For more than a decade I have been helping people realize their aviation dreams and goals, one of which is to become an airline pilot. I have watched many achieve success by fulfilling the dream of piloting a sophisticated jet around the world. The one thing that amazes me is how many people don't understand the hiring cycles of the airlines and how to prepare for the next hiring boom.
The lack of understanding of the airline industry amongst both the general public and the pilot population became clear to me after September 11, 2001. After the tragic events that day and the subsequent downturn in the economy I decided to get involved in assisting furloughed pilots find jobs and advance their careers. I have seen many pilots soar to new heights in their careers and other careers crash and burn.
There are two important factors in becoming a successful airline pilot, airmanship and experience. Airmanship is the is ability to skillfully fly the aircraft. Experience comes from hours of flying in various environments. If you are going to become an airline pilot you should continually increase your flying skills and your experience.
When airlines hire they normally publish a minimum number of flight hours. If you don’t have the minimum hours most airlines won't even look at your qualifications no matter how good a pilot you are. Even if you feel you have enough experience to get hired you should continue to build your flight time. You also need to be building the type of flight time the airlines want which is multi-engine time.
There are many programs in this country which help pilots build multi-engine flight time in a very short period of time. I suggest your looking into one of these if you wish to put your piloting career into high gear. I have seen many pilots go from no flight time to the right seat of an airliner within six months simply by building all of their time in a twin.
The minimum flight time airlines require is based on the number of pilots available for hire. If there is a large supply of pilots the required hours both published and required increases. The airlines publish a number of hours which can normally be found on their website. This number is simply a minimum number which will allow you to apply. However, the number many times not published are the hours required to be competitive. .
Many pilots set their hourly goals too low. The first goal most pilots set is to meet the minimums and then apply to the airline of choice. After some pilots reach this hourly minimum, some make the mistake of slowing down and some even stop flying. This is not a good idea. You should never stop trying to build your flight time because similar to the wind the number of hours required to get a job will constantly change. I remember when I first began flying the joke was that in order to get on with a major airline you needed "perfect eyes, perfect tan, ten thousand hours, and two moon landing". With some airlines this wasn't far from the truth, but what many didn't expect is that only a decade later major airlines would hire pilots with as little as five hundred hours. Again the supply of experienced pilots diminished to the point the airlines could not find experienced pilots willing to apply. This will happen again.
The Hiring Cycle
Advancement at an airline is based solely on seniority which is why the sooner you are hired the faster you move up the seniority list. It is a difficult concept to understand for those not in the industry. Just remember there are no lateral moves in the airline industry so you need to expedite your hire date. For example, if Sully Sullenberger was hired at Delta Airlines today he would be the most junior pilot at Delta.
The reason airlines need more pilots is twofold. First, the airline is expanding and is flying more. There is a finite number of hours a pilot can legally fly, therefore they must hire more pilots to cover their schedules.
The second reason airlines hire is that they are losing pilots. Because of the seniority system at the airlines most pilots don't ever leave until they retire or lose their medical.
Airline Pilots are mandated to retire at age sixty-five and a small number retire early. A simple method to determine how senior you will become at an airline is to look at the number of pilots at the airline younger than you and that will be your estimate maximum seniority not factoring in early retirements and medical retirements.
Similar to all businesses, airline hiring is cyclic. Most furlough during bad economic times and hire during good times. Since the airlines hire in cycles you will see groups of pilots hired within a very short period of time. You also will see many pilots retiring at the same time. This is why you should look at the age of the pilots on the seniority list to determine in what years there will be a great number or retirements.
Regardless of retirements you should always be prepared for the next hiring cycle by gaining as much experience and increasing your airmanship. I wish I had a dollar for every pilot who quit flying and then started flying again when things started picking up. Many missed two separate hiring cycles and are still trying to break into the industry.
You should always strive to be the best pilot you can be with a goal of being both a competent and safe pilot. Airmanship is the ability to both control the aircraft and make sound decisions while operating in the aeronautical environment. Different flight operations require various skill sets but all can be categorized as Airmanship. Someone flying in the wild arctic tundra of Alaska must have good stick and rudder skills while someone who flies in low visibility and constantly in the clouds must have good instrument skills.
Airline pilots must operate in all weather conditions and must be able to land an airplane in very high and gusty winds. An airline pilot must also fly in very low visibility and with precise control of the aircraft with reference to the instruments. If you are planning on becoming an airline pilot you should be a well rounded pilot and able to fly in both strong crosswinds and low visibility.
During the hiring process the airline assumes you can fly to commercial pilot standards. The airline will train you to competently fly the aircraft they are training you on but you must come with the basic skills to fly an airplane especially with regard to instrument flying. Therefore if you are building hours but have not flown an instrument approach in months you need to get your skills up to par.
If you are making your living flying banners you need to get into a good simulator or get some instrument time before going to an interview or to training. One of the deficiencies I have seen many pilots terminated for in the past is their inability to control the airplane with reference to the flight instruments.
Normally the lack of basic instrument skills is made evident during the training process and your chances are high of dropping out if you can't get your instrument scan back up to standard. During times of intense hiring the airlines occasionally make exceptions. It is my experience that pilots who lack basic instrument skills will be trained by the airlines only during times of large pilot shortages. With that said I would not bet my career on the fact the airline you get hired with will be kind enough to train you to fly by reference to instruments. You should arrive instrument current and competent.
Furthermore, If you have been furloughed with an airline and have been recalled it would be best for you to get some instrument time either in the plane or by using one of the many outstanding simulators. You will increase your confidence, skill, and knowledge of instrument procedures.
In my experience every time I have seen pilots recalled from furlough, a few obstinate pilots feel the airline should train them to be a proficient pilot when they are recalled to work. Nothing can be further from the truth. Luckily most airlines will allow you to reapply after being terminated due to lack of flying skills. I suggest you don't get yourself into this situation.
You should always keep flying but if you find there is an area you need to work on you should do it before showing up for an interview or for training. I suggest your getting your instrument instructor certificate and teach. One of the best ways to master something is to teach.
Exceptions To The Rule
There are exceptions to all rules and getting hired with an airline has many. You will notice that during times when there is an overabundance of pilots some will get hired with as few as five hundred hours. Almost as important as what you know is who you know. Being involved with internships are a great way to get yourself in the door at the chief pilots office and increase your chances of getting hired.
There is always a coming pilot shortage due to the cyclic nature of the airline business and retirements. To prepare for the upcoming shortages you should gain as much time and experience right now. There is never a substitute for airmanship but equally important is increasing your flight time. Both of these will make many jobs available to you when the hiring door opens. You want to be the first in the door when the hiring cycle begins because it will some day shut again. Remember with the airlines everything is dependent upon your seniority and the faster you get in the door the better.