Behind the curtain
An insider's guide to the business of airline hiring
If airline pilot hiring is a business, then business—for the moment—is quite good. Some of the major airlines are recalling furloughed pilots and accepting applications for interviews, working to stem a flow of retirements that reportedly is hitting 65 pilots per month at some. Hiring at the majors is forecast to continue into 2014. But that's likely a conservative statement—consider that more than half of United Airlines’ pilots will retire in the next 14 years. We may see brisk hiring in the next decade.
As the majors primarily draw pilots from regional airlines (and, to a lesser extent, the military and corporate pilot ranks), the regionals are scrambling for replacements. Hiring bonuses are beginning to appear—an anomaly in this part of the industry.
Is the industry back to pre-2001 hiring activity, when a pilot with as few as 250 hours could apply for a first officer position with a regional airline? Not quite. New rules issued by the FAA in July require all pilots to hold an airline transport pilot certificate in order to fly for an air carrier. After July 31, 2014, most pilots pursuing an ATP must have 1,500 hours. The rules also create a “restricted ATP” with restricted privileges for multiengine aircraft, which a pilot can use as a first officer at an air carrier.
Today’s hiring minimums at the regionals are generally along the lines of 1,500 hours total time and 100 hours multiengine time, with varying specific amounts of cross-country, night, and instrument. Most regional operators expect applicants to have at least a commercial certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings, and have passed the airline transport pilot certificate knowledge test.
Many regional carriers don’t require a college degree, but a degree makes the applicant more competitive, and it is expected at the majors. Industry observers say the new ATP rule’s language that reduces the number of hours required from 1,500 to 1,000 for graduates of aviation colleges may prompt carriers to reshape their job requirements. (Cape Air, for example, prefers applicants with bachelor’s degrees and those from Aviation Accreditation Board International-accredited programs. The College Directory on page 32 of this issue denotes AABI member institutions.)
Even with the higher minimums, it’s an exciting time. “The regionals and the airlines are in a battle to get the qualified pilots who are out there,” said Paul Templeton, regional jet program director for ATP Flight School. The looming shortage means bridge and pipeline programs between the airlines and flight schools or aviation colleges will become even more significant, he said. (See “Bridging the Gap,” page 31.)
For pilots who’ve been polishing their résumés and keeping their logbooks up to date, here’s a look at how the hiring process works.
(Electronic) foot in the door. Electronic applications are the norm today. Some carriers accept applications directly to their websites. Others utilize AirlineApps.com, a commercial website that offers benefits for job hunters—the one-stop-shop ability to place an application with several airlines—as well as employers, which can use the site to screen potential applicants. Résumés are accepted at job fairs and other networking events, and can be sent by mail, email, or fax. (See “Is ‘Who You Know’ Relevant?” opposite page).
When opportunity calls. Potential employers will contact qualified applicants to set up an in-person interview. These can resemble a casting call with several applicants arriving at the same time. The hiring company may supply airline vouchers to travel to the interview. The marathon usually involves a knowledge test; technical interviews on aircraft systems, as well as sitdowns with human resources professionals; and a simulator session. The process varies by airline, and at the regional level, it is more technical in nature.
Insider information on how these interviews are structured is widely available on the internet, and career coaches intimately familiar with the industry can help the applicant present his or her best self. Proper preparation will produce greater confidence, but the applicant must make sure that the intel is correct, said Carl Valeri, a first officer with a major airline who flew with regional airlines for 12 years.
Flight Training contributor Chip Wright likened the process to “applying to a college—there are some questions you just never should need to ask of a company, such as bases, fleet types, et cetera.” Think of the interview as a checkride, and prepare accordingly, said Wright, who was a captain with defunct Comair and now flies for a major airline.
Applicants need to walk a fine line—demonstrating familiarity with the company but not sounding rehearsed. “The key is, if you’re going to have someone help you prepare, make sure that person doesn’t tell you what to say,” said Judith Tarver of Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a career advisory service. “The airlines want to get to know you; they hate canned answers.” The questions they present are specifically designed to get to know an applicant, but that can’t happen if the individual spouts a rehearsed response, she explained. “When that happens, the interviewers can tell.”
Background checks and drug tests. The background check begins at the interview and gathers information on arrest and driving records and even credit history. “If you have a potential red flag, honesty is the best policy,” Wright said. “If you don’t disclose something, it will be likely be perceived as an attempt to hide something or to lie.”
