Pilots & Their Professional Standing

By Scott Spangler on February 6th, 2011

A sure indication of age is the change in status of a profession once held in high regard. Embodied by the airline pilot, I’m talking about aviators who gets paid to transport people or cargo on a regular run. Once a respected and well-paid position, it is now approaching parity with the ubiquitous bus driver and over-the-road trucker.

Flying busMy point is to not cast aspersions on pilots of terrestrial transport; our lives and economy would suffer without their good work. It is more about the airborne profession transformed by its own success. Flying people and cargo has become so safe and reliable that it is no longer special. It is something that anyone can do with a training and practice.

What inspired this tangent of thought was an article in the Los Angeles Times, U of Ill. official says aviation program needs to be closed in cost-savings push. Closing the program would save the university $750K a year. According the  U of I Institute of Aviation website, it has 300 students enrolled in its different programs.  But that’s not what caught my eye.

The university’s interim chancellor initially said there might be a chance of replacing the Institute with a non-degree aviation program. But he changed his mind, because “there wasn’t enough demand to make that financially viable.” The key point here is the demise of college degrees, a leading status symbol for any profession.

This comes on the heels of the the possibility of GI Bill flight training, still fresh in my mind. If Congress appropriates the money, it will pay up to $10,000 a year for flight training under “non-degree educational programs.” That’s another way of saying vo-tech, which is where many commercial drivers learn their trade and earn their certification.

So, is a commercial pilot’s license (or airline transport pilot certificate) really any different than a commercial driver’s license? And what does the demise of aviation degree programs mean for the future of aviation? And how does it all trickle down to the industry and pilot population?  –Scott


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28 Responses to “Pilots & Their Professional Standing”

  1. Andrew Leonard Says:

    I agree with most of what you’re saying here. The part I disagree with isn’t so much disagreement but mixed feelings. To say that anyone can be a pilot with training and practice might be a bit of a stretch. I’ve seen some pretty unintelligent looking people flying aircraft, but there are certain qualities that all pilots must have in order to be competent pilots. Those include restraint, good logical thinking, etc. etc. To insinuate that your local bus driver could eventually be a pilot puts a lot of faith in humanity!

    It’s a same pilot programs are going down the tube, as are our small airports. The part about them nixing degree programs more or less makes sense; you don’t /really/ need a degree for a job in aviation with relevant training.

    The main problem in the aviation industry, as far as pilots are concerned, are exorbitant training costs for a pittance of a salary. Something needs to be done about that, and government funding funding for aviation programs needs to be bolstered, not cut.

  2. Jack colberet Says:

    Certain thing are going to happen in the pilot world. The number of retirements in the near future will rise as age 65 limits are reached. The question is who will replace them. True, there are regional pilots able to step up. But who will replace them? Who today wants to go through years of training for a job that pays so little, who’s career could end suddenly due to health reasons or liability risk. To spend 3/4 of the year on the road, never be home for the holidays or see your kids grow up. Yes it’s great wearing the uniform and seeing the world from 35,000 feet but the hidden costs are huge. There’s a reason why if you ask most pilots the simple question would they wish to see their children grow up to be pilots – the answer would be NO. No pause, no hesitation, just plain no. Until aviation management leaders restore the profession to some semblance of its past the profession will continue to decline. Jobs will be outsourced to the cheapest contract bidder and you will get what you pay for. High turnover, lack of professionalism, and a decrease in safety. Who knows maybe in the future one of the pilots might even come back during flight and offer you fries with your beverage so as to help support the companys bottom line.

  3. Miles Says:

    I hope the industry does not start to “dumb down” too quickly. An FAA report that is due out soon suggests that there is an urgent need to invest in pilot training: http://www.smarteraircharter.com/news/faa-report-warns-airline-pilots-lack-basic-skills/

    Sorry guys but it is back to school for you ;)

  4. Dr. Dave Says:

    As an aviation educator at a major public university, I have repeated told my students that you do NOT have to have a college degree to fly. Professionally, you might be required to have some type of degree (AS,BS) but not necessarily in aviation. My son-in law is captain for a major airline and holds a BS geology degree(cumulo-granite?)

    The big difference in attending a collegiate aviation program should be to prepare you for managerial/leadership roles in an aviation organization. Also, the notion of having a Plan B if the flying does not work out is important if you want to stay in the aviation field.

