Flying Job Scales Tilt Toward Pilots

By Robert Mark on September 12th, 2011

Book CoverWhen I wrote the second edition of Professional Pilot Career Guide a few years back, a great economy was in full swing with many more flying jobs than there were pilots to accept. If it had not been for the economy taking a nosedive  in 2008, the pilot shortage would easily have become a fact, not a dream.

But of course the U.S. and much of the world economy took a huge nosedive which put thousands of pilots on the street and brought hiring to a halt. Over the past three years, many people have simply given up the dream and decided an aviation career isn’t worth the effort. For those folks I can only say “I’m sorry,” because the hiring boom is just around the corner.

I sat down with Louis Smith, President of, the pilot career information service during their recent job fair in Chicago. photoIf you’ve ever had a hankering to fly for a living, I hope you’ll give this podcast (below) a listen because Smith makes it clear that the airlines have finally realized there aren’t enough professional aviators out there to match attrition and retirements.

For those who say they can’t imagine working for the crummy wages of the regionals, I won’t pull the wool over your eyes. The wages are poor, but the incentives to convince pilots to fly are here beginning with American’s recent decision to offer a seniority number to any American Eagle pilot on the job by late next month. It won’t be the last nudge to fly either.

Remember too, it’s not the end of the world to spend a few years seasoning yourself before you try for the big time. Besides beefing up your resume, that experience might just someday save your life. (Applicants meet airline recruiters face-to-face in Chicago. Where were you?) — Rob Mark, Publisher


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12 Responses to “Flying Job Scales Tilt Toward Pilots”

  1. @williamAirways Says:

    It seems that the “pilot shortage” theme comes up from time to time. Some pilots think it’s coming, while others say in their 30 years of flying, they have never seen a pilot shortage. When pilots are willing to fly for peanuts (no pun intended), will there really ever be a pilot shortage?

    I did a quick scan of Airline Pilot Central and this is what I found:

    Air Wisconsin Hiring 2012
    Cape Air 800
    Colgan Air 1000/100
    CommutAir 900/100
    Compass Hiring
    GoJet 1500/500
    Great Lakes Hiring
    Gulfstream Hiring
    Mesaba 600/50
    PenAir Hiring
    Piedmont 1500/200
    Pinnacle 1000/200
    PSA 1500/500
    Trans States 1000/200
    American Eagle 500/50
    Atlantic Southeast 700/100
    ExpressJet Hiring
    #Frontier Hiring from Midwest & Republic
    #JetBlue Hiring
    SkyWest 1000/100
    #Southwest 2500 or 1500 turbine, 1000 turbine PIC
    #Spirit 4000/1000
    #Sun Country 2000/500PIC
    #Virgin America 5000 w/ 1000 turbine PIC

    Comair Not Hiring
    Era Not Hiring
    Horizon Air Not Hiring
    Island Air Not Hiring
    Lynx Aviation Not Hiring
    Mesa Not Hiring
    AirTran Not Hiring
    Allegiant Not Hiring
    Republic Not Hiring
    USA 3000 Not Hiring

    So yes, airlines are hiring…BUT…look at the minimums. The *minimums* are substantial. So unless you have a deposit box at Fort Knox, it will take someone quite a bit of time (read: money) to get to these *minimum* requirements. I emphasize minimum because some airlines list competitive minimums which are sometimes twice if not three times the base minimums (jetBlue for example).

    With the 1500/ATP around the corner, anyone looking to do this will pretty much need to start yesterday, and have the money to be able to pay for the time, check rides, and written tests. If they choose to train at a location where weather isn’t cooperative, it’ll take that much longer to get on the application line. The airlines that I’ve marked with a #, a starting dreamer can forget about. Those airlines are looking for pilots who have been a captain on a turbine before. So the hiring list today is rather short…and has been short for the past several years. Given the economic climate, I don’t really see an economic improvement that will substantially propel the airline industry in the next 3-5 years.

    Here’s the other interesting side of the equation…furloughed pilots:

    Alaska 19
    American 980
    United 1437
    US Air 57
    Republic 56
    USA 3000 76
    Comair 147
    Mesa 317


    Holy mole! Some will have moved on with their lives while others sit by their cell phone waiting for that recall. Those accepting recall will displace the number of open jobs. Sure there will be pilots dropping off the radar via retirement or attrition, are they going to all fall off the cliff at once to create a pilot shortage vacuum? I suspect there are a lot of CFIs out there who will fill in the gaps, but to call it a pilot shortage? I’ll believe it when I see it. My idea of pilot shortage is when airlines just cannot find anyone to hire. When that day comes, I’m sure the airlines will resort back to the days of “Hey, you look like you have a pulse, want to be a pilot? All paid for!” Okay, that might be dramatic, but an old timer who used to work for TWA told me that was the case.

