Flying With The Majors: Part 1

Have you thought about taking your love of flying to the next level by making it a career?  It has been a long time since we’ve seen such a positive outlook for airline pilot jobs in the United States.  Even now, experts believe we sit on the brink of one of the largest commercial pilot hiring booms in history.

Think about it: we are facing a mass outflow of commercial pilots as a result of an increase in the mandatory retirement age for pilots enacted in late 2007.  All those pilots that were given an extra five years to fly will be retiring this year!  Additionally we are seeing an increase in air travel with our economic recovery in the U.S., and we are seeing an unprecedented pick-up of air travel throughout Asia and the South Pacific.  Someone’s got to fly those jets right?  Why not you?

This is the first article in a series where Tally One will be talking to commercial pilots across the board from Southwest Airlines to FedEx.  If you have even thought about joining the majors you will want to glean every bit of information you can from us and every other credible source out there to improve your chances of getting that dream job.

We recently caught up with our friend Bryan [last name withheld], a First Officer with Southwest Airlines, to ask him about his path to employment as a commercial pilot.  Here’s a little background on our friend Bryan:  He began his flying career as an F-16 pilot in the USAF.  After several years in the Viper he picked up an assignment as a T-38C instructor at UPT where he was able to build a significant amount of flight time before leaving active duty and going to the Air Force Reserves.

As a reservist, Bryan got his ATP and Boeing 737 type-rating through a private company before applying for a job flying with Southwest.  Here’s what we gleaned from our conversation with Bryan, backed up by a little research into FAA regs.

The requirements for hire vary by airline.  Generally, your first hurdle to clear will be getting an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.  It’s not currently required to be a First Officer, but a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) released one year ago last month indicates the FAA is serious about upping the eligibility criteria to fly for the majors.  According to the NPRM, all commercial pilots will need to carry an ATP.

Currently you need 1,500 hours to get your ATP, but that will also be changing soon.  The change will require only 750 hours for pilots with military experience, 1,000 hours for graduates of an aviation degree program, and no change for those pounding out the hours on their own.  There are private companies out there who can guide you through the process of obtaining an ATP.  ATPFlightSchool.com is one such company recommended by Bryan.  Check out FAR Subpart G (beginning with Sec 61.151) for all of the ATP requirements.

In addition to obtaining your ATP, you will need a current FAA Medical.  Some airlines, like Southwest, require you to have a type rating to be competitive.  Bryan’s biggest recommendation was to seek a company that can do a combined ATP/type-rating program so you can save yourself several thousand dollars.  Pan Am Academy is one such company that offers this type of program.

Bryan recommends going to airlineapps.com when you are ready to get the application process started.  I asked him if it helps to know someone at the airline when making an application.  He couldn’t speak for the other major carriers, but at Southwest, knowing someone on the inside won’t necessarily help you until you’ve passed the first interview.  (After you’ve passed the first interview with Southwest, name recognition could potentially be a tiebreaker between pilots with equal qualifications.)  An airline may have over 10,000 applications on file at any given time.  Some airlines will allow for internal references to help your application stand out from the crowd.

The application isn’t necessarily the difficult part.  If your app meets the requirements of the airline, you may be called in for an interview.  The interview will test your knowledge of FAA regulations, flight principles, emergency procedures, etc.  It will also be an indicator of how well you handle stress and the demeanor you convey.  Pilots really are the professional face of the airlines so they want to be sure you won’t make them look bad!

You can learn a lot about what to expect in the interview from sources all over the Internet.  One of the most credible sources I’ve found is jetcareers.com.  During his application and interview process, Bryan spent a lot of time on airlinepilotcentral.com following the various forums and asking questions.  You just need to be sure the sources posting in the forums are in fact credible.

My last question for Bryan had to do with membership in a pilot union.  He said membership in a union is not required, but you’d be fool not to sign on.  Some of the very senior pilots are deeply entrenched with the unions, and in his experience Bryan has seen less than equal treatment of non-union pilots by the hardcore union pilots.  By the way, union dues are 1% of your annual salary.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be talking to pilots from United and Delta Airlines as well as FedEx.  We’d like to hear what questions you have for them, so please submit your questions here or email them to us at admin@tallyone.com.  Be sure to check back for more career advice as we continue our dive into the world of commercial aviation.

If you’re thinking about a career flying with the military, click here for our article on Air Force pilot training.

Safe flying!

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