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Airline Pilot Hiring Trickle-Up and Trickle-Down Theory
By: Jim Hamilton - retired airline and corporate pilot
Many young pilots are building flight time and looking for a better career. In straining economic climates every professional patiently waits for long-deserved upgrades in one capacity or another. Flying and training a multitude of pilots for almost fifty years, I have seen this exhausting cycle repeat several times over. Being an eternal optimist I encourage everyone to exercise patience. Buckle up, or "fasten your seatbelt" and take note of my "Trickle-Up and Trickle-Down Theory".
The primary route or "major" commercial airlines are the best paying pilot jobs. As well, they are primary indicators of the overall aviation employment market. During a down economy, like in most industries, airlines exercise practices of efficiency for a period of three to four years. They do this by parking aircraft, cutting flying hours and ultimately laying-off or furloughing employees. As economies gradually improve, the major airlines begin to show profit or reduce loss. In a rising climate airlines must expand to stay competitive. This is done by further utilizing present aircraft and buying or leasing additional aircraft to upgrade fleets. Initiating these upgrades creates a need for additional pilots.
Offering competitive salaries, benefits and more importantly long-term sustainable careers options, the airlines seek a surplus of qualified pilots, or "The Trickle-Up". As the economy further improves and demand absorbs top-tier pilots, an alternative need emerges for air carriers to constructively adjust their qualifications. So this cyclical pattern of hiring pilots with varying experience levels behaves according to the traditional law of supply and demand.
As a standard practice commuter pilots amassing the highest qualifications become captain. Fractional share captains and qualified corporate pilots sit atop the tier of viable candidates for major carrier positions. These positions experience the greatest success financially.
All air carriers have a dual hurdle in securing and retaining qualified pilots. Initially they have to promote from within to stay competitive. Secondly, senior pilots face mandatory or medical retirement creating open positions, again demonstrating the basic cyclical pattern existing in aviation careers regarding pilots. Where do pilots come from to fill theses spots? Source locating qualified pilots is the essence of a "Trickle-Up" economy in the aviation community.
Commuter and smaller air carriers are probably the best source of emerging pilots. Call these the "minor leagues." Here are pilots that may or may not have satisfaction with their current position and salary. Most major air carriers require a base requirement of 1000 hours PIC in either a turbo jet or turbo prop aircraft. As the major airlines with higher salaries have openings a lot of commuter pilots and others with over 1000 hours of PIC turbo prop or turbo jet experience, will be the first pilots to get their resumes to a major carrier, "Trickle-Up". At this time the commuter and even some fractional share operations will start to be extremely short-staffed. By numbers alone these operators have to promote and hire at a rapid pace just to stay afloat.
At this point commuters will start to look for the best qualified pilots with the minimum FAR requirement of 1500 hours. Non-logistical qualifications for these positions include character background and higher education. Military background and flight school or training of fifteen hours also becomes a primary qualification, "Trickle-Up". Commuter and minor carriers will pay lower salaries. Various tier positions will always remain as requirements for air travel exist.
As a pilot, where and how does one negotiate this up and down ladder?
Things to Consider
Commuter carriers are a viable option if dependent on the frequency of promotions. Salary ceilings or caps as a Captain with a commuter airline affords, albeit conservative, a "livable" income.
Major carrier positions and fractional/shared jobs within a corporate environment, while offering fast-track advancement and higher salaries, have two significant limitations; the first being that employment is contingent of internal politics and personal opinions. This being said, executive relationships and ultimately success hold basis on personal assessment rather than professional merit. So while a pilot might have more time and experience a colleague with less time but more personal connection or political savy will receive promotion to captain despite contemporaries having two to three year seniority. Secondly, like all corporate situations, employment and company growth is dependant on the aim, direction, growth and success of the company overall. So if the company model flourishes then too will individual performance initiatives and opportunities. Conversely then the opposite is true, if the company sells aircraft or cuts positions, employment and advancement will have limitations again despite professional development and merit. While these drawbacks are representative of all industries, they emerge more prevalent in more volatile industries, specifically in merit or performance based positions such as commercial pilots.
Corporate flying, fractional share, and small jet charter flying as a separate career are not necessarily fast tracks to the majors. Depending on the corporation a pilot may only fly 200-300 hours in one year. In some situations, charter/fractional/shared and corporate flying may be a better deal since they offer more opportunities and benefits than a commuter or even a major carrier. A pilot opting for a position with a commuter will accrue significantly more time with opportunity for ratings and 1000 hours of jet PIC. Therefore the commuter pilot will be more attractive to the majors over pilots from any another background with less time and ratings.