    Collegiate flight training carries a double wammy – you pay for the flight training AND tuition for the college credit. No wonder some folks graduating from a private college are carrying significant student loan debt ($100,000 = $900+/month or more! to pay back).

    Historically, commercial flying has always been a vo-tech program; the college degree has simply been part of the applicant selection process. If pending federal legislation will require ATPs in the cockpit – aviation college flight programs will continue to disappear – only faster. The critical measure will be in total hours of flight experience and not whether you understand principles of aviation management.

  5. Bill Says:

    As a graduate of a BS degree program in aviation, having instructed for most my aviation career (now a wide body captain/instructor/check pilot for a major airline). I can tell you that I have been struck many times by what some pilots didn’t know. The more extensive study in a wide range of subjects that I and my fellow aviation college attendees accomplished is far more than is required just to pass the test.
    Yet I find my understanding of meteorological, aerodynamic, aircraft systems and other subjects quite useful in avoiding, and minimizing turbulence encounters, optimizing altitude selection, etc. I deal with pilots every day who don’t know a trof line from a trop height. As a result when they’re getting tossed around, they don’t know why or what to do about it.
    In the same way that anybody can take a picture, but when a trained photographer takes the same picture – well, it’s not the same.

  6. Bill Says:

    I agree with Dave in that aviation majors should have some type of fallback (business degree also?) However, I have to disagree that “the big difference in attending a collegiate aviation program should be to prepare you for managerial/leadership roles in an aviation organization;” and therefore, if you don’t want to be a big muckety muck in the aviation organization ,there’s no point to going to college for aviation. This is for the reasons I have already cited.

  7. Dr. Dave Says:

    For what other reason would you spend so much money and time (4 years+) to prepare you for a professional flying career as a goal…where’s the real added value?

    Give me that same money and I can turn out excellent pilots ab-initio all day long in a year…add one more year as flight instructors and they’ll be ATPs (if over age 23 – but then that begs the question – who made up that rule? – same guys that said 60-year old pilots are over the hill)

    Pilots have been always been a commodity. With more automation – even RyanAir’c CEO suggestion of having only one pilot in the cockpit begins to have some merit. I’m sure Airbus is working on that as we speak.

  8. Bill Says:

    For them to be true professionals at their craft, they need more education than OJT and studying for FAA exams.
    The economics and industry now are different than in 1978, when I was in school. I would still advocate a 4 year degree (for one thing, it’s hard to get hired without one), but not without a plan B. (e.g., business major or something).

    The guy who made up the 23 year old rule probably had some 18 year olds around the house and knew what he was doing.

  9. Victorinox Says:

    This is interesting, but some universities appear to be going in a different way… Embry Riddle launched a PhD in Aviation program about a year and a half ago…


  10. Scott Spangler Says:

    Interesting observations, and I agree that demand will eventually change who pays for the training that leads to a supply of pilots. When the demand for drivers with commercial licenses exceeded the supply, trucking companies paid for their training in return for a certain term of service.

    Aviation costs what it costs, and there is no magic formula that will ever change that. And people smart enough to be pilots will not pursue a profession that pays $15K. The airlines must have qualified people drive their airplanes, and if they want them, they must step up.

    That, unfortunately, doens’t help those of us who fly for fun or personal business, but that’s another story.

    You’re right that it is the airline industry that has made a college degree in any discipline a check-box for getting hired because it proves an ability (maybe) to comprehend the technological aspects of the trade. Other than this, it has little bearing in stick and rudder skills.

    You’re right that ERAU and others now offer advanced degrees, master’s and doctorates, but those working on them are usually not pursuing full-time careers as pilots. They are academics earning the prerequisites necessary to advance in their sector of the aviation industry.

  11. Dr. Dave Says:

    Make no mistake, there is a big place for a college-based aviation education program but it is my experience (including a stint at ERAU) that students show up thinking that this is what they need to become airline pilots. I say to them NO, you are here to become aviation leaders.

    One program I admire is a college where the default degree is Aviation Management (Flight is an Option/Concentration which everyone signs up for.) Students will fly but it is a management degree and they will learn about the various facets of aviation including airports, air cargo and other areas where they may find an interest after exposure to the subject.

    Having an aviation-oriented degree has great value but only if students realize that it can carry them into alternate aviation career paths that they might not have originally considered.

