Streamlining training, reducing costs, and raising salaries will produce more corporate pilots.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor ATP/CFII.
Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B
There’s a pilot shortage. Or so we’ve been told for at least the past 30 years. Whether or not one believes is a matter of perspective. For the 23-year-old graduate of a university-based flight training program, the employment prospects have never been better.
Under the guidance of their major airline ownership, regional airlines are providing conditional job offers as early as a student pilot’s freshman year of college.
If the student successfully completes the academic and flight training program, which usually includes a brief period of flight instructing, he or she will walk right into an FO position within a year or 2 of graduation.
It’s a guaranteed job offer before the ink is dry on the diploma or restricted-ATP certificate. And, for the student pilot who started training in the past few years, it’s often an unobstructed path from obtaining a pilot certificate to a job and accelerated career progression (seniority and a quick upgrade to captain).
Hiring practices in the past
The unbridled optimism of the college freshman on a professional pilot tract is in stark contrast to the attitude of a pilot who has been in the industry for the past couple of decades. A job seeker with a freshly-minted commercial or ATP certificate in the late 1980s and early 1990s faced a job market the opposite of today’s.
Jobs were scarce and pilots were plentiful. As a result, employers held the upper hand. Much to the delight of the shareholders, companies increased their hiring standards and engaged in practices that pilots considered diabolical. The most egregious was the concept of pay for training, or as some pilots called it, “buy-a-job.”
Under the pay for training scheme, pilots who successfully passed an interview were provided a conditional job offer with one caveat: they had to write a check to cover the cost of the simulator time necessary to qualify on the aircraft.
The out-of-pocket cost for a pilot job applicant averaged $9000. The job that he was applying for typically paid between $12,000 and 15,000 per year.
Events that reshaped aviation
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 dealt a hard blow to the aviation industry. In the immediate aftermath, airlines canceled classes for new-hires already in training.
They eliminated future classes by rescinding conditional job offers and never provided them again, even though those applicants were fully qualified and had passed an interview. Widespread bankruptcies followed, pensions were dissolved, contracts were renegotiated, and pilots were furloughed.
Many sought refuge anywhere they could garner a paycheck and stay behind the controls of an airplane, some changed disciplines and applied with corporate flight departments, and others did the previously unthinkable: eschew a legacy carrier in favor of start-up airlines.
In 2008, the recession hit and the airlines experienced large financial losses. Corporate flight departments were especially hard hit. Smaller companies began to shed aircraft and pilots as a way to cut costs and also as a result of public perception.
Even the stalwarts of corporate aviation were not immune, as companies like Ford and General Motors eliminated entire in-house flight departments, leaving a swath of pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and support staff without jobs.
The 2007 Congressional decision to raise the mandatory pilot retirement age from 60 to 65 for Part 121 pilots affected the job situation in the late 2000s, and one that confounds the pilot shortage question in the present day. Asking a Part 121 pilot how he feels about the “age 65 rule” yields an emotional reaction dependent on the pilot’s background.
Senior pilots closing in on age 60 held the proverbial winning lottery ticket in that they could keep flying for 5 more years at what was likely the upper end of the pay scale. To be fair, many needed the money since pensions had been scuttled and repudiated when the airlines filed bankruptcy.
But pilots early in their careers felt shafted and set back 5 years through seniority stagnation. Side effects of changes in regs As is often the case, a change to one part of the regulations can unintentionally affect another. Although the retirement age change was directed at airline pilots, the corporate world saw an unexpected change as well.
Under the old retirement date of age 60, an airline pilot had to figure out a way to bridge the financial crevasse between age 60 and 65. Getting to 65 was important because that’s when he would be eligible for full Social Security and Medicare benefits.
The worst case scenario assumes no military pension or veterans health care. If the pilot could still qualify for a medical certificate, he typically went to fly corporate or private aircraft under Part 91. Those not medically fit for flight sometimes became instructors at Part 142 schools.
For a period, the biggest type rating providers were top heavy or former airline pilots who had little, if any, corporate flying experience.
Current hiring dynamics
Over the past few years, the aviation job market has changed drastically. Major airlines began hiring in rapid numbers with much of the staffing coming from their regional airline affiliates. In turn, regionals struggled to stem the flow of pilots leaving.
More so, the regionals faced a problem of attracting pilots to begin with. If pay and benefits are relatively equal (and meager) and the entry-level jets are identical, the only difference is the paint color and logo on the fuselage (or whether the company requires you to wear a hat with your uniform).
The 2013 rule change that required airline pilots to have 1500 hours (in lieu of the prior requirement of 250) had a major impact on the availability of new-hires. The 1500 number essentially became the “holy grail” of aviation in that a pilot was now only eligible for employment when that number was reached.
To attract pilots to their brand, regionals enacted flow-through agreements with their major airline partners. There’s a lot of variability and gateways to get through, but, essentially, a flow-through agreement specifies that, if a pilot works for a regional airline for a predetermined duration, he automatically moves from the regional to major airline after said period.
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the salary at a major airline, and that’s the payoff for putting up with the meager salary and working conditions for many years at the regional level.
