The Great Pilot Shortage is finally upon us! Stop what you’re doing and start your pilot training yesterday! Did you know that over the next decades there will be 2-3,000 mandatory retirements a year due to pilots reaching the maximum allowable age of 65?! Think about that. That’s 165-250+ pilots a MONTH needed! That doesn’t even include the ones who maxed out their 401Ks and want to retire early or the ones who will lose their medical before hitting 65! And the only way those major airline positions will be available to YOU will be if you start at your regional NOW!
Classes today are already at maximum capacity for most major airlines and they’re going to need even more going forward. The hiring wave is only just beginning and won’t crest for a few more years. And every seniority number you delay could mean you risk being on reserve longer than most, commuting to an undesirable base, not getting the wide- body captain pay that everyone talks about, or maybe even living the nightmare of being furloughed during the next recession! All because you decided you wanted to take your time and cross that bridge when the time was “right for you.” Don’t be lazy! Think about your future! MAKE THE JUMP NOW!!!
Look, I bought into that just as hard as I just pitched it to you. Probably the reason why I wrote it that way. I lived this anxiety laden life for the past two and a half years every single day. I aggressively pursued upgrading to captain at my regional and getting hired at my major airline as quickly as I possibly could. I pushed my schedule as hard as possible where legally allowable per the contract and Part 117. I picked up all the OT that I could, even if it wasn’t worth much. All so I could get that extra hour of flight time in my logbook in the hopes I could get hired sooner than later. I’m here to tell you, it pretty much didn’t matter.
It’s true. The hiring wave hasn’t even begun. Mandatory retirements like the numbers I provided above are real. The numbers vary depending on the source, but it’s solid fact that the major airlines will be soaking up almost every pilot they can from the regionals. And again, those estimates account for mandatory retirements and don’t account for attrition from early retirements or loss of medical. It also doesn’t account for 135 operations. There’s only one problem though. The regionals are already full of pilots who’ve been waiting, some for over a decade to get their call from those very same majors you have your heart so set on. The good news is if you look at the numbers, even if the majors hired every single one of those regional pilots, it wouldn’t be enough. Those regionals are seriously hurting and understaffed already. This is creating a vacuum that the regionals have tried to fill by offering better salaries, work rules, and programs to create more pilots from scratch. United even created its own flight school. This shortage has even caused some airlines to stop servicing a few airports because there just aren’t enough pilots to fly the planes already on property to those smallercommunities. The good news is it’s a good time to become a pilot because these factors make us desirable and drive up QOL issues like better pay and work rules. The bad news again is you will be competing for those slots at the majors against well-seasoned pilots who’ve got a wealth of experience beyond what you currently offer. You’ll have to “pay your dues” at a regional the same as those before you.
Now it’s not to say if you started at your regional tomorrow, you wouldn’t get hired before someone senior to you. There’s some luck that goes into who gets hired when and where. You can outfly your classmates and gain experience inside and outside the cockpit that will make your resume shine by comparison. Sometimes PIC is king for your desired major and they want to see you with a few years of captain time under your belt. So working hard and flying often will set you apart. Sometimes the Bachelor’s Degree in “Underwater Basket Weaving” from Online U is what matters and you decide to work on your homework while on overnights in your hotel like I did. One concern is I know plenty of captains with 3,000+ hours of PIC and a Masters Degree in Management. They’ve paid for professional application/resume reviews and interview prep. They’ve been to the professional conferences and shaken hands with every recruiter they could. They’ve done everything right we’ve always heard you’re supposed to do, with resumes that scream that they should have been hired years ago and a personality to match. And yet they didn’t get a call. I’ve also seen first officers with 6 months on property and a few hundred hours of SIC get hired. Granted they likely had something like military fixed wing time or connections that helped them. I don’t know and neither do some of the people working in HR departments who monitor the computer programs that select candidates these days. Sometimes it’s shear dumb luck by a chance run-in at your base terminal with a Chief Pilot. Sometimes its keywords in the computer application that gets you the email. It could even be they have their hearts set on different airlines. FedEx and UPS are known for wanting experience that far exceeds what Frontier or Spirit may be looking for. It also might just be timing and those senior captains got caught in a bubble that prevented them from getting the call. But hey, it’s happened to others. Why not you too? It worked for me after all. I busted my ass! I flew as hard as I could and did everything I’d been told I needed to do and I got hired by my major of choice.
