Co-Authors: Craig Pieper and Deborah Bandy
Photographs by: Melody Hood
Because our readership is largely pilots, you are likely an influencer – someone to whom hopefuls turn for information about our profession. What do you tell the high school students (or even younger dreamers) when they ask you about the best path to becoming a pilot?
From a really young age, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, an airline pilot. Call it my dream, a passion, or the bug, whatever it was, it grew inside me every time I was near an airplane. As the son of an airline pilot, I knew that my dream was possible and my heart was set on it.
Though I ran into a few speed bumps the way, I stuck with it and eventually, I realized my dream, I’m living the passion and I’ve cured my bug. We often have the opportunity to reach out to the kids who look up at the sky every time they hear an airplane, the dreamers who gaze at the flashing lights from passing airplanes on clear nights, and the youth who know in their hearts they want to fly.
Each of us has our own story, but there are facts that we should share when asked how to do what we do. So, what should we tell them when they ask:
Why did you want to fly?
This is what they ask when they are looking for affirmation of their own reasons. This is when we should share our reasons and let them know there are many. We should tell them about compensation, benefits, lifestyle, the opportunity to travel around the world, and pure passion – the love for aviation. Each individual surely has their own specific reasons for choosing a career in aviation.
The financial gain is very appealing. Captains with major airlines can make upward of $320 an hour! That equates to over $300,000 a year. Two months ago, I met a captain who told me he had grossed $50,000 during the month of August. There are times when airlines offer generous incentives to work on days off. These incentives vary from 150% to 300% pay, earning an extra day off, or both. On the corporate side of aviation, I know an individual who grosses over $220,000 and only flies about 320 hours over the entire year.
Beyond the ordinary benefits, like retirement contributions, health insurance, profit sharing, etc., there is the allure of the travel benefits you can extend to your family. Raising your children to be citizens of the world because their education has included travel is an immeasurably valuable gift. I don’t know of anyone who came into our profession for this reason, but I know many who rank it high on their list of assets.
The lifestyle of a pilot is also appealing – traveling around the world, often in a different city every working night. There is the lure of visiting places over the course of a month that most individuals won’t see within their entire lifetime. There are also thrills; navigating through complex arrival and departure procedures or taking off and landing in say, heavy fog then walking away from the passengers (or cargo) while wondering how you made that safe landing at all.
With just a little over 584,000 total licensed pilots (private to ATP) and over 326 million people in the USA (according to the Census Bureau estimation), one in every 550 people in the United States is a licensed pilot. In 2016, the FAA estimated that of that total, 157,894 are active Airline Transport (ATP) rated pilots, which equals one ATP per 2,067 people. Aero Crew News estimates that approximately 80,000 of these ATP pilots work for U.S. commercial airlines, which comes out to be one commercial airline pilot per 4,079 Americans. The airlines transported over 823 million passengers in 2016. Using these figures, each commercial pilot transported 10,287 air passengers last year. Thinking it these terms, it becomes an even greater honor to realize that we are part of a relatively small group that has a tremendous impact upon the travel economy in the United States and the world.
You’ve likely heard the reports that over the next ten years it is estimated that due to retirements alone, the major airlines in the United States will need to replace over 26,000 pilots This fact means that this is an opportune time to enter the profession. For the first time since 2006, enrollment numbers are up at universities offering aviation programs. Just in the nine colleges we surveyed this past month, over 5,000 students are enrolled in an aviation degree.
Total Pilot Retirements 2018-2033
Why are so many pilots retiring soon?
For over two decades now, there has been talk of an alleged pilot shortage because the baby boomer generation of airline pilots will be forced to retire at the age of 65.
While there is a dispute over when the baby boomer generation began, it is generally accepted that it was spurred by the end of World War II. The U.S. Census Bureau cites that babies born between1946 and 1964 are part of this generation1. Currently a large majority of the pilots at the mainline carriers are part of this generation. Evidence supports that the number of airline pilots who will retire between now until 2029 is over 31,000 pilots; approximately 48% of the mainline pilot force of the United States’ airlines. Data collected on twelve airlines (Alaska, Virgin American, American, Delta, Southwest, United, UPS, FedEx, Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant and JetBlue) indicate that of the 64,070 active airline pilots, 37,130 will retire by 2029. These numbers are derived from company reports, individual contributors or AirlinePilotCentral.com3. Though 2029 will see the last of the baby boomers’ pilot careers, there will still be another ±10,000 pilots slated to retire between 2030 to 2033.
On December 17th, 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Fair Treatment of Experienced Pilots Act, which changed the mandatory age of retirement from 60 to 65 that became immediately effective2. The 60-year old baby boomers had already started to retire in 2006 and on December 17, 2007 all movement and hiring came to a complete halt. With the new mandatory age of retirement, the previously eligible group postponed retirement until after December, 2012. According to our pilot retirement chart, we are on the front end of these retirements, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines peak in 2022 and 2023 respectively; United Airlines and Southwest Airlines peak five years later in 2028.
