Thursday, September 03, 2009

Aviation Survivorman

These are dark times for a great many people in aviation (and outside aviation too, for that matter). Thousands in our industry have lost their jobs with little hope of finding a replacement, others have seen their incomes shrink with downgrades and displacements, and things could potentially get much worse with a few airlines - mainline and regional - teetering on the brink of oblivion. The economy seems to be getting better, but the twin threat of rising oil prices and an international flu pandemic leaves some of us wondering if that light at the end of the tunnel isn't just a freight train about to run us over!

As was heavily discussed in the comments to my last post, prospects are particularly bleak for the newest entrants to the piloting profession - those who have just completed their training, or are in the middle of it, or have just started. The traditional first timebuilding jobs are somewhat scarcer than in years past, and the few new openings are quickly snapped up by experienced, out-of-work pilots. With a pocketful of expensive licenses and ratings but little chance of getting a flying job that will support them or even build time, these pilots have to be frightened at the prospect of these conditions lasting for several more years. It's as if they are seeing their careers die before they ever began.

Here's the good news: aviation has been a cyclical industry throughout its existence. Things will get better, and when they do I think they will get dramatically better. The other thing to recognize is that there have been plenty of other downturns that resulted in conditions just like these, and many pilots, including those at the major airlines, have experienced similar stagnation early in their careers. The 70s, 80s, and 90s each had a number of slump years where nothing was moving for civilian pilots. The post-9/11 downturn was the worst of all, but it mostly affected pilots at the major airline level. Their misfortune resulted in large growth for regional and low-cost airlines, and that kept things moving for low-time pilots. We've become so used to plentiful opportunities for new entrants over the last 15 years that this downturn sounds to many like the thundering crash of the career door slamming closed, never to reopen. It will; it always has.

The intent of this post, however, is not so much encouragement as practical advice that new pilots can use right now. Most of the career advice out there, particularly from the eternally-optimistic flight training industry, assumes that jobs will be available and one will be able to advance one's career steadily, if not downright speedily. That's clearly not the case and vastly changed conditions call for drastically altered career strategies.

