Like many middle-aged pilots, Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines sometimes wonders what life might have been like flying for the airlines.
Anjea White describes her job with words such as "Amazing. It's awesome." "It's everything I've dreamed of." "I love what I do."
Attribute some of her enthusiasm to youth, perhaps. She turned 31 last month. Or to the newness of her role. She started the job less than a year ago. But even taking that into consideration, one gets the impression that she is in it for the long haul. The aviation bug has bitten hard; she's seriously infected by the "I must fly" disease.
To get to the right seat of a regional jet, she gave up a good paying job in pharmaceutical sales. She now lives in a Houston crash pad — that's pilot speak for a rental house shared by a group of pilots who fly out of a location, but don't really live there. Think of it as just one step up from your average frat house; room after room with bunk beds stacked floor to ceiling. When she has a few days off she uses her airline pass privileges to fly home to Iowa to stay with her parents. Meanwhile, she's building a house near Houston.
White's route to the right seat of an airliner is not atypical these days. Rather than grizzled ex-military pilots or fresh-faced college kids, by some reports as many as 30 percent of today's starting airline pilots have begun a career in another field and then chucked it all because when you love to fly, no other job will do.
White grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and earned a business degree with a minor in economics from the University of Oregon. Her first job was handing out gold medals at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. That short-lived position led her to Arizona where she worked in sales. Acting on her love of travel, she also began working part-time for Frontier Airlines in ticketing and baggage. The job didn't pay much, but it came with an airline pass, allowing her to travel at will. She later sold real estate and soon linked up with Northwest Airlines, still slinging bags and punching tickets part-time. A chance to work in sales for a technology company led her to San Francisco. Northwest needed help at nearby San Jose International Airport, so she kept the part-time job and continued with the travel.
Somewhere among all of the airline travel and working at the airport, she began to wonder what it would be like to fly the airplane, rather than just sit in the back. Every trip to the airport fanned that glowing ember, and she imagined herself moving from the ramp to the cockpit.
About then came the lucrative pharmaceutical sales job. Could she give it all up, take a year — maybe years — off to learn to fly, all in hopes of getting an airline job, and one that, at least to start, would pay far less than the sales job?
Single, age 27, a supportive family, and no mortgage. Yes, you can. And she did.
After evaluating a number of schools, White decided on Delta Connection Academy in Sanford, Florida, just north of Orlando. The flourishing school is owned by Delta Airlines and has a good reputation for placing many of its graduates with major and regional airlines. In fact, according to Tom Montgomery, the academy's president, 100 percent of the students who worked as CFIs for the academy ended up with airline jobs in 2004; late in 2005, the school was on track for the same record. Like many other such schools Delta Connection Academy (DCA) has agreements with numerous airlines to guarantee interviews for students who meet certain criteria. The school also operates five satellite locations affiliated with a number of colleges throughout the South and East.
White arrived at DCA's Sanford headquarters with no flight time, which is not unusual, according to Montgomery. About a year later, White had earned all of the ratings she would need to begin an airline career, including an instrument flight instructor certificate. She waited about five months for a CFII job at DCA to open up and then instructed for about a year. Like other candidates, she then took the DCA "bridge" course that teaches students to fly a regional jet simulator with an electronic flight instrumentation system (EFIS) in it. White said the crew resource management and EFIS training in the bridge course gave her a great deal of confidence when she was hired by ExpressJet and began flying the Embraer ERJ-145 airliner. "New hires who hadn't been through a bridge course felt a lot more intimidated than I did when we first started flying the glass," she said.
According to Montgomery, White's experience at DCA is fairly typical. A zero-time student usually takes about 11 months to complete the curriculum and then instructs at DCA until they have 700 to 1,100 hours. At that point they take the bridge course and then head off for an airline job.
Officials at Aviation Information Resources, Inc., an Atlanta company that provides career resources to prospective airline pilots, predict that 41 percent of all major airline pilot jobs will be opening in the next decade. Because of the requirement to retire at age 60, some 36,000 pilots will retire in the next 15 years. This does not include any positions created by the forecast growth in airline travel.
The airline careers these fresh recruits jump into are far different than what the gray beards faced when they were young. Back in the 1970s when I was a kid, guys — they were all guys then — flying internationally for the airlines were pulling down salaries of $100,000, and they only worked a few days a month. That was an enormous sum in those days. Impressionable kids such as I thought that would be a wonderful career. As recently as a few years ago, a pilot for a major airline flying a widebody jet internationally could make $300,000 — a healthy salary by today's standards, but less than $100,000 when you figure inflation over the last 30 or 35 years. Today, however, with most major airlines on the brink — if not over the brink — of bankruptcy, the average salary of a captain flying the largest airliners is $171,732, according to AIR, Inc. The captain of a widebody at United Airlines, for example, makes about $171,000; as recently as 2002 that figure was just over $300,000. In addition, the once-rich pension plans offered by most airlines have been decimated. Pilots have definitely done their fair share to help the airlines through their economic troubles.
With all of the pilot furloughs we hear about from the major airlines, one might wonder how there can be openings for new hires. Most of the growth comes from the commuter and regional carriers providing connections to the majors. In an effort to reduce costs — or shift costs to subsidiaries and partners — the majors have encouraged use of the new breed of small jet airliners, the regional jets. These lower cost carriers hire new lower cost pilots — typically. Industry officials report that furloughed pilots from the majors often aren't interested in flying for the regional carriers because they would have to give up their seniority position at the major to accept the new job. The regional carrier doesn't want to spend a lot of money training furloughed pilots to fly RJs only to have them leave for the major airlines if jobs open up. In addition, accepting a regional job may require furloughed pilots to move their families; and the pay is often significantly less than they would make from the major carriers. For furloughed pilots, hope springs eternal that they will get their old jobs back, and many ultimately do. The airlines hired 10,500 pilots last year; 2,500 of them at the majors, according to AIR, Inc. Some furloughed pilots, however, have become so frustrated with the airline industry that they have abandoned their careers altogether, preferring to work in a more stable industry.
While the airline economics of the last couple of decades have played havoc on the dreams of a generation of pilots, it doesn't stop the enthusiasm of youth from the likes of Anjea White. Like many others who love to fly, she may be content to stay at the regional carriers indefinitely, forgoing the usual path from regional to major.
For now, though, she looks forward to every flight in her new career, starting a trip from her Houston base and heading for points in Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. "One day I might fly into Mexico and that night I might be in Toronto or Newark. Every day is different. It's really fun." How can you argue with that?
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Links to additional information about airline careers may be found on AOPA Online.