What does it take to be an airline pilot?
A good place to start with the facts is with the physical and medical requirements of the FAA. One must pass a First Class Medical Exam by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). Individuals must meet requirements set forth by the FAA (14 CFR Part 67). Obviously, we can refer anyone to the websites, but it helps to be able to cite the basics.
- Correctable to 20/20 for distance or 20/40 for near vision.
- Ear, nose, throat, and equilibrium
- Pass a hearing test
- No history of ENT diseases or conditions
- No history of equilibrium diseases or conditions
- No history or diagnosis of mental disorders
- No history or diagnosis of neurological disorders
- No history or diagnosis of cardiovascular diseases or conditions
- General Medical Condition
- No history or diagnosis of other medical diseases or conditions.
- Refer to FAR 14 CFR Part 67 for more specific information.
We need to emphasize that if one doesn’t meet these requirements it doesn’t fully exclude the applicant. The FAA has a process where one can demonstrate certain abilities that would be required as a pilot, and the FAA grants a special exemption. The FAA calls this a “Statement of Demonstrated Ability” or a SODA. A Federal Air Surgeon grants a SODA after seeing the individual performing the duties required of pilots, establish through a flight test, a practical test or a medical evaluation.
I wouldn’t want to have someone self-select out of the profession based on my summary of the requirements, so I tell every aspirant that they should consult with an AME to find out more about getting the first class medical. Anyone can locate a local AME on the FAA’s website; designee.faa.gov. Under “Select Designee Type,” choose “AME” in the dropdown box. Another resource is flightphysical.com. It’s also worth sharing that a first class medical is not required for training, but in my opinion, it’s better to ensure that one can qualify before going through the training and later discovering that there is a condition that precludes pursuing the career.
Is it hard to become a pilot?
My usual response to this question is, “Hard? If I can do it, anyone can.” There are dozens of colleges and universities across the United States that offer degrees in aeronautics with flight training, and thousands of flight schools that offer the training without the academics. Be sure to let the aspiring pilot know that a college degree is required by the airlines though it need not be in an aviation field. (Have you shared a flight with a history major at your side?) Electing one’s training option is a highly personal one that requires research and evaluation.
Flight training is expensive and could potentially run into the $250,000 neighborhood! The good news for aspiring pilots is that proper planning and diligent execution of training could potentially save thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars. In the May 2016 issue of Aero Crew News, ExpressJet Airlines published an article titled, Paying for Flight Training. I recommend this to anyone interested in help to reduce training costs.
Another option is having the government pay for flight training by joining the military. When you cite this option, you should always mention that the military’s physical requirements are much more stringent than the FAA’s. And, there are never guarantees with the military. Becoming a pilot in the military is never promised. Young people should be directed to talk to an ROTC representative at a college or university about this possibility.
There are varied paths that any individual can take to becoming a pilot, I always recommend finding a pilot-mentor to help. The national organization Professional Pilots of Tomorrow has established a network of pilots who are available to help and mentor. www.theppot.org.
When I was attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University I worked in the Office of Admissions and the counselors always recommended that applicants for the Aeronautical Science degree (which includes the flight training component) take an observer flight in a light aircraft before enrolling. Believe it or not, there are those who had all the desire to be pilots but couldn’t handle (i.e. became airsick) flying in a light aircraft. Overcoming that is crucial because, as we know, they are not going to train in an airliner. EAA chapters all over the country offer Young Eagles® flights. A free observer flight might even be found with a willing recreational pilot at a local FBO.
What is the job outlook for aspiring pilots?
There is nothing but good news for the future of aviation professionals. Over the next fifteen years and beyond, airlines in the United States will need more than 37,000 pilots. The expansion of domestic and international travel is not likely to diminish and for every job in the sky, it is estimated that there are 40 on the ground. So, even if one doesn’t aspire to be an airline pilot, ours is about the coolest industry out there (I say with some bias) and the opportunities are growing.
When we wear our uniforms we are ambassadors for aviation. Merited or not, we inspire awe in the eyes of those who aspire to be like us. Channel your mentor if you had one, and if you didn’t start the cycle in your life. It’s almost as amazing as your first solo.
- “The Older Population: 2010” U.S. Census Bureau. November 2011. Retrieved October 29, 2014.
- “Fair Treatment of Experienced Pilots Act (The Age 65 Law) Information, Questions and Answers” FAA. August 8, 2012, Retrieved October 30, 2014
- Airline Pilot Central. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. www.airlinepilotcentral.com
Editor’s Note: Our investigation into how the industry will address the pilot shortage issue continues. We are currently collecting data to better understand the new pilot pipeline. Please stay tuned to this space for further information in future issues.