It seems to me that the worst of the carnage is over and, unless certain airlines go belly-up, we won't see large numbers of additional furloughs. Still, I foresee things remaining essentially static for several years until the first wave of Age-65 retirements begin and the economy gains enough traction to prompt widespread airline growth. Nobody is really going anywhere else; most are stuck in whatever position they hold now. Time is essentially frozen; we're all just playing the waiting game. That's a lot easier for those of us who have decent jobs and a livable wage; for the newest entrants, it's nearly unbearable. I suspect that many of these will give up and leave the industry before things turn around. Those who hope to still have an aviation career on the other side are engaged in a grinding war of attrition. Survival is the name of the game; putting oneself in a position to benefit from the upswing is an important but secondary consideration. The following are some tips that I think will help with these twin goals.
  • If you currently have a job outside of aviation, keep it. If you've already quit but have a marketable skill-set that will allow you to get a decent job for the next 2-4 years, concentrate on doing so. I know that most career-changers are getting into aviation precisely because they couldn't stomach their old jobs; you need to approach this with the mindset that it is a temporary, necessary step to launching your aviation career. You will quit as soon as you can get a full-time aviation job, but in the meantime it is necessary to have an income stream to live on, train on, and save some money for the paycut your first aviation job will inevitably entail.
  • If you have no marketable skill outside of aviation, consider going (or going back) to school to get one. You'll experience more than one downturn in your career and you'll be much better prepared for the next one if you have a second skill to fall back on. If the major airlines are your goal, most require a four-year degree anyway. Meanwhile, a few years away from this labor market isn't a bad thing; student loans, which will be deferred during your schooling, can include living expenses and even flight training expenses if your school offers aviation courses. I'm going to definitively say that you should stay away from expensive aviation programs like UND and Embry-Riddle; the student loan debt will be simply too crushing once you're out in the "real world," potentially making little money in entry-level jobs for several years. If you need to complete flight training while in school, look for a state school with cheap tuition and a small aviation department that contracts out flight training to a local FBO, and either get an aviation minor to go along with your non-aviation major, or take the aviation courses on an elective basis.
  • Don't rush your flight training. The flight training industry insists that because "seniority is everything," you ought to shell out ridiculous amounts of money for their accelerated 9-month programs. If you were beginning your training at the start of an upswing they might have a point, but in this case finishing early just means that much more time sitting unemployed, with more debt (or less of a nest-egg to live on)! If you can save money by searching out a good instructor at a smaller flight school and training part-time while still working outside aviation and paying as you go, you'll find yourself well positioned to make the jump to full-time flying as timebuilding jobs open up in a few years.
  • This is connected to the last point, but if there's any way it is humanly possible to complete your training debt-free or with as little debt as possible, do it. Jobs like flight instructing, freight dogging, and regional airline FO don't pay much, but it generally is enough for a single person (or married with a working spouse) to live on - unless they're also paying $500-1000/month to service student loan debt. Not having that hanging over you will really free up options later on, and right now in this industry you need every bit of flexibility you can get.
  • Building flight time after earning your ratings is important, but in the absence of available full-time jobs, concentrate on maintaining currency. Landing that first job with minimal flight time has always been tough, but it's a lot easier if you can show that you've been at least consistently flying. You may need to rent an airplane on your own dime a few times a month. Use the time to improve the skills needed for whatever full-time job you are pursuing. In other words, if you hope to get an instructing job, fly from the right seat and bring your sister along for free lessons.
  • There's a natural tendency to concentrate on full-time jobs that quickly fill the logbook and give you the satisfaction of living off of your hard-earned certificates. However, it may be a lot easier to find a part-time job that allows you to keep your non-aviation job while still maintaining currency. Flight instruction, banner towing, and skydiver hauling are three entry-level jobs that all tend to be a lot busier on the weekends. In the case of instructing it can be difficult convincing larger schools to hire you for weekends only, but it's more common at smaller FBOs, especially in rural areas. Being out at the airport at the time when most pilots are makes it that much easier to network and sniff out that full-time job you really want, anyways.
  • If you can't find anyone to hire you, consider becoming your own boss. Some schools and FBOs take freelance instructors, as do virtually all flying clubs. A more extreme example - but potentially very cost-effective - is buying your own airplane and setting up shop as a Flight School of One. The last few years a lot of larger schools and FBOs sold their older airplanes in favor of new-fangled glass cockpit equipment, and now find that they've priced themselves out of the masses' reach in the downturn. There is a niche to be exploited here by the savvy entrepreneur. You could potentially buy an airplane, do most of your training in it, instruct in it, and then sell it for very close to what you have into it. Your total cost of flying will be a fraction of what it'd be at an accelerated program and airplane ownership will give you a great deal more real-world experience.
  • Be willing to relocate, globally if need be. The aviation scene might be dead in your city but it may not be a state or two over. If you are a dual citizen or have the right to work in another country, take a very close look at any opportunities there; although the downturn is global, it's mostly US pilots that are suffering the triple whammy of a poor economy, lack of retirements due to age 65, and a glut of qualified pilots. Sponsored expat positions used to be limited to those possessing significant Part 121 command time in specific aircraft types, but this is changing; as foreign countries seek to become more self-sufficient in pilot staffing, they are starting to set up training programs for local pilots on their own soil, creating a need for foreign instructors. I realize relocation can be a problem for those with families, but let's be completely honest: by choosing an aviation career for yourself, you've already sentenced your family to sustained poverty, frequent absences, and perpetual instability. A change of scenery that gets you past the difficult early stages quicker is going to be better for your family in the long run.
  • Use this extra waiting time wisely. Don't just run out the clock waiting for things to turn around, actively do everything you can to prepare yourself for when they do. This doesn't have to be expensive; you don't need to fly twice a day at a 9-month zero-to-hero program to eat, sleep, and breath aviation. Read every text you can get your hands on, particularly regarding advanced subjects you won't necessarily cover in training at a small flight school. If you can develop a very thorough understanding of subjects like meteorology and aviation weather, aerodynamics, transport category systems, long-range and oceanic navigation, aeromedical and physiological research, and safety & risk management programs before you even apply for that first job, you'll be far ahead of the average pilot. Likewise, network relentlessly, both at the airport and online. In 2007's job market, basically any bozo with a pulse could get hired at an airline, but in an economy like this it takes knowing people to land even a flight instructing job. The contacts you make and maintain will prove even more valuable in subsequent stages of your career.
As I've written previously, I see a critical pilot shortage developing at the regional airlines in 2012-2014; this will present opportunities to make up much of what our profession has lost over the last eight years. In the meantime there are some tough times to slog through. Those who make smart decisions and survive will reap the benefits. If anyone has advice in addition to what I posted above, I'd like to hear it in the comments.


