Real Answers from Real Pilots

My Thoughts on Covid-19, the airline industry and new pilot training

Obviously the news that everybody is talking about is the Covid-19 infection and its spread around the world. The airlines have of course been hit particularly hard by this as several countries have enacted travel bans and many people are choosing to simply stay home. All of the major airlines have announced cuts to their schedules and there is a great amount of uncertainty in the industry.

So what does all of this mean to you, the prospective pilot who is considering spending a large amount of money to pursue flight training and a career at the airlines? Will we go from a pilot shortage to a pilot surplus? Should you postpone your training until the situation improves? The following is simply my opinion, but it is based on my fifteen years in the airline industry, combined with my family’s continuous eighty (80) years of flying airliners.

The recent pilot shortage is something new. Sixteen years ago when Adam and I began our training, there were very few (if any) major airlines that were hiring. The regionals were hiring, but it was not the pilot free-for-all that it is now. Pilots would apply to several airlines and whichever one called you for an interview was likely the one you were going to go to. Interviews were much tougher and people actually got turned down for jobs. I was turned down at my first airline interview (which turned out to be the best thing that could have possibly happened to my career). Even though it was much more competitive, every pilot that I know was able to secure an airline job. We got hired at the regionals and started building our time for the majors. When the majors did start hiring, we were well positioned to apply for those jobs and almost everybody I know is now at a major airline (except a few that chose to stay at the regionals). Bottom line, we began training when the outlook was not so great and US Air, American, Continental and United had pilots on furlough. But the industry came back and did so in a big way, just like it always has. I know some people that chose to delay their training until the industry picked up again. They are now many years behind those of us who took that leap of faith and started in the aftermath of September 11.

Beyond just taking a leap of faith, there are numbers to back up the decision to begin flight training now. Airline pilots are absolutely required to retire before reaching the age of 65, no exceptions can be made. According to the Future and Active Airline Pilot Advisors, over 2,000 airline pilots will retire in the year 2020, with that number increasing to 3,100 in the year 2025. https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2019/november/08/seasoned-and-new-pilots-in-demand This is a huge amount when one considers that there are only 124,300 airline pilots in the US. Covid-19 or not, those retirements will continue like the ticking of a clock and new pilots will be needed to replace them. The industry will likely return to a time where pilot hiring is more competitive, but that is a good thing.

When the airlines start hiring again, and I bet they will sooner than we think, those that have already trained and built their hours will be the first to be able to take advantage of the hiring wave. Do not base your career, a lifetime decision, off of very short term events. All industries have ups and downs, but over a career it levels off and those pilots that position themselves well will benefit greatly when all of this short-term craziness settles down.

37 Likes

Chris,
thank you for your insight and I couldn’t agree more!

Than you for posting this Chris.

My friends and colleagues have asked me this question a lot lately, especially now that I have given notice at my job and apartment in preparation to move. I tell everyone who asks the same thing, I have been in this industry a long time, I have been through 9/11, SARS, H1N1, and the economic downturn. The airline industry always takes a hit, but always comes back. Sometimes it may take longer than others, but have two years before I will be looking for an airline pilot position.

Personally, I am taking the current situation seriously, and considering everything that comes along, but I am not changing my plans going forward. I am still excited to begin this new career path.

2 Likes

image

I just came across the union card in the picture above. It was my grandfathers’ card that ALPA gave him when he retired. I was thinking of his career, he was hired by TWA in 1940, war broke out shortly thereafter. He went through the Second World War, the Cold War, strikes, etc. There were some tough times along the way, but he also flew in some of the best times the airline industry has ever seen, the golden age of aviation.

When my grandfather retired in 1977, TWA had made him a millionaire, and this was in the ‘70s! The point is that while there were bumps along the way, the good times far outweighed the bad.

9 Likes

Chris, thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your thoroughness and the clarity in your writing. I’m 2 weeks away from starting ATP so this message is very relevant to me. I trust that moving forward with training at this moment will be a wise decision long-term.

As I reflect on this situation, I’m reminded of the protocol on what to do if you ever find yourself flying into a thunderstorm: reduce airspeed to maneuvering speed, keep a level attitude, avoid stressing the plane, and accept altitude and speed deviations. It seems likes that’s a good strategy to move through this turbulent time as well.

4 Likes

Delta has recently announced that they’ll emerge “an airline half the size” from this crisis, and since this post they’ve announced that they’ll now be parking twice as many planes as originally planned. United is slashing flights by over 60%, and American is parking nearly 500 planes. Plus, Compass and TSA are shutting down. It doesn’t seem like furloughs might be super likely at the big 3 due to how many pilots are retiring, but there’s way more knowledgeable people out there.

With these new developments, does this change your thoughts about the hiring prospects in the near and distant future? What does this say about the current situation?

