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4-Year (Bachelor) Degree at
Palomar College

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Career Information

PILOT CAREERS

Probably more so than in other areas of aviation, the demand for pilots (especially airline pilots) varies greatly. The early 1990's saw very little pilot hiring by major airlines, but that situation turned around. 1998 was a record pilot hiring year and the airline industry expected that many pilots would be hired over the next several years. However, the events of September 2001 and the economy in general caused significant problems for many of the legacy (older, traditional) airlines. These events have caused the “furlough” of many pilots and the bankruptcy reorganization of a few of the legacy carriers. Private and industry experts had expected that the airlines would recover by the summer of 2005, but during 2004 there was significant rise in fuel costs. While the number of passengers traveling in 2004 and early 2005 was back to pre-September 2001 levels, many airlines were still losing money (partially due to high fuel costs and probably partly to charging too low of fares). Many of the airlines (especially the legacy carriers) have had to rethink their business strategy. Those airlines have had to figure ways to restructure themselves into a lower cost carrier. This process will probably take another couple of years to fully complete.

It is encouraging to note that some airlines have started to recall their “furloughed” (laid off employees) during the past year. It is also interesting to note that some airlines (Southwest, Frontier, & Jet Blue to mention a few) did not furlough any employees after September 11 and have continued to hire more pilots and to take delivery of additional aircraft during the past few years. The post September 11th era has seen some of the major airlines relying more on their affiliated regional airlines (who use smaller aircraft) to replace the larger aircraft on some of the more lightly traveled routes. This has caused significant growth and hiring among the regional airlines during the past few years.

As a result of airline restructuring, most employees of the legacy carriers have been forced to take pay and benefit cuts. Except for the freight carriers (FedEx, UPS, etc), the days of the $300,000. per year airline captain are over for awhile. Pilots and other airline employees have had to settle for lower wages and less benefits in order to keep their particular airline in business during this difficult time. While it is very difficult for an airline employee to take a pay cut, airline pilots are still making good money today.

The "ideal" major airline (American, United, Etc.) applicant would probably be a person with a 4-year college degree (the subject doesn't seem overly important, however there may be some preference given to a major in the sciences, business, or in aviation), in his/her late 20's to mid 30's, having an ATP (Airline Transport Pilot certificate), and 3000 or more hours with at least half of that being "turbine" (jet or turboprop) time. Women and minorities seem to get hired with less that these qualifications; however, recent events with regard to affirmative action may change this. While the major airlines usually prefer to hire pilots in their 20's or 30's (average age of a new hire in 2001 was almost 34) they have recently hired many pilots in their 40's and even a few in their early 50's. Many of those in their early 40's were former military pilots who had spent 20 years in the Navy or Air Force. Some in their 40's & 50's were well qualified pilots from smaller airlines (such as Midway or Braniff) which went out of business during the "crunch" of the early to mid 1990's.

Most persons obtain these qualifications in one of two ways--as flight officer in one of the armed forces or as a civilian trained pilot. In the past, military pilots accounted for well over half of all airline new hires. This has changed recently and now more than half of those being hired are "civilian" trained pilots. The military, at times, offers incentives to attempt to keep pilots for a full 20 year career.

The typical civilian training path includes obtaining a Private Certificate, followed by an Instrument Rating, followed by the Commercial Certificate. The Commercial Certificate allows one to fly for hire and the most common entry level job today is that of being a Flight Instructor. This requires two additional knowledge/written tests from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and additional flight training and a check ride. Total training costs including the Flight Instructor rating typically run from $40,000. to $50,000. As a new flight instructor, one can expect to earn $20.00 to $30.00 per flight hour. While this isn't much considering the initial outlay of money, this job is usually the first step toward an airline or corporate job. After 1 to 2 years as a flight instructor and an accumulated total flight time of 1500 hours, one normally obtains the Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP). Cost for a current flight instructor can be as little as $1500 for this certificate. Somewhere in the process of flight instructing, one must also obtain the multi-engine rating which averages about $4000. The next step is usually flying for a commuter/regional airline such as American Eagle, United Express, or the Delta Connection. Their minimum requirements vary but typically are 1000 to 1500 hours total flight time with 100 to 300 hours of multi-engine experience. Regional airline qualifications dropped slightly during the late 1990's due to the hiring of many of their pilots by major airlines. Pay at a regional airline typically starts at around $1300-$1600 per month for the first year. Upgrading to captain (in the second or third year) increases the salary to $2000-$3000 per month with a few of the larger regional airlines paying as much as $6000-8000 per month after one has been a captain for several years. Many commuter/regional airlines are now flying larger aircraft and some of the larger regionals are now using 50-70 passenger jets (often referred to as "Regional Jets" or RJ’s). This has resulted in the more senior crewmembers flying jets and making more money than was previously possible with turbo-prop only regional airlines. Many major airlines are in the process of eliminating their short, lightly traveled routes and giving them to their affiliated regional carriers who service these routes with regional jets. Some persons (for one reason or another) settle on a regional airline pilot job as their final career job. Most regional airlines are now affiliated with a major airline and some offer good benefits including travel passes on their affiliated major airline.

Persons typically spend 2-4 years with a regional airline before moving on to a major airline. During the late 1990’s, some regional airline pilot contracts started to specify that a certain number (or percentage) of regional airline pilots would automatically be offered jobs with the “partner” major airline.