Implications for general aviation
Rapid airline hiring and flow-through agreements have had a deleterious effect on the long-term retention of corporate, Part 91, and Part 135 pilots.
Relatively new pilots now see corporate positions as stepping-stones to an airline career. The thought is, “It’s okay flying a Citation right now, but as soon as I get 1500 hours, I’ll start getting my applications out to the airlines.”
Experienced pilots who have borne the burden of pay for training, 9/11, the 2008 recession, and the age-65 rule, and are still actively flying, tend to find this mentality nauseating – or at least fail to grasp this line of thinking. At first glance, it’s just another example of a Boomer versus Millennial philosophical difference.
The stark reality is, the days of slogging checks single-pilot in MU2s, hand-loading car parts into Learjet 35s in freezing conditions and spending 6 hours a day orbiting over downtown in a Piper Tomahawk doing traffic reporting are no longer viable. For the most part, those jobs don’t exist any more.
Candidates pursuing a career as a professional pilot are not gaining experience the old-fashioned way like multi-engine instructing and doing whatever they can to grab a couple of hours of twin time here and there. In days past, a flight instructor could befriend a doctor, lawyer, or other well-off individual or business owner and tag along in their Cessna 310 or Navajo to log the coveted multi-engine time.
Those aircraft are slowly but surely vanishing from FBO ramps as owners fly fewer hours than ever before. Right now, the number of multi-engine hours required to qualify for a regional airline FO position is 25. For comparison, in 1993, the minimum was 100, but being competitive typically required 500 or more.
Instead of acquiring aviation experience over time, new pilots are choosing to buy it as quickly as possible. They’re writing big checks and in many cases going into steep debt to do so. A 4-year degree from an aviation university, when combined with the flight training to reach 1500 hours, can cost in excess of $250,000.
Truth behind the pilot shortage
There is no shortage of people who want to be pilots. There is a shortage of people who can afford to be pilots, both in terms of salary and the financial barrier to enter the profession. Attracting pilots and convincing them to remain in Part 91 jobs means the industry needs to address both.
Experienced pilots with decades of time in their logbook want to be paid back for the givebacks of the past. The fastest way to do so right now is with the airlines, which offer a predictable schedule, nearly guaranteed career progression, and a known salary and retirement package.
If companies want to keep their pilots and subvert the talent drain, they’re going to have to ante up and open the cash register and provide more definitive schedules. On the other hand, new pilots facing mountains of debt have little choice. They’re going to go where they can make the most money over the long run.
Even if one prefers the corporate pilot lifestyle – flying roughly 30% less than airline pilots, flying to different airports every time, etc – the deleterious effect of borrowing large sums of money for training is too great. Reducing training costs associated with entering the profession is one way to increase the pool of available candidates.
Ironically, technology hasn’t helped lower costs under the current rules. In fact, technology has increased the cost of getting to 1500 hours. The transition to glass (technologically advanced) cockpits raised the price of primary training by a factor of 3. The ragged Cessna 172 trainer has been replaced by the brand-new half-a-million-dollar Cirrus.
An $80/hour rental became a $240/hour rental. Whether this is good or bad remains to be proved. Studies show that glass cockpits at the general aviation level don’t make pilots markedly safer.
Every modern-day jet aircraft type rating course provides enough guidance on glass cockpit methodology that a pilot with modest skills and a basic level of understanding can be successful. But is 1500 hrs of glass cockpit time at 120 kts beneficial?
A new perspective on pilot formation
Another question that should be considered is whether a $250,000 university education produces a better pilot. For that matter, should a college degree even be required to be employable as a pilot? In the same way that there’s a high percentage of communication majors among college football players, there’s also a high number of less academically rigorous degrees across the pilot population.
Spending 4 years earning a bachelor’s degree in humanities, or even business, doesn’t enhance a pilot’s day-to-day flying ability. Once a basic level of flying skill is attained, being a corporate or airline pilot is largely learned on the job. The days of knowing what a diode is and diagraming an electrical or hydraulic system for a type-rating oral are over.
The new mantra is, “don’t worry about how it works, just leave it in ‘auto’ and don’t touch it unless the computer tells you.” This is an amazing time to be a pilot – so much so that aviation is seeing an influx of career changers entering the piloting profession in their later stages of life.
After decades of industry trauma, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. To the newest generation of pilots, there’s always been a light because that’s all they’ve known. Changes abound. What hasn’t changed is the way the regulators and employers consider training and experience – the slogging of hundreds or thousands of hours, all at a high personal cost to the aviator.
Proficiency, rather than gross accumulation of hours, along with a reduction in the cost of training to the individual, is the way to go. Curmudgeons might argue that the next generation must “pay their dues” just like they did. That’s selfish, and it’s one more barrier to entry to a profession that’s already struggling to find people.
Maintaining the status quo because “we’ve always done it that way” is not the best course of action. If tradition for the sake of tradition were a valid strategy, CRM wouldn’t exist, and the industry would be losing airframes and pilots at a rate reminiscent of the 1960 and 1970s.