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Life of a Commercial Pilot

Landing a job as a commercial pilot seems like hitting the jackpot, but what's the truth behind this seemingly glamorous life?

The pilot's life

From the flight deck

Landing a job as a commercial pilot seems like hitting the jackpot, but what’s the truth behind this seemingly glamorous life?

Do you remember when Charlie, the little boy in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, found the last golden ticket? That ticket gave him the chance to inherit a great fortune and the opportunities that came with it.

For me, the golden ticket looks a lot like what an airline pilot’s job used to represent. In the past, being hired at a major airline was like winning the lottery. Not the kind where you get a lump sum, but the kind that pays out over time, affording the winner a close-to-upper-class lifestyle.

The hiring process for the big airlines used to be much more demanding. First, you had to meet the minimum qualifications of flight time; and, if you wanted to be competitive, you had to earn a college degree. Flight time may be acquired through military commitment, or through flight instruction and corporate, charter or commuter flying in the civilian world. Either way, it’s not easy and requires an incredible amount of time, money and dedication.

Historically, it took an average of about 10 years of building flight time and qualifications to meet the minimum requirements to submit an application—but due to a shortage of qualified applicants, today’s requirements are significantly less stringent.

The airline industry is unique in that each pilot is given a seniority number on his date of hire, when he is at the bottom of the list of pilots. The only ways to move up that list are if the airline expands and adds pilots, or if pilots retire off the top. Once a year, the list is adjusted for retirements, deaths, firings or loss of a medical certificate. For airline pilots, seniority is everything. The type of aircraft you fly, your monthly schedule and your vacations all depend on your ranking. The more senior you are, the better your life—and lifestyle—will be.

We’ve all heard the phrase “timing is everything,” and airline hiring is no exception. Even being granted an interview used to depend on the state of the economy and what phase of the business cycle the industry was in. During my hiring process, there were three distinct phases, each of which necessitated a separate trip to the company’s flight training center. These interviews were loaded with tests, including mathematical and spatial reasoning, aircraft systems, the flight simulator and (probably the most dreaded) the aviation physical.

You could be bumped for any slight malady or for a problem in your extended family’s medical history. The airlines didn’t want to invest a fortune in training costs in someone who wouldn’t be healthy during his career, so they required pilots to pass a physical every six months (for international long-haul pilots), or a minimum of once per year. Then, every nine months, pilots also had to pass a rigorous two-to-three-day academic and flight-simulator evaluation that tested their flying skills and knowledge of aircraft systems in the most demanding scenarios.

After running the hiring gauntlet successfully—if you were fortunate enough to earn a golden ticket—then you were on the fast track to the good life. It may not have seemed like it during the first few years on the job, though, because of probationary salaries. During their first year at an airline, pilots are on probation and can be let go for any number of reasons, and they earn significantly less. But later down the line, a generous salary, convenient flying schedules, time off for vacations, full health coverage and an enviable retirement package awaited career airline pilots.

Unfortunately, this dream job has turned into somewhat of a nightmare. The lofty promises of the past are long gone, replaced with the realities of unbridled competition, inept management, poor business decisions and stubborn unions. Contracts and pay rates are often diminished or negated by bankruptcies, while inflation marches on. Pilots work longer hours for much less pay. Vacations have been reduced, health benefits slashed and handsome pensions completely eliminated.

Regrettably, these are the stark realities of the profession. Unlike a corporate executive, who can leave a company and go to another with improved benefits and a higher salary, an airline pilot is stuck with his ranking number at the company where he began his career—unless he wants to start all over again at the bottom somewhere new. In the end, the golden ticket turns out to be a fairy tale.

CHRIS COOKE is a pilot with a major domestic carrier. He can be reached at editor@executivetravelmag.com.

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