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Flying Start: How Big Airlines Help Pilots Get Ahead

Young pilots starting out in their careers have a difficult decision to make. Do I go for a low-cost airline like JetBlue or Spirit that will take me on after one or two years’ commercial flying experience? Or do I hold out for a legacy carrier like Delta or American Airlines but risk waiting longer to get hired?

It’s a classic problem of deferred gratification, but one that carries with it significant financial implications. The median income for a commercial pilot in 2020 was about $130,440 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics); meanwhile, a captain at Delta Airlines can expect to earn $189,000 – advancing to $205,000 for those in the top jobs.

Typically new pilots can expect to spend a few years after flight school at a regional airline before being scooped up by a national carrier. The bigger airlines, including cargo carriers like FedEx and UPS, tend to have higher flight time requirements and might only hire a pilot between two to six years after joining a regional airline. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule and larger carriers can often provide better and faster opportunities for progression than their smaller rivals.

Delta Airlines, for instance, offers an advanced training programme called Propel, which aims to fast-track students at participating colleges onto the flight deck in just 42 months. By contrast, JetBlue’s ‘Gateway’ program takes four years. The program gives aspiring pilots greater flexibility by allowing them to train with either an affiliated Delta connection carrier, private aviation companies or the military before taking up their qualified job offer with the national airline. Propel students also benefit from generous financial aid packages as well as a dedicated Delta mentor throughout the duration of their training and career.

Delta's Propel program aims to get young pilots into the cockpit six months faster than JetBlue.

Similar programs are available at the other big airlines. In 2021, United announced it had started accepting applications for its new flight academy Aviate, with recruits expected to join the airline’s ranks in about five years. In all, United aims to train some 5,000 pilots with little to no experience, of whom half will be women and people of color. The airline has also teamed up with J.P. Morgan to cover the cost of training.

These kinds of opportunities are only becoming more common among the larger carriers. This month, Alaska Airlines announced a similar program to Delta’s Propel called the ‘Ascend Pilot Academy’, offering a simpler, more financially accessible path to becoming a commercial pilot, The scheme aims to train 250 students a year and provide a $25,000 stiped to cover the cost of a commercial pilots license, as well as personal mentorship from Alaska pilots. Recruits leave to a conditional job offer at Alaska’s regional partner airline Horizon, with a view to progressing to a job at Alaska itself upon meeting certain criteria.

Once accepted to a larger airline, young pilots also benefit from numerous opportunities for advancement to first officer roles and eventually gaining their captains’ stripes. The shortage of pilots brought on by the pandemic have prompted the major airlines to go on major hiring sprees, as well as train up their existing employees.

In a memo last year, Delta’s head of operations John Laughter said the airline planned to hire 1,000 pilots by summer 2022, saying “this is exciting news both for the pilots looking to join Delta and those of you already on the seniority list because it means career progression opportunities as we continue our recovery, account for scheduled pilot retirements and position for network expansion”.

American Airlines have leased more flight simulators in order to train up and advance pilots more quickly.

In order to recover from the pandemic, Delta expanded its simulator training to facilities outside its main Atlanta hub, as well as streamlining the briefing process to squeeze in 25% more sessions per day. Likewise, American Airlines have begun renting simulators from Canada’s CAE Inc. to bump up capacity at their Texas HQ. All this means more training opportunities for both new and existing pilots to progress.

In addition to increasing their resources, larger airlines are also taking a closer look at how they can support and encourage their staff throughout their careers. In 2021, Delta published its ‘Close The Gap’ report, looking at how the airline could address the diversity gap between its front-line talent and its executives. The carrier subsequently implemented more inclusive hiring practices, virtual anti-racism conferences and business resource groups for employees. The results spoke for themselves, with a survey of Black workers by Glassdoor showing that Delta was the best company at providing career opportunities to Black employees, beating out Microsoft and Northrop Grumman.

All in all, the employment landscape for pilots has shifted dramatically. Where previously young pilots could expect to work up to ten years before being drafted by a major carrier, specialist programs and better training facilities have cut that time to less than half. Even for those who join later in life, the larger carriers offer excellent opportunities for advancement with dedicated channels for progression over a long career that only ends with retirement at 65.

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