The Left Seat of the Majors is Attainable, But be Prepared to Endure "the System"

4:20 PM

Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

We all read about the stagnant nature of general aviation, and many of us in the aviation family often brainstorm about how to bring new flight students into the system. Sure, there will always be a stream of recreational pilots coming through our flight schools, but to really focus on this situation and grow aviation, we need to look at the number of new flight students coming into the system who have aspirations of becoming professional airline pilots.

There can be no debating that the working environment for airline pilots has changed from the glory days when the professionals up in front of a 707 were treated like aviation royalty, with the passengers sure those flying the airplane were making gobs of money. Today's airline seniority system has fractured that stereotype, and while being an airline pilot is still viewed by the public as a noble, even glamorous occupation, earning the left seat on a major carrier's flight deck is very challenging, to say the least.

No longer are the Captain's bars waiting only for those pilots with supreme airmanship. Today – due to a seniority/hiring system at the regional carriers that takes advantage of young time-building talent – that path to a "major's" left seat is all about a new hire's ability to endure financial hardships.

To examine the situation, Airplanista conducted a recent anonymous survey of 47 current airline pilots, and the results are presented below. Enjoy...

First, let's take a good look at the demographic of the pilots taking the survey. First Officers made up 51.1% of the respondents, while 44.7% were Captains. The rest were a smattering of Check and Instructor pilots. The pool was heavily tilted towards large regional carriers, with 63.8% working at those airlines and 21.3% working for major international carriers. The rest worked for small international, major domestic or small regional carriers.

This pool was made up of mostly high-timers, with time spent flying for commercial carriers broken down as 51% flying more than 5,000 hours and 23% flying less than 2,000 hours. The remaining respondents fell somewhere in the middle of that range. The vast majority of these pilots, 73.3%, earned their seat in the airline interview room working as a Flight Instructor, while only 6.7% came up via the military. Some worked in other "non-airline" occupations to build time, with 17.8% flying in charter operations and 8.9% hauling cargo.

Now that we've determined who took the survey, let's start breaking down specifics of their job, and try to see if patterns develop to conclude any findings suggesting whether the occupation of "Airline Pilot" is a career worth pursuing.

When you boil down any job, it really comes down to salary. Yes, working conditions and many other elements are in play, but the reason any of us work is to earn money. It appears from this data that getting rich as a professional airline pilot might not be as easy as many would think. Only 25.5% of respondents earn annual six-figure incomes of $100,000 or more, while 40.4% earn less that $50,000 per year. Just 10.6% earned over $200,000 per year.

But what was shocking (or not) about this data is that a full 23.4% earned less than $30,000 per year. While we all know the job of "Airline Pilot" is not a 9-to-5, 40-hours-per-week gig, for reference, a person earning $30,000 working full-time would be paid $14.41 an hour. What is sickening though is that 10.6% of these pilots are making under $20,000 per year, dangerously close to the  $19,115 per year salary of a minimum wage burger flipper in the state of Washington. What does it say for a business model that requires pilots to operate at peak proficiency while knowing the exact same procedures and systems as the pilot earning six figures, but forces these low-timers to earn just slightly more than the Greeter down at Walmart?

The compensation gap between Captain for a major and a regional new hire is far too wide. It is a shameful, glaring illustration of a pay system within our airlines that preys on those low on a the seniority chart because management knows these pilots MUST build time in order to be considered for advancement to the left seat and be in a position to earn a decent living.

Now that we've identified who these pilots are, let's look at what they think of their job. Here are the 12 questions Airplanista asked, with the results collected:
On the subject of job security, 36.1% of pilots felt they were working in a "very good" or "excellent" stable environment, while 19.5 said their job security was "horrible."

When it come to whether they considered their pay to be fair, 41.3% called that number on their paycheck "horrible," while only 6.5% said it was "excellent."

Most said the stress levels on the job were a non-issue, with 39.1% calling it "average" while 19.6% said it was "horrible."

Their was no surprises on the subject of whether the pilots were getting sufficient time off, with most saying this was "average" and the rest split between the upper and lower ends of the scale.

It seems these pilots play well with others, with 59.6% saying the camaraderie of crews is either "very good" or "excellent," and only 4.3% saying it was "horrible."

But when it comes to working for managers that listen to the pilots flying their airplanes, a full 48.9% said the conditions for being heard by management was "horrible." Only 10.7% thought their concerns were being heard by management.

Pilots were generally happy with the job performance of their line's dispatchers, with the data showing the main grouping was at least satisfied in an "average" or better level.
While 31.9% of the pilots said their satisfaction level regarding the quality of equipment they were flying was "average," only 4.3% said the quality of their line's ships were "horrible" while 53.2% said these airliners were of "very good" to "excellent" quality.

There were no surprised in the category of training environment, with about as many unhappy as there were pilots who were satisfied with the ongoing training they received.

When it came to being satisfied with the cabin crews, 54.4% said they were happy with their line's FAs, while only 4.3% said they were "horrible."

Pilots were less than satisfied with the flexibility of their schedules, with 59.6% saying their schedules "could be better." This includes 27.7% who called their schedules "horrible." Only 6.4% called their schedule flexibility "excellent."

And when it came to retirement, it is clear the airlines have work to do in this area. A full 40.4% of the pilots said their current retirement plan was "horrible" while 6.4% thought those plans were "excellent."
Asked if the current hiring/promotion system in the airlines was fair in terms of how long most new hires have to work at a regional carrier making relatively low salary before advancing to a First Officer position at a major carrier, the results were not very good news for people interested in this career path. Here are some pro and con highlights:
"No. But it is what it is...since you need experience before coming to a major airline, the most widely available path for that is the regional airlines. I think it would be more palatable if starting pay were higher for those starting out. The disparity in pay compared to the responsibility and education required to do the job is insulting."

