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Why now is the BEST time to become an Airline Pilot

If you’re anything like me, you may be wondering: is now a good time to start flight training to become a pilot? With Covid-19 and the roller coaster of a year we had, it may seem like flying isn’t a good option.

I was in the same position as you about 10 years ago – but I pressed forward. And it’s been the best decision of my life.

There I was, 16 years old, eyes wide open and relentlessly excited to get started with flight training and work towards my dream of becoming an Airline Pilot. I flew down to Florida with my family to attend an open house at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, just to add fuel to the fire. One of the events was a presentation from a ‘successful’ alumnus, a representation of where you could be, one day, after graduating from this wonderful institution.

Honesty is the Best Policy?

Probably not to Embry-Riddle’s liking, our Riddle-grad pilot was frank and honest. He had graduated from Riddle 7 years prior, and was still working for American Eagle, a regional/commuter airline. He flew the ATR72 based out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a base he told us was now closing, meaning he would soon be displaced.

Airline turboprops of the old days
They heydays of turboprop regional airplanes!

He basically told us to expect poor wages, high debt, and to live out of a crash pad in New York. He wasn’t wrong; at the time, many pilots were on food stamps, and the mainline carriers offering dream jobs were simply not hiring.

Poor Wages and Long Hours? Sign Me Up!

Did this, at all, in any way deter me? Nope! I (somewhat blindly) was willing to accept these terrible conditions if it meant I could pursue my dreams. More importantly though, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew if things were depressed now, there was only one way they could go. I never anticipated the rocket ship of movement that culminated in being hired at a major cargo airline flying 747s at 22 years old and my dream airline by 23. How does this all apply today?

In 2020, air traffic collapsed some 75-90% from where it was in 2019. The 3 big legacy airlines in the US sent out furlough notices, but nowhere near the number of pilots on the street internationally. I, myself, was on the furlough list. So, why am I telling you it’s a good time to start?

Atlas Boeing 747! Little did I know I would be flying these shortly after.
Standing in front of an Atlas Air Boeing 747 after arrival from Liege, Belgium. I was flying these as an Atlas Air pilot a year later!

Fasten Your Seatbelts, And Your Shoulder Harness

Because it’s probably the BEST time to start it will be EVER! How did I come up with this?

Airlines are now facing peak retirements of the baby boomers that were hired in waves 30 years ago. In light of the reductions in flying, many airlines offered extraordinary Early Retirement packages, with a focus on convincing pilots younger than 63 to leave early. And it worked.

Between early retirement packages at Delta, United, and American, over 4000 pilots retired early. This is extraordinary, unprecedented, and unheard of.

With all the extra room created at the top and normal flying levels returning, there is going to be an absolute vacuum and a dire need for pilots. Right now, it’s still somewhat difficult to travel internationally. Once travel restrictions are lifted and the flying public’s complete confidence in air travel returns, the wide-body aircraft that senior pilots normally are assigned to will become abhorrently short staffed.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Pilot

Many cargo airlines, such as UPS and Atlas Air, are facing shortages of pilots and hiring as many as they can. FedEx Express alone is planning to hire 900 pilots next year, which is about 15% of their entire current pilot group in size. Atlas Air will be hiring close to 1000, a third of its pilot group. But that doesn’t compare to passenger airlines.

Delta, United, and American have all announced plans to hire 180-200 pilots a month for the next couple years. This literally has never been done before – and is a testament to the insane recovery currently underway.

United Airlines pilot retirements show insane need for pilots in the next 10 years
Pilot Retirements at United; peaking around 2027/2028

It Won’t Happen Overnight

Another thing to consider is the length of training to become a pilot. Best case scenario, flying every single day, you could get your commercial license in about 3 months. After that, you still need to reach the hour requirements for a restricted Airline Transport Pilot License, 1500/1250/1000 hours depending on your degree and flight program. That will take about a year of flying 100 hours/month.

At that point, you’ll be ready to fly for the regional airlines. Within the next year or two, that massive vacuum I talked about in the last paragraph while be set to maximum pressure. Movement will be of epic proportions. COVID-19 is a chance for you to participate in the wave that you probably would have missed otherwise.

Ride the Wave Before The Swell is Gone

Will it happen again? I really don’t think so. At some point, like it or not, automation will begin taking over. I think that’s likely 30-40 years away, but who knows? The retirements peak in the next few years, and I don’t think we’ll see anything like it ever again.

So, is now the right time to start flight training? Absolutely – and the earlier, the better. Be proactive and get ahead of the wave. You will enjoy an absolutely wonderful career.

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