Pilot school may be ticket to career, despite slump
Major U.S. airlines last year hired just 30 pilots, not enough to fill a standard school bus, according to a firm that tracks pilot hiring.
"It was the lowest total in airline history," said Louis Smith, president of Atlanta-based FltOps.com.
Government statistics don't paint a pretty picture for working or aspiring pilots, either. Department of Transportation data show passenger airlines employed 6.4 percent fewer pilots last year than in 2008.
Yet, industry experts say, this is the perfect time to get into a flight school and pursue a career in the cockpit.
"This business is always up and down, like shark's teeth," said airline consultant Kit Darby, based in Peachtree City, Ga.
It's good to start training during a downturn, he said.
"Job training and building the experience necessary to get a job takes time," Darby said. "If you start (training when the industry is) in the valley, you're going to be ready in the peak."
Airlines slashed pilot salaries, pensions and other benefits during the past decade, one of the most turbulent periods in the industry's history, and it remains unclear what impact airline mergers might have on employment. But experts think pilot hiring will increase in coming years as economic conditions improve and drive up passenger demand, and baby-boomer commercial pilots retire by the government-mandated age of 65.
JetBlue Airways hired 30 pilots last year, the only major domestic airline to hire any pilots in 2009, FltOps.com said. The website said AirTran Airways hired 66 pilots in the first five months of this year, the only major carrier to do so.
Smith predicts major airlines will hire more than 500 pilots by the end of the year, noting AirTran, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines are accepting applications. Starting annual salaries at the carriers range from $26,000 to $53,000, FltOps.com said.
Among the 18 regional carriers the website tracks, half are accepting applications. They offer starting annual salaries between $17,000 and $26,000.
Smith anticipates the nation's 13 major airlines will hire 42,000 pilots during the next 12 years, about 70 percent of them to replace retiring pilots. Predicted airline expansions would create 11,000 positions, Smith said.
"In the next few years, you're going to see the longest and largest expansion in hiring that we've seen," Smith said.
Almost all of the pilots will move up from regional and other smaller airlines, forcing those carriers to hire an identical number of pilots as the majors or more if they want to grow, Darby added. He estimated 8,000 to 10,000 pilots will be hired annually to meet the industry's needs.
That should bode well for pilots pursuing commercial licenses.
"This is a great time to start because, when you're done, you're going to have some opportunities waiting for you," said Mike Kramer, general manager of the Pittsburgh Flight Training Center, based at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.
Kramer said it takes five years, on average, for students with no flying experience to complete educational and licensing requirements and build up enough flight time — usually, 1,000 hours or more — to land entry-level jobs with regional carriers. Flight-school graduates typically become flight instructors to build up time.
That's Brad Kosko's game plan.
Kosko, 20, of Greensburg is working his way toward a commercial pilot's license at the Pittsburgh center. He hopes to become an instructor and wants to get 1,000 to 1,500 hours of flight time under his belt before pursuing a commercial job. He has 180 hours.
"To be honest, I'm quite optimistic," Kosko said. "Within the next five years, I think things are really going to start opening up. I'm planning on it working out pretty well for me."
But turbulent career conditions drove away Justin Snyder, 24, of Beaver Falls, who earned a pilot's license and served as a flight instructor at the Community College of Beaver County before deciding to pursue a career as an air traffic controller.
"I thought there would be more stability in air traffic control, and I knew I'd be able to go home every night and not be on the road all the time," he said.