If you are plotting out your aviation career, you should think about it as a strategy. That may sound funny, but hiring trends in the airline industry are cyclical and follow a pattern. There are times when airlines are desperate to hire pilots and others where you have to pretty much a lunar landing to get a look.
So, as a college graduate myself, let me guide you into making a decision that is right for you. This is just input that is time fixed. What I mean by that is that this particular point in time (2023) these are the things in which I would think about and the questions I would ask myself that apply to today’s circumstances. Before we go down this road, lets look at a couple of factors that will help you form a good plan.
The time factor
Time in an aviation career is EVERYTHING. And I am not referring to flight time. So if you are contemplating a career for an airline which includes freight or corporate you have to start thinking about getting there as quickly as possible. This is because of seniority. The date you get hired, becomes your seniority date and that’s how your whole quality of life is going to be measured from the day, you get hired to the day, you retire, seniority is everything. So if you are shooting for getting hired at a major airline, the sooner the better.
So in regards to time, this applies directly into your strategy. Because getting a college bachelor’s degree takes four years. Those four years are precious in regards to seniority. The question becomes are those four years worth the time spent getting the college degree.
Think of it as a compound factor. If the average starting pay of an airline is around $80,000 (and I am guessing here). You would probably make somewhere between $400,000 to $500,000 gross over those four years. Now that wont be the starting point because you would really be working for a company that pays much less as you build up experience. However, the formula works no matter the time frame. So that amount of money is not really what you should be focusing on.
Compounding is the most powerful financial force in the universe. If you can grasp the power of putting your money to work as early as possible, you will not have to work as hard over your lifetime. The real magic is in the amount of money your airline contributes to your retirement fund at this point. (which would be 4 years early if you elected to skip the college degree). The key concept here is starting earlier and then riding that wave over your career at any of the major airlines. If you contributed 15% (the max) and the company contributed whatever amount, lets say 5%, those are real tangible numbers. The magic happens over time. Those early contributions will make an enormous difference in your net worth over the course of your pilot career. I am not going to do the math for you since there are so many variables here. I just want you to see the point that the sooner you get into the spot you want, and the sooner you start saving for retirement, the better off you will be. If you want to become an expert at compounding you can do some research here.
Do you know the airline you want to work at?
If not, you should, if the market is in a pilot shortage you should set your goal on a specific airline and strategize a specific plan for that airline. Back in my day, hiring was super competitive and pilots would often go with the first major airline that would hire them. If there is a shortage, you can be a little more picky.
Does that airline require a college degree?
You will see that even the most stringent airlines have a certain degree of flex when it comes to requirements. You will notice total time and turbine time qualifications go up and down to account for demand in the work force. The key is knowing what the rules are for the game you want to play. (I once wanted to learn to play craps in Vegas, so I bought a book and studied it, then I followed that by just watching the game being played for 2 weeks before I put my precious money down. The point is strategy and preparation)
What is the competitive landscape?
If the hiring boom is very competitive, then the commercial pilots with degrees will most likely rise to the top of the interview pile over those who do not have a bachelor's degree. Finding out the landscape is the key. The internet is a great resource to asking questions in forums and getting input from current pilots in the system. You do not have to know a pilot personally anymore to get some input on the system.
At what point of time is the airline in a hiring mode?
This is an often overlooked question. The answer lies in attrition which is a fancy word for how many pilots leave the airline for retirement or other reasons like health. As of this writing, the bulk of the pilots are similar in age due to hiring booms in the past. Most airlines are predicting massive attrition rates which means hiring is going to be very robust. Remember that compound formula?
Are corporations in the same mode?
Most likely, but the whole point of this article is in doing your homework.
Do you know anyone?
This may sound like an odd question, but by now you have figured out that networking is important and who you know may make a huge difference. If you have a reference at your destination airline, that is a strategy point that needs to have a plan built around it. Don’t make it your number one plan, but it needs to hold it place in your overall strategy. If you know any airline pilots, that is a huge plus. If you don't there is a way to find some and develop a mentoring relationship, it all depends on how determined you are.
Now its time to look at the college degree side and ask ourselves some important questions.
College Degrees for Pilots
Does it matter what your major your degree is in? A lot of pilots, like myself, got a degree an aviation degree. Part of the aviation degree involved all the ratings and certificates as well as other courses to get a bachelors degree. If you ask ten people you will probably get ten different answers on this subject. However I have seen pilots get generic (or what I call easier) degrees and get hired. This is because they met the time requirements and checked the box for a four year degree.