    The cat is out of the bag on regional airline career. The pay sucks for the first five years, crew scheduling abuses you all the time, reserve life is nothing to write home about, commuting can be down right daunting, and those crash pads…what the hell is that smell anyway! If regional airlines want to find good pilots, they will have to ante up at the table and make the job more attractive. Their starting pilot pay should be around $60-70k. Yet regional airlines seem to think paying pilots a wage that qualifies them for food stamps is something to be proud of. It’s absolutely amazing that an individual could put in so much STEM (study, time, effort, money) into getting the qualifications only to be making sweat shop wages. Sign me up! Not.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    So tell us how you REALLY feel. Just kidding. Thanks for spending some time on this comment.

    Of course you are right that if pilots are willing to work for peanuts, the system will not get better.

    Certainly this in not an overnight door opening for everyone today though either. But my point was that there is a crack in the dike.

    If American is handing out seniority numbers to Eagle pilots, they’re either completely loopy or they realize they’re going to be in trouble soon. Delta is offering a guaranteed interview to their regional partner pilots. They never did that before.

    That being said, I doubt any of the majors will ever wanting for pilots so long as the regionals are there to provide a feed.

    But with the crack in the dike comes an opportunity. If you sit at a regional, you’ll have a light at the end of the tunnel. There hasn’t been any for some time.

    You’re right too though that you’ll need some cash, OR you’ll need to find a job the builds hours, OR you’re going to need to enter the system from one of the schools that will get a waiver to the hour requirement. And I do believe something like that waiver for other kinds of experience will happen.

    Sorry to begin something like, “In my day,” but it probably fits here.

    It never crossed my mind that a year or two out of college I’d be flying at a major carrier and I think anyone who thinks like that now is wasting their energy in this career.

    I towed banners for years to build time. I ferried airplanes. I taught people to fly for years and I worked more than one job at the same time. I eventually joined FAA to pay for my flying time until I could get hired. I wandered around airports and looked for or made opportunities for myself to build time to meet the minimums which were a heck of a lot higher than anything out there today.

    That’s the marketing part many young pilots don’t understand today.

    So this might be where I ask people to think about their life. If you can imagine yourself turning 40 never having tried to fly for a living and the only reason you didn’t try was because the money sucked now, or you didn’t think you’d be in the left seat within 3 years, then save us all a lot of time and go drive a truck.

    What I saw in Chicago were a few hundred men and women with low time who believed there was a future there and were willing to take that risk. Today, EVERY job has it’s risks. it’s just that some pay better while things are risky.

    And please don’t misunderstand my tone. I’m not mad when I say this, just a bit surprised at some of the private e-mails I’ve seen that are basically whining about what a flying job ISN’T.

    Let’s keep this in perspective please … I DO THE WHINING around here!

    Good luck and thanks for your note @williamairways

  3. Paul Berliner Says:

    Let me comment on one airline in particular; American. They lost 111 pilots September 1st and will lose at least 200=250 pilots in October and November. They have cut the October “known flying” lines in half in order to get an additional 10-12 flying hours from all of the pilots that will be awarded all of the extra Reserve lines. American is in deep trouble from a pilot retention and financial perspective. There is real concern that a pre-packaged bankruptcy might be the only way to keep things going. There isn’t enough training capacity in the entire world to make up for the significant attrition of late.

    Since I started flying back in the 80’s I’ve been through three hiring cycles, worked for four airlines one of which went belly-up. Would I do it all over again?? YOU BET!! But I’d do things a bit differently next time.

    The writing is on the wall that there will be a significant hiring boom over the next few years, starting late 2012. However, it will take many more years for the airlines to increase their pay rates.

  4. @williamAirways Says:

    I definitely read no negative tone from your post. The few hundred men and women you saw at the show is clearly an indication that there will always be pilots willing to work for peanuts. And so as long as that is the case, there will never be a pilot shortage, IMHO.

    I hear just too many regional pilots who complain about the job. One airline merger and that milestone to the left seat went from a month from now to a few years or more from now. Or another way of saying it is, enjoy another 3-5 years at low FO pay.

    The other unspoken part of this career is, if you decide to move from regional captain to majors FO, your pay will get cut, your life style will be impacted, and you will most likely sit back on reserve again. Any pilot will tell you that sitting reserve is about as pleasant as…well…I’ll keep this civil. :)

    I don’t mean to “whine”, merely to point out the facts about the career that most starry eyed dreamers just don’t see. And the industry (*cough* like Roger Cohen *cough*) certainly makes no effort to advertise the reality side of the career.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    We complained about regional jobs 20 years ago too. They called them commuter jobs then. Pay was lousy, schedules sucked and we worked some long days. Retirement, sure, a 401K that Midway added to until, like Paul’s airline, they shut down.