Dave Starr said...

Thank goodness, some down to earth information for those who want an above the earth career.

I am a non-professional pilot who has been involved with aviation for more than 50 years now, so even though my ratings may be sparse my industry savvy isn't.

On the tip about becoming a flight school of one. Since I was a boy this has been a very viable route. I really don't understand why so few aspiring pilots take it. Why build debt when you could be building time as well as business savvy?

Overheads, for a one man/woman band are low, and training aircraft sell today often for as much or more as new. Buy a 152 or a 172 with say a half-time engine, build 1,000 hours teaching yourself and others and the least you'll sell it for is the difference between what you paid and half an engine rebuild ... better yet, net lease one that isn't being used.

A big thank you for mentioning the rest of the world as well, Sam. I'm US born and raised but I've been living in the Philippines now for years.

Aviation is booming here, many airlines have had to open their own ab intio training programs, every commercial flight school know of is packed to the gills.

You can live here for 1/4 the cost of the US, it's an ICAO country so your tickets are good ... heck you can even bring your run out 172 with you and get it expertly rebuilt at very low costs.

Building time and making money too? Hard to beat.

And when you have your airline hours and ratings in hand, be sure to look at airlines like Cathay Pacific, Emirates, JAL and ANA .. you may well find that their compensation packages are way better than what you can hope for from someone like the Colgan's of the world.

This is actually a _great_ time to start ... the first generation of the 'over 60' cockpit clogging politicians are aging out and the 'recession' just is not nearly as 'global' as the TV bobble heads there in the states would have you believe.

If you actually )want_ a flying career, it's absolutely possible.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting a great blog. Also for the feedback from the guy in the Phillipines. I'm essentially doing what you suggest. It's great to have your approval. Any news on Greatgiginthesky? Goodday!

Ron said...

I would add another suggestion to your excellent list: if you do have a flying job, don't drop the ball there.

I mention this because many of us who are "in the pipeline" flying full time have probably been at that job for a couple of years, maybe more. These are often jobs which traditionally have high turnover rates. However, with the industry at a standstill, nobody is leaving. So nobody is upgrading. And that poor FO who's been stuck in the right seat for two years when he'd normally upgrade in 5-6 months might be getting antsy.

My advice: stick with it. Don't get sloppy on the job. Maintain a good work ethic. Why? Because someday this pipeline will start flowing again, and when it does, that Dream Job you're going to apply for may hinge on what your current employer says about you.

Think about it.

Bob said...

Yeah, Sam, they've been saying there's going to be a critical regional pilot shortage in five years for the past ten years! It actually happened around 06-07. Did anyone see that coming? No.

Only a complete fool would go into professional flying right now, unless they have substantial wealth to get them through.

I can't believe all the broke college kids that are paying 150,000-350,000 for a job that pays 0-20,000, and only hits 100,000 if you're damn lucky (ask an ATA guy).

