It has been tough times in recent years for those young pilots that want to earn a living while flying airplanes. Despite the increased cost of jet fuel and the still slumbering U.S. economy there is an optimistic future—at least for the next decade or so. Despite the projected furloughs of several hundred pilots at American Airlines there is still optimism in the future for those people that want to commit to a career as a pilot. It won’t be a walk in the park and it will be a long time before you will reach that six figure income plateau. If you start at the bottom of the commercial pilot heap as a regional carrier pilot, you better have a little extra earning potential (such as a working spouse) because you are going to be mired into a despicable low income for a few years. On the other side of the coin, you will be building flight time and gaining experience while not setting in a cubicle or waiting for the unemployment compensation to run out.
Corporate aviation is actually doing quite well as the recession had very little effect on those wealthy one percent who can afford this wonderful amenity—once you have had the private jet experience, the thought of sitting back in the cabin on a commercial jet is emotionally trying. Companies such as FlexJet, Marquis Jets, Delta Private Jets, and Piaggio Avanti Charter, just to name a few, employ thousands of pilots. Although the starting salary might only be in the $35,000 to $40,000 per year category, it is a nice lifestyle and you do not end up in low end hotels, or engage in high-speed “bag-drags” around ORD or PHL, without enough time to get a bite to eat. Most captains in the private jet charter world are making at least $70,000 per year. If you can wriggle into the corporate flight department the salaries and benefits then become quite livable with captains frequently being rewarded with $150,000 per annum salaries for keeping “Mr. Big” comfortable and safe. Quite often, the CEOs and executives form a very strong bond with their pilots and the ensuing rewards can be very profound—five star hotels and restaurants and golf at Pebble Beach, for instance.
The major factor in this projected upcoming shortage of pilots is related to mass retirements in the next few years amongst the major airlines, UPS, and FEDEX. The long overdue and absurdly slowly implemented revised FAR 121 flight and duty times will result in a need amongst all airlines to hire more pilots since the new rules result in many instances, of less flight or duty time available from each pilot. Also, many senior pilots are capitalizing on overseas pilot positions. Airlines such as JAL, KAL, Cathay Pacific, and many airlines in the Middle East are constantly in search of U.S. trained pilots. Commercial aviation in India and China is burgeoning and there will be pilot openings for those that will venture away to another culture and lifestyle to make a decent living as a pilot. In China, there are numerous “expatriate” communities evolving for those people who want to be close to their fellow westerners. Quite often these overseas jobs appear onerous but can provide wonderful travel experiences while greatly broadening one’s horizons while being exposed to different cultures. Near the end of my career I very reluctantly took a job flying freight out of Liege’ Belgium and it turned out to be the high point of my aviation career. My book, The Rogue Aviator; in the Back Alleys of Aviation elaborates on this wonderful excursion (www.therogueaviator.com).
An aviation career is similar to every flight that you experience in that it is an adventure. If you pursue your pilot career as an adventure, the “back alleys of aviation” can become tolerable. There is a near certainty that you will miss birthdays and anniversaries and work many weekends but in my 36 year career that took me to 44 countries, the positives trumped the negatives by a wide margin. If you pursue an aviation career to achieve wealth and leisure you will possibly spend a lot of time in the doldrums crying in your beer. The aviation career may not be a bed of roses, but very few retired pilots ever look back and say, “Darn, I wish I had sold insurance.” If you want inspiration to keep the nose to the grindstone in order to pursue that career, my book, The Rogue Aviator will provide such. I will issue a small caveat and that is the rapidly decreasing supply of fossil fuels will require a lot of innovation regarding a source of energy to provide the thrust that creates the lift. Meanwhile, “keep your airspeed up in the turns.”
This blog is prepared by Ace Abbott, author of The Rogue Aviator (www.therogueavitor.com)