Dan,

When the airlines announce they are “parking airplanes” right now they mean temporarily. Quite simply, we do not have the space for all of the airplanes on the ramps of our hubs as usually, a good portion of the fleet is in the air. United is planning on significantly reducing flights, but that is temporary. Compass and Trans States were already planning on shutting down prior to this, their ills are more related to the majors changing regional carriers than anything else.

Even if the majors do furlough, I would not let it stop my plans. There will still be massive retirements and there are simply places other than the three majors to work. Many of the cargo airlines are doing well and will continue to do so. Corporations and the wealthy will continue to fly and the airlines will probably start hiring again sooner than we might think. This industry is cyclical, just like many others are. We were in an unprecedented up turn, this is a correction to that. You cannot look at a career in terms of today, you have to look at it over several decades and this industry will recover, it always does.

Chris

5 Likes

Dan,

Right now today and for the next few months if you’re one of the pilots who just hit 1500hrs you unfortunately are going to have it a little rough. There are also many newhires who are pretty frightened. While this is again very unfortunate none of this will do anything more than give the airlines a brief reprieve from the pilot shortage. There’s simply no way to compensate for the level of retirements.

Adam

1 Like

Furloughs are coming IMO. Hopefully I’m wrong but as we all know the regionals had the shortage majors not so much that being said if they’re parking planes, won’t there be fewer lines thus a fewer need for the amount of pilots they currently have on property? Without as much revenue coming in eventually they’ll go after the wages and surely with planes parked that equals reserve guarantee that they won’t be willing to pay forever. The good thing is that it’s not the airlines that over hired, it’s a result of this unfortunate circumstance the world is in so when the dust settles hiring will resume as it was several months ago and retirements will also play a factor. The problem is none of us know when everything will return to normal

Ivan,

Respectfully I believe (and hope) you’re wrong but ultimately it’s a question of how long the current situation continues. Furloughs make sense for many workgroups but not for pilots. At least not if the issue is short term.

You are correct that the airlines are drastically reducing their flying and I’m certain they’d love to get a bunch of high paid pilots off the books. Problem is seniority. The vast majority of cancellations are for international routes. These are generally the widebody routes flown by the most senior pilots. All contracts dictate you furlough from the bottom up. Wiping out the bottom half of the seniority list won’t get those senior guys off the payroll. Further you now have to spend a TON of money on training all those pilots who haven’t flown a 737 in a decade and that also takes a whole lot of time to accomplish. Neither addresses the immediate problem of preserving cash. Bottomline unless an airline believes the situation that’s causing the downturn is going to exist for a long period of time furloughs are simply not a fiscally sound solution.

Of course if it appears this crisis will continue there’s no question they will become an option but no one at this point is anticipating that.

Adam

4 Likes

Ivan,

I suspect that you may be correct. If things turn around here soon, hopefully not, but if they keep going as is, yes.

That being said, I still would not let this change your career plans. When Adam and I started training, most of the major airlines had pilots on furlough. But there were other companies that were hiring (Alaska, cargo airlines, etc). Eventually, all of the majors started hiring again and we moved on. IF the majors furlough, this could result in a pilot like yourself spending a few more years at the regionals or maybe even some extra time instructing. Guess what, that is the way it used to be for decades. New pilots would spend several years instructing and go to the regionals not knowing when or if they would go to the majors. The regionals are not exactly a bad place to spend time. A captain there can make $80k+, which is pretty decent.

The airlines cannot change wages unless the unions agree to it, or they do it in bankruptcy court. After spending over a decade recovering the lost wages from 9/11, pilots are not very keen on giving wage concessions.

Bottom line, yes, this might be a speed bump in the career, but it will all average out over time.

2 Likes

Thanks for bringing this up!

As someone in their mid-30s whose making a career change and started from 0 at ATP and started in January here are my thoughts and outlook.

Having some experience with the airline industry from my folks who worked for United for decades, though not pilots.

Long term, for me, I believe this will be beneficial for my career. Not happy about it, but I would guess that a lot of folks that were on the fence of going to training to become pilots are going to put that on hold. The industry will come back just like it always does, not only because people like to go on vacation but because the world economy depends on it.

Now depending on how long this lasts, for the airline industry this will be much worse than 9/11 because people will be frightened to fly for quite some time, at least until a vaccine is produced en mass which is anywhere from 12-18 months.

However, here is why I think other than being a senior captain at either a regional or major I believe I (selfishly) and anyone else still in training or hour building is in a great long term position to become a career airline pilot.

  1. It will come back, it always does, and those retirements will continue. This situation will only exacerbate the pilot shortage long term as lists of people will choose not to go train to be a pilot. I would say it’s even more likely in several years the FAA will either raise the retirement age or will lower the 1500 hr number.