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  13. Lordmagneto08 Says:

    Sadly, I’ve seen the evolutionary rise and fall of professional status among many of the aviation related professions. Up to and including the professional pilot and the professional aircraft mechanic.

    An degreed aviation professional who acquired that education later in life for selfish employment reasons. I have also previously been an owner-operator in the trucking business.

    Now a licensed airplane pilot, mechanic (A&P) with inspection authorization (IA), I’ve witness first-hand the decline of professional pilot and aircraft mechanic wages and benefits.

    Since deregulation of the airline industry in 1976, we in aviation have experiencd first-hand the loss of job security, declining compensation and benefits and questions of passenger safety as a direct result of companies outsourcing their maintenance, using contract labor or, shifting their maintenance to a third world offshore facility.

    More importantly, since deregulation of the airline industry in 1976, America has seen a decline in general aviation maintenance employment opportunities that pay enough to make a decent living as compared to the wages paid an automobile or diesel mechanic who are neither required to be licensed nor are they held legally accountable or liable by the courts should an incident occur.

    The holder of an undergraduate from ERAU in Pro-Aero (Maintenance), I hold that degree as previously stated for selfish employment marketing reasons due to the fact that many aircraft mechanics today, especially those with a career military background, possess a BS in Professional Aeronautics. And, I agree with several commentors that the additional knowledge gained from the academic courses offered and required for a professional aviation become extremely helpful in a real world environment.

  14. Jeremy Says:

    Your blog page is aptly titled for this entry, sir. The professional pilot labor market is, at its core, just that – a market. Air travel is now a commodity. Why do airlines pay such low “pittance” wages compared to the effort, time, and money young aspiring pilots have put in? Simple: They know we’ll take it.

  15. Stephen Crimaudo Says:

    Good article and discussion that all who fly or are connected to aviation in any way need to be engaged in.

    I disagree with one part – “Flying people and cargo has become so safe and reliable that it is no longer special. It is something that anyone can do with a training and practice.”

    I’m a general aviation Private rated pilot and have to say that not anyone can be a pilot. This is not ego talking, the folks at AOPA have done a study that only 20% of those who begin their training actually get their license, which is to say that 80% quit without completing their training. The Sport Pilot rating that the FAA rolled out recently essentially lowered the bar so that you can fly solo without finishing your Private rating.

    About 10 years ago when I was 35 I looked into becoming a professional pilot and called both Flight Safety and Embry Riddle. The conversation was short and succinct – training would cost approx. $100,000 and I could expect to make maybe $20,000 a year, then a major pay cut. The school representative and I laughed a bit and I ended the conversation. The test of intellect is that the smart person says no way to that kind of proposition, and conditions have only worsened. Ten years later I have a good job making over six figures, see my family every night and fly on weekends for fun. I’m a veteran and have also talked with many military pilots who have also said no way to entry level pilot job with the airlines. They would be taking a major pay cut and have a much worse lifestyle than that of military officer who is well supported by the armed services.

    The economic realities of the airline industry need to be debated – maybe bring full regulation back? Every operational aspect is already regulated. The FAA took a good first step in requiring an ATP for regional airline pilots. But as long as the airlines are terminally in the red and treat their employees and customers like a worthless commodity we will continue to see a degraded flying experience and an American airline industry that is a level or two below the international carriers.

  16. Kay H. Says:

    With a good portion of the pilot workforce set to retire soon, the world faces a huge shortage of pilots. My only hope is that this does not downplay the importance of flying skills and experience required to fly an airplane. It is much more than driving a bus!!! When a plane crashes it could kill all on board and some on the ground. Plus, airliners cost allot more money to buy and run than buses and vehicles. I do not believe just anyone can jump in a plane and fly after a few lessons. I hope it doesn’t take us a few crashes with mass casualties to realize this!

  17. Robert Cassidy Says:

    It is worth highlighting that the behemoth German Luftwaffe of WW2 finally collapsed , not primarily because of any airplane or fuel shortage…They ran out of pilots ….source ? personal discussions with former Luftwaffe pilots . The age in which large numbers of well qualified pilots can literally be pulled out of a hat is past ….The next “crunch” will predictably be worse than the mid to late 1960’s…..when the well of available and high quality pilots ran dry !
    ( from a retired int’l captain )

  18. Janet Says:

    If you put Freight and /or charter pilots on the same level as over the road truckers or bus drivers you would be giving us a raise….

