FAPA.aero | Picking the Right Pilot Job, Part Two
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Picking the Right Pilot Job - Part Two

by Tim Genc


It's often said that if you get into aviation for just the money, you are likely to find yourself disappointed at some point in your career. That in mind, your pay and benefits have got to be a part of the equation when it comes to picking the right company. It is, however, a much more complicated and involved process than simply picking the company with the highest hourly rate.

Your compensation can be determined by a simple equation: Hourly Rate x ___________ = Total Compensation. The blank space – the number by which you multiply the hourly rate – is the company contract.

The company contract will spell out the total number of hours for which you are paid. It defines cancellation policies, daily and monthly minimum hour guarantees, trip and duty time guarantees referred to as “rigs”, time paid for overtime or unassigned flights that you pick up on your days off, the minimum number of days off you are guaranteed, per diem, and so on. Contracts can vary dramatically from each other, and a good contract can often offset a lower hourly rate. For example, if one company pays a per diem rate of $2.12/hour, and maxes it out at 16 hours/trip, that equals $33.92. If another company pays a per diem rate of only $1.80/hour, but it is based on time away from base and could max out at 20 hours/trip, that equals $36. There seems to be a significant difference between $2.12 and $1.80/hour, but the company contract – the document that specifies how many hours of per diem you will be getting paid – offsets the lower rate.

Here’s the problem with the idea of learning the contract: it is a difficult and involved process. Pilots can fly at a company for years and not fully learn all the intricacies of the contract. Further, a company will find it much easier to advertise an hourly rate on a brochure or banner at a job fair; they would have a hard time doing that with a contract. At the heart of it, the contract defines your work rules and compensation policies. It absolutely has to be considered! The only way to do that is to attend pilot recruiting events and start asking questions. The more companies you speak with, the more you will start learning about the elements of a pilot contract. The more you know, the clearer your picture will be of the compensation at any one company.

Soft Pay/Benefits

This is another facet of your compensation. It doesn’t necessarily show up on your paycheck, but it will end up saving you money in the long run and contributing to your quality of life. Examples of soft pay are medical insurance, life insurance, 401(k) and other retirement plans, wellness programs, travel benefits, vacation time, commuter clauses/policies. Soft pay is anything else that you get as a part of being at an airline and believe me when I tell you, these things can add up very quickly!

Similar to the contract, benefits and soft pay at different aviation companies can vary dramatically from each other; those variances can make big differences.

→ Compare medical plans and company contributions; how much is the company paying for the plan, how much are you paying for the plan, and how much is left over on your bills? Dental? HMO? PPO? Vision? Maternity/paternity leave?

→ When do you start accumulating vacation time or sick time? How do you use it? How quickly can you use it?

→ If they’re booking hotels for you, do you get to keep the points? What about air travel and rental cars? This makes a huge difference when it comes to family vacations; depending on the answers, vacations could be very inexpensive for you!

→ Get the details about the retirement plan. Does the company match? How much? What is your maximum allowable contribution? When are you fully vested?

→ What is their commuter clause/policy? How does it protect you against the unknown? Is there a maximum number of times you can use it? What about commuter hotels?

Some of these answers will be very easy to find, some are more challenging, and many can be learned from talking to employees/pilots. Similar to learning the contract, job fairs and recruiting events can put you in touch with the right people. These facets of your compensation can be more valuable than you initially think. They matter!

Company Culture

This is, perhaps, one of the most intangible aspects of a job to weigh and consider, but it might end up being the most influential! Look at professional sports teams and athletes and how many times have you heard of a player turning down a better offer at another team to stay somewhere with whom they have history? Maybe you yourself have changed jobs or stayed at a job because you were clinging to or running away from the company culture. The vibe of a company can have enormous influence on you, your attitude, your day-to-day and your quality of life. This comes down to liking what you’re doing, with whom you’re doing it and the company you’re doing it for.

You have to have an open mind to the fact that this is important. I’ve spoken to so many pilots hunting for their first job and have heard them say, “it’s only temporary”, or “it’s just a paycheck”, and “I can stick it out until I’m ready to move on.” All due respect, that is the voice of inexperience talking. Veteran pilots who have “been there and done that” will tell you how much company culture – the feel and personality of a company – can influence your happiness. Check social media and the aviation forums; they are filled with people complaining about management and how they are not respected. Guess what, folks; that is company culture!

Once again, this is an area where you need to get in touch with pilots and employees; you need to go beyond the recruiter who proclaims, “we’re more of a family than a company.” This can be as simple as asking a pilot, a mechanic, a flight attendant, IT, a janitor … , “how do you like working here?” or, “what’s your favorite part about working here?” And wait for the stories to flow! Remember that it’s always easier to relive an unpleasant experience than it is to recall a stellar one. Get the good and the bad – every company has both. You need to weigh what is important to you.

There’s more to pilot life than flying the airplane; a whole lot more. In fact, as mentioned, the airplane can potentially have the least to do with the day to day of your life as a pilot. To choose the right pilot job for you, your family and your circumstances, you need to treat it like your pilot training. You need to study! You need to research all of the options available for someone who wants to work in aviation. That can be as simple as company websites and social media, to attending recruiting events and job fairs, to seeking out pilots within the company or internship opportunities. You’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours earning your various certificates and ratings, but you’re not done yet. You still have to figure out where you will best fit in the aviation world.

I’ve heard it said – and have repeated it often – that the easiest/cheapest part of buying a boat is actually buying the boat; I’ve heard the same about airplanes as well. We used this concept to illustrate budgeting for currency and proficiency in a previous article, but we can apply it just as well to continuing to educate yourself on careers in aviation. While learning to fly is very intense and time consuming, it is a more straight-forward process than researching careers. You are going to spend far many more years in aviation than you spent in your initial training. You owe it to yourself to properly learn about the path that is best for you.

One final note: the name of the aforementioned burger joint comes free with a FAPA membership :)

Bio: FAPA.aero