The American commercial air travel industry is in a nosedive, the likes of which we haven’t seen since September 11, 2001. The disturbing part of the current situation is that the problem is largely internal instead of external. Instead of worrying about foreign terrorists, American air travelers are afraid of catching a foreign virus from one another. To add insult to injury, with concerts and sporting events canceled, and restrictions like mask mandates and social distancing rules limiting recreational activity at parks and other popular destinations across the nation, Americans are traveling less this summer. According to AAA, overall travel is down by 15 percent, with air travel down by nearly 75 percent compared to last year. Business travelers, a major source of airline revenue, are staying home too and conducting most of their meetings online.
The airlines have taken a huge financial hit, and have laid off or furloughed thousands of pilots and flight attendants. This mess has left many current and future pilots wondering what they are going to do for work in the coming months and years. While this situation might on its face seem rather grim, I’d like to offer a rotating beacon of hope, and some sage advice.
People will fly again, but perhaps in different ways.
If you’re in your early 20s and working toward a commercial pilot certificate now, you are too young to remember what it was like to fly in the months following September 11, 2001. I was a student pilot at the time, with no aviation ambitions beyond earning a private pilot certificate. I was a seasoned airline traveler, though, and one of the first things I did after the initial shock wore off was purchase a round-trip ticket on Southwest Airlines for a fall weekend trip to Vermont. The security line at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was longer, but everyone was very cheerful. Pilots wore colorful American flag ties. I distinctly recall the gate agent giving me a sticker that said “I Flew Today” similar to the “I Voted Today” stickers you get at your local polling place on Election Day. As our plane headed northeast and passed directly over Manhattan, I looked out my window and could see the smoke still rising from the ruins at ground zero. It was eerie and humbling, but at the same time I felt very proud to be on that plane, moving forward with my life.
In the years that followed, airline travelers had to deal with a host of additional security restrictions that, for the most part, had minimal impact on my travel experience. Having to squish my toiletries into tiny containers and stuff them in Ziploc bags was kind of annoying, as was having to take off my shoes and unload my laptop. But these things weren’t a major inconvenience in my opinion, and I still enjoyed traveling.
Today, airline travelers are required to wear face masks from the time they step foot into the terminal building until they leave with their bags at the destination airport. In-flight food and beverage services are limited. I can live without the free drinks and snacks, but I’m not any more concerned about airborne illnesses today than I was pre-rona. For me personally, the mask requirement is a deal breaker, and I’d rather fly myself in my own airplane or drive than have to wear a mask all day. Others are simply too afraid to be cooped up inside an airliner, even with the perceived sense of security of the masks. The bottom line is that airline travel is no longer any fun for anyone.
While the airlines continue to struggle with all this, private aviation appears to be experiencing a surge. How long this will last is uncertain, but one thing is clear: If you are a good pilot who is willing to think outside the box, you may be able to capitalize on opportunities.
Think outside the airline box (at least for now).
Charter operators seem to be doing well now and provide a great alternative to the airlines for qualified pilots. Here at the Craig Air Center, company president and chief pilot Tim Vito says he has recently hired three new pilots to fully staff the company’s fleet of business jets. There are also two other charter companies based here at Craig, Malone Air Charter and JaxJets. In nearby St. Augustine, Boomerang Air Charter president David Schiffman says he is hiring captains to fly the company’s PC12 single engine turboprop aircraft, and may soon be hiring first officers. Schiffman says captains need 2,500 hours total time including 500 hours of turbine time; first officers do not need any previous turbine experience, though they must meet the FAA Part 135 requirements (1,200 hours total time, 500 hours of cross-country, 100 hours of night, and 75 hours of instrument).
If you still need to build flight time to qualify for a charter job flying a business jet or turboprop, there are plenty of options. We’ve worked with dozens of clients who have purchased aircraft to use for their personal and business travel. Often, these owner-pilots prefer to have an experienced pilot with them on business trips so they can focus on their meetings and not on the flying. To qualify for a job like this, you’ll need a commercial pilot certificate and the ratings or endorsements required to act as PIC in that make and model, such as a multiengine rating or a high performance or complex endorsement. Proficiency in advanced avionics platforms, such as the Garmin G1000 or similar, is highly desired as most of these owner-pilots are purchasing newer or retrofitted, well-equipped aircraft. The owner’s insurance company may have additional PIC experience requirements (25 hours in make and model is pretty standard).
Finding these jobs requires aggressive networking and excellent customer service skills. You might be instrument current and comfortable landing in a 20-knot crosswind, but if you’re rude to the owner or show up for a flight smelling like the burrito you just ate for lunch, you won’t last long in this market. Type clubs or make-and-model owner groups, like the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) are a great place to start networking, especially if you’re already insurance qualified in that make and model. Locally, the Craig Airport Pilots Association (CAPA) is also a good networking resource.
Last but not least, remember that flight instruction is an exciting, challenging, joyful and potentially lucrative career path in its own right! Here at Holladay Aviation we have the knowledge and experience to guide you along the path to earning your initial flight instructor certificate as well as your instrument instructor rating. While we can’t guarantee employment to everyone we train, we would certainly give priority to pilots we already know and respect.
Persistence and perseverance pay dividends.
Even though flight hours do not expire, currency and proficiency can fade. The time and money you’ve already invested in your flight training program is valuable! Protect your investment! If you’ve had to put your flight training on hold due to the loss of a job or other financial constraints, there are several things you can do to keep your knowledge and skills sharp while your bank account recovers:
- Practice on a simulator. We’ve got an Elite PI-135 Basic Aviation Training Device (BATD) that can be used to maintain instrument currency. We’re also purchasing a new computer equipped with the latest edition of Microsoft Flight Simulator that can be used to practice VFR maneuvers.
- Hit the books. Visit Aircraft General Supply, our local pilot shop, and grab a book on something that interests you from a career or skills perspective. Stay motivated!
- Visit FAASafety.gov and sign up for a free online course. Stay engaged!
- Attend our free monthly IMC Club meeting. Stay connected to other pilots!
Finally, make sure you have a professionally written and edited resume ready to go. Over the last several months I’ve received dozens of resumes from flight instructors looking for work, and sadly most of these resumes are poorly written, incomplete or contain a host of typographical errors. These always go to the bottom of my stack. Think about it from my perspective as the employer. If a pilot cannot effectively communicate his or her experience on a single sheet of paper, how can I reasonably expect this person to do well interacting with my customers or with ATC?
Good luck out there, and let us know if we can help you weather this storm.