  19. Matty Says:

    The education question reminds me of parallels in Nursing.

    Although there are BS/MS/PhD Nursing programs – most RN’s get there through Community College or Private Education


    Hopefully, there will still be a respected place for Aviation degrees. In Nursing, unless one is interested in Education, the degree route is a waste of time. Its also getting harder to find a school granting the degree, as well.

  20. Steve Fritz Says:

    This reminds me of the crisis in the railroads when I was a child and everyone in my neighborhood worked for the railroads. The big question was whether a train needed two people in the cab. The original position of fireman was to shovel coal – no longer needed in diesel trains. It was an interesting debate but the reality was that the market was shrinking. In aviation we went from three pilot crews to two pilot crews and with advanced automation it may be possible to fly just as safely with one pilot crews. Supply and demand are inexorable. At least we aren’t talking about zero pilot crews (yet!).

  21. Bill Says:

    Single Pilot Airliners:
    Not a coal shoveling issue!
    There are a couple of issues here most won’t be aware of:
    1) the current planes are not designed and certified for,nor could they be operated single pilot ( in all circumstances)
    2)It’s not cruising flight at FL350 that takes two pilots.
    a)A single pilot airliner would have to be designed with a much higher degree of automation so that when there was a malfunction, one pilot could handle the malfunction abnormal procedures, fly the plane, coordinate with ATC, company, passengers and crew, etc. Right now that often takes up the capacity of two full pilots. [The flight engineers job is not ENTIRELY done by automation – now it’s shared between the automation and the other two pilots]. How would one pilot have handled the Quantas A380 incident?
    b) it would need to be designed and integrated with an updated ATC system that virtually eliminates common errors in inserting ATC clearances. (some planes are close – those that support CPDLC can accept ATC clearances via datalink. Airplanes like the 787, automatically insert parameters like heading, altitude, airspeed into the Mode Control Panel {pilot must still approve and transfer the value into the active window with a button}. CPDLC is currently used mostly in oceanic areas, but is slowly expanding. } this is for the non-accidents that would have been, but for the other pilot.
    3)What happens when the pilot has to use the restroom? (who’s flying the plane?)
    4)What if the pilot becomes incapacitated? (and how does anyone find out that that happened?)
    5)Who will point out the pilot’s mistakes to prevent uncorrected errors from becoming accidents?

  22. @williamAirways Says:

    Pilot shortage is an interesting bar topic to be sure. Isn’t it funny that even though the regional airlines have historically paid $18-20k for year one and not much more in subsequent years but magically, pilots come out of the wood works tripping over themselves for the opportunity to fly jets. This is known as “shiny jet syndrome” (SJS). The behavior runs parallel to why small time drug dealers keep doing what they do while carrying all that risk. It’s called wanting to be “the big guy on top making the big bucks” or in aviation terms, “the guy in the left seat”. It’s also why people play the lotto knowing that the odds are against them. It’s a chance at the dream…or nightmare…depending on which side of the fence you end up falling on.

    Yes, pilots will retire en mass once age 65 occurs. I’ve been hearing 2012 is the big pilot hiring year. Now I’m reading 2012-2017. Hrm…in other words, someone’s perpetuating the pilot shortage rumor. Flight schools in need of student pilots perhaps? AOPA in need of membership numbers? Who knows. When push comes to shove, the airlines won’t have problems finding their pilots. After all, there are almost 600,000 of us out there for them to pick and choose from. And there will *always* be young people with SJS coming up the line. Don’t forget, the airlines can always play the ab initio card: train the street guy from 0 hour in return for 15 years of service. I’ve met a pilot who didn’t want to be an airline pilot, but met the right guy at the right time with no flight experience and got all his training from the airline; right place at the right time. My point is, there will always be people wanting to fly jets. A scan through the aviation forums in recent days have resulted in finding people who are making over $90k wanting to give it up to fly jets, knowing full well the pay cut, and quality of life sacrifices. These types will always be around…always have. And as a previous poster mentioned, airlines will continue to pay crap so as long as there are people willing to take the crap pay.

