The Cost of Becoming a Pilot

Photo credit: sigmama, CC BY 2.0.

When I wrote an article for The Billfold about my year of free flights, some readers expressed an interest in learning more about my friend Erika and her career in aviation. While her decision to become a pilot was not necessarily an industry change, it was a huge career change, as she turned down a full-time flight attendant job for United (a dream job for her at the time) in favor of starting training to become a pilot. Here’s my Q&A with Erika:

Let’s start by talking about how you got into the aviation/flight industry in general. Before you started training as a flight attendant, you were just recently graduated from NYU, working in retail (with me) and at Starbucks. What were your finances like then? What made you decide to be a flight attendant?

So, how were my finances as a recent college graduate and current retail employee in one of the most expensive cities in the country? I’d say about as good as can be expected. I mean, I had a roof over my head, my bills got paid every month, and I even managed to go out every once in a while. But that was about it. There wasn’t much left for anything else, like health insurance or other crazy extravagances.

Mostly this didn’t bother me. I made do. But, as I’m sure you can imagine, working two jobs seven days a week got pretty old pretty quickly. I was already coming up with plans and backup plans to get me out of that kind of lifestyle.

You were part of plan A: get any type of non-retail job! Even with my brand-new interview outfit, nothing was really panning out on that front. So I impulsively booked a one-way ticket back to Germany, where I had every intention of mooching off of my father for only a few months before hopefully getting accepted to grad school somewhere. That was plan B.

Suddenly I had a hard deadline in the form of a plane ticket. But I wasn’t ready to leave New York yet.

So, out of boredom one day, I was scanning through Craigslist and found an advertisement for flight attendant interviews at a regional airline I had never heard of. I figured it couldn’t hurt to go check it out. If it panned out, it would give me an excuse to stay in the States.

Well, I got the job, and here we are.

Can you give a little snapshot financially of what your time was like as a flight attendant?

My average hourly rate as a flight attendant was about $19 an hour. This might sound pretty impressive, but what most people don’t know is that flight crew — both pilots and flight attendants — are only paid approximately from the time the main cabin door is closed (when the plane departs) until it is opened upon arrival at the destination. At best, this only makes up about 50 percent of our total duty day. We don’t get paid while passengers board or deplane, for cleaning the airplane, or for any types of delays. So, taking all that into consideration, my yearly income before taxes was never more than about $25,000.

How did you decide to embark on becoming a pilot?

I had actually been considering making the transition to the flight deck for more than a year before I found out that my airline was shutting down. At first, before the announcement was made, I had wanted to continue working part-time as a flight attendant while working on all my ratings. The trouble was that it was difficult to find a school located near me — first in New Jersey and then in Orlando — that would not only allow me to do flight training part-time but also offered financing options. I finally found such a school when I moved to Texas, but before I could even start the process of going part-time, my company announced that all flight attendants would be furloughed — laid off — in less than five or six months. In hindsight, this worked out really well for me because it forced me to make decisions.

Because I loved the airline lifestyle, my only two real options were to either get hired as a flight attendant at another airline — which I actually did just after my official furlough — or to get serious and really commit to taking out a huge loan in order to pursue my pilot ratings full-time. After spending months making pros and cons lists and repeatedly asking everyone I knew for advice, I finally turned down the flight attendant job with United (which at the time was my dream flight attendant job) in order to enroll full-time at a flight school with an accelerated program. Ultimately, the deciding factor was simply that I knew that I would have more fun actually flying airplanes than being in the back of them for the rest of my working life.

What is the general process of becoming a pilot, and what, in general, are the expenses attached to it?

The process of becoming a pilot is actually pretty simple. You study things like regulations, basic aerodynamics, the systems of an airplane, and weather so that you can pass both a written and an oral exam, and while you’re doing this, you are also going up in a plane with a flight instructor to learn all the maneuvers that you will be tested on in your practical exam. After you pass this three-part exam, you are officially a private pilot. For most people, this is great because you can now go rent a plane and take your friends flying.

But being a private pilot is only the first rating you need if you are looking to eventually fly passenger jets at an airline. You also need an instrument rating, a multi-engine rating (allowing you to fly planes with more than one engine), and a commercial rating in both single-engine and multi-engine airplanes. In order to get hired at an airline, you also need a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, and the easiest and most cost-effective way to get this is usually to instruct other student pilots. This means you also need instructor ratings.

