FAPA.aero | The challenging -- and changing -- path to U.S. employment for foreign pilots

Job-Hunting Pilots

The challenging -- and changing -- path to U.S. employment for foreign pilots

By Conor Shine
June 1, 2019


For foreign pilots looking to work in the U.S., the white hot hiring market might make it seem like there's never been a better time to find a job.

And while there are many pilots born in other countries achieving their professional dreams in the U.S., there are a number of obstacles to navigate on the way there.

First off, there's the process of obtaining the certifications and training needed to work as a pilot. While this is something every aviator must do, those who've received some or all of their training abroad will have to take extra steps to have that work recognized in the U.S.

More challenging is the process of getting authorization to work in the U.S., typically through some sort of visa. U.S. airlines have been slow to tap this pipeline, and specialized visas for high-skilled workers haven't been used as widely to hire foreign pilots.

That's slowly beginning to change, but it means foreign pilots without other ways of obtaining work authorization, say through a permanent resident status, otherwise known as a green card, will have trouble launching their careers in the U.S.

Getting your licenses in order

Airmen certification in the U.S. falls to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has specific rules in place when it comes to foreign licensees. Your skills developed abroad will surely help you navigate the process, but in general you'll be asked to demonstrate them anew before being granted U.S.-valid commercial or ATP licenses.

That process typically begins with an application to the FAA verify your existing licenses and medical certifications that can take 45 to 90 days. It's important that your flight licenses are issued by a state that's party to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which gave rise to the international aviation regulatory body ICAO.

Foreign pilots seeking an ATP certificate will be required to undergo at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and receive a graduation certificate from an FAA-authorized flight school. The pilot will also have to complete check rides in order to earn the needed type ratings.

Navigating a complex immigration system

Unfortunately, having the necessary skills and training can mean little for your job prospects without permission to work in the U.S.

That means navigating an alphabet soup of different visa types to see if any apply to your situation. To make things even more complicated, shifting control in Washington D.C. has meant lots of changes to the system in recent years, with more sure to come in the years ahead.

High-skill worker visas like the H-1 are more typically used for those with formal university educations, like engineers or doctors. That leaves pilots for whom a four-year degree is not a requirement to navigate the more general immigration system.

"Those kind of cases are extremely subjective and very hit or miss," said Shayne Epstein, a Florida-based immigration attorney who works with pilots.

Employers can sponsor visas for foreign workers, but Epstein said most airlines have avoided this tactic so far and those that have have had limited success.

That could change as more airlines confront the realities of the pilot shortage domestically, but so far this pipeline of foreign aviators remains untapped.

Things to keep in mind

For those that are intent on navigating the immigration system in pursuit of a job with a U.S. airline, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Beware of offers that are too good to be true. There's often chatter about 'flavor of the month' visas as new ways to obtain U.S. employment, but their results are often unproven. More traditional approaches to the immigration system might not be as flashy, but can provide longer-term security if successful.
  • Do your research, especially when it comes to a potential employer's financials. It doesn't do you much good to obtain a employer-sponsored visa if that employer goes out of business after a few months.
  • If you're training in the U.S. on a student visa, don't wait until the last minute to begin planning your next career step.
  • Hiring professional assistance can be a good way to make sure you're navigating the proper channels. But pay attention to the company's reputation, making sure to ask questions about how they're paid and what you're getting for your fee.

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

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Meet the FAPA team

G.W. "Bo" Corby

Director of Flight Training Standards

G.W.

Captain Corby began his aviation career as a Flight Crew Instructor for the Boeing Company, followed by 3 years in the Middle East as a pilot/flight engineer for several airlines, returning to the U.S. in 1977 as a pilot for Hughes Airwest in San Mateo, California. Hughes Airwest later merged with Republic Airlines and eventually Northwest Airlines (NWA).  At NWA, he served as NWA ALPA Training Committee Chairman and in this position participated as one of 3 Board Members on the Pilot Training Review Board at NWA. This Board evaluated issues in the NWA training department relating to pilot training deficiencies. He retired from NWA in 2006.

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