    But your point about lifestyle is important. That’s very important to me now, which is why I started a business 16 years ago. I guess I didn’t care as much when I was single. But life is all about tradeoffs, isn’t it.

    Like Paul, if I had it to do all over again, I’d do the same thing because we saw a future … not immediate, but it was there.

    And there’s one appearing now through the haze, but you need to be looking and you need to be ready to act.

    You’re right to point out the downside though, something I probably didn’t know much about a few decades back. But in the end, if you want to fly big airplanes, you’re going to have to pay your dues.

    Nothing personal pointed at readers here, but I run into, what seems like to me at least, quite a few young aviators who believe they’ll only take the job if they have some guarantees on money and advancement.

    Those are no more likely to happen than 20 years ago. But I doubt they exist in many other careers anymore either.

    We’ll never again see the pay rates that fed the airline business recession. But if you hang in there, the pay is not bad at all. You’re either a desk person or you’re not.

    To Paul’s message though about doing things differently … what exactly WOULD you do?

    You first though …


  6. Jeff Reich Says:

    With literally thousands of pilots out of work, I have a real hard time with the shortage forecast. I remember being stationed at Sigonella Naval Air Station, Sicily and receiving my monthly subscription to FAPA (Future Airline Pilots Association), circa 1986. I remember the shortage forecast then too. I also remember being stagnant in the right seat of a commuter while the majors all but stopped hiring for about 4 and a half years in the first half of the ’90’s.

    Right now, pilots with over 7,000, or even 12,000 flight hours, many type ratings and other good experience are cast aside, not even to be looked at, if they don’t have the exact experience dictated. Not to mention that many of the positions open would ask that these pilots step back 15 years in pay and working conditions.

    If I were a young person looking at this career, I would be extra careful. Gambling on the extensive investment in training, coupled with commonly poor working conditions, is not done so without great risk.

    Those of us still in the industry must concern ourselves with our industry reputation. We may be laborers, but we should be the finest exhibition of laborers. We should also realize the value in furthering our own education, in order to relate our value and needs.

  7. Louis Smith Says:

    The major airlines hired 46,882 pilots during the last 20 years. Nearly 10,000 of those newly-hired pilots experienced various periods of layoffs ranging from a few months to ten years. Some are still waiting for recall but will need to make a decision soon, likely by the end of 2012.

    I have tracked airline pilot hiring for more than 37 years, and the last decade has been the worst pilot hiring environment I have ever seen. It’s a grand career mistake to view the industry and the pilot profession through rose-colored glasses, but it’s an even greater strategic mistake to run one’s pilot career looking in the rear-view mirror.

    During the next 20 years, the major airlines will hire more than 75,000 pilots (unless the airlines can successfully convert to one-pilot or unmanned aircraft). Many pilots will seize the opportunity and establish careers at the major airlines, earning up to $10 million during their tenure. The major airlines will recruit pilots from three primary sectors: military services, regional airlines, and corporate flight departments.

    A quick scan of current pilot qualification minimums at the regional airlines gives the impression it’s a static environment. It’s not. hires people to track the pilot hiring environment because it’s important to our company and our customers. The pilot minimums at the regional airline sector are declining rapidly and will do so for several years, yielding to whatever restrictions the FAA might attempt to impose.

    I don’t think the major airlines will ever have a shortage of qualified pilot applicants because of the ample source of pilots from the sectors mentioned above. At the regional airline sector with nearly 20,000 pilots, there will be serious operational and training disruptions as pilots defect to major airlines.

    Louis Smith

  8. Jeff Reich Says:

    The number of actual pilots hired over the past 20 years is somewhat of a relative argument. When we look at the picture for major airlines, how could one seriously contemplate a forecast for the next 20 years? From farther back than 20 years, we have seen mergers and bankruptcies dwindle the majors, or legacy careers, leaving the LCCs (Low Cost Carriers) and regionals in their place. Now, more pilots make relatively less than pilots decades ago, even when we take in the effect of eliminating Flight Engineers.

    Louis suggestion that we not use rose glasses or the rear-view mirror, is somewhat puzzling. Sure, past performance means nothing, regarding future performance. However, past performance is history it has happened and we can study the effects and their causes. With that knowledge we then strive to improve performance by not replicating the mistakes of the past. This information should drive us to try to think up new solutions, rather than repeating history.

