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Future Pilots

Becoming an Airline Pilot: The Good, the Bad, the Useful

by Louis Smith

Who wouldn't want an Airline Pilot job? Prior to the recent pandemic and the collapse in passenger traffic, the airlines had managed historic profits and been able to restore pay and benefits decimated during the post 9-11 financial crisis. The depth and extent of the current industry crisis is unpredictable. Time will tell.

The airline pilot career offers plenty of opportunities to travel to exotic destinations, not to mention of course, a chance to fly some of the largest and most sophisticated aircraft around. But before you leap into the left seat of that Boeing "triple 7," there are a few particulars of this profession worth thinking about.


Before any major or regional airline will even consider you for a pilot's position, you'll need to possess - or at least qualify for - a full airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate or a restricted ATP (reduced aeronautical experience), which is described in another article in FAPA’s Future Pilot section. You will also need an instrument and multiengine rating. The major airlines are able to require flight time and educational minimums far above the FAA established minimums for the ATP certificate, but, for now, the regional airlines will only require you meet the minimums established by the FAA.

For perspective, a full-time flight instructor might log 500 hours in one year and would be pretty busy to do that too. You would need two to three years to meet ATP minimums...longer if you're working another full-time job and only flying part time. For some pilots, it takes years of persistence and squeezing in time whenever possible to take this next step. And this is only the beginning. Also, it is important to note that, in light of the availability of pilot jobs, the market is competitive ... very competitive. At the higher levels (like American, Delta, United, etc.), it can take several thousand hours of civilian flying experience, plus all the requisite certificates and ratings, to get hired.

Hiring criteria seem to change regularly these days. The best way to be sure your planning fits with the airlines you're interested in is to check their web sites or log on to FAPA.aero. The airlines each have a distinct set of requirements, including application periods and procedures, and it pays to stay on top of these. If you miss an airline's open application window, it could be a year or more before your next chance. And, in a game where seniority is everything, even a small mistake can be a costly one.

Paying Your Dues

In order to build flight time and experience before you'll be offered an airline interview, you can expect to spend quite a bit of time flying light single and twin-engine aircraft. How much? Based upon the earlier numbers, perhaps just a few years. But it will still take time. In the past, pilots often worked at lower-paying positions as long as 12 years before a major airline interview invitation. In the pre-COVID environment with the strongest pilot demand in over 15 years, progression to a major airline was much faster. Again, it's only a guess how long the currently depressed pilot hiring will persist.

Total logged time is certainly important, but the quality of your flight time can also be critical to your success. If the airlines you're interested in require 3,000 hours before they'll consider you, don't log it all sightseeing in a Cessna 172. Keep in mind that your goal is not simply to log hours, but to get called for an interview. The pilot with a wide range of experience is usually the winner in an interview, so be on the lookout - everywhere - for opportunities to build time. Many of the regional airlines have established flow through agreements providing for a seamless path from your first and only interview leading to a seniority number at a major airline.

Ask around at the local airports for someone who might need an instrument-safety pilot. Try picking up a multiengine flight instructor rating and make some cash while you log valuable twin-engine time. Why not tow banners or fly skydivers to build time? You'll be demonstrating your enthusiasm for improving your skills and give yourself a leg up during the interview process. Civilian pilots who can offer airlines Part 121 flying experience, especially flying in and out of high-density airports in turbine-powered airplanes can have a leg up on others who don't bring that to the table. If you can build PIC time in a turbine-powered aircraft, that's even better.

When Will You Be Hired?

Not that long ago, pilots with as little as 190 hours total time were able to land jobs at the regional airlines, possessing only a commercial certificate, instrument and multiengine ratings. In July 2013, new FAA regulations mandated the ATP-R as a minimum requirement for all airlines operating under what is referred to as Part 121 (scheduled air carrier). That, like everything in the industry, is subject to change ... fast. These new regulations contributed to a significant disruption of the pilot staffing efforts at the regional airlines. Although many headlines were blasting “pilot shortage” at the regional airlines as an attention getter, FAPA’s definition of a shortage is determined by a potential employer paying for your training to become qualified to work for them. There are instances of employers paying for some of the training costs to enhance their pilot recruitment, but a real shortage of pilots will lead to company-paid training beginning at the private pilot level. It could happen given the record demand for pilots forecasted by Boeing. Make sure you are dedicated to the career before you set out on your journey. Market conditions that allow pilots to fly for a year or two in a certain category of carrier and then move on aren't guaranteed.

