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Future Pilots

Pilot Careers in the Time of Coronavirus

By Peter Forman

Part I: The Decision to Become an Airline Pilot

By Peter Forman

U.S. airline travel in mid April 2020 decreased 96 percent compared to last year’s numbers, according to statistics provided by the TSA. Regional Airlines Trans States, Compass Airways and ExpressJet closed their doors (the former two announced prior to the pandemic) and suddenly an industry that was expanding faster than its pilot supply ground to a near halt. The question some aspiring airline pilots are now asking is, “Considering the effort and expense needed to enter this profession, is a career as an airline pilot still a good choice?”

The airlines need to remain financially viable. A $50 billion provision to U.S. airlines in the CARES stimulus package helped, but it was only enough to last a few months. Airlines need to lure passengers back into the sky and, fortunately, policymakers are already working on the details for addressing the issues that discourage air travel.

Take Hawaii as a destination, for example. At one time, the state required new arrivals to endure a 14 day quarantine before being free to journey beyond their initial lodging. Then, of course, there are the health issues of sharing an airplane cabin with possible coronavirus carriers. On April 16, Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, a physician, gave tentative details of the plan he’s been tasked with creating to reopen Hawaii. Travelers to the state would need to register negative on an FDA-approved coronavirus test up to 72 hours prior to boarding the plane. At the airport, temperatures of all passengers would be checked prior to boarding and then again upon arrival in Hawaii. By following said guidelines, the quarantine would be gone, and visitors would be free to vacation in a state that has one of the lowest incidents of the virus nationwide.

Such a plan requires readily-available testing and further reductions in the number of infections out there, but within a few months the pieces should all be in place. Other factors that will tempt airline travelers to return include possible bargain-priced airfare, hotels, and car rentals for the early birds. As robust clinical trials of promising antiviral medications were completed this spring, the best therapeutics will gain widespread usage and improve outcomes of the virus. Ultimately, an effective vaccine will be the answer and lead to a widespread return to normal in many industries worldwide.

Some industries will suffer more than others. If you were planning to become a cruise ship captain, for example, the pandemic should inspire you to reassess your goals, for that industry has been tarnished by recent events and will likely take years to recover. On the other hand, travelers are going to be chomping at the bit to get out of their homes and go somewhere after spending months cooped up, and the thought of a flight to a safe and sunny destination will sound very attractive to many.

With major passenger airlines freezing their hiring, isn’t this a bad time to pursue an airline pilot career? Some pilots consider now to be not only a good time but the very best time to jump in. Consider the experience of John Higley. Back in 1979, disruptions in the Middle East led to reduced oil output, which doubled the price of oil. Cars lined up for blocks to buy a little gasoline, airlines trimmed routes quickly due to swelling fuel bills, and a recession set in as “stagflation,” an odd combination of a stagnant economy and inflation took its toll. Nonetheless, Higley began his flight training that year, intent on becoming an airline pilot. Many people thought he was nuts with this timing, but he persevered.  In 1984, John Higley was the 25th pilot hired by one of America’s largest airlines in what was one of the longest and deepest hiring programs the industry has ever seen. Seniority is the name of the game for enjoying the best piloting career possible, and John’s timing was impeccable.

John’s son Hayden is now 17 and John is encouraging him to take advantage of the opportunity at hand. “Think of it. There’s maybe 800 pilots each at American, at United, at Delta, at Southwest who may not get hired this year. A future pilot at one of these companies is going to have just that much more seniority when he begins his career,” says Higley.

Hayden so far is on the fast track to getting his qualifications. After soloing at age 16, he picked up his Private Pilot certificate at age 17. Now he’s enrolled at Jacksonville University’s aviation program, which offers the Delta Airlines Propel Program, and Hayden has a clear strategy for acquiring his qualifications and then getting a number at a great airline as quickly as possible.

John Higley continued, “At some other collegiate aviation programs, students were slowing down because of a shortage of CFIs. Now that the regionals aren’t pulling the instructors away as quickly, instructors tend to stay longer and the instructor situation improves during these slower times.”

“There are tremendous numbers of retirements ahead, the industry will resume growing at 2-4% per year, and it’s a great time to be learning right now.”

Finally, consider perhaps the most important factor of all involved in choosing a career. How would you most like to spend the next 30 years of your life? Few professions offer the sights, sensations, and satisfaction that can be experienced while at the controls of a modern jet airliner. If the airline industry is set to spring back once a vaccine is introduced, then maybe as John Higley suggests, this is not only a reasonable time to be training towards entry into the airline pilot profession, this may be an unusually good time to be doing so.

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