, yes you reached at least one member of the travelling public. I am not planning on becoming a professional pilot, maybe a PPL (and keep the flying private.) My experience from hanging out "in the back" of the plane is that most passengers show as much interest in flying as in taking the bus: have a comfortable seat and arrive on time.
If you are promoted to the left seat, congratulations! (and from the back: don't let youthful overconfidence interfere with safety.) The best pilots avoid the situations where they need to show superior airmanship.

Nicole Bullock said...

This blog would have been great to read three years ago when my husband was just starting out on his PPL. Of course, three years ago...we didn't know how aviation would evolve from 2005-2008. I wish we hadn't gone into so much debt, because a $1000 payment is pretty impossible on FO pay. I'm glad my husband truly loves to fly...or he'd be hating his job.

Frank said...

Re. "Curmudgeonly Advice from a 26 Yr Old":

All in all some very wise/mature observations and advice for someone your age. (The only reason I word it that way is that I am double your age, so I don't mean it condescendingly.)

I got as far as accumulating just over 360 hours on a B737 as an F/O in what at the time was Canada's second largest airline after Air Canada before Bin Ladin and his gang went mental and my company Canada 3000 went bankrupt.

Before that it was a long arduous process to work my way up there so I was in "the thick of things" in terms of the difficult road and the perseverance necessary to even get that far. It took me 6000 hours to get hired by a "major airline" but the love of flying alone is what kept me going. I sacrificed a lot in life for the opportunity but I'd do it again.

I look forward to reading your blog now that I found it. You have a great attitude and I wish you a long, safe, happy career. Congrats on making Captain (if that happenned) and be nice to your F/O's.

amulbunny said...

"The Middle East and Asia, particularly, are full of lucrative opportunities for qualified pilots and will continue to be for the foreseeable future."

I had the pleasure of meeting a 4 striper Cathay Pacific Captain the other day who lives in Vancouver and commutes down here to fly to Hong Kong. He was close to my age and anticipates 10 more years at the stick if they will let him.

I also met a much younger captain for Singapore who says he loves it so much he'll never leave. He commutes up from San Diego and does the Asia trips.

At 26, you've got a lot of wisdom my friend. From the viewpoint of someone who watched TWA vanish from monumentally bad decisions by management from Kirk Kerkorian on, I wish you only the best. (Stepdad worked for them from 1936-1978).

Stay warm, get the ice on the sidewalk and have fun in the great white north.


GC said...


I'm glad you went into aviation. The world doesn't need anymore lawyers! ;)

BTW, would you please update your blogroll? Mine has moved!


Turbo Tom said...

You've certainly got me pegged. I'm one of those career changers. said...

Great advice. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous said...

This post has really boosted my spirits when it comes to the world of professional aviation. I am only 14, and I am eagerly, and somewhat impatiently, counting down the days for a liscence. You have know idea what flying means to me though. I have had the bug for about 2 years when I got flight simulator. But that's nothing to say "Oh I've racked up a few hundred hours..." when you can't prove it in the REAL air.
I intend on going to LeTournaeu Univ. and majoring in professional flight. That however might change after the advice given in your post. But no matter what I will strive to be pilot, because I just can't imagin doing anything else.
I will probably have my parents read this, and get their take on things. In fact tommorrow I'm going to the high school counselor to arrange my high school schedule. I really appreciate the insight and help on what things are like from behind the instruments.

Aviatrix said...

That's the most depressing entry ever.

Sometimes I feel like throwing my logbooks out and starting over, so that no one knows how much experience I have and I can get the jobs the 500 hour pilots are getting.

Logan Oscarson said...

I love your blog - hands down one of the best out there. I will be headed to ATP this coming summer, hoping to flight instruct for a while, and ultimately head to a regional. Heres my questions:

1 - when it comes time to head to the regionals - I've read that Pinnacle and Mesa aren't you're favorites. Should I wait out for a good company such as SkyWest potentially, or should I jump on the first offer I recieve?

2 - The industry, being what it is, is hiring very low time FO's as you have mentioned. If given the opportunity, should I jump into a regional right away, or instruct for 6-12 months? I know with instructing comes the respect, so to say - that you've put some dues in.

Any advice would be awesome - thanks so much!!

Dave said...


