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Here's Why It's a Great Time to Be an Airline Pilot

May 31, 2018
4 min read
Here's Why It's a Great Time to Be an Airline Pilot
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In the commercial pilot workforce, it's a job seeker's market.

A confluence of factors is creating an all-time high demand for commercial airline pilots, including carriers adding routes and thousands of pilots anticipated to retire in coming years. The result is ultra-competitive airline recruitment from flight programs throughout the US.

Commercial US airlines expect to see at least 22,000 pilots reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 by 2026, with about 42% of the active US pilot workforce for the five major US carriers retiring by the end of that year, according to analysis from the Cowen Group. That analysis states that American Airlines alone is expected to have almost 800 pilots retire each year from 2017 until 2026.

Major airlines hired more than 5,000 pilots in 2017, industry group says, and even more will be hired in 2018. The employment numbers have been steadily growing since a low in 2009 in the aftershocks of the financial crisis — major carriers hired a total of just 30 pilots that year, The Washington Post reports.

Meanwhile, the usual career pipelines that feed pilots into the commercial carriers are drying up. Typically, commercial pilots start at a regional carrier that feeds into a major airline, which have bigger bucks and better perks. Regional airlines draw pilots from several sources. Military pilots, for example, have historically been a huge influx in the civilian aviation job market, and major US airlines relied on their desire to fly civilian planes to staff cockpits. Now, those numbers are shrinking as even the Air Force weathers its own pilot shortage.

At the same time, in a vicious cycle of pilot shortages, the major US airlines are expected to fill their empty pilot slots by poaching from regional airlines. "We continue to expect pilots to be poached from the regional carriers to backfill the retirements at the mainline carriers," the Cowen Group's analysis states. "The regional carriers will need to aggressively recruit pilots in an attempt to navigate pilot attrition."

So, regional carriers are forced to be dogged in their recruitment from flight schools. But instead of looking exclusively at flight programs' students — who will have to clock about 1,000 to 1,500 flight hours minimum after attaining their degree before they can be hired — regional airlines are starting to be more aggressive in their recruitment of flight school instructors, a tactic that will create a bottleneck for training the next generation of pilots.

“Regional airlines are in a constant hiring mode,” Dr. Michael Wiggins, professor and chair of the Aeronautical Science Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said." The regionals are always losing pilots to the major airlines. The only people not feeling a shortage now is the legacy carriers because they are top of the food chain," Wiggins said.

The regional airline hiring trend is more competitive now, according to Wiggins. It used to be that pilots wouldn't be hired by a regional carrier until they had close to 2,000 or 2,500 flight hours, but now Wiggins is seeing that the regionals will take pilots serving as instructors as soon as they hit their minimum 1,500 hours.

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A sizable amount of flight instructors are recently graduated flight students trying to earn money while logging their mandatory flight hours before applying to a commercial carrier. They are lured away from instructing with more competitive pay and benefits. A new regional co-pilot has a starting salary of about $50,000 to $60,000. But now, regional airlines are offering signing bonuses worth tens of thousands of dollars to entice new hires. Trans States Airlines is giving new pilots $44,000 over two years, and Air Wisconsin has offered bonuses of up to $57,000, The New York Times reports.

Flight schools are making changes to accommodate the high demand for pilots, including joint programs with commercial airlines that allow instructors to earn seniority with carriers while instructing. Flight instructors are the "lynchpin" of aviation careers, Wiggins says. "Without the flight instructor you’re not going to have next year’s crop" of pilots, he says.

Meanwhile, there is a concerted effort to ramp up pilot training nationwide. Even the Air Force is trying to bolster its pilot recruitment.

"The key to this whole thing is growing the overall pool of pilots," Wiggins said, noting that in the past two years, his flight program at Embry-Riddle has grown significantly from about 1,100 students to about 1,450. His colleagues at other aeronautical universities are seeing the same thing.

"The kids who are looking at this [career] realize they’re in high demand," Wiggins said. "And they’re not selling themselves short anymore."

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