Aviation should be though of as a hobby for the time being. Get an education that gets you some cash, not an education that gets you debt, no job, and a life of misery.

Anonymous said...

As an aspiring airline pilot working in a 'coveted' flight instructor position, i've seen a common denominator among pilots in that we've forgotten why we're in this business: once upon a time we all made a decision to become a professional aviator hopefully not because of the money, status, glamour factor - but because we love to fly. Somewhere between the points of the thrill of your first takeoff to the point of hating going to work because of low pay, long hours, atrocious scheduling, and little respect we lost the initial luster.

The 'generation me' factor has gotten the best of us in that we're always looking for the Bigger Better Deal and not taking in the present for what it's worth. Flight instructors, banner towers, jump pilots etc. should take this opportunity to peel from it as much as possible while perfecting flying techniques the 2007 regional 300TT hires never had the chance to. Who will be the better stick and rudder pilot in 20 years: the low time regional hire, or a 1000 dual given former instructor?

"Only a complete fool would go into professional flying right now, unless they have substantial wealth to get them through." - BOB

As a flight instructor making only enough money to pay the bills and a few nights on the town, my wife and I are having the time of our lives knowing one day it'll be worth it. Even though I face the possibility of many furloughs, lay offs, pay cuts, and downgrades, I'll still be enjoying the view from the flight deck day in and day out simply because I love to fly.

Try to find the reason why you're still in this industry and if you sincerely cannot pinpoint it, it may be time to think about a new occupation where you'll actually enjoy life. Life is short - do what you love, not what you're indebted to.

zb said...

One rule that applies to any job: Some plans for the future (a.k.a. career focus) are o.k., but in the first place, life should be fun and make reasonable sense at the moment.

I like this blog and the article above a lot because it explains a realistic and not too pessimistic point of view towards an industry.

Sam, thanks for your continuous effort towards approaching your topics from as many sides as possible!

Bob said...

I'm sorry, Anonymous, but the view from FL250 isn't so sweet when: you had to hand the cashier a WIC card the night before to quiet your stomach, you live with five plus guys in a ghetto apartment, you have no credit rating, and you get no sleep while you are working to keep 50+ people alive while dealing with an airline that wants you to fail.

Making no money as a med student makes sense, but not in today's world of aviation. Join the military or get an education. Fly on the side. When your time comes and if you still want to, make a move.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

Anonymous said...

An Alaska Airlines FO told me: Don't get your degree in aviation. His was in computer science. I'm currently working on business. (Granted, for electives, I'm still going for anything aviation-related as much as I can - meteorology, etc.) But the goal when I graduate with my degree is to have a backup plan. Who knows if I'll fail a medical someday or something, at least I'll have a backup diploma in something that's NOT aviation.

Orlando said...

I got hint: marie a filthy rich chick wit da big fake rack and fly witch her monies! Were der a will, der ist a way boyz! Now dat a win-win. No loose witch da woman ah ja! PEACE

Sam said...

Orlando's suggestion, incoherent as it is, might be the best one I've seen yet.

Shane said...

Orlando is da man!

Anonymous said...

Well written and informative post. I miss the posts about your flying expieriences.

Preston said...

i miss your posts being on a more regular basis. nonetheless, well written and thought provoking as always.

Sam said...

Sorry 'bout that Anonymous and Preston. Besides working, I've been out and about this summer with major trips to Norway & Italy and riding my motorcycle out west & then touring there with Dawn and some friends of ours, sailing my in-law's boat, and of course working on my other side project (tho not nearly as much as I should be!). The blogging has kinda gone by the wayside and I miss posting on the regular basis. Hopefully I'll be able to get back into it as the weather turns cold in MN.

sounddoc said...