I can't thank you enough for this. I'm just starting out on the long road to becoming an airline pilot and my first PPL lesson is this Saturday. Can't wait. Flying is all I think about these days - I can't see myself enjoying a career that dosen't involve me sitting in a cockpit.

Thanks again and best of luck for the future.

Dave (15), Ireland

Matthew said...

The smile that landed on my face when I read "you should absolutely go for it" filled me with such happiness. You need a column next to Les Abend in Flying Magazine. Your advice is also extremely wise about debt and patience. I'm working on my instrument and have kept very consistent with my training since I found the perfect instructor. Every lesson brings me closer to the desire to do this professionally. I turn 40 next year. But the whole this or that career thing is a tough battle. Keep writing and thank you for taking the time to share with us, it means a lot.

Anonymous said...

If I knew then what I know now, I would have done the same too. If your dream is to fly, do it. I graduated from a big name aviation university 6 years ago and went to the right seat of an airliner. The airline furloughed shortly thereafter. I haven't used my commercial since then and, now, am pursuing a non-flying career. While I'll never go back to airline flying and I've spent much more on it than I've earned (probably by 100k), it was worth it.

Fly because you love it, not because you want it to be a career. As a career, flying offers little to no security. What seems like a top notch company today will be bankrupt tomorrow. Good health turns sour making you wonder whether you're body will get you to age 50, let alone 65. It's just a risky career path. On top of that, there's the friends you lose along the way (you will have them - we all do).

But, if you love to fly, you won't mind the storms that come along. You might even do what I did and realize that flying an airliner is just the tip of the iceburg (if you'd even call it flying).

Probably the best career advice I can give is take every opportunity to enrichen your aviation experience. My best aviation experiences didn't arise while sitting in the right seat during cruise or flying every other leg into the same airport. Instead, they arose in engine test cells at Delta, on the ramp during a de-ice event, soaring, etc. Don't get me wrong, I miss the VOR 13 at JFK, the expressway visual into LGA, and the whiteout when you turn your landing lights on in a snowstorm (sort of looks like the jump to hyperspace in Star Wars). But, that's just a small piece of airline flying and flying in general. That said, realize that there's more to aviation than being an airline pilot and be open to the many opportunities that are out there.

Now for those who are set on being an airline pilot, as I once was, here's what you need to think about to get there. First, if you don't have a degree or are in high school, you're going to need a 4 year degree (I worked in hiring at a major and regional for a bit - you will def need it at a major, not so much regional). It doesn't matter what it is and, in fact, a non-aviation degree will probably be better. Second, you need licenses. Go to a good school where you're going to develop a network of people going to the airlines. These are the folks who will walk your resume in and get it at the top of the stack. Also, if you're thinking of an aviation degree/flight training combo, remember that licenses and a degree are separate. If you have non-aviation interests, pursue a degree in that area. If anything, you'll have something to fall back on when you need it. Third, find an instructor who loves to instruct. My worst instructor was a guy who just didn't like to instruct, but needed hours. Even though I was working on my CFI (basically there's no new manuevers - you just teach them), it made a difference. As a private pilot and instrument pilot, you need a good instructor who will teach you good habits and motivate you through those learning plateaus. Fourth, don't worry about where you should apply. Apply to whatever airline is hiring. I disagree with Sam on this one because you never know what's going to happen with an airline. I worked for an airline with an industry leading contract and it went south, while one of our competitors, who didn't have a great contract, grew. At this rate, you need to get on and build your time so you can get to a major. You can always swap around, but the hardest part is getting in. That being said, realize that a major wants to see PIC time and, if you swap airlines, you're pushing that off. So, if you're applying to airline A v. B, put a lot of weight on upgrade time.

One final word, when you get to the airlines, there will be a lot of pilots who will bring you down. They come into work looking like they slept in their uniforms, they constantly complain, management bugged their house, everyone is out to get them, etc. Don't get infected with their bad attitudes. Remember your first solo or when you got your first license and approach every day with same passion you had then.

Anonymous said...

fabulous post, as always. this is a tremendous blog, full of insights, advice, and practical examples of what it's like to be a pilot.

headed to ATP in a month to begin my excited I can hardly sleep at night!

thanks for making it real in the mean time. keep it up man.

Sam said...

It really depresses me to go back and read that I told people to go into aviation right before the bottom dropped out. I can only hope my readership is fairly small and most people don't take me too seriously.

Worst. Advice. Ever.