"No, the days of spending a couple years at a regional are over. Now First Officers for regionals are stuck being FOs for longer than it used to be."

"Yes it's fair. Though sometimes being at the right place at the right time helps. In my 16 years with a major US-based airline, I've been a Captain for 15 of those years."

"No, it doesn't matter if you have one passenger or one hundred. They are all equally important and there's no reason why one pilot flying for a major carrier should be making 4x what a regional pilot makes. The perception by the public is based on what a 747 Captain earns. They have no idea that pilots earn $25,000 or less when they start, and not much more for years after. The promotion/advancement system is broken, with regional airlines flying more flights than majors now, meaning that pilots do not "flow" up to majors. They either get out of the industry, or wait extremely long, as in 10 years or more. It used to be you worked for a regional for maybe 2 years and then moved right up to a major. Those days are over."

"Hey, let's go spend a quarter million dollars and years of our life to be on a waiting list for three years hoping to get on so we can make $30k. No. Not fair."

"Yes it is fair, in every industry you have to pay your dues and start at the bottom."

"It is almost criminal how the regionals pay new hires so little because they know everyone is just building time on their way to the major carriers. There should be minimum Federal standards in place for airline pilot pay, because flying a regional jet with 70 passengers, both pilots are responsible for lives. There is no more responsibility on the flight deck of an A380."
Looking only at pilots currently working at a major carrier, we asked how many hours they had to build at a regional before making it to their current job. The majority – 46.2% – had to work over 1,500 hours, but 38.5% only worked under 250 before moving from regional to major.

We then turned our attention to regional pilots only, so see what they thought of the working conditions in what many call the "farm system" of the airline industry. That term might not be precisely accurate, and is a reference to the system Major League Baseball uses to bring up players to the big leagues. Asked to score the categories they saw as their biggest challenge, the results were as follows, with the combined percentages:
Low pay.....82.9%   
Poor morale.....77.1%
Uncooperative management.....71.4%
Lack of advancement.....57.1%           
Feels like a dead-end job.....48.6%
Too many legs each day.....42.9%       
Unresponsive dispatchers.....11.4%   
Inadequate or unsafe equipment.....5.7%
Lack of proper avionics.....0.0%
Based on all of these findings, it is easy to conclude that this career might not be the glamorous, high-paying job that the public perceives. Yes, it appears possible to eventually earn a fat salary and have a flex schedule and a great retirement plan, but that model seems the exception, not the norm. So what would these pilots responding to the survey say to new flight students who are considering a career as an airline pilot? Here are some highlights:
"Build your time as quickly as possible and get hired with an airline as quickly as possible. It is all about your date of hire for everything about your job. Even if the company is not your top choice, take the job, keep current and log hours while you continue to interview for the better job opportunities. There is no such thing as job security in this business. Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Always have a financial reserve for hard times and use the free time this provides to engage in other revenue streams."
"You need to have 100% commitment to this job and lifestyle; and make sure you have a spouse that understands that they are going to be a single parent for 50-60% of the year, every year. Understand that you will not be home for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, baby's first steps, etc. It's a hard life; but very rewarding."
"Do it for the love of flying, the money won't always be there."
"Run, don't walk, away from aviation."
"Look for other careers in aviation. Many other careers include flying, such as forest service, law enforcement, fish and game, insurance, flight testing, federal aviation administration/civil aviation authority, corporate flying, advanced flight instruction such as warbirds-aerobatics-rare aircraft, new aircraft demonstrations and factory pilots, etc. These are all infinitely better for quality of life and include the ultimate freedom of flying. Many other careers within the industry of aviation, aviation safety, aerospace, engineering, regulation, insurance, and others can be very rewarding."

"Become a doctor, lawyer, open your own business...basically anything other than this."

"Don't do it unless you have patience to not be treated and compensated properly. Always have a backup plan. Don't get a degree in aviation get a degree in something else in case the industry goes bad again...always have a Plan B."

"Go to med school."

"Don't do it. You've been warned.

"Love aviation first, the rest will take care of itself."

"Seriously, don't do it. Your return on investment is appalling to say the least. If you insist on going through with it. Get a degree, but not in aviation. You can fly on the side, or fly after you get the degree. This will help with costs and it will give you a fall back if the flying career goes awry. Unfortunately this career is not what it was."

"Have a second source of income, because you are going to be abused by the regional airlines for years as you work your way into the right seat of a major line as an FO.
While not scientific, the data presented in this article should be sobering to anyone who is considering a career as a professional airline pilot. There is a clear path to the left seat of a major international carrier and a six-figure income, but it is not without its challenges. But if you have the passion for aviation in your heart, get the proper education, build time as an instructor or cargo driver, and then go into the system knowing you've prepared your life for low pay while you build hours, being on the flight deck of any airline's ship can be the dream job for anyone who have aviation hard-wired into our soul.

With the right attitude and a full grasp of the truth about the industry, this dream job is attainable. Like the star pitcher stuck in the middle of nowhere on a minor league farm squad, all you need to do is keep burning fast balls down the strike zone until the brass takes notice. After you pitch enough games in Poedunk, NE, the front office will eventually move you up to the bigs. As an airline pilot new hire, be prepared to endure burger-flipper wages for a fairly long time and you’ll inevitably end up as Captain, as long as no tin has been bent along the way and all souls aft of the locked door remain alive.

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