While flight instructors, a few persons are able to make the proper contacts to become corporate pilots or corporate co-pilots thus by-passing the regional airlines. The demand for corporate pilots is not as great as for regional airlines and many corporate pilots are hired because they “know” someone. Some individuals make a career of being a corporate pilot. The pay varies greatly with the type of aircraft flown. A captain on a twin engine piston aircraft may make as little as $30,000 per year while the captain of a large corporate jet may make nearly $150,000 per year. The newer “fractional” jet companies offer good salaries and benefits to their pilots.

Whenever there is a lot of hiring being done by the major airlines, there is also increased hiring by the regional airlines as well as by flight schools – everyone moves up a “notch” during times of airline hiring. Overall, with the exception of 2001-2004, the “qualified” pilot pool is getting smaller and airline and government agencies have projected a shortage of qualified pilots as we approach the year 2015 and continuing for an indefinite period beyond. Many of the present pilots are Viet Nam era pilots and are reaching retirement age. In addition, the airlines have many aircraft on order for planned expansion as we approach the year 2015 and beyond. The military is training fewer pilots and is trying to retain for a longer period of time those that it does train. All of these factors point toward good career possibilities for someone who gets started at the present time.

It takes from 5-7 years to go from initial Private Pilot training to 3000 plus hours of flight time and to earn a 4 year degree. Persons who start in the mid 2000’s should be in a excellent position for the projected shortage around 2015.

A few of the major airlines have experimental programs with a few of the 4 year Universities to see if there may be a way to combine a specialized 4 year degree and 300-400 hours of flight training to create a pilot who is qualified to fly as a co-pilot for one of their affiliated regional airlines. There are only a few of these programs at this time and the competition and requirements are very challenging. Only a very small percentage of persons who start the program actually get to go to work for the regional airline. 

Legislation is in process that may require all "new hire" first officers to have a minimum of 1500 hours of flight experience. 

MAJOR AIRLINE JOBS. This is the goal of most pilots in his/her 20’s and early 30’s. It is, in general, the highest paying and best job. Salaries start out in the $25,000 - $35,000 per year range for the first year, but they rapidly increase year by year with Captain salaries ranging from $130,000 to almost $200,000 per year depending on the airline, type of aircraft flown, seniority, and routes flown. Presently, pilots working for the freight/cargo carriers can do even better in terms of salary. Late in the year 2000, United Airlines pilots negotiated a contract with their airline which gave them a significant pay raise ($260,000 per year for the most senior captains) as well as approximately a 5% raise each year through the year 2004. Pilots for other major airlines then negotiated similar contracts. However, the financial difficulties faced by the airlines have caused most of the passenger carrying airlines to significantly reduce the pay of all airline employees including pilots. Pilots with some airlines have also agreed to fly extra hours each month. It is uncertain how long these pay reductions will remain in effect. Today, the typical pilot works 14-16 day per month and is able to “bid” the domicile (city in which one is based) and the type of aircraft he/she is to fly – the bidding is based on seniority with the airline.

NATIONAL AIRLINE JOBS. National airlines are smaller airlines which operate smaller jets such as the Boeing 737 or Douglas MD-80 series. Examples of these are America West, Frontier, and Jet Blue. In general, they pay somewhat less (top pay in the low to mid $100,000 range) and are a little less strict in terms of a 4-year degree and other personal factors. They do, however, have similar flight experience requirements as the major airlines.

REGIONAL AIRLINE JOBS. Formerly known as commuter airlines, the regional airlines have expanded considerably over the past ten years. Many are now owned by major airlines and most are at least affiliated in some way with a major carrier. Most pilots use these airlines as a “stepping stone” to gain the experience needed to be hired by a major airline. However, some pilots do make a career with some of the larger, better paying regional airlines. Starting pay as a co-pilot is typically $1300-$1600 per month with most captains making $3000-4000 per month. A few of the larger regionals which fly regional jets pay upwards to $8000 per month.

CORPORATE PILOT JOBS. There are thousands of corporations in the U.S. which use and own aircraft. They range from single engine aircraft to Boeing 737's. Twin engine piston, turboprop, and small jet aircraft are probably the most common. Flight time accumulation is not as great as one may expect. A corporation may use their aircraft anywhere from 150 to 750 hours per year with 300-400 being common. Many duty days are spent in a hotel room or waiting at the airport for your corporate passengers. Professional Pilot and Business and Commercial Aviation magazines both publish salary survey results by type of aircraft and region of the U.S. on an annual basis. As previously mentioned, pay can vary from about $35,000 to nearly $150,000 per year.

HELICOPTER PILOT JOBS. While helicopters are being used for more and more purposes today, their total number is not really that high. Pilot qualifications are usually quite high and many pilots hired are ex-military. It is somewhat difficult for a civilian to compete with ex-military pilots due to the high cost of helicopter training--especially training in turbine helicopters which can run in the vicinity of $500 per hour. Civilians have been known to succeed and break into the helicopter pilot business, but it is expensive. One approach is to obtain a fixed-wing Commercial Pilot certificate and then do a helicopter "add-on". The result is dual qualification (fixed-wing and helicopter) at about the same price as doing it all in a helicopter. The downside is that one only has about 50 hours of helicopter time and that is not very competitive. Sources vary in their predictions about the future employment needs for helicopter pilots.

OTHER PILOT JOBS. There are many rather specialized jobs such as Air Taxi (Charter), Ferry, Patrol, Survey, Photo, Sightseeing, Crop Dusting (Ag), Air Ambulance, and Law Enforcement. Each has its own special qualifications but they all require at least a Commercial Certificate with an Instrument rating and possibly a Multi-engine rating. Many of these do not pay very well but may be a way to gain flight time and experience to work your way up.

BE CREATIVE. Many pilots have formed their own business to service a special need in a particular area. The possibilities are almost endless.

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