    With the current level of demise of our industry reputation, single pilot airliners make a certain amount of sense. I dont wish it on us; however, one can imagine it forthcoming a single pilot (like a metro attendant) and a remote monitoring station. The good news is, without FAA budgeting and organized improvement implementation, by the FAA Air Traffic Control System, the maintenance of two pilots will likely be sustained. However, the infrastructure and the airline, FAA, and TSA business models are not optimal. TSA is repelling airline usage. The airline business models still have margins too shallow. The FAA is disjointed, though improving under Babbits leadership, and the TSA is, well, the TSA need I say more? Three agents busted for helping smuggle drugs into the country while thousands of pilots, some prior U.S. military are unemployed. Don’t you think that putting displaced aviators in the TSA might tend to help not that any of them could stomach applying, given the current reputation of the organization.

    As for a pilot shortage, whether in 5, 10, or 20 years; what difference does it make, as long as the professional reputation of our industry is such that insufficient value on pilots leaves them under paid, especially relative to their training and education costs? The work-life balance, or lack of balance, is alone enough to warrant raises. When we take into account the declining pilot minimums at the regionals leaning on the FAA as a standard, a flag should be going up in ones mind. How about changing the regional business models to attract the thousands of more experienced pilots, who are out of work and could be serving as Captains and mentoring on a commendable scale.

    Jeff Reich

  9. Robert Mark Says:

    I think the difference about the pilot shortage Louis mentions is that the regional ARE beginning to reconsider how they at least hire pilots, hence those incentives.

    You have many good points here Jeff. Taking one for example, we should all realize that until pilots are willing to stand up and say they won’t work for the wages and conditions that exist, the regionals won’t change much.

    Waiting for some resolution on all of these issues though, before someone jumps into the flying game though, I think is a serious mistake.

    Just my two cents.

  10. @williamAirways Says:

    Mr. Smith,

    I think you have a valid view. However, you didn’t address the low pay aspect of the job (or any of the other concerns). A majority of the pilots I train are recreational types. I have yet to encounter students looking for flight training to go airline, except 2 in the past two years. One ran for the hills when I showed him the pay scales. The other is a CFI building time, but he’s not planning to immediately go to the regionals. His perspective is, he’s slaving as a CFI making little money, he’d like to work somewhere where the pay is better and enjoy life a bit before he decides to be a slave to the regional airlines. His words. Not mine. As you can see, prospective pilots are already giving regional airlines the stiff middle finger.

    In talking to fellow colleagues I find that the story is similar. Training demand is down. And with the demand we do see, those going airline is close to zero. I don’t doubt the possibility of a hiring storm, but I think the regional airlines might find the pool to be a bit dry. After all, as you pointed out, majors will be fine finding regional pilots to step up. But nobody goes from zero time to majors. And nobody seem to want to pay for all that flight training to be treated like the bus boy at McDonald’s. I hope you are right that the regionals are waking up from their b.s. And I hope they change substantially. But my gut tells me that they neither are willing nor are they financially capable of such needed changes.

    Rob, asking someone to drop over $50-100k for flight training with faith that the regionals will change for the better is a huge leap of faith. I think you’ll see Jesus return before the regionals make any appreciable modifications to their pay, benefits, and huge reduction of management’s poor attitude toward pilots. For now, that light at the end of the flight training for the career pilot tunnel is the light of an oncoming freight train.

  11. Jeff Reich Says:

    The most saddening aspect of all of this is that we have thousands of experienced pilots not flying, and becoming less likely to ever pass on their knowledge. Over the coming years, these pilots will be passed over, rather than having them groom upcoming generations. Right now in business aviation for instance, recruiters, hiring managers and HR generalists are mandating currency in type for a pilot to be hired into an operation. Tell me, what happens if the currency is up in one month? Won’t the pilot get recurrent training anyway? Also, what if the operation changes aircraft models in the next year? Will the pilots be let go so that currently experienced pilots will be brought in? – Of course not.

    In the airlines, wouldn’t a change in tradition be in order too, to bring in experienced pilots? These pilots could be fast-tracked to the left seat. Make them management pilots to pay them more. Give them mentoring duties.

    It is time for paradigm shifts in the way we think and act in aviation. We need to think outside of the traditional practices and get creative. Yes, creative! We don’t think of aviators being creative – it sounds too artistic for us, doesn’t it? But what do we do when we solve problems? Don’t we get creative? Didn’t the aviators that saved United 232 under the command of Al Haynes get creative?

    It is time for our industry to get really creative and make big changes in how we relate to the rest of the world. We are smart people. We must realize that how we are seen by the public and our business associates has powerful effects on if, and what, we might get to fly. If we don’t show our ingeniousness, what’s to keep engineers from programming over the aviators? We must take a lead in communicating our value.

  12. Audio Works Says:

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