So, you wanna be a professional pilot, huh? Despite the economy, there will be a good number of vacant cockpit seats in the next decade or so as the last of the baby boomer bulge reaches 65, the airline pilot retirement age. If you are a Wall Street bonus baby, go for it. If not, are you up to the challenge?
If you’re not yet a pilot, earning the minimum pilot certificates and ratings—private and commercial tickets with instrument and multiengine privileges—will run you $50K or more. If you don’t have a college degree, add the cost of two-to-four-years tuition, books, and other fees, a total well into six figures.
Now, how are you going to pay for it? If you’re not a Wall Street bonus baby, you’ll be hunting for student loans. Good luck. Getting any student aid is not easy, and it is especially hard if you’re not enrolled in a college program that qualifies for federal Title IV loans like the Stafford.
Sallie Mae is one of the last lenders that makes career training loans to students learning how to be a pilot, a dental hygienist, a massage therapist, or other careers like them. Because credit is tight, earlier this year Sallie cut the number of approved schools in most career fields roughly in half. Of the surviving 5,000 career training schools approved for loans, says a Sallie Mae rep, two dozen are flight schools.
Defaults, regardless the reason, haven’t helped the flight school student loan situation. It is the reason why KeyBank got out of that business several years ago. Most career training schools are state regulated, and they must bank money for tuition reimbursement if the school closes, says Sallie Mae. Flight schools are federally regulated, and tuition isn’t part of Part 141, “Sallie Mae bears the full burden for assisting students.”
If you can get one, career training loans charge 10 to 15 percent interest, and you have to start repaying them 30 days after first disbursement. If you’re near the end of training, when you’re building experience in a twin, that monthly bill could run you $150 to $190 per $10K of loans.
And paying that money back doesn’t get any easier if you can find a job. Just ask the regional airline captain interviewed in the New York Times on October 14. Thanks to the economy, he got downgraded to first officer, cutting his salary in half – to $34K.
Oh, and to make flying safer for the the flying public, the House of Representatives just passed HR 3371, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009. It requires all airline captains and first officers to hold airline transport pilot certificates.
Because it is a corporate tradition of putting the financial burden of necessary skills and experience on potential employees, America’s professional pilots will have to find a way to pay for this, too. Unless their common sense kicks the metaphysical butt of their passion for flight and they settle for a less demanding, more rewarding career.
And the bean counters that run most corporations might want to pay attention, too, because their typical short-sightedness, focused on the next quarter’s bottom line (and the bonus they’ll get for making their numbers), may well be their downfall in about 10 years. Yes, there are a lot of out of work ATPs who’ll work for next to nothing.
But tomorrow’s pilots are now in flight schools. Call a few that specialize in training pro pilots. Better yet, go visit them first hand. At most you’ll find that American students are not the majority. Quite the opposite. Most of the students enrolled are from other nations, supported by the airlines they will fly for when they return home. – Scott Spangler