Would you want to become a pilot for a living now?

Scott Spangler has written an interesting post on JetWhine where he noted a recent NPR story about the dwindling number of student pilots in the USA. Apparently, it is being reported that the FAA’s estimate for this year’s number of student pilot certificates will total less than 60,000 – an all time low. For some perspective: Student certificates peaked at 209,406 in 1968 (around the height of the Vietnam War) and then reached an all-time high of 210,180 in 1979. Since then though, they have been in decline and fell into the five figures in 1994.

Scott noted that he often receives plenty of questions and genuine interest about becoming a pilot from youngsters but their interests is mostly fueled by having played video games and from seeing Red Bull Air Racing. However, the NPR story also profiled a CFI and aspiring professional pilot who is the perfect example of why pilot numbers are in decline:

His loans total nearly $100,000, and to build the experience that will qualify him for a $20,000-a-year right seat in a regional airliner, he’s forced to “flight instruct, tow banners, and haul skydivers.”  Think about the attitude bred by this decades-old system and the declining student and pilot population should surprise no one.

In other words, why would anyone want to become a professional pilot under those conditions? However, Scott noted that the US aviation industry only makes changes when it is forced to but then he suggested that:

A good solution might be the military model, where candidates vie for a coveted seat, knowing they will receive top-notch proficiency-based training designed for the mission they will soon fulfill. Anyone can apply, but only the best will be chosen for the education program that fills a guaranteed professional pilot slot. Because the airlines would have more invested in their pilots, perhaps they wouldn’t treat them like Doritos: Hard financial times? Furlough them! There will always be new suckers who still believe in the happy airline pilot dream.

Hence, we want to know what our readers think – especially any USA based pilots who fly for a living. Would you choose to become a pilot again or choose a different line of work? What do you should be done to reverse the decline in pilot numbers?

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5 Responses to Would you want to become a pilot for a living now?

  1. Dave D July 25, 2010 at 02:57 #

    How does the cost/benefit ratio make sense if you spend $100,000 on a commercial four-year education and you're lucky enough to get a right seat $25,000/yr position at a regional?

    You may never make more than $150,000/yr in your entire career -and thats only if you make Captain on a coveted route for a major carrier when you're in your late 30's or early 40's.

    In the meanwhile, you are making far too little to manage the student loans and have a normal life. Especially when you have to travel for hours or even days to get from your home to your assignment location.

    Why would people do this? There is still a perception that being an Airline Pilot is a sexy, romantic and high-profile job. That being said, I doubt that the pilots at say, Spirit Air are feeling very sexy right now. Or the rest of the airline pilot community that lost 50% of their pensions to poor management and downright thievery.

    No, its not a glamorous job anymore. The work is hard, the respect lacking and the pay is awful considering the huge responsibility. Its not the kind of life the passenger population thinks it is.

    I'm a pilot, but the private type. As a kid I wanted to be an Airline Pilot. A lot of people did. I sometimes regret not following my dream, but I also know that my life might be far different than it is now, especially financially of I followed the non-military path to the left seat.

    • Matthew Stibbe July 26, 2010 at 04:44 #

      I saw a Michael Moore film where he interviewed commercial pilots flying for US regional airlines who were also collecting food stamps because they were so badly paid. Over here in Europe, the low cost carriers make you pay for your own 737/Airbus type conversions on top of your commercial flight training and then pay something close to minimum wage. I really don't know why anyone would start out on a commercial pilot career these days. It's not glamorous, it's not well-paid and it can be very tough.

      On the non-professional side, in the UK you only have to visit a flying school to realise why more people don't do their PPLs. Considering it is an expensive hobby, comparable to skiing or golf in its costs and clientele, flying schools look shabby, have tatty old planes and treat customers pretty poorly. (And I can think of a couple of people who have gone to Florida to get their UK PPL and given up once they experienced some of the dire schools over there.) Flying schools should be modern, customer-focused professional organisations with good facilities and modern planes.