“The biggest reason people do not make it through training in the first month is because they did not make it through the background check,” Valeri said.
Along with ensuring that logbook hours are totaled and correct, the prospective pilot will need to provide information on previous pilot employment so that those hours (as well as certificates and ratings) can be verified.
Fingerprinting and a drug and alcohol test will be administered. Newly hired pilots can expect random screenings throughout their airline careers.
Start drinking from the fire hose. If all goes well, the applicant could receive a job offer on the spot. More likely, he or she will receive a conditional offer of employment and be sent home to wait for a follow-up phone call and a training date.
With so many slots coming open, the regionals are facing situations they’ve never had before, said Templeton. For example, “they’ll have 20 people scheduled for an interview one day. Ten might show up. The others don’t even call,” he said. “Of those 10 who show up, [they] might be able to offer a job to six of them. The first day of ground school rolls around, and [they’re] expecting six to show up—three will show up.”
Airline orientation training may not have spawned the phrase “drinking from the fire hose,” but it owns that description. New hires spend several weeks closeted together, drilling cockpit resource management, company operations, and the aircraft’s flight operations manual and systems. As they progress, training moves to simulators, followed by initial operating experience—or training in the airplane they’ll fly. The first time new first officers fly the actual airplane, they’ll likely be carrying a load of passengers—and working with a captain who’s had much more experience.
Seniority starts now. On the first day of company indoctrination, new hires will receive their seniority status within the class—a status that will affect them for the remainder of their careers. Seniority is based on a birth date or, in some instances, a formula in which the final four digits of a Social Security number are added together (the highest number equals the highest seniority ranking). When pilots bid on crew bases, schedules, aircraft, and time off, seniority determines who gets what.
The crew base is a new pilot’s home away from home. He or she will fly out of that airport and may be locked there for a specific period of time. Bases are determined by staffing needs and/or a bidding process; if a company needs pilots for just one base, new hires will be sent there, but bidding can occur if there are slots available at multiple locations. According to Wright, it’s usually easier to change bases “if you stay in the same equipment in the same seat, which means a Canadair Regional Jet first officer in Charlotte could transfer to Philadelphia if he stays in the CRJ as an FO, assuming there is an opening that his seniority can hold.”
Every airline requires a minimum amount of time in new equipment before moving up, owing to the cost of training, Wright added.
A new hire may need to commute to his or her base airport, living away from home days at a time. About 80 percent of airline pilots commute, according to Templeton, who said the industry has made commuting fairly easy, thanks to jump seat agreements that allow traveling airline personnel to ride in auxiliary crew stations.
That may be the case, but the crew base selection can be a source of angst among new pilots. Mark Kimberling, a former first officer at American Eagle, recalled a fellow new hire who began to weep as pilots with more seniority chose slots in Dallas and Los Angeles, leaving Chicago and San Juan, Puerto Rico. “His wife was a Canadian citizen, she didn’t have a green card, and they had a newborn,” said Kimberling, now AOPA director of state government affairs. Because of his low seniority, the pilot feared he was going to be assigned to San Juan. Kimberling, who was not married at the time, took San Juan so that his classmate could be based at Chicago.
Pay scales. Collective bargaining agreements govern pay and benefits at many—but not all—regional airlines. A new first officer could earn $16.24 per hour flying a Beech 1900D for Great Lakes Airlines, or as much as $26.43 per hour flying a Canadair CRJ 200 at Air Wisconsin. Many regionals guarantee 74 hours per month, with the opportunity to fly additional hours. Some companies add a per diem amount for overnight trips.
The business model for the regionals has always been that a new hire will work for a few years, then move on—so the employer needs to recoup its training costs in a shorter amount of time, Templeton said. However, “You can plan on making $25,000 your first year” at a good-sized regional airline, with the opportunity to subsidize that income with a part-time job, thanks to a work schedule that affords pilots 12 to 14 days off per month, he said. What’s more, pilots often can pick up additional flying within the confines of a contract, he said. After the first year, a $3-per-hour increase is fairly standard, and the ability to upgrade to the captain’s seat within another year or two affords a 40-percent to 50-percent increase in pay. “You’re broke your first year, but after that you can make enough money to get by,” he said.