Rising to the Top: How to Make Your Application to the Majors Stand Out

Many pilots that begin at the regional level have aspirations of eventually applying to the majors- American, Alaska, Delta, Fedex, United, UPS, or even Hawaiian Airlines. With higher pay, promises of better schedules, and today’s rapidly rising seniority numbers, the major carriers will be a great place to be for years to come-and they will be needing more pilot than ever over the next decade. Getting into the majors sooner can have a dramatic impact on career earnings-possibly amounting to millions of dollars of additional income over time.

 So what makes an application stand out? Nearly all applicants are qualified to apply, and therefore there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of applications that are nearly identical in qualifications. What helps a successful application rise to the top of the stack, when there are so many active pilot applications on file with each major carrier?

Small, seemingly insignificant items on the application could make a huge difference. “Take, for example, the letters of recommendations,” says Warren Russell, a First Officer at United Airlines and a Captain in the Army Reserves. “I think United gives max credit for ten letters of recommendation, so there is absolutely no reason why you should not have ten. The difference in nine letters and ten letters could separate you by hundreds of applicants.”

Who writes the letters also matters. “Internal company recommendations are very valuable, especially if you can get them from current pilots or even chief pilots at your target airline” says Russell. While these may seem like a challenge to obtain, consider tapping into your network to get to know some of these types of people. Did you serve in the military or fly in the regionals with anyone at your target airline? Maybe you have a mutual connection on LinkedIn that could introduce you. Do you volunteer for the same organization or annual event? All of these opportunities could be great ways to begin to expand your network.

Updating your application regularly is also extremely important, says Russell. “Apply at the first possible opportunity, and update your app as often as possible. Once the admin data is in your application, it should become a weekly ritual to simply go into your application online and update your hours -even if you didn’t fly that week. If all you do is log in and click ‘save’, then it has been updated. This shows your target company that you are flying regularly and that you care about the accuracy of your application.”

Hiring a consulting firm to review your resume and prepare you for the interview is also a great idea. “This is a nearly real-time snapshot of what they are looking for. With each client providing a thorough back brief after their interview, there is no better way to prepare yourself for possibly the last interview you will ever do” says Russell. “Sure it cost a little bit, but are you willing to risk being passed over for your dream job because you didn’t want to pay a couple hundred dollars to prepare?”

Volunteering is another way to stand out. This should not be done simply for the sake of your application, but to genuinely give back. “Companies have thousands of people to choose from” says Russell. “Why wouldn’t they pick people who truly care about giving back to something bigger than themselves?”

According to a recent United hiring fair document, United Airlines considers the following when evaluating pilot applicants:

Education and GPA, Type of Flight Training, SIC Hours, PIC Hours, Leadership and advancements when able, Instructing experience, Organizational memberships, achievements, positive contributions to the company or community “and more”.

Being a well-rounded candidate is always important. The majors are not only looking for airplane drivers, but leaders who can represent their companies in a positive light, spread their passion for aviation to those they meet, and have a positive influence not only inside the cockpit, but throughout the entire company as a brand representative.

Here are a few tips that you can begin to incorporate to develop your resume into one that will rise to the top:

  1. Get involved at work. Every airline has opportunities outside of flying that are available. Join the recruiting team, help with interviews, become a sim instructor or a Line Check Airman. Get involved with the Union and volunteer to serve on a committee that interests you.
  1. Continue to learn. After your training is complete, you have only just begun. You primary focus now is proficiency in your aircraft that will build toward the upgrade to Captain. If you need to complete your degree, get it done, and maybe even start a Master’s Degree if you are feeling super motivated! While not required, picking up extra ratings, such as CFI/CFII , Advanced Ground Instructor or Instrument Ground Instructor will also enhance your resume, especially if you are able to gain some experience as an instructor that benefits your employer! These types of ratings show dedication the profession, but some of them could also expose you to a non-required checkride, so consider the risk carefully and decide what is best for you.
  1. Volunteer. The opportunities are endless. Each airline sponsors a number of events throughout the year, such as Plane Pulls, 5k Races, or Habitat for Humanity projects. You can get involved with the SkyBall, the annual event hosted by American Airlines that is the largest military support event in the nation, or you can volunteer at the next RTAG Convention!  If you do not want to travel, there are many opportunities in your local area that could use some volunteers. Think Boy Scouts of America, Civil Ari Patrol, your local church, kids’ school or little league team. 

The airline industry is hiring more than they have in years right now. On the backside of an airline pilot career, a delay of even one month could cost you tens of thousands of dollars, and hundreds of thousands dollars for a year long delay or greater. The pay scales are public, so it is no secret. What are you doing today to set yourself up for your future success?



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RTAG is a Veteran run 501(c)(3) non profit organization designed to help all veterans, regardless of experience, jumpstart their post military career in the world of aviation.

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