It’s common knowledge in aviation circles today that the airline pilot shortage is real, so if your dream is to fly an airliner for a living, now might be a good time to take the plunge. But what are the requirements? How long will the training take and how much will it cost? How much can you expect to earn after you’re hired? What other jobs can you qualify for that will allow you to get paid to fly while you build time? The answer to these questions depends on who you ask and how much experience you have already, but here are a few basic facts to consider:
Commercial Pilot is not the same thing as Airline Pilot. This is a common misconception among non-pilots and new students. A Commercial Pilot certificate allows you get paid to fly, and is a prerequisite to earning an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. While you need 250 hours to qualify for a Commercial Pilot certificate, you need 1,500 hours to earn your ATP and qualify for a position as an airline pilot. How do you go about earning those 1,500 hours?
Flight instructing is by far the most common and cost effective way to build flight time, but it’s not the only way. Decades ago, the airlines filled pilot positions with former military pilots who served as active duty fighter or transport pilots. Today, as most of those pilots have either retired or are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 65, airlines are scrambling to hire civilian pilots who have earned their ratings at a university or flight school. Most of these pilots have built flight time by instructing other pilots, so it’s a self-feeding cycle. But what if you don’t want to be a flight instructor? What else can you do to build flight time?
Consider alternatives such as bush flying, crop dusting, air taxi and air tours. If you’re willing and able to relocate and want to experience other aspects of aviation, you can get a job flying a single-engine airplane with as little as 250 hours of flight time and a Commercial Pilot certificate.
Tailwheel experience is generally preferred or even required for some of these jobs, especially crop dusting and bush flying. Two of Dana’s former students have built very successful aviation businesses for themselves with just a Commercial Pilot certificate. One owns a skydive company and serves as chief pilot, flying twin-engine turboprops; the other owns a crop dusting company and serves as the chief pilot, flying single-engine turboprops. Another former student of ours now flies tourists near his home in the Bahamas.
If your ultimate goal is to fly for an airline, though, we still recommend earning your Flight Instructor certificate and doing at least some teaching part-time to gain valuable pilot in command (PIC) and customer service experience. Our friends who work in the airline industry tell us that while instructing experience isn’t necessarily required today due to the demand, it definitely looks good on a resume. Also, a college degree still seems to be preferred, but is not required by at least some airlines.
Let’s say you’re already a rated pilot, working a non-aviation job and considering a career change. How much additional training and money will it take to qualify for an airline job? It depends on what you bring to the table. I know a woman who, in her late 30s, put her successful photography business on hold to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an airline pilot. She was already a flight instructor part-time and had logged enough flight time to qualify, so she applied, went through the initial jet training, and got the job.
If you’re starting from zero flight time and considering moving into a career as a pilot, here’s a breakdown of what you can expect.
Step #1: Private Pilot — Minimum 40 hours of flight time. Budget $8,000 to $10,000 for aircraft rental and instruction. At Holladay Aviation, you can earn your Private Pilot certificate in our Cessna 150, 152 or 172. You can also purchase and fly your own airplane if you wish, and this can often be a good option if you want to build additional flight time quickly. We offer aircraft purchase consulting services at our regular hourly instruction rate.
Step #2: Commercial Pilot with Instrument Rating — Minimum 250 hours of flight time. Budget another $20,000 to $25,000 for aircraft rental and instruction; less if you fly your own airplane. At Holladay Aviation, we have an FAA-approved simulator to help you earn your Instrument Rating, and a retractable-gear Piper Arrow to help you earn your Commercial Pilot certificate. At this point you’ll be qualified for a variety of single-engine pilot jobs. This may be enough for you. But if you want to be an airline pilot, continue.
Step #3: Flight Instructor — No additional flight time required beyond the minimum for the Commercial, but you can expect to log an additional 10-20 hours of flight time, plus about as much ground instruction, to prepare for the flight instructor test. Budget $5,000 for aircraft rental and instruction. At this point you’ll be qualified to teach others how to fly single-engine airplanes.
Step #4: Multi-Engine Commercial / Flight Instructor — Additional training required to act as pilot in command and teach others how to fly a multi-engine airplane, which is a prerequisite for flying an airliner. Budget another $5,000 – $10,000 of aircraft rental and instruction in a multi-engine airplane. At this point you’ll be qualified to fly and teach in twins. To fly a jet (even a privately owned corporate jet) you’ll need additional time in a full-motion flight simulator and what’s called a “type rating” to fly a specific make and model of aircraft.
Most new airline pilots start out flying a small jet or turboprop for what’s often referred to as a regional airline. Starting salaries for regional airline pilots today range from about $45,000 to as much as $60,000 including hiring bonuses. After earning some jet experience and seniority at a regional, pilots can then apply for a position with a major carrier like Delta, United, American, or Southwest. Airline captains with experience and seniority can fetch salaries of $200,000 or more.
Still curious about what it might take for you to land your dream job as a commercial pilot? Contact us to schedule a consultation in our office.