The career advisor
Q: I have done as much research as possible on flight academies. I have read all the brochures and spoken to counselors. I will begin making my rounds visiting each one. Which one is the all-around best? I have also tried looking at some blogs online trying to get some feedback from students, but it was not much help at all.--Pat in Florida
A: First, understand that most institutions offer a fine service. Further, most have been in business for more than a few years and have many success stories to tell.
Choosing a flight academy is much like choosing an airplane to fly. All the manufacturers will get you from "A" to "B." What makes an airplane attractive could be a number of subjective factors: size, cost, comfort, and the like. While most training institution will train you well, it's the other things that will help you make a decision.
For most, cost is paramount. Quotes from admission reps are rarely if ever guaranteed. One young pilot heard a pitch from an academy that the total cost would be $55,000 to $65,000. After $110,000 invested and almost two years as an academy CFI at $10 per instructional hour with no additional pay for endless paperwork and sitting through student checkrides, he did find a job as a regional airline first officer but is now stuck with crushing debt.
Reputation is right up there in importance. See how many regional airline affiliations the school has formed. If the academy is regarded highly, it will have a number of agreements with regional airlines to interview pilots who complete training. Ask for proof. The admissions folks should be willing to show you the letters of understanding between the airlines and the academy. Obviously, if a half-dozen airlines welcome graduates to an interview with less time and experience than published, that's good.
Location offers pros and cons. Some trainees would rather fly up north where they can find real weather. But they risk waiting for days before the icing goes away, unless that school has flight training devices and simulators where training can continue even in the worst conditions. Many training airports in the South are very busy; expect a significant increase in cost as you taxi to the other end of the county and are number eight for takeoff behind seven other school airplanes.
Take a good look at the fleet. Is the academy using tired old aircraft, or is the flight line filled with newer machines sporting the latest avionics? Newer airplanes spend less time in the shop. And inspect the maintenance facility. Is it clean and tidy? Are the classrooms bright and modern?
Determine what advanced training is available. Certain schools will have a "jet transition program" as part of the curriculum that includes flight time in CRJ or ERJ devices or even in jets like a Citation.
How much time must you serve as a flight instructor? Some academies require that you compete for flight instructor positions at the end of training, pay you little, and keep you on a leash for hundreds of hours before the school will shop your résumé to the airlines. Finally, head over to the cafeteria without any school officials in tow and talk to the students. See what the school's reputation is. Are students and instructors treated like customers and professionals or worse?
In-person visits are an excellent idea. If you apply these strategies your choice will become quite clear.
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.