Well, I’ve crossed the finish line after what feels like a dead sprint for an entire marathon. And there seems to be this emptiness that remains from what was once driving me so hard. I have friends who are like minded and have expressed the same concerns. Why? Because we sacrificed a lot to get here. I crossed this finish line almost entirely alone. So here’s why I’ve decided to write this article. I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did in prioritizing career over everything else. It’s so easy to buy into the hype of that first paragraph. Because the numbers don’t lie. There is a shortage of pilots. It’s mostly at the regionals, but there is a shortage. If you work hard, you might jump some people in getting that coveted seniority number that protects you like an insurance policy from some uncertainties. But what does any of that matter if you have nothing to come home to? I happen to be a family man. Always wanted to be a father and am blessed to have two wonderful boys who are now 6 and 4. I’m married to an amazing woman who showed strength beyond what I would have ever tolerated as I went blazing through this career change. But now that I’ve made it and reflect on the past two and a half years of sacrifice, I’m left with the same question. Was it worth it?
I strained my marriage to its absolute limits and missed out on more time with my kids than I had to that I’ll never be able to get back again. Maybe even irreversible damage towards some loved ones and relationships because I prioritized my career and achieving “the dream.” I know I’m preaching, even though I don’t want to. It’s the same story we hear on those sappy motivational memes we see on social media and self-help books. But aviation seems to draw the same kinds of personalities to cockpits in this industry. I’ve had this conversation with many transitioning to the airlines today who have expressed concerns over what I’ve experienced. I’ve had this conversation often enough to justify writing this article. For me, aviation is a love so deeply rooted in my heart that I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to look up to the sky when I hear anything flying overhead. When I set foot in the cockpit, the world fades away and I get this focus and zen that I can’t achieve anywhere else. If I could live with myself doing a cubicle nine-to-five job, I probably would have done it by now to be home more. But I can’t. I love flying too much and general aviation on the weekends won’t satisfy that itch. I know it’s the same for so many of you, which is why I’d imagine you’ve read this far.
Now this is also not to say you shouldn’t work hard or pick up OT. I think that’s engrained into the personality of who we are as pilots. There is a level of drive that is in us that preservers and propels us to move upwards and onwards. There’s also no way to get around being gone in this career. You will have to spend time away regardless of the company you choose. That’s simply a part of the life and career we are drawn to in this industry. But as with all things in life, there is a balance that should be maintained. I wouldn’t say you should forsake your career for your family because food still needs to appear on the table and bills still have to be paid. But you never know if you’ve bought stock and got hired by the next “sure thing” like pilots at Eastern and Pan Am did. Many pilots made lots of sacrifices to get to those companies, only to lose it all and start over elsewhere or retire earlier than expected, if their retirement accounts even survived. Do you think their line holding seniority and wide-body captain status mattered to them anymore once the shutters closed for their dream job? This industry can be volatile sometimes and there are no guarantees. There’s even the possible threat ofautomation down the road for us all. So have a balanced approach to your life and career and remember that relationships will help you through the tough times if they should ever appear. Your company will not care as much about you the day you clock out for the last time as you did about them when you were drawing a paycheck.
I’ve also written before that career goals are up to the individual. Some might not have a problem with what I’ve laid out above. Maybe you don’t have a family like mine or a close circle of friends and the jet-setter lifestyle is what makes you happy. That’s perfectly fine. I’m actually very happy that this career works so well for you. “Grinding it out” to get to the next level won’t feel like such a drag on you. Honestly, it became normalized working to my minimum days off and spending some of my precious days home finishing up homework I couldn’t do on my overnights. There is also some comfort in getting to my major airline sooner than later for the reasons described in the first paragraph. That feeling of protection and having seniority to open doors for what I eventually want with my career. But it’s the retrospective view that now gives me pause. As with life goals, there is some level of perspectiveonthewholeselfthatshouldbemaintainedwhenmakingthesedecisions. Ifeel like I spent too much time focusing on my career only. Even if your dynamic isn’t the same as mine, I’d encourage you to broaden your life experiences to more than just your career.