So who decides what the degree programs (like a flight degree) cover?
This is the golden question of which I do not know the answer. But I do know this, someone, somewhere has decided that anyone who has a degree should be “well rounded” and “well educated” overall. Thus the need for course subjects that are not related to aviation. If they had a degree with just aviation subjects it would be more like a trade school then a college degree so you have to decide if that “title” of having a degree is worth it or not. For me, the years spent taking humanities and chemistry classes as well as several layers of math, calculus, economics and the like were NOT practical. In my opinion, it was not time well spent. (You decide yourself) I have never used those classes in real life and if you insist on knowing them, the internet is full of opportunities to do so.
What is the an advantage of College?
One of the main takeaways is developing the ability to study. If you work for any airline or major company, you will do yearly training that involves a fair amount of study. Do you need a college to teach you that? I would say no, and the answer is because colleges don’t teach that, they teach you how to take tests, which is another article I may have to write. But the ability to effectively study is what I am referring to here. Each year commercial pilots have to do recurrent training. A lot of that requires some memorization and a knowledge of systems and flight procedures. Learning how to study for recurrent training is essential.
What were some key courses?
To me, and this is just me, a good working knowledge of hydraulic, electrical and pneumatic systems is a daily use in the aviation world. Do you have to pay a college to teach them to you? I am not sure to be honest, but I do know that the internet has changed a lot and you could most likely learn a lot of those subjects online if you were choosing to bypass a bachelor’s degree. This would be an essential part of my strategy if I were starting over. A quick search will reveal that there are numerous courses that you can access online to jump start your learning. The main drawback is that this technique is probably not worthy of listing on your resume, but if there is a pilot shortage and you elected to skip college, it would be a huge leg up (my opinion only).
What will I not learn in college?
I am going to give you what I call the golden nugget of advice or input. I have written several articles on this site about it and its kind of sprinkled in all over the place. What is one of the most important traits that a college will never teach you? The answer is leadership. The military does a pretty good job with this one, but that again is a time committment. Leadership is essential and so is asking good questions. In fact, leading with good questions is probably the smartest advice I could give to anyone. When you learn to lead by asking questions and making people feel important, you are creating a crew that wants to work together and crews that function like that are excellent. Leadership is a huge part of being a pilot. Its not about bossing people around, its about empowering people and planting seeds. You will never get that from a college.
If you are focused on being an airline pilot, there are several specialized flight training schools that do not involve college. These programs create a flight training program that take you from zero hours all the way through your ratings and some even have a gateway into a regional airlines job. The first reaction is to choke a bit on the price, but if you are trying to become an airline pilot there is an upfront cost to do all the flight training anyway you slice it. Even if you go to college, you still have to pay extra for the flight training programs. The advantage of these flight schools is that it is purely focused on becoming a commercial pilot and there are no other general classes to get in the way. The downside is you have to really study since you will most likely be flying every day. These are definitely fast track programs and they can get you jump started very quickly.
Commercial Pilot Strategy
So now you have read some of these points and questions ( I like to ask questions in case you have not figured it out) Its time for you to discover your own path. Discovery is far more important and powerful than being “told” Universities tell us what courses to take and “whats important” You have to discover that for yourself and it does not have to take a lifetime to do it if you ask yourself the right questions and pursue what works for YOU.
Take a notebook and build your plan. Make a pros and cons sheet for each airline. Figure out a general area that you want to live and what you want your life to look like 5,10, and 20 years from now. Use these questions and add some of your own. No one teaches about commercial pilot strategy so you more or less have to make it up on your own. Try not to make it about money, money finds its place automatically, this is really about lifestyle and figuring out who you want to become.
- Do you care where you live?
- Do you know what the starting salaries are for each airline?
- Do you know the footprint that most commercial airlines prefer? Such as regional airline experience.
- Are you married?
- Do you plan on being married?
- Are children part of your location strategy?
- What is your timeline for the minimum total hours strategy for pilot hiring? If you fly “x” amount of hours per month, how long does it take to make the minimums.
- Are you a member of any forums where you can get more information and gather more questions?
- Have you investigated each flight school to determine the amount of money and timeline to complete all your ratings?
- Have you listed out the cost of each flight training program for a comparison?
- What have you read to help with your leadership skills?
I hope this helps, if you have a question, feel free to reach out with a comment.