  2. If you are training or hour building, be happy, you’re still in the same position you were going to be in had this pandemic not happened. Will this delay your trip to a regional, probably yes, but you’re not being furloughed or laid off. I personally feel really bad for those that just recently made the jump to either a regional or major and are low on the seniority totem pole.

  3. Although Congress is still fine tuning the details of the bailout, what I’ve seen as being the terms of the bailouts will make the airlines much healthier long term. No stock buybacks, worker protections etc. will help make these companies much better equipped to deal with the next downturn 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line that will eventually happen again. This is a good thing.

  4. This ties back to 1, those here at ATP or anyone else currently training/hour building are going to be in the front of a large lag in newly produced pilots. We will be the group who will be at the top of the seniority of everyone else who is going to abandon or delay training. We will be in even higher demand than what we were seeing recently, pay will go up, work rules will be better. Again this is looking at the next 10-20 years and things can be unpredictable and this is only my opinion.

Stay healthy and take care of one another, and remember, the sun will rise and the world will continue to spin. It’s going to be a tough and potential lean year or two but thing will be alright, DON’T QUIT.

1 Like

I am curious though, Air Canada has now announced that they’re going to be furloughing 600 pilots, and it seems like the economic effects are going to get worse before they get better. But with the amount of retirements that the US majors are experiencing, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to stop hiring and let the retirements happen rather than having to resort to furloughing? Offer early retirements like AA is doing right now? Does furloughing even make sense in any scenario given the circumstances right now?

Some thoughts on what the next 12-18 months+ may hold for those currently training or time building.

There is certainly going to be a significant reduction in both Regional and Main-Line operations in the short-term, with a gradual return to peak operations once global confidence has returned in the financial markets, and the health environment. Delta CEO has indicated they are likely to return smaller but leaner, more modern post this crisis. Some Regionals have entered bankruptcy already, more may follow. This indicates the total Part 121 aviation sector will be smaller by an as yet unknown percentage. This will free up qualified, experienced pilots to make up some shortfall that may open due to age 65 retirements.

Time builders will likely have to wait/exceed their 1500hrs until vacancies exist again at the Regionals that can’t be back filled by existing part 121 pilots. Similarly competition for Part 135 posts may be higher than recently encountered due to a population of furloughed or unemployed airline crew.

Flight instruction will remain the primary avenue for time building, with a reduced outflow of seasoned instructors at the 1500hr point. Couple this with a. The high number of current flight students due to the last 12months ‘Pilot shortage’ interest boom, and an expected reduction in new flight students over the next 6 months+, and finding a CFI position may be increasingly difficult in the next year for newly minted CFIs. This obviously can have a negative impact on individuals with high loan amounts for flight training received.

Pilot shortage may be accompanied by a short term CFI position shortage in the next year until new flight student recruitment returns to pre Coronavirus levels.

As mentioned in a previous post this may create a ‘bubble’ of qualified candidates ready to be recruited by the Regionals as and when the market returns, with a gap in feed of pilots behind them. Will this positively impact wages, bonuses etc? Hard to tell! What it will provide is more experienced CFIs if they routinely exceed 1500hrs, perhaps increasing the number of Regional candidates with CFI and Part 135 experience.

As a CFI who completed the ATP program on March 10th I am not worried. I still have a passion for flying and am looking forward to building hours at whatever pace the economy and environment will allow. What I am going to focus on is ensuring each hour gained is a quality hour for my students and me. Focusing one hour at a time ‘flying the plane’ through this emergency and not getting focused too far ahead!

1 Like

Herb and all,

I agree with most of what you say but I wouldn’t count on the FAA raising the retirement age or reducing the min hours. This will give many airlines the ability to catch up a little as there are currently many pilots still in the pipeline.

As most have cited the airline industry will recover, it may take a while and depending on where you are in the process you may experience a hiccup or delay. As Chris had pointed out we were both hired at a lull. All the ATP students I knew back then who hung in there have been successful, the ones that threw in three towel early obviously were not. This is why I’ve always thrown in the fact that you do need some passion of the job. Not judging but there are many student pilots out there who decided to do this because they saw the potential for high salaries and was “easy” to get into as getting hired was virtually a given. Now that it’s not the herd will thin which I agree is better for those that stick it out.

Adam

4 Likes

I work at an airline and i’m leaving for ATP starting May 11. I worked with our pilot hiring department, and from what I see there isn’t a better time to make the move. We were going to hiring heavily for the next 5-7 years. When the hiring starts up again, the offers will be even better. Do you think some of the tuition reimbursement offers/bonus’s will go away though in the short-term?

Jimmy,

I don’t think anything will go away, I just think they won’t be hiring for a bit and therefore won’t have to change offers they won’t be making.

Adam