    Yes, the 1,500 hour rule will slow the airline’s access to pilots pipeline down, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the airlines sell to Congress that they will train these ab initio pilots to the highest standards themselves and side step that 1,500 hour land mine. After all, airlines are an integral, and critical part of our country’s infrastructure. You wouldn’t want that to slow down and hurt our weak economy and recovery on the account of a handful of planes falling out of the sky now, would you? I say this sardonically.

    So getting back to what Scott Spangler said: “The airlines must have qualified people drive their airplanes, and if they want them, they must step up.” Seems to me like the airlines are doing just fine paying what they’re paying and getting FAA certificated pilots to fly their airliners. No step up required. The only stepping up that’s currently happening are hopeful pilots in airline hiring pools waiting for their phone call with a class date, and those wannabes with a healthy dose of SJS who will fill that gap just as soon as they get their freshly minted pilot certificates from Oklahoma City. After all, we’re all trying to impress on our young how cool flying is these days, no? Some of them will develop SJS and around the world we go! Future pilots working for crap pay coming right up!

    And by the way, that was the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, not 1976. For better or for worse, it did result in coast to coast round trip tickets at $299 at one time. :)

  23. peter cronin Says:

    I respectfully think a college degree is overrated. Look around at some of the degreed individuals. George Bush? We need a better way to evaluate who can do what.

  24. john patson Says:

    Degree mania is a new thing. Until recently only medical doctors needed one, lawyers had the choice of being “pupils” in chambers, (doing paid work, night classes and with a day off to study), or university. They all sat down, degree or pupilship, in the same hall for the same exam to qualify — pupils inevitably did better in the practical parts. Other professions had similar double entry gates. To my mind universities should do what they are best at, opening young brains to the world around them. This complements vocational and technical training. Where there are too many vocational and technical training courses in a university it becomes a drone factory and all loose out.

  25. Maya Bandu Says:

    You open quite a can of imported worms here. Although I can see where it makes a lot of sense to take flying to the vocational canvas of education, I agree that some more “clout” is in order. To be fair, I think that more “clout” should be given to those who hold down the fort of society due to the vocational training those individuals have received to fix our A/C our cars, drive our buses, give us massages, and, now, fly our planes. This is what I see: a degradation and devaluing of the college degree in general. Honestly, many of the people with a college degree are completely devoid of real-world experience or skills. A merge with more vocational and focused-skill/hands-on training is now necessary for anyone in the up-and-coming generation to get a job. The young work force seems the most hit by the economic weather of the last several years, and lack of real skill is one of the issues. Right now, it seems like those who chose vocational training over the nebulous “liberal arts” degrees are doing just fine, while college grads scramble to understand how they can even fit into society.

    As it applies to pilots: try not to take this vocational move to your ego’s heart. Just like doctors, pilot’s are notorious for their slightly more smooth, funny, cocky fly-boy (or girl) attitude. (Flying with some of the airlines of http://www.ymtvacations.com/ gave way to some of the funniest intercom pilot jokes I ever heard. All the ladies laughed and wanted to meet that handsome pilot man.)

    In short, look forward to increase in the skilled work force, and a more competitive crowd of young, well-trained, focused pilots.

  26. SJS Host Says:

    @williamAirways…!!! We at shinyjetsyndrome.com are impressed with your SJS knowledge and prowess.
    Keep up the good work! SJS is alive and well!

    The Host

  27. Glen Coombe Says:

    As working conditions and pay continue to spiral below minimum wage for entry level pilots we can expect the status quo.

    Is it only a matter of time before, just like air traffic controlers that we find pilots sleeping at the yoke because their real paying job has kept them up?

    Although tounge in cheek the ATC system has decayed for about the same period of time as the situation for pilots.

    Keep this issue in the public eye by commenting where ever and when ever you find an opportunity.

    If we pay pilots like our local hamburger flippers (and you’ve see their work) how long will it take for another Colgan disaster?

  28. Bill P Says:

    The management weenies might retort that paying a pilot more wont’ keep him awake. But paying him such that he has to keep a second job, can’t afford to buy a hotel room between a commute and trip to get sufficient rest (if needed), and other money related issues WILL generate fatigue.
    You also can’t alway expect his to pick up his family and drag them across the country every time a base change occurs. (Tried to sell a house lately?)

    If my accountant (if I had one, that is) showed up for work at 8am, I wouldn’t want him working on my taxes at 10pm, but somehow it’s OK for an airline pilot to be on duty those hours and fly some nasty approach into Podunk, USA with lives at stake.

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