While there has been considerable pressure on pilots’ benefits and compensation over the past few decades, due to the current and projected shortage of pilots, there is still opportunity to forge a good career in commercial aviation. However, it will likely be less than predictable and career decisions will often be forced on you. Most, if not all, of our members still love the job and share a passion for aviation and the profession. There is also a camaraderie that pilots enjoy, only with other pilots, and for obvious reason. Even in light of our passion for our profession, we acknowledge our responsibility to share the challenges, obstacles, pitfalls and reality that choosing this career will bestow on those who choose this path, so that they can make the right choice for them.
It is generally assumed that pilots are well paid and in the case of pilots with long seniority with a major airline, that is generally the case. By way of comparison, in Cayman, a pilot though relatively well paid, will earn less than an accountant or attorney with a major or even a mid-sized firm. That notwithstanding, employment prospects are improving due to the currently improved demand for pilots and salaries may improve or better salaries may be earned by relocating. In any case, starting out, do not expect to earn a lot of money.
Once you become an airline pilot, your life will be full of checks. Sadly, this does not refer to the monetary kind. You will need an annual or semi-annual medical check conducted by a local Aeromedical Examiner (AME). You will have an annual line check – carried out on a normal passenger flight where a Training Captain will assess the crew for procedure compliance, knowledge and general conduct of a flight. Every six months, you will have a simulator check, where, over a period of two days, you will have to demonstrate your ability to deal with non-normal and emergency procedures, aircraft performance and demonstrate your instrument flying skills. These checks are not a formality; pilots fail these and while an occasional failure over a career may be allowed, failing two of these checks is not viewed lightly and will put your career at risk. Safety and ground based training will take about five to six days annually and will cover security, safety management systems and company philosophy, use of emergency equipment, basic medical response skills, crew resource management, security and dangerous goods training. Some of these will be covered through online computer based training and can be done from your home.
The aviation industry offers more than just flying jobs. Non-flying positions are also available and can be a useful in building your career, but may be undertaken on a part-time basis alongside flying duties. These positions will present themselves as you progress through the industry, but there is no obligation to apply. However, they provide excellent opportunities to gain additional qualifications and experience. Examples include: Crew Resource Management (CRM) instructor, Safety Pilot – responsible for monitoring safety systems, Instructor Pilot and Designated Flight Examiner.
Management positions within the company are also available to pilots. These include Chief Pilot, Fleet Manager or Safety Manager. Pilot managers will normally still fly on the line from time to time, but primarily have other office/ management duties. Most management posts attract pay supplements as well as extra qualifications which can be a useful addition to your CV. If you lose your medical or are unable to fly, they can ensure that you remain employed in the aviation industry.
Promotions and transfer requests are all generally based on seniority. Since seniority rewards length of service, it is much less beneficial to those who have been most recently hired. Seniority lists will usually have a considerable impact on your career if you move employer, as you will most likely end up at the bottom of the list regardless of previous experience. Generally, airlines promote from within. Thus, most Captains were first a FO with their current employer. In large carriers, with multiple types of equipment and operations, a promotion can mean moving between operations and aircraft types – long haul FO to short haul Captain, for instance.
Once sufficient experience is gained as a Captain, you may be eligible to apply for the position as Training Captain. This path will qualify you as a simulator instructor and eventually an examiner. This involves training and examining pilots for type ratings, biannual checks, upgrades and recruitment assessments.
A bit about lifestyle and family. On short haul/regional operations, four or more consecutive sectors may be flown in one duty period (day). This will result in a busy working day with more take off and landings than on long haul flights were there is often only one sector, with many pilots making only a few landings in a month. Most long haul flights result in nights away from home. The upside to short haul is that you will mostly be at home by the end of the working day, home at night and it is good for building experience with short sectors to a range of airports. On short haul operations, a pilot will tend to complete blocks of flights. Generally, you will be rostered on several early flights back to back that will start at around 0600 in the morning and finish around 12-1600 in the afternoon. Or on afternoon flights that will start at around 1100-1400 and usually finish by 2200 as long as there are no delays.
Charter flying and freight flying often involve many night sectors operating in and out of challenging airfields, and mid-range flights.
Long haul operations can provide an attractive lifestyle if you do not mind being away from home and can cope with the numerous time zone changes that accompany this type of flying. This type of flying generally requires that you be on duty for an extended period of time, a number of nights away from home but generally only a few times per month. In some instances, these trips may have two or three day layovers away from home and thus, may result in as few as 10 days per month at home base.
A historical misconception is that the lifestyle of a pilot is glamorous and exciting. Unfortunately, this can be far from the truth. As a pilot, you will work irregular hours, often at very short notice and even when you are with a company that provides a roster well in advance, personal/social plans are often disrupted due to schedule changes. If you choose to be a pilot, chances are that you will be away from your family quite a lot and you are going to be absent from some important events.
The airline industry is a one of the most competitive of all industries. Our product is one that garners little brand loyalty. An airline seat is a means to an end and price is generally the most important consideration. As a result, airlines are constantly trying to reduce costs in order to successfully compete and this in turn creates downward pressure on pilots’ compensation and benefits. The good news is that there has never in recent history been as favorable a ratio of jobs to pilots worldwide as there is now and the forecast is that this ratio will improve. So, those who are entering the career now may very well be, as a group, the most fortunate generation of Airline Pilots so far.
Once you have obtained your first airline job and gained some good airline experience, you will need to consider how your career will progress. Do you stay with your current employer or will you have to change employers and relocate in order to further your career? How will either option affect your family socially and financially? In the current environment, especially for a young pilot, options exist and you will have to decide whether the best decision is to change your current employer for the prospect of a better future or remain with your current employer and accept lower pay and a promotion when it comes, perhaps in many years. These considerations will likely be some that any young pilot who joins Cayman Airways today will have to carefully weigh, a few years after joining. There will be considerations of finance, family and lifestyle that will all have to be weighed.
The job of a professional pilot is still hugely rewarding and challenging. It is a career that often provides much job satisfaction. While it is often said that an Airline Pilot’s job is hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, even when flying the same routes repeatedly, things are different each day due to weather, delays or air traffic and it truly is a stimulating career. According to a survey by Askmen, pilots are named after Astronauts, Doctors and Firefighters among the most respected of all professions. Finally, only twelve from this world have ever walked on the moon. And every man who has walked on the moon was a pilot.