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Financing Flight Training & Education

Conor Shine
July 20, 2019

Navigating the financial path through flight training

Getting onto the airline career path remains a challenge for many aspiring aviators. While there might be a job waiting for you at the end of your flight training, student pilots must still find a way to finance the tens of thousands of dollars needed to attain the requisite skills and ratings.

For many students, that will mean borrowing some or all of the necessary funds to cover the costs of training, to be repaid by earnings as a flight instructor or other cockpit position.

Even though the economic sense behind this proposition has improved drastically, taking on any amount of debt is an important life decision that warrants careful consideration.

It's not the right decision for everyone. But for those with the vision and dedication to see themselves through to the finish line, a growing number of opportunities to earn a living as a professional pilot await.

Getting started

Just as in flying, aspiring pilots considering flight school will need to make a number of pre-departure checks before taking off.

The first is to seriously reflect on their commitment to this endeavor, and their ability to work continuously toward that goal.

"One of the biggest things people forget to ask, they think of our college and they think it's traditional semester stuff. That 17 months is straight through," said Jackie Murchison, senior admissions advisor and primary flight recruiter at Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology. "It's not come every other day. It's full time, Monday through Friday, possibly Saturdays or Sundays. It's a full-time 40 hour a week job."

While there's always a chance unforeseen circumstances interrupt your studies, one of the surest ways to have flight school costs escalate out of control is to start your training only to stall out part way through.

Once you've made that check, it's time to think about how you're going to pay for flight school. Costs for training these days typically falls between $80,000 to $100,000 including tuition, fees, living expenses and supplies over the six to nine month training period.

There are some scholarships available to help defray those costs, but they typically are worth only a few hundred or few thousand dollars. Some pilots have reported the ability to pay for all of their training through scholarships, but the process of applying and qualifying is nearly a full-time job.

GI benefits for veterans — or their spouse or dependents — can also be put toward flight training, though they're not guaranteed to cover the full cost.

That means student loans remain the most common ways to pay for training, though some are able to afford it out of personal savings or by borrowing through a home equity loan.

If you're planning to borrow, keep in mind that federal student loan and grant programs are only available if you're attending an aviation school that offers an accredited, degree-granting program. Going that route has its advantages depending on your career goals and prior educational background, but it isn't strictly necessary.

Many students will therefore find themselves turning to the private educational loan market to finance their flight training. Reputable flight schools and lenders are aware of the unique circumstances of pilot training and take those factors into account when structuring loan offers.

Cadet academies established by the likes of American Airlines and Delta Air Lines also offer access to low-cost sources of financing through pre-existing relationships with lenders.

In general, students with established credit and work history will qualify for loans, but adding a cosigner can help measurably lower the interest rates you're offered.

The most important thing before taking the leap is to do your research and ask lots of questions.

You should be asking not only what you'll be paying, but what that price will get you in terms of flight time, instruction and supplies, as well as what ratings you'll have when you complete your training.

Established flight schools have entire departments dedicated to helping students figure out how to pay for their education. These experts can guide you through the financing and budgeting process to make sure you have the funds needed to complete training and begin earning professional wages.

Claude Beckles, director of admissions at Spartan College, said those financial discussions should also include a visit and tour of the campus the student is considering.

"The best way is to come and take a visit. If you really want to understand the culture, come visit the campus, talk to some of the students, meet the instructors," he said. "This program is not for everybody...If you really have a passion for it, you need to explore it. It's a great profession."

The road forward

After getting your commercial certificate, the months building time on your way to qualifying for the Restricted or full Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (R-ATP) will also be your first opportunity to earn money flying. Working as a flight instructor is the most common route, especially given increasing demand at flight schools.

Current regulations allow Part 135 carriers to hire second in command pilots with a Commercial Certificate. The FAA issued an Advisory Circular in June 2018, providing a way for second in command pilots to log time flying for qualifying Part 135 operators even if the aircraft is certified for single-pilot operations.

The competitive hiring landscape of the last few years led a number of regional airlines to introduce tuition reimbursement programs that can cover some of the amount owed, with repayments in some cases starting while you're building hours as a flight instructor.

"Students interested in financing their flight training should see the loan as an investment," said Todd Outcalt, Director of Finance at ATP Flight School. "Students often look at the interest rate and total finance charges as the determining factors in their decision to begin flight training or not. My advice is to get familiar with starting pay for pilots, bonuses, and opportunities for programs such as tuition reimbursement."

Hiring and retention bonuses were increasingly utilized recruiting tools, providing another way to quickly pay down portions of your loan amount.

There are no guarantees in life, and that includes taking the leap to pursue a career as a pilot. Funding your education is an important part of that decision, but it's one that can be managed with the right knowledge and preparation.

We appreciate your ideas and input. Please email your comments or questions about this article to: support@fapa.aero.

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