How long it takes to reach an airline cockpit is a function of how strategic your decisions are. One of the biggest mistakes a pilot can make is not being flexible enough to move around the country when a flying job demands it. Here's someone who understood that issue. A Chicago-based pilot took a job with a courier company – AirNet (now defunct), in fact - that flew canceled checks all over the country in twin-engine aircraft like the Piper Navajos, Beech Barons and Learjets. During the two years he worked there, this pilot logged almost 1,200 hours of multiengine PIC time. There was a downside to the job...all the flying was at night, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He also had to move, by his description, to a rather unsavory part of upstate New York. However, this pilot was willing to go because he knew the experience would help his career. It did, too.


Everyone seems to believe that airline pilots seldom work. That may seem true at times, but there is much more to the world of an airline schedule than meets the eye. Here's the inside scoop.

The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) regulations dictate that domestic airline pilots fly no more than 1,000 hours in a calendar year, or about 83 hours per month. That works out to slightly more than 20 hours per week. Schedules to die for you say. But this 20 or so hours per week is based upon flight time actually spent inside the cockpit. As you'll learn, a pilot's life encompasses much more than loggable flight time. Total duty time can be a killer. It is not uncommon for airlines to schedule 14-hour days back to back. You might only log four hours of flight time in that 14-hour day, too.

Then there are airlines that fly your socks off, which is great if you're trying to build flight time. One East Coast regional airline flies its pilots closer to seven hours on the longest days. Do the math. Three or four days per week of five to seven hours of loggable time each and in a month you can quickly collect a ton of time. Since most regionals are flying sophisticated turbojets these days, you'll also satisfy the quality-of-time issue.

Most airline pilots bid their schedules monthly based on their company seniority. More on seniority in a minute. The airline provides plenty of variety when they put groups of flights together to make trips, called lines, that last anywhere from one day to as many as 12 depending upon the carrier. Some include all day trips, so pilots can be home at night or groups of three or four days at a time. Some schedules avoid weekend flying; some are mostly nights. The key to successful bidding is one, knowing what you want and two, having a seniority number high enough to be able to hold the kind of line you'd like.

Your airline seniority number is normally assigned to you when you enter training. The sooner you hire on, the lower your seniority number and the stronger your bidding power. If you want the same schedule as someone less senior to you, you'll get it...as long as someone more senior than you does not want it. Be prepared though. Early on, with little seniority, you can expect the rotten schedules or to be placed on reserve. It's all a part of paying your dues.

Show Me the Money

Another major reason people want an airline career, in addition to the time off is, quite simply, the salary. A senior pilot at a major carrier flying the largest equipment might fly only 13 or 14 days per month while earning in excess of $300,000 per year. But before you drop a down payment on that new BMW, you should know that it takes time to reach that kind of salary. A bit lower on the food chain at the regionals, the salaries are not nearly that high. A regional jet captain may gross $120,000 per year and fly 16 or 17 days a month. Starting pay at some regionals can be under $50,000 per year for a first officer. But if you hang in there long enough, it does get better, and recently negotiated contracts have generally produced higher pay and better benefits for regional airline pilots.

The Ugly Part of the Business

Remember when someone told you that if something seems too good to be true, it just might be? Some of that philosophy relates to the airlines. A few industry pitfalls have really repulsive names like furlough, Chapter 11 and shutdown.

Like any other business, an airline is just that, a business. If airlines don't offer their customers a good product at a fair price, they'll soon cease to exist. While your airline might be a formidable player when you hire on, it could turn into a loser a few years later. Nothing can guarantee your company will live forever, but some research - airline Web sites, news stories, and company financial statements before your interview can help you make some informed choices. It also might help you during the interview. Also, try asking current employees about the airline when you see them at the airport terminal.

Pick the best airline in any category you're researching, freight, major, regional, etc., because economic times do change and your stay there might be longer than you expect. But if your company does go under, or you do get furloughed, just pick yourself up off the floor and start looking again. Many pilots have survived an airline collapse to fly again.

While a low airline seniority number is a valuable asset, that coveted digit becomes worthless if your company shuts down. When you hire on with a new airline you'll head right for the bottom of the seniority list, despite your experience. After the airline mergers and shutdowns of the late 1980s and early 1990s, many senior captains found themselves back in the right seat of an airplane they had been flying as a captain only a few months before. It happens! It's happening now.

Let's say this again. In the airline world, seniority is everything. That number determines the aircraft you fly, your pay, your schedule, your vacation and even retirement benefits. A delay of even one year could cost you thousands of dollars over the course of your career. Don't wait any longer. Get your ratings and start sending out those resumes...today.