An Airline Career Query & No Good Answer

By Scott Spangler on December 8th, 2014

Directed my way by a leader familiar with my connection to aviation, an Eagle Scout e-mailed me this question: “I want to become an airline pilot when I get older and I’d like to know where to start? What things can I do as a high schooler or…I read somewhere that taking a ground school would be a good idea?”

The older I get the more I dislike airline career questions because they put me in an uncomfortable position of finding a middle ground between crushing someone’s dreams with the reality of aviation today and leading them on with blue skies and tailwinds that will, in most cases, come to an unhappy conclusion, if they get that far. Avoiding the question is another option, but it is equally distasteful.

When these questions are posed to you, especially those of you who now make a living as an airline pilot, how do you answer them?

Deciding on any career is a momentous decision for anyone, I responded, and wrote that he was off to a good start with research rather than a decision. That was especially true now that the FAA’s new ATP requirements for all airline pilots had changed the return-on-investment equation for those who aspire to it.

Giving an example, I shared the knowledge provided by several recent graduates saddled with more than $100,000 in student loans for their four-year professional pilot aviation bachelor’s degrees and the prospect of paying that back when their first airline jobs will pay little more than $30,000 a year…once they get their ATP, that is.

Offering some redirection, I explained that aviation embodies a wealth of careers not in the cockpit, and I urged my interlocutor to explore any interests he might have in engineering, management, or administration. Instead of taking a ground school course, I suggested that he’d better invest his time with his high school classes in science, math, and English.

A ground school course would only be of benefit now if he decided to invest the time and money in his first pilot certificate, and that a local flight school could provide the necessary details. Ultimately, I concluded, he needed to pursue his research with those now employed in the field he aspires to, and gave him some leads to establish those connections.

Since I clicked “send” I have not heard back from him, and I worry about the emotional consequences of my words. Looking at it pragmatically, no matter how I answered his question my answer was sure to involve some anguish and suffering; the only difference was when, now or later. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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4 Responses to “An Airline Career Query & No Good Answer”

  1. Sherman Kensinga Says:

    You answered well. I’ve been involved in military and airline aviation for approaching 50 years now, I’ve been in engineering and management and I’m now working in industrial automation. The careers of airline pilots will never return to the prestige and pay once enjoyed by train conductors and riverboat captains, they have each had their day. It will still be a career that many will enjoy, but it is unlikely to return the pay or quality of life competitive with less challenging career paths.

    There are still young people who have heard the legends of how it used to be as an airline pilot, those stories have been attracting young people for decades, long after they were only legends. Few believe them now, and few young Americans are entering flight training in pursuit of them. A recent ICAO paper bemoaned that fact, concluded that we should present the career as a potential “space pilot” career to attract young people. In other words, lie to them. Thanks for being honest.

  2. Kevin Caldwell Says:

    I think your answer was perfect. Not too long ago, I was just like your Eagle Scout, and each of those things you told him, I learned for myself. Exactly what I would’ve said.

  3. Bob Zabinga Says:

    The regional I am at used to have new hires with a professional aviation degree of some type plus all their ratings less the ATP. Most of them were in debt for $125k-$150k and that was the norm before the ATP requirement was mandated.

    With the requirement to have 1000 hrs under their belt to get to a regional, that’s a quadrupling of the most expensive part of the degree. I don’t know how middle income students can afford this anymore, let alone the poverty level wages afterwards.

    The pay and benefits have to be there to attract new blood. And pilots willing to start at a regional are in very short supply.

  4. sheldon larue Says:

    UPS and FEDex will soon have drone widebody jets flying from eastern Long Island to southern Portugal. Single pilot 50 seat jets will soon be FAA approved. Emirates, Quatar, Etihad and Turkish will eventually capture 60% of the international markets. Learning to fly in the usa will become as expensive as it is in Europe. 4 yr Engineering/Business degrees at state colleges will get you an instant job at 80k plus per year. Why spend 150k become a pilot and wait 4 yrs to make 30k at an airline?…a job you can loose whenever the economy goes south or you fail your FAA medical, or bust a checkride.

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