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Job-Hunting Pilots

When the going gets tough, the tough cross the Pond

Andy Simonds

Being a professional pilot in the United States used to be a great job. Some would say it's still good. Some don't have that job anymore. Perspectives vary greatly, depending on your employer (current or former), seniority, age and personal obligations. But there are alternatives.

The state of aviation has a completely different complexion overseas. Airlines in places like Korea, India, China and the UAE are having a hard time filling their cockpits with qualified personnel. So, they are looking to the west to meet their demands. There truly is a shortage of qualified pilots. There. Even with the legislative change that increased FAA mandatory retirement age to 65, many pilots are leaving the cockpit, as they originally planned, at age 60. Additionally, overseas airlines are growing. Look at the order sheet for Boeing and Airbus and it's clear that new jets that roll out of Renton or Toulouse will require lots of drivers. So where are they coming from?

Flight schools in the USA have traditionally been an enormous resource for foreign pilots because they are plentiful and inexpensive (comparatively). But even if all the flights schools in this country cranked up their student output, the industry would still end up being short 3,000 pilots a year. Given that, qualified airline pilots who have been flying jets around have an unprecedented opportunity. But it takes a change of personal paradigm along with a dramatic change of scenery.

Let's Talk Emirates.

Emirates Airlines has now begun to recruit again in the U.S. Heavily. Company recruiters are now scheduling interviews for he rest of 2010 and into 2011. They are looking to fill the seats of their brand spanking new widebody jets that are arriving on the property at a rate of two per month for the unforeseeable future, including the B-777, A350 and A380. That’s a lot! As of a few months ago, they wrapped up a tour of major cities in the U.S. offering four hour presentations to those who have an interest in pursuing a career with EK. For those who qualify and are sincerely interested in continuing the application process, interviews in Dubai were being scheduled. They are serious about this. At recent job fairs in Las Vegas and Atlanta hosted by FAPA.aero, I found it particularly interesting that there was not a larger crowd waiting to speak to the pilot recruiters. After a fairly detailed conversation with these nice people from the Dubai-based carrier, I can only assume that they were pleased that the interested applicants were the ones who were fairly well versed on the requirements, challenges and benefits of working at Emirates. Like most ex-pat employment, it's not for everybody. It would be fair to say that if this opportunity were available with U.S. bases and domiciles, it would be the most sought-after piloting job in the industry. But that's not the case. In fact, they make a point of answering that question before it's even asked: they have no plans to base pilots anywhere except Dubai. So, if you want to work there, you must live there. And commuting is not an option as jumpseats are not authorized.

The first attraction to a career with Emirates is corporate stability. Last year, the company made close to $1.5 billion. That's 'illion with a 'B'. They are making serious cash. On top of that, they are buying airplanes like McDonald's buys beef or chicken. They pay their employees well, they treat them well, give their pilots brand new shiny airplanes to play with and fill them with customers who are willing to pay for tickets that are worth more than the cost of the actual product. That is cost + profit = price. (Are you listening U.S. carriers?) I was not an economics major but I know that this formula is the key to financial success. On top of that, as a new-hire Senior First Officer (which all ex-pats are), your path to the command position (Captain) will take about three years. That's worth repeating. Within three years, you'll be a wide body captain. Remuneration comes in the form of a good salary with the first $89,000 being tax-free, retirement plan, medical, loss of license insurance, housing or housing allowance, paid private school tuition for your kids, interest free car loan and a ride to and from the airport for all your trips. There's more, but that should be enough to pique your interest.

The Dark Side.

