Part of the “From the Flight Deck” Series
Flightline Blog’s “From the Flight Deck” series features insightful perspectives from experienced pilots. The series aims to explore various sides of popular aviation topics. If you’d like to see us cover a certain topic, you can reach Flightline Editor Cameron Shulak at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, feedback is always welcomed and encouraged as we work to continuously improve our content.
Choosing which airline to fly for is a huge milestone in a pilot’s career. For some, it’s their first job in a jet and a huge stepping stone in what will be a 40+ year career. For others, it’s deciding which company to spend the rest of their career with, rather it be 5 or 30 years. No matter the case, choosing an airline is a monumental decision in a pilot’s lifetime. The decision can have many long-term effects on the success of your career, the quality of life you enjoy, the amount of money you make, and a long list of other side effects. The bottom line is: it can be a big deal.
To complicate the matter, the airline environment today is unlike we’ve ever seen before. It’s a buyer’s market to the most extreme degree. And the good news is we – the pilots – are the buyers. Airlines (especially regionals operators) are fighting like mad to get qualified pilots in the flight decks of their jets to continue to stay alive in an era of unprecedented success in the industry. Even the major and legacy carriers are feeling the pain, as some see mandatory retirements upwards of 500 or even 1000 pilots per year. The result: pilots are blessed with a massive selection of potential opportunities with different companies. In the not-so-distant past, pilots would be fortunate to get an offer from one or two regional carriers, and spend many years working to earn that shot at an interview with a major or legacy carrier (this can still definitely be the case). However, what’s an equally common situation in today’s market, is a very qualified pilot could reasonably field offers from 5+ regional carriers, and later in their career get to choose between offers from several national or legacy airlines. While this is an incredibly fortunate situation, it also leads to a tough decision. While the school of thought we’re about to discuss can be applied to any stage of a pilot’s career, this is particularly written with the regional airlines in mind.
When choosing an airline, different things matter to different people. For some, short reserve times and fast upgrades are king. For others, quality of life and stability of the company are huge. For another group, career progression and getting to a legacy carrier is the only thing that matters. And an even different group of pilots might hold compensation as their number one priority. These aren’t even close to all of the factors that come into play when making a decision, but they’re a few of the more common ones. Furthermore, different pilots are going to prioritize this long list of factors in entirely different orders. Because of this, an airline that boasts everything that’s important to one of your friends might have nothing that appeals to you. On the other hand, the airline that looks like your perfect match might draw criticism from your peers, as they don’t understand your priorities and personal situation.
Because of all these different factors we have to consider and weigh in our eventual decision, getting the cold hard facts about different airlines is super important in the process. We wouldn’t want to choose an airline because we expect to upgrade in 18 months, only to get there and find out the company lied about upgrade times. Similarly, we wouldn’t want to be expecting to earn a certain amount of money at a carrier, only to find out our friend that flies there padded their stats about their take-home pay. And as nice as it would be if all the information we heard about every airline was completely true, this probably isn’t going to be the case. Here’s a couple reasons why. First, pilots are an incredibly opinionated bunch. What you hear about different airlines from different people is going to run the gamut. Some of it will be completely true, and some of it will be as true as the time your friend told you he did a barrel roll in a C172. Second, airline recruiters get paid to fill seats in new hire classes at the airline they work for. Pretty much all of them are great people, and are some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet in the industry. However, you have to remember their job is to get you to come to their airline. As such, they’re likely to woo you in many ways, and are going to make their airline sound like the best thing that’s ever graced the skies. Keep this in mind when you talk to them, and try to get them to talk facts, not tag lines. You wouldn’t want to make a big decision based on something an airline recruiter told you when they were stretching the truth to try to seal the deal. Keep all of this in mind when gathering information about different airlines.
So what’s the best way to cut through all the nonsense to help make the best decision possible? We need facts and unbiased guidance. These often come from the same place, but it can’t be understated how important it is to make sure you’re getting the best information possible. This is where your trusted friends and mentors come into play. You need people that can get you honest answers about the things that matter to you when you’re making your decision on an airline. These can be friends who fly for different airlines (who you trust to give you accurate info), or other mentors that are unbiased and have your best interest in mind. In the end, when it matters to you ‘what the average time on reserve is at Airline X’, or ‘how many pilots does Legacy Y hire from Regional Airline Z’, you want to have the most accurate information possible.
Now, given all our choices and all the factors we have to consider, how do we make this decision after all? Well, simply put, you have to make the decision that’s best for you. And while your first thought might be “duh, of course”, let me explain. You’re going to hear a lot of things from a lot of people about the airlines they work for, or have worked for in the past. The regional airline sector is particularly ‘gossipy’, and pilots experience everything from playful competition to unspoken rivalries. Some of your friends from flight school are going to tell you why the airline they’re at is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Others are going to tell you how bad their experience has been at another carrier. You might even hear two pilots from the same airline give vastly different summaries of their time there. People are going to give you a lot of different reasons to love or hate different carriers, some of which they may not even fly for and know incredibly little about. But what you have to remember is this that you are not them. Your personal situation is likely different, your goals might be different, and things change at airlines on a daily basis. So the moral of the story is: what was right/wrong for them, may not be right/wrong for you. You should make your OWN decision, based on your OWN situation, goals, etc.
When the time comes to make the decision, you’ll have to figure out what makes the most sense for you. This is likely going to be the airline that offers the best combination of the factors that matter most to you. Like we mentioned earlier, you’ll have to weigh the many pros and cons about different airlines, and prioritize them in a way that’s the most beneficial for YOUR particular situation. This is another part of the process where it again helps to have somebody to lean on to help you choose the right path. Just like a friend or mentor can help you get the best information, they can also see you from a different perspective and can tell if the decision you’re making seems to be one that will benefit you. It’s easy to get attracted to great pay rates, quick upgrade times, or a combination of those and other factors, but your friend and mentor can make sure you don’t become blind to the bigger picture. After all this is said and done, you’ll hopefully have it narrowed down to your best choice. And once you do, know that you’ve made the best decision for yourself that you possibly can. Keep this in mind, because as we mentioned earlier, you’re going to hear a lot of different opinions about the decision you made, but you can’t let that matter.
To bring this all full circle, I can’t stress enough how much this is YOUR choice, so you should make the decision that’s best for YOU. It might not be the choice that’s most popular among your friends, and might not have the biggest immediate reward, but this is a decision for the long run. Aviation is an incredibly dynamic and cyclical industry, and that’s all the more reason we want to make an informed decision. There are many ways to make your choice of an airline, and these are just my opinions. However, after working with a large number of people as they’ve made this decision in the past, this seems to be a pretty good way to go about things. Hopefully, in the end, a couple good decisions of this type will lead to a long and prosperous career in the flight deck of your choosing.