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Chasing the Dream

by Darren Smith
PocketLearning, September 2006
Helicopter Navigation:  Why Learn Helicopters | Costs | Private Pilot Helicopter | Commercial Pilot Helicopter | Helicopter Ground School | SFAR73 | Accelerated IFR Rating | Timebuilding | Turbine Transition & Timebuilding

I've been struggling with this article for over 2 years.  Its hard to write.  It's against the grain.  And it doesn't feel good to lay things out as they are.  But... the truth shall set you free. Right?

Every week of every month of every year, I get phone calls and emails from folks who are chasing the dream.  Here's what it sounds like:
  • I'm 45, is it too late for me to achieve my dream of becoming an airline pilot.
  • I'm currently an computer guy making good money. Its always been my dream to be an airline pilot.
Does it sound familiar?  Folks tell me they are chasing the dream because its:
  • High income
  • High prestige
  • Unlimited travel
  • High profile
If you hadn't figured out what's coming next, I'll tell you.  I'm going to open the door and let you take a peek at reality.  If you still want to chase the dream, then congratulations, you're persistent. 

Before I let you digest this reality, let's first set the table.  In 1981 it cost $600 round trip Florida to California.  Today it costs $99 each way if you buy on sale.  How is it that every other cost has gone up but airline fares have gone down?   In fact had you purchased something else for your $600, today that same service would cost over $1500 adjusted for inflation.  So how is it that airfares have gone down?  Fuel prices are much higher.  Airplanes cost a whole lot more.

The answer is labor cost.  While labor cost is a significant expense to airlines, salaries of the big three (flight attendants - pilots - mechanics) haven't risen with the cost of living/inflation.  In fact, they've gone way down.  Take for example the new pilot who has just been hired by an airline.  His hourly salary is $19.72.  Sounds good right?  But that's only for 72 hours a month or $1420.  In the 22% federal tax bracket plus social security taxes, that take home pay looks like $1008. Thats about the same salary that pilots made in the 1970's.  Now tell me, can we hire the best and the brightest for $1008 a month in 2006? 

No.  No way.  Not now.  Not ever.

So you decided you wanted to be an airline pilot.  You'll take the training prescribed in Eight Steps to an Airline Career and reach the end of your training having spent $70k.  You'll have 250-300 hours at that point but most airlines are going to want you to have 1000 hours before they hire you.  As such, you'll work as a flight instructor for $15 an hour to get around 100 hours a month for a monthly salary of $1065 after taxes.  Are you kidding?  How impressive, working for $12k annual salary.  At least you're getting paid to fly!  Good news is you'll only need to do that for 7-10 months to build up your experience level so you can go work for an airline making $1008/monthly.

For the computer guy, are you really going to leave your $80k job and make an investment of approximately a whole year's salary just to make $12k for each of your first two years in the career? 

Just so have a good understanding, here's how the pay rates increase for each year of service as an airline pilot.
2nd year = 24.00 = $1226 monthly take home pay
3rd year = 30.00 = $1532 monthly take home pay
4th year = 33.00 = $1687 monthly take home pay or $20k

Are you sure you really want to make an investment that big to earn an annual salary of $20k take home pay after 5 years? 

The reason those airline seats are so cheap is because airlines aren't paying these employees enough to stay out of poverty.  They can't because we all demand cheap $99 fares. 

Let me tell you another dirty little secret.  To get those 72 hours a month.  You'll have to work a 4 day stretch of 16 hour days several times a month.  And by the way, you only get paid when the wheels go up and the airplane is flying.  Some airline pilots are only getting 4 hours of paid flight time in a 16 hour duty day.  Add this to airport food, cranky customers, impatient coworkers, and it becomes a very stressful working environment with a high burnout rate.  One CFI in St Petersburg Florida told me, "I just don't need the hassle."  She flew CRJ's for a regional airline then quit after a year.

Unless pay rates for the big three (flight attendants - pilots - mechanics) increase, safety will decrease.  In 2006 our airline industry has already recovered from 9/11.  We're hiring thousands of these $12k pilots.  The passenger load is as high as ever and we're doing it all with 100,000 less airline employees doing the job.  Good for profitability, bad for safety.  There is only so much flexibility in the system before it starts breaking.  My friends, its starting to break.  And we're seeing regional airliners crash more frequently as a result.  Lexington comes to my mind.  Think about that next time you scored a cheap ticket off the web.

In summary, consider learning how to fly if you're interested in some fun and adventure.  Right now as a career choice, its a very hard road.
Next:  Encouragement From the Flight Deck >>

Reader Comments

Date: Fri, 20 Oct 2006 22:06:32 -0700 (PDT)     Name = Matthew
Comments = Hi Darren, I read your comments about becoming Pilots , I have to admit they are pretty discouraging news (or you are really trying to sift out true pilots wth their passion and determinations). Well, my questions is: is it too late for a person to switch career at 39 starting at PPL and loving to fly? or this is only the sick imagination?

Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2007 16:01:42 -0800 (PST)      Name = Don H
Comments = Very interesting article putting some meat on what I already knew/suspected.  I am a 55 year old just starting to chase my dream of flying. I have no illusion that i would be able to make a career out of flying at my age and with the experience requirements. It is nice to have someone put in down in writing.

Date: Tue, 8 May 2007 22:32:21 -0700 (PDT)  Name = Chris G
Comments = I am interested in becoming a pilot. I worked in nursing for 6 years I would like to try new things.
Reply: You're crazy.  The nurse makes more than the helicopter pilots.  I think I'll start nursing school in the Fall.

Date: Wed, 6 Jun 2007 Name = Bill S
Comments = I have been in the aviation maintenance end for over 30 years. Pay in 1982 was 24.00 per hour, today average is about 17 per hour. I have moved up to Field Engineer for major company and salary bracket is around 80,000. Pilots forget it..they don't make anything unless you decide to become a corporate pilot but expect 5000 hours to get hired.

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