As I mentioned, it's not for everybody. I asked the EK reps what constitutes the biggest drawback to working for Emirates Airlines. They simultaneously answered, in one word: Dubai. This is a Muslim country whose citizens abide by Islamic laws and traditions. However, this does not mean that ex-pats have the same restrictions. They don't. But, you must be prepared to respect their rules and traditions. I have been told that the community, overall, is about 80% ex-patriot so one will have no trouble finding friends, colleagues and a familiar community. In fact, the employee group at EK is made up of members from about eighty different countries. But, some won't like that feel or environment. Pilots I spoke to miss their U.S. homes, friends and families. You get one positive space ticket a year back home. Your 42 days of vacation should allow for more frequent trips back to the States but it won't be like commuting from St. Louis to Houston. The training there is different than what you might be used to. There is different terminology, different emphasis and focus on checklist procedures and callouts, etc. In short, it's their football and they can call the plays any way they want. If you elect to join their team, be prepared to use their playbook. (And don't argue about it.) We've all seen those guys in class who want to change the airline because they think they know better. Cooperate; graduate. They are paying you to be an EK pilot, not critique or change their regimen. The training program might be longer than you are used to because the airline wants to insure that the language and cultural differences between crew members are not causes for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. If one is running away from a carrier with bad management, an incompetent chief pilot, bad drivers in Dallas or lousy Karma, one will, in all likelihood, not be any happier in the UAE. one must go there with intent, specifically, with the intent of being happy and flexible.

The Experience.

The ex-patriots who are line flying now seem to love the job. They enjoy the layovers, the cabin crews (who treat them well), the crew meals and the optimism. Their families enjoy the opportunity that comes from being immersed in different cultures. Remember when you were hired at your (first) airline? That kind of excitement (or more) exists at EK right now. Even in the face of a seemingly declining industry, Emirates makes the job look like it once was with stability, respect and a future. Talk to their recruiters. Go to their website and look closely at what they offer and what Dubai feels like, or even better, go there. Take a look around before you decide to transition from your life here to your new life and career there.

Air India, Korean Air, All Nippon.

Hiring agents and pilot representatives for these three carriers have attended FAPA.aero job fairs in the past and can be expected to return in the future. Now that the market for ex-pat flying is heating up, these carriers are competitively responding in an effort to attract, find and hire the most qualified (and available) talent. Some of the contractual provisions (vacation time, commuting, days off, health benefits, etc) are crafted in response to the objections that applicants have raised with other carriers. As an example, while some carriers offer 42 days of vacation per year, it might be a good idea to ask if these are paid vacation days. We take that for granted on this side of the Atlantic. That's not always the case over there. Health benefits might not cover all members of your family. Additionally, these carriers (and others) are using the services of crew leasing companies to handle all particulars of your employment. And not all contract agents are alike. Buyer beware. One might want to ask questions like: who signs the paychecks? Where do those paychecks come from? If there is salary dispute, how is it resolved? What are the details of the contract? Where will you live when you are overseas? Etc. One would/should be interested to know that it’s necessary to sign a letter of intent and agreement with Air India to accept the position before interviewing. So, the mechanics of the hiring process are virtually completed before one even sees where she will be working (and more importantly, the working conditions). Take nothing for granted. These are not U.S. companies with union work rules and standard U.S. hiring (and firing) practices. In a recent conversation with a friend who retired early from American Airlines to work overseas, I can tell you that the conversation was laced with regret. He misses the familiarity of a job and culture he knew so well. He misses this country. He misses all of the comforts (and even the dysfunction) that come with union representation. While different cultures are surely interesting and enjoyable, they can simultaneously be challenging and frustrating. For instance, don't even think about putting your feet on the footrests installed on the forward panel. In certain cultures, this is insulting to the captain.

In Summary..

There are clearly some fascinating opportunities out there with tangible and unique rewards for you and your family. There is nothing run-of-the mill about a job like this. But the job comes with a lifestyle and environment that demands a clear commitment to respect and understanding of what you are taking on. It may not be what you signed up for when you initially got into this game but life's options aren't always obvious. For those who can think outside that box and can adapt to different paradigms, you might find that these currently darkened doors of US Aviation direct you to brighter passages towards the lands beyond. An open mind opens the world.

Andy Simonds works for 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.

You might get the chance to hear Andy speak at a future FAPA.aero Pilot Career Conference. Then again, Andy might be in Paris, his home away from home.