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.

Plane Answers: How pilots pick an airline, choose their ‘legs’ and avoid DVT.

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!

Julie asks:

Hi Kent, I love your blog! You have mentioned before the importance of a pilot staying with one airline throughout his career because seniority is everything. Recently, you also noted that some airlines like Air France will even pay for a pilot’s training, which sounds like a nice incentive to try to become their employee.

It seems like there are many different factors to seriously consider before joining an airline, especially since you are hoping to be with the airline for several years.

With all of these factors to think about, how did you choose which airline you wanted to work for when you were just starting out?
Thanks Julie,

It’s nice to be able to target the airline that you want to work for and land that job, but often we don’t usually have that luxury. Generally, you take the first offer you get.

I was incredibly fortunate to get noticed and successfully navigate the interview process with the airline that I most wanted to work for.

Often the airline of choice will vary and today, the freight operators like FedEx and UPS are at the top of most pilots list. Southwest and Alaska have always been favorites of applicants as well.

For me, I wanted the opportunity to fly internationally and to fly more than one type of airplane. I might not be typical of most pilots, but I actually enjoy going to school to learn a new aircraft.

Since we don’t have any large airlines in the U.S. that do the ab initio training (where they take a person and provide all the flight training, from zero time to line pilot), it’s really your flight experience and ratings, along with your work history and education, that the airlines scrutinize.

Fred asks:

I know that on long flights there are relief pilots. Who determines who flies first, who lands the aircraft and are the relief crews required to get shut eye? Also do the flight attendants have relief people?

The captain will occasionally ask the co-pilot which ‘leg’ they’d like, but more often than not, he’ll take the first leg of the trip and we’ll alternate legs after that.

Who’s leg is this?

On flights requiring a relief pilot, unless that pilot hasn’t had a landing in a few months, there are usually just two legs to share, so the relief pilot doesn’t get to fly a leg. When flying as a relief pilot all month, it’s possible to trade for a co-pilot trip every now and then to maintain the requirement for three landings in 90 days.

With regards to the breaks, it’s usually the relief pilot who goes back for the first break. The flying pilot will take the second break so they’re prepared and not rushed to prepare for the approach. The non-flying pilot will then take the last leg, arriving back in the cockpit at least thirty minutes prior.

We’re not required to get some sleep, but the option to sleep if we’re tired is at least provided. Occasionally, when I’ve had a good night’s sleep, I’ll do a little blogging or in the past–before writing for Gadling–I’d catch a movie.

That’s why the FB and the FC, the second relief pilot used on the flights over 12 hours, are known as the “Food Boy” and the “Film Critic.”

The flight attendants don’t have relief crews per se, but after the meal service is complete, and before the second service, they’ll divide up their breaks which may be as little as thirty minutes for a 7 hour flight.

Hey Kent, Regarding DVT, or Deep Vein Thrombosis, is it a concern for pilots? Do you guys have much room to move around up front? Are there measures you take to avoid DVT? Do you really need to?



Hi Ben,

After this became such a public issue, we did give some thought to the ramifications to sitting in an airplane for so many hours at a time.

Most pilots try to drink enough water during the flight, and we occasionally stand up in the cockpit for a moment at cruise and stretch. All of our airplanes have enough room for us to at least stand up.

After September 11th, it’s become a bit of a hassle to use the lavatory, so we try not to overdo it on the water.

Since we have three pilots on the flights scheduled to be 8 hours or more, we’re lucky to get a two hour break in the cabin, which probably helps curb the DVT potential. It’s the transcons that have the potential for pilots to sit for extended periods at a time.

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