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Job-Hunting Pilots

How To Get Interviews

Louis Smith

Part I - Why Qualified Pilots Don't Get Hired

One of the most frustrating aspects of a pilot's career may be having his employment application totally ignored while lesser qualified pilots obtain jobs at the major airlines. This two-part article discusses the reasons why qualified pilots do not get hired at the major airlines. This first part describes the application process and how successful pilots get interviews at the major airlines. The second part instructs pilots how to turn interviews into job offers.

Every day pilots of lesser qualifications than other high-time pilots receive job offers from major airlines and make difficult career decisions about which offer to accept. These pilots won't know until age 65 if they've made the right choice, yet they are leaving better-qualified pilots in their dust. How do less qualified pilots advance their careers while others are left behind?

First things first: Obtaining an interview with a major airline can be a complex, arduous task. Integrating each element of a comprehensive major airline job search consumes time and money. Many pilots do not have the time or finances to devote themselves to a successful campaign. Pilots need a thorough understanding of the elements of the job hunt so that they can optimize their resources and accelerate the entire process. But the sooner the better, for every wise career pilot knows seniority is serious business.

The Electronic Chase

Administrative chores

The airlines and the regulators have made it frustrating for pilots. Pilots soon discover it is a challenging and time-consuming burden to comply with their instructions and complete all the online applications and questionnaires. A methodical and deliberate approach will minimize the frustration and expense.

Some airlines establish application windows so they know they are dealing with a fresh supply of available pilot applicants. Many pilots miss an airline's application window, thus eliminating themselves from the applicant pool. The recruiters expect pilot applicants to know the deadlines by using the various career services available in the industry or through the pilot's own network of friends. If the window is missed, recruiters think the applicant is not motivated. In the view of the airlines, there are no acceptable excuses.

Quality First

The pilot's presentation of the required paper or electronic documents, such as resumes, cover letters, completed forms, and even copies of certain certificates, should be nearly perfect. Typos, sloppy work, incomplete sections, and bad grammar are big mistakes. If the pilot is too busy or unable to do it professionally, he should pay someone to do it right and should borrow the money if necessary. Serious pilots avoid outlandish colors and extreme deviations from common business correspondence. Too much quality and professionalism is not possible.

Updating and Organization

Once the eager pilot has established his application file, he must regularly update it for significant changes affecting his qualifications. Each airline establishes its own updating policy which must be followed. Many pilots have been overlooked because the recruiters weren't certain of their current qualifications. Recruiters aren't likely to call pilots to determine their current qualifications or job status. Pilots must keep their documents current and fresh. An active electronic application reflecting a pilot's frequent updating and correspondence is a real tie-breaker for recruiters to decide which pilot to call.

Being organized saves lots of time for the essential networking that must be done to complement the application process. The average pilot applicant does an average job of networking. An outstanding job of networking will make the difference between success and failure.

People Power


A strong networking program will lead to contacts and relationships with people who possess two critical elements: information and influence. Information keeps the outstanding job hunter on course and efficient. Influence accelerates the entire process. New hire pilots are the best source of information about the recruiting process at their airlines, although they have minimal influence on the decision makers. Pilots and human resource professionals who work in recruiting for their airline will have excellent information and maximum influence on the decisions about who gets the interview. A 30-year captain who has always flown the line might introduce and recommend job hunters to critical contacts, but would likely have little influence or information. The outstanding job hunter always evaluates the influence and information potential of the people he knows or meets in the industry.


Pilots have always spouted the phrase "it's not what you know, it's who you know," usually as an explanation why their low-time copilot got hired first. More accurately, the phrase should be "it's what you know about who you know." The strength of a referral or recommendation is only as strong as the relationship between the people concerned. The pilot who uses a recommendation from an absolute stranger, such as the captain on the airline where he just jump seated, doesn't understand the value of referrals. The pilot who uses his close friend, who is a captain at an airline but also is hated by the recruiters for whatever reason, doesn't understand the danger of referrals. The outstanding job hunter knows the relationships before asking for a recommendation.

Confusing quantity with quality, the desperate job hunter might "stuff the ballot box" with numerous recommendations from airline employees. This strategy seldom works; it leads the recruiters to question the job hunter's sincerity and ethics. Quality referrals from people with quality relationships produce the best results.

The outstanding job hunter makes a list of everybody he knows in the industry and then determines their current employment status. By contacting these people and informing them of his job hunter status, he ignites the fuse for a dynamic job search. Pilots are frequently surprised to find friends with influence and information who can help them in their job search. The motivated pilot regularly reminds his contacts that the job hunt is still alive and well.

The successful pilot uses every advantage and relationship to further his career. An honest, sincere request for help is seldom ignored by friends or relatives in the industry. Too many pilots stunt their career by a passive, uninspired networking effort. People in the industry know the quality of life available in the major airlines and will question a pilot's motivation if he is not aggressively pursuing the job. They expect a certain amount of exuberance and assertiveness from pilots in the market. The outgoing and aggressive job hunter will not disappoint them.

Don't call us, we'll call you

This writer wouldn't dare publish the major airline pilot recruiters' phone numbers in this article. They would consider it bad taste and probably never cooperate with FAPA.aero again. If I were looking for a job with the major airlines, however, I couldn't resist using the telephone as my primary networking tool. Email has developed as a quick and excellent method of communicating, as long as you have permission from the recipient. If a recruiter hands you their business card at a FAPA Pilot Job Fair and it contains their email address and phone number, you now have their permission. With 10,000 pilot applicants clamoring for an interview at major airlines one can understand the recruiters' common mantra: "Please don't call". My experience and that of thousands of other successful major airline pilots has been the telephone is a powerful and potentially dangerous tool to leverage an interview. Like most leverage, financial or political, there are risks. The outstanding job hunter learns how to minimize the risks resulting from an aggressive campaign.

