FAPA.aero | Crossing The Pond - Part Deux
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Crossing The Pond - Part Deux

Andy Simonds

Airline hiring always migrates. Most pilots want to live where they are based and/or be based where they live. To that end, when an appropriate airline is hiring close to your own bailiwick, they’re probably going to get the focus of your hiring efforts.

In the last few years, hiring centers, like barometric pressure, shifted with the changing economy. In 2008, a fair amount of US-based airlines were accepting resumes, interviewing and hiring pilots. A comparable number of foreign carriers were doing the same thing. The foreign carriers offered new heavy metal, fast or immediate upgrades, six weeks of vacation, attractive and tax-free pay scales, etc. The US carriers, who were in competition with these overseas airlines for passengers and pilots, had labor issues, limited hiring, struggled to recover from economic hardships and had little to offer in terms of advancement. But, they were close to home (assuming you hang your hat on this side of the oceans).

Fast forward to 2011. The world economy shows steady (if not sluggish) signs of recovery, airline merger mania has changed the landscape and retirements are starting to make a dent in seniority lists. Traditionally strong carriers like Southwest, who stopped hiring for a while, are now ramping up. Delta has already initiated new-hire classes. American Airlines is recalling furloughed pilots at a rate limited only by training availability, with no end in sight. JetBlue is back in the market for qualified applicants and the regionals are filling the void in the bottom of the food chain. All the while, the need for pilots only increases in Dubai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Mumbai, etc. Aircraft orders at the Paris Air Show last month (June, 2011) proved that airlines are serious about upgrading and expanding current fleets. More opportunities equate to more choices. Perhaps, not far off are the days when applicants will have multiple offers on the table. Again. So how do the foreign carriers compare, contrast and compete?

Should I stay or should I go now…

During the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with a few pilots that dared to leave the comforts of home, McDonalds, NBC, FOX, Pizza Hut and TSA (tongue firmly planted in cheek) in favor of exotic lands, new homes and different cultures. This is one of those ventures that looks completely different in person than it does on paper. If you are considering your options abroad, it would serve you well to listen to those that have paved the way.

As I mentioned in Part One, it’s not for the faint of heart. They all agree that it’s not what they thought it would be (for better or for worse). Some of these pilots even gave up the left seat at major US airlines in search of that greener grass. The positive perspective is generally centered around the flying itself; new wide body airplanes (SJS, a.k.a. shiny jet syndrome) worldwide destinations on six continents, respectful crews, no MELs and good benefits. The downside was comprised mostly of airline structure; angry or belligerent management, no union protection, scattered and non-standardized procedures, excessive flying (95 hours/month) changing contract guidelines (at management’s will) and relatively inexperienced first officers.

Demographics and Taxes

So, how did these US pilots fair during their expat tenure? Some have returned after finishing their required five years (in order to be released from the training bond), some are still over there, some have returned since being dismissed and some are living here and based here in the US but employed by an airline overseas. Most of them will tell you that the decision to go was difficult. Some were unemployed when they were offered this job so that makes the decision easier. The demographic of these pilots includes young families, grown families, single men and older men with new families. A few women. They all had good reasons to stay here, in the US, yet they all made the decision to leave. Only one of these pilots represents an airline that allows them to be based in the US. All of the others must live where they are based, in foreign countries.

While none exhibited downright regret, some felt that a substantial price was paid for the adventure. And speaking of price paid, you should also consider money saved. According to the IRS, if you are a U.S. citizen or a resident alien of the United States and you live abroad (physical presence), you are taxed on your worldwide income. However, you may qualify to exclude from income up to $92,900 of your foreign earnings. In addition, you can exclude or deduct certain foreign housing amounts. You meet the “physical presence” test if you are physically present in a foreign country or countries 330 full days during a period of 12 consecutive months. The 330 qualifying days do not have to be consecutive. The physical presence test applies to both U.S. citizens and resident aliens. If you are in the 28% tax bracket, that’s an instant raise of about $25,000. Your mileage may vary.

Being far away from core family members is difficult and adapting to unusual cultures can be frustrating. Some started the adventure with few expectations (and not a few fears) and wound up pleasantly surprised. (The extra $25K probably didn’t hurt..)

As for Emirates…

In my initial discussion about EK, I mentioned that I spoke to recruiters and pilots about the experience. Since that article was written, the economy in Dubai has taken a pretty big hit and has been all over the international financial news. Despite that, the airline continues to grow, add pilots and take delivery of shiny new jets. As of this writing (July, 2011), Emirates expects to hire more than 500 pilots in the next twelve months. It could be argued that Emirates is one of the few airlines that had the vision to maintain their focus and continued to support the business plan. They might have had their hand forced somewhat by Boeing to take deliveries and, at the time, came as a hard pill to swallow in light of the economic pressures. But that time-release capsule might be paying off. The economy has improved, fuel prices are down, passengers are back and Emirates Airlines is ready to take advantage of the times. They want to be the biggest airline in the world and no stinkin’ economy is going to alter their course. Or so it seems. In my chats with one of their pilots, he told me that, for the most part, his daily life resembles what was advertised. There are some exceptions when it comes to contract issues but his company-provided apartment/villa is comfortable and in a nice neighborhood, the airplanes are maintained well, the hiring continues and the destinations are unusual and exciting. The crew members were interesting, supportive and well trained. This pilot is also overwhelmingly impressed with the product that EK provides to the passengers, a comment you don’t here very often in the US. Additionally, it appears that, as a new-hire (new joiner), EK is sensitive to the fact that you are a Stranger in a Strange Land and that there will be transition issues as you assimilate into your new life. They know that leaving home and committing to a life in Dubai is a big decision that comes with anxiety, regret, questions and concerns. And remember, it’s part of the interview process. They want to make sure, as best as they can, that you will be happy in your new digs. They need you to perform well and being happy is part of that equation. Having the same concerns for yourself is probably a pretty good idea. Emirates is holding recruiting presentations worldwide and plans to attend the next FAPA.aero Global Pilot Career Conference & Job Fair (tentatively scheduled for NYC in October). With some preplanning and a completed online application, you could go to one of these presentations and walk away with an invitation to continue the interview process in Dubai. Have your ducks in a row with paperwork (and appropriate copies thereof), licenses, legible logbooks, an understanding of the company, a blue suit and a smile on your face. This is SOP for all airline applicants but Emirates Airlines really wants to know that their pilots are walking in wide-eyed, realistic and educated.

