Plane Answers: The outlook for pilot hiring

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

When I started Plane Answers a few months ago, one of the most common questions was how a person might go about learning to fly, getting their ratings and gaining enough experience to be noticed by an airline.

Before I’ve even had the chance to answer that, the industry has taken a sharp turn for the worse and now I’m getting questions about whether or not it’s even worth it to pursue a flying job.

Here are two such questions:

Michael asks:

I’ve been reading your column for a couple of weeks now, yet I haven’t noticed you talk about the state of the industry for college students who want to become professional pilots. I’m enrolled in a pilot training program at Arizona State, and on track to receiving an internship when I graduate. In your opinion, with the way the airline industry is now, do you think I should still pursue a career as an airline pilot?

And Steve asks:


My grandson would love to be a airline pilot. He is building flight
time and attending college at the same time and it’s a very expensive
burden for the family. With the layoffs and pay cuts that pilots in
the industry are recently experiencing-is he wasting his time and our
It’s feast or famine with regard to the cycles that define airline hiring in the U.S. Just last fall there was talk about how the pilot pool was drying up for some of the larger regional jet operators. A few of these airlines were reducing their experience requirements and snatching up pilots with less than 300 hours.

This trend seems to have come to a halt as we’ve moved into 2008, a year that’s seeing the highest fuel prices in the history of the industry. As airlines are coming to grips with the idea that oil prices aren’t coming down anytime soon, they’re pulling capacity out of their networks–most of which will start taking effect this fall.

The hope is of course, that airlines will be able to price their product at a level that exceeds their costs at some point in the near future. As long as the oil prices stabilize, they might be able to pull it off, but the ever-increasing fuel costs are making it difficult to price a product that may not be used until one to three months into the future.

Just as it’s hard to predict these costs, it’s even more difficult to predict which way pilot hiring may go, especially in two, three or four years from now. In Michael’s case, he’s well along through the program, and I think he might want to see this investment through. He may have to do something else on the side until he gets a chance to instruct or fly for a regional airline once things improve. But he probably shouldn’t give up.

The same might be said about Steve’s grandson. He’s well along on the commitment to flying. If you’re thinking he may be able to pay back his loans quickly once he lands a cushy airline pilot job, you might want to familiarize yourself with some of the pay at most companies.

Airline Pilot Central, a website that offers details on pilot pay, minimum hiring requirements and the current hiring status of companies, is a good source for hourly pay rates. Remember, pilots and flight attendants are only paid for the time the airplane is pushing away from the gate to the time it’s back at the gate at the destination.

This industry does have a way of spitting out some people who were unfortunate in their timing. I know a few who are looking at their second furlough, and are considering taking a job outside of aviation permanently.

When pilots were being recalled last year, it wasn’t uncommon for an airline to see 30% of those pilots recalled decline the option to come back since they found employment with other airlines or outside of the industry.

But if this is what you’ve always wanted to do, and you don’t think you’ll be happy doing anything else, then stick with it. I’m relatively certain that someone will be flying airplanes in the future, and they’ll need pilots.

Just try to load your resume up with extra ratings, (a float rating, sailplane license, a specific jet type rating) to stand out from the rest. The internship that Michael is pursuing is a fantastic example.

Good luck!

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.