The Career Advisor
Q: Wayne, I have a simple question. Why should I consider becoming an airline pilot? Please tell me some real facts.--Ravi
A: Good question! Some might respond, "If you have to ask, then perhaps an airline flying career is not for you." The Career Pilot article "Three Wise Men" (July 2007 AOPA Flight Training) featured some very useful words of wisdom from retired airline veterans who each had spent more than two decades at a major airline. One common thread bound them together: the love of flight.
None of them stated that their primary career goal had been to put food on the table for their families, acquire an upper-class lifestyle, or secure a six-figure paycheck. Each of these guys simply had a passion for flying, and an airline career allowed them to satisfy that passion.
Getting a paycheck seemed important but secondary.
There is a tremendous entry fee to join the exclusive club of paid flyers. A quality aviation college or academy will cost anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000. Once graduating with a wallet full of FAA certificates and ratings, look for a first-year salary of about $20,000. By year five, that might increase to $50,000 annually, whether you're flying a regional jet or a corporate flying machine. So, why do they do it? Here's what they will say, guaranteed:
"I just want to fly."
So, Ravi, it's that internalized emotion that causes airmen to subdue rational financial thinking and press on with a plan to satisfy the flying urge while hoping that, in about seven to 10 years, a $125,000 annual paycheck and several days off each month finally will materialize.
Frankly, the unattractive financial realities of aviation have contributed to the current pilot shortage. Fewer people embrace the thought of even learning to fly on the private pilot level. To a financial realist, it is absurd to blow two weeks' worth of grocery money or a car payment to blast around the traffic pattern for a couple of hours.
So, again, it boils down to an affair with flying. There are more than 70,000 airline pilots and probably twice that number in other forms of commercial flying who have managed to quench their flying thirst and still make a living. Otherwise, we'd all be taking the bus. But airline life is not for everyone. The current state of affairs has created more than a little discontentment in the ranks. Pay cuts, insensitive management, periodic furloughs, demanding passengers, oddball work hours, out-of-touch unions, long weather delays, days away from the family, missed birthdays and anniversaries--all have dimmed the luster of airline flying. What keeps these folks going? It's the love of flying. They can't imagine doing anything else--except, perhaps, one of the many opportunities in commercial aviation outside of the airlines. There just might be a place for you!
Send us your career question and we'll answer the best ones here. Sorry, but we are not able to provide individual responses. Wayne Phillips is an airline transport pilot with a Boeing 737 type rating. He is a B-737 instructor and operates the Airline Training Orientation Program in association with Continental Airlines. He is an aviation safety consultant in Michigan and speaker for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.