Other Carriers And Crew Leasing Companies

Crew leasing companies act as liaisons between the pilot and the airline. You, the pilot, are employed by the leasing company who is responsible for some or all of the screening and hiring process as well as all-encompassing components of employment like salary and benefits. This company then turns around and leases you, the pilot, to the airline that hired them. Singapore, Korean, ANA, Jet Airways, Turkish Airlines and Air India are all looking for pilots. Some use leasing companies and some hire directly into their cadet program (unavailable to most expats). These changes are sensitive to supply and demand. Right now, most leasing companies are in competition (supply -down, demand -up) with the airlines that have their own recruitment departments (like EK). Based on their projections and as the Asian market grows (seemingly exponentially) they will be looking for a LOT of pilots and these carriers are based in countries that just do not have the facilities to train and groom their own aviators. Again, they must look to the West. Jet Airways employed expats but then furloughed them all, only to start hiring again (through a leasing company). Some pilots are wary and concerned about that fact, especially now that there are additional employment options out there. The other airlines have training contracts or short-term employment contracts. The July 2011 update serves to underscore everything here; times five. The competitive and hirable pilot pool is shrinking, international flying is growing and international load factors are up in the 90% range. They can ill afford to have a flight cancel because there wasn't a warm (qualified, current and willing) body in the seat to fly the jet. For this reason, the contracts have changed to make quality of life better for the ex pats.

As for the job itself, cultural issues and differences played a large role in dissenting opinions. Getting back and forth to the US was also on that list of unpleasant and arduous tasks. (This is now easing since most airlines have adopted commuting polices.) Much of this flying is long haul and criss-crossing multiple time zones takes its toll. Remember, rest rules are different ‘cross the border.

In order to attract qualified pilots to these carriers, foreign airlines have become more competitive in their compensation packages. Improved benefits now include supportive commuting policies, higher salaries, and completion bonuses once your commitment contract has been satisfied. The amounts of that bonus vary but it’s usually many thousands of dollars. This is quite the change from the penalties that were threatened if you left early. Some of those restrictions, however, still exist so read the fine print and…..

Ask the questions

The time to find out if expat flying is a good fit for you is now, before you pack up your toothbrush and ditty bag. You owe it to yourself to ask the hard questions of yourself and the recruiters. It’s not just about getting the job, it’s about being happy and successful in your career. You can ask important questions in an interview without offending anybody or jeopardizing your chances for getting hired. They want the educated applicant, not a desperate one. As an example, you might consider:

• What attracts you to this airline, this country, this kind of flying?
• Do you see yourself completing your career with this airline or is it a place-holder until something better comes along?
• If all the US carriers were hiring, would you still pursue the foreign airline opportunity?
• If Delta offered you a class date a week before you were heading to South Korea, what would you do?
• What are you giving up to go to Dubai?
• What are you getting by going to Dubai?
• Can you find Dubai on a map? (Really..)

For the airline specific questions:

• What are the normal monthly block hours flown?
• What is the time frame (and is it even possible) to upgrade?
• Is there a training bond/contract required? If so, how much money is involved?
• What expenses are covered for the interview, housing, travel and license conversion?
• What percentage of new hires (or “new joiners”) are still here after training, after a year, after two years?
• Why do pilots get “released”? (Remember, there is no union) Is it personality, politics, religion, masked furlough?
• What makes for a successful applicant and new joiner?
• What’s the most difficult part of the transition for a US pilot coming to their airline?

There are many, many other things to consider but a lot of it comes down to your personality and vision. You must be very honest with yourself and your family in that committing to this airline is what’s best. If it suits your lifestyle, your interests and your career aspirations, then you would be hard pressed to find a more distinctive path. It won’t be easy and it will be unfamiliar. But then, that’s what makes for a good adventure.

Andy Simonds
Senior Staff Writer
Email: andy@fapa.aero

In 1980, Andy Simonds first soloed in a beat-up fire-prone Cessna 152 Aerobat in Madison, Wisconsin. After a tour in general aviation as a CFI and Part 135 charter pilot, Andy started collecting uniforms from American Eagle, TWA, Airborne Express and, finally, American Airlines where he is currently a First Officer on the B-757 and B-767. Whether left seat, right seat, back seat or jumpseat he never met an airplane he didn't like. Andy would fly all airplanes to which somebody (who had the guts) gave him the keys including Metroliners, Jetstreams, B-727s and the DC-9.