So here’s my advice for achieving your dream of being a professional airline pilot. Don’t sacrifice what truly matters to make that dream become a reality. For me, the airline life was all encompassing. I wanted to travel the world and get paid well at the same time. But what do those travel benefits, the dream house, and large bank account matter if I’ve sacrificed my loved ones to achieve them? The goal was always to do the things I love with the ones I love. What if I’d slowed down my regional experience and made more of the time I had with my family? How would it have affected my prospects to get to a major? The truth is it would have delayed my major airline selection by months. Maybe a year. Absolute worst case, maybe four to five years. Even possibly not at all. Remember those numbers at the beginning of the article. They are fact. The major airlines have no choice but to hire. Your name will likely get called at some point if you keep your record clean and put in the effort. Those high-time, awesome captains I talked about who haven’t been hired yet, they’ll get called any day now. Many that I knew already have since meeting them when I started this journey, although they were replaced by those behind them. There isn’t a choice for major airlines anymore. The majors have to call these pilots, or they’ll close up shop. But what about my relationships? Would they be better off if I’d delayed and prioritized them? I’d be hard pressed to say that my family would not have been better served today had I made time for them then. I can’t imagine a world where placing them first would ever have been the wrong decision. My choices came down to a delay in my career and well-rounded home, or a “dream job” today and a damaged personal life? Hindsight being what it is, I’d rather my personal life have been in better shape during my time at the regionals.
This experience has helped me reorganize my priorities though. My wife definitely suffered from whiplash as I changed the rankings of my dream airlines and hunted for the “perfect” place to hang my hat. Let me go ahead and dispel that idea. There is no “perfect airline.” Each company in this entire industry has its advantages and disadvantages. Everyone has their own needs and priorities. Truth be told, being gone for three to six days in a row really wasn’t that bad to me. This is because I actually enjoyed traveling and there is a huge novelty to staying in hotels for me that I find fun. I complained often about commuting while I was doing it for my regional and it was the only life I knew. But looking back on the systems I had created for it, I had alleviated a lot of the headaches. I am a very systems-oriented person. Every time I left the house I got to test my packing skills and the efficacy of the little systems I’d created. I also tried to not let missing commuting flights upset me as it was part of the life I’d chosen. I tried to live my life with the Stoic mindset of knowing what I have complete control of, limited control of, and no control of. Then learning to let go of the worry for those I had limited or no control of affecting me. But at the same time, I also don’t know what I was missing at home because I wasn’t there. How many special moments with my boys did I miss because I was enjoying my road warrior life? How many bonding moments did I pass up with my wife because that OT trip was worth a few extra hours in the logbook or a few hundred dollars on the next check? My priorities started to slowly shift. Even though I enjoyed what I was doing, I was worried more about what I was losing. It’s part of the reason I chose to come to Allegiant. The appeal of being home almost every night was too much to pass up on. Now that I’m hear and working the line, I can say that being home is worth it in every way to me and I’d be hard pressed to give it up.
All of this said, that decision was for my family and I. It works for us. Every person needs to come to their own decision on what matters in their lives and there are absolutely no right or wrong answers. Some couples like their independent space and the short bursts of days separated provide that. Some airlines don’t fly as hard and have more days off. I couldhave just not picked up so much OT and been home more. Hell, I could have even dropped to minimum flight hours each month per the contract if I had a retirement or disability paycheck from the Army to compensate the loss of pay. But remember, YMMV. You could be at the same airline with the same new hire date as your classmate and have vastly different experiences. You could come to my airline and not have the same results as me because of vacancies and the seniority difference of only a few months. Bases come and go. Business models even change. Each airline is its own unique entity with its own idiosyncrasies and they all will change as time passes. There are too many variables to count and they are always changing.
The end state is this. If you prioritize your wellbeing above your career goals, you’re still going to get a call from a major airline. Period. And when you do, you’ll have something or someone to share the success with. When you’re mandatory retirement date finally hits and you reflect on your career, will those few months or possibly five years you delayed because you didn’t burn yourself to the ground to get to your final job matter? Will you reflect on the loss of tens of thousands of dollars over a multi-million dollar career? Will you even notice? Will you be full of regret because you never had the seniority to fly as a wide-body, international captain? Or will you reflect on the things you did have in life? The long-lasting relationships with the ones you loved. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed. But prioritizing what matters to you can help mitigate any struggles with that uncertainty. I’ve been writing advice for a while with RTAG and mentoring those coming behind me as best I can. This has been the hardest life lesson I’ve learned during my transition into the airlines and I want you to take it to heart more than any other thing I’ve written. But don’t take only my words for this topic. Talk to some of those senior captains at the majors. You know, the ones with the maxed-out, years- in-service pay on the coveted wide-body scale. The happiest captains I’ve ever spoken with all have this in common. They placed their home first and treated the airlines like any other job. Even though they happen to love being a pilot and flying for their particular airline, they didn’t treat their career like one they had to grind through to advance to where they are as quickly as possible. If you want to be an airline pilot, take your time and enjoy the ride. You’re on a one- way flight in this life. Make the most of it and enjoy the view from up top.