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Evolution of Working as Airline Pilot


The Evolution of Working as an Airline Pilot

The Evolution of Working as an Airline Pilot

The airline business has not always been as it is today. Today’s pilots don’t suffer from airline furloughs. They don’t know what it is like to fly for five or ten different airlines because of airlines going out of business. Today’s pilots don’t know what it’s like to start in an airline position making little more than minimum wage just to get the hours. Today is a whole new ball game for would-be airline pilots. In many ways, today, getting and keeping a job is much easier, not to mention that pilots earn five times more than their counterparts just fifteen years ago.

During the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, the operations involved in running an airline were different, as were crew employment, training processes, and equipment. Many airlines shut down only to reopen under different names or variations of their original names. A good example of this was Braniff Airways. They initially started and operated from 1948 to 1965. Braniff came back from 1983 to 1989 as Braniff, Inc., and then back again as Braniff International Airlines from 1991 to 1992. Each time they came back, it was with different airplanes and different people. Many US carriers had consistent furloughs, with pilots being on furlough for two to four years before returning to a flying job, if they returned at all.

As pilots from each of these periods know, airline hiring seemed to go in five-year cycles. It seemed as though every five years, an airline would reduce its size or shut down, and furloughs became a way of life for pilots and flight attendants. Many would jump over to other airlines, while others would take jobs in other industries. When hiring returned, they would find another airline and move forward. Often this would mean moving upward or backward, depending on the airline one ended up working for. Much of this was done on the buddy system, through word of mouth, as the internet and cell phones weren’t invented yet. Because many pilots were able to find jobs in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central America, the “expat” pilot career was born. These were American pilots who were flying for many different airlines throughout the world.

It is important to remember that during these decades, there were a lot of pilots and not enough jobs. Airlines would require 5,000 hours or more before considering a pilot for a first officer position. Many pilots overcame this by becoming flight engineers and working their way to the right seat. There were also many flight engineers who started as mechanics and worked their way up to become pilots.

If you think about these numbers, it’s easy to see that for every two pilots flying the line, another pilot was always in the making by way of the flight engineer. This meant that the industry always had a small but steady flow of pilots working their way up to the front seats. Once the standard became two-person cockpits, the potential flight-engineer-to-pilot option disappeared.

As you can see, it was a rough road to establishing a career as a professional pilot. Most pilots did so out of a pure passion for flying. They didn’t care what they were flying or where just as long as they were flying. Guidance counselors in high schools and colleges were also not recommending careers in aviation to their students. They did not understand the industry and guided many would-be pilot students into other disciplines.

Thus, by the time the 90s arrived, the number of pilots over fifty-five was fast approaching the number under fifty-five. Many in the industry started to see the writing on the wall. Unless Congress did something about the mandatory retirement age of sixty, there would be a shortage of pilots. In 2007, the mandatory retirement age for pilots was raised to sixty-five. This, however, was nothing more than a band-aid for the true pilot shortage that would soon hit the industry.

In 2009, the industry was set back on its heels by the Colgan Air accident. Congress raised the time and certificate requirements for pilots wanting a career with the airlines. This, added to the number of pilots forced into mandatory retirement at sixty-five, created the perfect storm in aviation employment.

In January 2020, COVID-19 hit in the form of a global pandemic. Travel, for the most part, stopped. Airlines were parking airplanes at record numbers. Many companies were able to convince higher seniority pilots to take early retirement while other pilots who were forced to stop flying took jobs in other industries. This was an unprecedented event, and nobody knew what to expect.

As COVID slowed and travel increased, many airlines found themselves without an ample number of crew to fly the equipment they had initially parked. Rather than cutting schedules, they tried to maintain their schedules by increasing duty times to the maximum. This may have worked on paper, but as soon as pilots were sick or taking time off for vacation, the schedules suffered, resulting in canceled and delayed flights. In trying to address this, the airlines reverted to attempting to get as many seats into an aircraft as possible and ensuring that all of those seats were occupied.

So here we are, at the beginning of 2024, and the airlines are trying to come up with different ways to find pilots. Some have cadet academies, while others have flow-through programs with different flight schools. While they are trying to solve the pilot shortage, it is too little too late. It seems that everywhere you look, there is an ad that claims, “fastest way to the airlines.” Truth be told, it takes two to three years to train a pilot from zero hours to qualifying for the airlines.

Future career pilots need to stop falling for false advertising promises. Statements like “cheapest training,” “fastest way to the airlines,” or “airline-specific training” are all empty claims. Nobody can get you to an airline any faster than anyone else. The only exceptions are college graduates with degrees in flight technology or pilots from the military who can qualify for an airline in 750 hours rather than 1,500 hours.

When you look at these ads, you will notice that very few discuss the quality of education you will receive. What good is “cheapest” if it takes you twice as long to achieve your goals? What good is “fastest” if you don’t have a solid base of knowledge on which to build your career? What good is “airline-specific” if you can’t even master a small plane?

Aviation continues to be one of the most dynamic careers of our time. There has never been a better time to become a pilot. There are more opportunities today for new pilots than there have ever been before. This is your chance to travel the world and make lasting friendships on a global level.

What are you waiting for?