Thanks for this post, Sam. Fortunately I'm already doing most, if not all, of what you suggest. ever since i was old enough to read I sponged up anything aviation related. As for goals, mine is simple - fly without having to pay for it and if possible, have flying be my major source of income. whether that's as FO on an RJ, dropping meat bombs on the weekend, or pulling ads through the sky, it is what it is. my love for flying goes well beyond money, and as far as a comfortable lifestyle...let's just say i don't go to bed at night with a smile on my face because I had a really productive day in the cubicle / computer lab / what-have-you, it's usually because i learned something new with my cfi, or demonstrated something in the air that i've only read about in the text books. when I fly I still get the same feeling everytime - *everytime* - that this is the best thing ever, and this is after 12 years of being a professional student. the mix of physics, radios, structure, adventure, whim, and serenity of being up there will never get old. it might get clouded by company politics, low pay, and god forbid, other's cynicism, but it will always be there to find again. call that sentiment naive, but the grass is always greener. luckily i have a fallback career...but frankly, i'm sick of doing it!

becoming a private pilot made me a better person. it effected everything i do, adding structure, analytical thinking and a calm under pressure - things i don't think i'd ever have uncovered in myself. so that, mixed with what i wrote above, tells me there's nothing else i should be doing except to continue...IR, CPL, CFI, MEI...and on and on.

oh, and I guess ATP now as well :P

GreenPilot said...

good stuff as always, Sam. thanks for looking out for the little guy like myself, and for giving hope in the midst of economic gloom.

others have said it, I'll echo: if we're gonna fly, it HAS to be about the love of flying, and can't be about money. that's where I'm at, and hopefully that's always how it'll be.

sounddoc you summed it up perfectly...there is nothing I've done in my life to make me prouder than learning to fly and acquiring the like skills that come with it.

Mac Stevens said...

... Long time blog reader, second time poster on your blog... MSP based PAX :)

You sail? Have you sailed out at Wazata Yacht Club at all? Best sailing in the Twin Cities IMHO.

I know we have a few pilots out there and they always seem to clean up in the races out there.

But I do look forward to your posts, especially in regards to the JungleBus systems. It's very interesting to learn about the interactions between pilot and aircraft beyond what I've read in the various papers out there on cockpit usability.

Sam said...

Sounddoc- Very well said. A person taking up professional flying for the reasons you listed will have a good career whatever bumps get thrown their way.

MacStevens- Always glad to see readers from my neck of the woods. Have you had a chance to ride on a JungleBus out of MSP yet? Most of the pilots from my company are pretty friendly guys and gals that won't mind if you poke your head in the cockpit before/after flight.

I've sailed since I was a kid but sadly I've never owned a boat, only borrowed others'. Right now most of my sailing is done on my in-laws' 25' MacGregor, they have it on a lake in western MN. I don't see myself buying a boat in the next year or two, but I would love to do some crewing for racers in the Twin Cities area. I've always heard racing is the best way to learn how to *really* handle a boat, never had the opportunity to do any though. Know of anyone at WYC that'd be looking for some extra rail-meat next season?

Mac Stevens said...

I have flown NewCo out of MSP on the JungleBus several times actually. First time I flew on one was with NewCo.

Definitely one of my favorite planes to fly on.

As for WYC, feel free to shoot me an email (techiemac at gmail). We still have a fall race season going on (in fact its some of the best sailing all year round) and I can get you out on a boat if you want. It really is the right way to hone your sailing skills IMHO.

Ryan said...

Good stuff right up until the end. Critical pilot shortage? I've literally heard the tale of "critical pilot shortages" for the entire duration of my career in this business. It ain't happenin'. Supply and demand will always be biased heavily toward the oversupply of pilots for too few jobs. Apparently a lot of young males like the idea of flying airplanes for a living, even now when the profession has lost much of its luster.

The profession is cyclical and it will recover, but how dramatic will it be? And how long-lived? We are never going to find ourselves in a situation where we're suddenly desperate for pilots across the board. It's never happened and never will.