      Once you get your licence, the aviation world can be pretty hostile to newcomers (there are some seriously grumpy people out there in aviation-land) and there is little in the way of progression after you get your PPL. The IMC rating is under threat and almost nobody does a twin rating any more. (It's a bit different in the US where the IR-CPL ladder is more easily climbed.) Also, what planes can you rent? A dodgy old PA28 or C182 for a few hours on a weekday? The internet could bring people together – it's what I'm trying to do with this site (at my own expense – it doesn't earn me a cent) – and it would be great to see manufacturers, clubs and schools work together to make rental and shared ownership easier and more affordable.

      The big irony is that while GA is never going to be a way for anyone to get rich, as pilot numbers decline, costs go up. Fuel, landing fees, aircraft, insurance, parking – everything. It's a spiral dive that may become unrecoverable. I paid

  2. GrinningFool@Pilot C September 1, 2010 at 21:55 #

    I used to work in the airline industry doing FBO work and was and still am amazed how little professional pilots make. There was a serious lack of young pilots that came in. Most of the pilots that seemed to be doing well were flying as pilots for corporations, especially the few I knew that flew for the tobacco settlement lawyers. I think that in time, there will be a pilot shortage and or an increase in pilot related mistakes as the airlines need to keep older pilots on longer.

  3. Mark Baron September 6, 2011 at 10:27 #

    Hi guys,

    Im 19 years old and have been flying since i was 15 in Australia. I flew on weekends for 2 years and finally got my PPL. When i finished school i studied and finished all my 7 CPL subjects. I currently have around 120 hours of which most have been in a PA28 and some in in Seminole (twin engine) of which i am also endorsed in.

    I have worked as a courier (as the driver) for a company that does flights from Melbourne to Tasmania. i would pick up packages in the van, take them to the airport and load them in the planes. The pilots would then fly the cargo. After working there and being exposed to the industry, i had serious doubts about wanting to continue my path to becoming a Commercial pilot. The hours were terrible! Having to arrive at the airport at 7pm to help load the plane, and taking off around 10:00pm. You would land in Tasmania around 11:30pm and meet someone at the other end to unload the plane. After an hour of unloading you would refuel, and fly home. Arriving home at around 2:00am. It wasn't rare to have to fly the next day early in the morning either. This was considered to be a highly sort after job!

    Other options to gain hours to get to ATPL was to move to rural parts of Australia and do freight runs. It would take around 3 years to gain enough hours to be be able to apply for an airline (which you also have to have completed all 7 ATLP subject, get an instrument rating, and a night rating). While working in rural Australia away from all family and friends, you are earning minimum wage, and from what i heard, most pilots there work in the local super market to be able to pay rent.

    When you finally do make it to your dream job of being a airline pilot, you are HEAVILY in debt and may have to move to god knows where in the globe depending on which airline will take you.

    So lets say your do all of the above and have made it to airline pilot status. Lets say you are even getting a great wage. You have to think about the lifestyle you are forced to live. Your job requires you are constantly away from home flying around the world. You may never find anyone willing to settle down with you, and if you do, how long can it last? Eventually one o you will crack due to the lack of contact.

    Happiness is best shared. Being a pilot to me sounds like a lonely job, that takes A LOT of hard work to get to, high stress, and HUGE responsibility.

    Please comment back to me to let me know how you all feel. As for me, i have just enrolled in a course to become an electrician and feel it will offer a nice life

  4. gavin January 23, 2016 at 06:18 #

    Sadly it’s not a job I would ever recommend to any youngsters. Wrong era. Besides it’s not even that cool anymore as anyone with a bit of sense knows airline pilots are just glorified computer operators that work shitty hours. That said GA flying whilst much more dangerous is at least actual piloting but way to expensive for most to do as a hobby. I would say go and make money in a more lucrative career and fly for fun which is much cooler and far more enjoyable.

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