An alternative option is the commuter or discount carrier. This option provides significantly more opportunity for employment. The trade-off will be the stability of the business and the reputation of the company. Another limitation is the compensation and salary these companies provide. A key factor in determining if this is a viable option is to understand your long-term personal goals and the base location to which one draws assignment. Commuting long distance is costly and physically taxing with vigorous work schedules. These positions likely will require supplementary income such as military reserves. Thus the primary consideration needs to be availability, company viability, long-term goals and sustainability.
If the FAA opens the registry one might consider a career with them. Again consider the long-term viability and personal career goals. The same goes for small jet charters companie, fractional share, and corporate jobs. These are career jobs, not a fast-track to a major airline position.
A pilot completing flight school training with 1500 hours contemplates the next career move. Options to consider are the market to which one enters, the training and qualifications such as time and instrument rating, ancillary qualifications as higher education or technical or military background. Consider the reputation of the flight school.
As with younger pilots with less experience, more established pilots must also consider similar factors when investigating advancement and vertical movement. First look at the economy, airlines that are hiring and the current situation or position within the corporate market. Publications such as aviation and trade magazines are a good source of information for understanding the current market.
The choices do not have to be airline flying. Another option is flight training at a large- or medium-size training facility including universities and major flight schools. A smaller facility with room for expansion such as smaller fixed base operation is also a viable option. These institutions have room for growth, often promoting instructors to examiners and chief of operations.
A further choice may be corporate flying as a fractional share or small jet charter flying. Working for the government, specifically the FAA also presents long-term career opportunities.
Keep in mind many of the above choices are career positions not just a stepping stone to something beyond. Ultimately there is no such thing as a poor career choice in aviation, if it's the right choice for you.
In summary, as economies improve major airlines will project hiring sometimes as many as 800 pilots. The majors will hire directly from minor or discount carriers sometimes acquiring 30%+ of their workforce. Corporate flight departments with approximately 15 pilots lose 3 pilots or 20% percent of their pilot staff overnight. "TRICKLE UP, TRICKLE DOWN THEORY". Your choice of a permanent career may fall within any of these sectors.
Resume Tips for Pilots
Like any resume, put your best foot forward. Remember that anyone ready to make a career move has fifteen hundred hours. Since you can't always predict TRICLE UP OR TRICKLE DOWN theories don't be afraid to send your resume to the very best company that fits your career needs.
Also keep in mind that no matter what your career choice is, there is probably no fast track to a career position always suitable for your current situation.
REMEMBER: There is no such thing as a free lunch, and If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
Here are some considerations: A lot of small businesses may approach you about buying a corporate jet and sending you to school to get a type rating and of course, making you their pilot. Research these things very well before becoming disappointed. If they do get a company jet you may not meet the insurance requirements. If a commuter airline offers you a job, will you be able to commute feasibility or move to one of their bases? More importantly, will you be able to live on a lower bracket income? Another important factor is vertical mobility. How long before you make captain?
One last thought which has always been a nemesis of mine. It's commonly known in the industry that the quickest and easiest way a new pilot can build time is to flight instruct. It's also known that most new flight instructors do not or simply cannot make a career of flight instructing. If teaching primary students is something you have little or no passion for doing, find another way to build flying time. You will be doing the flight school a big favor. If you do enjoy people and flight instructing but don't really want to make a career flight instructing it is a valuable way to gain experience. It also teaches you how to effectively use Crew Resource Management. CRM should be taught and is used by primary students and is carried on by all pilots in the industry. The repetitions of flight basics become a valuable way to gain experience. Teaching instrument flying is a valuable way to learn the ATC system. Always keep in mind that your real job is to teach someone to fly not to build time. A lot of satisfaction is gained from just observing someone learning to fly. Flight instruction is not for everyone but if your purpose is to build time, give it your best effort and try learning the values of aviation while instructing.
Author Bio: Jim Hamilton - My aviation career began almost fifty years ago. In the sixties I got my Commercial and CFI. After that I started working full time as a flight instructor. The students at that time were military pilots, flight engineers who needed their commercial and instrument ratings to maintain their jobs, foreign pilots, and student pilots who just wanted to pursue their individual pilot goals. In the mid sixties I got a job with Eastern Airlines and flew as a second officer, first officer and Captain for 25 years. After leaving Eastern I worked doing training and flying for a commuter airline for 3 years and finished my jet career as a corporate pilot for 15 years. During that time and between those jobs I worked continuously both full- and part-time as a flight instructor. During this period of time I trained many pilots ranging from aircraft owners, airline pilots, and many other still flying just because they love aviation.