The pilots who were able to make the telephone work for them understood the power of the "gatekeepers" -- the people who answer the telephones and shoulder the administrative burden in the recruiting departments. The gatekeepers have significant indirect control and influence in decisions about which pilots get the interview. The pilot who treats them as insignificant, becomes belligerent, or appears arrogant will receive reciprocal treatment. The recruiters respect the opinions of their gatekeepers and appreciate the value of their ability to evaluate an applicants "true" personality.

When a pilot telephones the recruiting office, he should be prepared to talk less and listen more. When the person answering the phone sounds rushed, he probably is. When there is a phone ringing in the background, he probably needs to answer it. If he sounds angry about the phone call, he probably is. This hectic environment is a normal day in the recruiting office, and the successful job hunter learns to deal with the surprises and twists that will certainly occur.

The pilot who respects the gatekeepers' daily challenges will make a lasting impression on them and improve his chances for an interview. Common phrases such as: "Is this a bad time to call?" or "May I call you later?" or "Do you need to answer that other phone I hear ringing?" are common sense approaches to the inevitable interruptions. The successful pilot will, within a few weeks, have the name, title, address, phone and fax numbers (maybe e-mail address) of every person in the recruiting department, correctly spelled of course. Using the phone is a difficult and potentially irritating technique, and the outstanding job hunter will proceed with caution.

The Innovators

During the pilot glut of the 1970's, all of the gatekeepers were female and nearly all of the pilot applicants were male. One could always tell when airlines were hiring, because the desks were covered with flowers. Times have changed and the recruiters say that this practice has diminished.

Baked cakes with resumes imbedded, repairing a chief pilot's tire after a mysterious deflation in the employee parking lot, posing as a telephone repairman, and shipping a shoe inside a cake to get a "foot in the door", are all innovative gimmicks pilots have used successfully in the past. Do they work? Sometimes. Could a pilot applicant look foolish? Probably. A small percentage of pilots have used extreme measures to attract attention and it has occasionally worked. For certain, it won't work if the recruiters have seen it before, because no one likes a copycat. Any pilot who attempts one of these high-risk personnel aileron rolls must be prepared for a few hard landings. A precise, professional approach as outlined in this article has a better chance of producing the required interview, but if you must try off-the-wall techniques because nothing else is working, take the failures in stride. The declining pool of pilots has reduced the need for outlandish efforts.


FAPA Pilot Job Fairs provide the best opportunity to meet the people in charge of hiring. Pilots who hand the recruiter their resume and talk for even a few seconds will find it is superior to mail and telephone conversations. Pilots who meet the recruiters they have communicated with will reinforce all of their efforts and improve their chances for an interview. Though travel, lodging, and admission make them expensive, job fairs are worth it.

Psychological Rejection

This writer knew a pilot who was rejected by his airline of choice and refused to apply with any other airline. The rejection and insult were just too much for his fragile ego. It took him eight months before he could muster the nerve to reenter the competition. Rejection is part of the game in this industry and one must be able to deal with it without missing a beat. The successful pilot will evaluate the failure, make appropriate changes, and proceed to the other airlines. Pilots who are turned down should send a letter to the rejecting company that essentially says "I'll be back." They should reapply with the rejecting company according to its rules, but not waste much time with that particular company.


The average civilian pilot who has not been hired by a major airline (and wants to be) reaches "burnout" after about ten years of flying. The physical and emotional symptoms of "burnout" are fatigue, depression, and anxiety over the uncertainty of making it to the majors. Sometimes a long break or professional assistance is needed. At other times, the symptoms just fade away. Although the evidence is purely anecdotal, this writer has provided career counseling to hundreds of pilots over the phone and could usually detect "burnout" by the sound of their voice. The common cure is a good job offer.

The military pilots this writer counseled just seemed happy to "be out" and didn't usually experience the "burnout" syndrome unless a protracted recession sent them to the regional airlines for several years.

The number one cause of depressed attitudes and cynical slogans in the pilot community is the cyclical nature of the airline industry. The industry is capital, energy, and labor intensive and any significant disruption in these areas can cause upheaval. The cycles are unpredictable and depressed hiring conditions can last several years. The only way a pilot applicant can navigate through these hard times, is to maximize his qualifications, establish significant financial reserves, and use the slow times to make important and influential contacts. A well-developed sense of humor helps.

Common Sense

Conducting a successful job search, after evaluating all the pros and cons of each major airline, takes a lot of knowledge and thought. Staying current on industry events and trends is an essential activity. With the Internet, the library, and FAPA.aero, any pilot should have no problem staying informed.

Pilots should concentrate their efforts on the companies with the most hiring activity. It is not a good idea to concentrate on one or two carriers because they are the favorites. The hiring cycles end quickly and the downturns can last several years, so pilots should apply to all the major airlines and avoid waiting for the next boom to get the offer they need. The large number of retirements during the next few years should mitigate the effects of a recession and reduce the number of furloughs, but a particular airline might have a financial crisis and cut its workforce.

Applying with the airlines and preparing for an interview is not a consecutive process but overlapping. While applying for the job, pilots must also prepare for other interviews since they might receive very short notice for an interview, which would trigger a last-minute frenzy of hasty preparation.

Part II of this article describes how successful pilots turn their interviews into job offers. Aggressive pilots should be able to create multiple offers by applying techniques used by pilots who have successfully reached their goals. We appreciate your ideas and input. Please email your comments or questions about this article to: louis@fapa.aero.

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