I went this route and got my single-engine instructor rating, my multi-engine instructor rating, and my instrument instructor rating. Finally, after you have 1,500 hours of flight time you either get an ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) rating on your own or with the airline that hires you. Through them you also get your type rating for the specific airplane that you will fly for them. Basically, those were the ten ratings I needed before an airline would let me anywhere near a jet with passengers in the back. Granted, there are variations on this process. Some people never do their instructor ratings. Instead, they get other flying jobs that allow them to build flight hours.

As for the cost associated with the route that I took, it was pretty steep. In order to get all these ratings done in the shortest amount of time, I took out a loan for $70,000 to pay for the flight school and for living expenses during the eight months that it took to complete the program. This was about five years ago. That same program would be even more expensive if you were to start it today.

What were your finances like during your training period? How did you handle not having an income/the stress of the program during that time?

While I was training, I remember wondering why I ever complained about money when I was a flight attendant. Also, I only budgeted about $5,000 for living expenses because the advertised length of my training was only five months. I had failed to take into account delays due to maintenance, weather, and examiner availability, and about halfway through, I realized that I would definitely not be done in five months. I ended up getting a part time job at Barnes & Noble in order to be able to continue paying rent until the end of training. This ended up being both a terrible idea and a stroke of genius.

Because my training was an accelerated program, I usually spent about eight hours at the airport most days. After that, I’d work until 10 or 11 p.m. a few days a week. I’m not sure when I found the time to do homework and study, much less sleep. The stress was unbelievable. There were many times that I came so close to quitting. What stopped me initially was that I actually loved flying and didn’t want to give up, but by the end the only thing keeping me going was the fact that if I quit I would be out $70,000 with nothing to show for it.

Surprisingly, the job at Barnes & Noble actually kept me sane and helped me deal with the stress during this time. I spent almost every waking hour at the airport either flying or talking about flying; I even dreamt of airplanes and flying in my non-waking hours. It was nice to be able to get away from that and focus on something completely unrelated, even if it was just shelving books or making lattes in the café.

Even with the job, though, I basically subsisted on instant ramen and on the charity of my roommates and friends. I even remember you sending me care packages all the way from New York. You guys really did play a huge role in keeping me motivated. I couldn’t fail out of that program after receiving that kind of support. Amazingly, I eventually ended up passing all of my checkrides and getting hired to teach at that school’s location in Phoenix. Looking back at it, I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t a bit of magic involved in surviving those eight months of training both mentally and financially.

When you were ready to actually fly planes, what were the different options you could consider? Did your finances improve?

As I might have hinted at before, there are a few things I could have done after getting my commercial pilot certificate. I could have flown for a small cargo operation, flying packages or mail around the country, or I could have potentially done something like aerial surveying. But at the time it was either pretty difficult to get jobs like that, or the work wasn’t steady enough to gain flight time quickly. My ultimate goal was to get back to the airlines, so I didn’t want to fly only a few hours a week; I wanted to fly a few hours a day if at all possible. That’s why I opted for flight instructing. I ended up teaching for the same company that had taught me. After about a year-and-a-half of teaching other students to fly, I finally accumulated my 1,500 hours of flight time and was qualified for an airline job.

Because 1,500 hours is the bare minimum to get hired at an airline, the next step is usually to apply at the regional airlines. These are the airlines that fly planes painted in the recognizable liveries of United, Delta, American, and Alaska, but they are their own entities. Usually they operate the shorter flights for these mainline carriers, so that these larger airlines can keep their costs down. As a result, pay at these regional airlines is usually a lot lower, but this is still considered the best way to get a foothold into the industry. After working at a regional for a few years, a pilot will ideally be hired on with a major airline, where the pay is significantly better.

Another option I could have considered would have been to go the corporate route. That basically means finding a job flying for a business or an individual who owns his or her own plane. The pay in the corporate world can be very good, but a lot of times you have to know someone to find these. There are also many drawbacks. For example, you are often on call; they call you when they need you, which makes it difficult to commit to any personal plans.

I ultimately decided to go the airline route, and I have worked for a regional airline for almost three years now. The first year, I made almost double what I made as a flight instructor, which sounds a lot better than it actually was… again. This seems to be a theme. The reason my quality of life did not improve that much is that my loans came due right around the time I was hired. Even after talking the bank into working with me, my loan payment was still around $500 per month. If you add that to rent in a city like Chicago — the base where I was assigned to live as a newly hired first officer —not much was left for food and entertainment. That being said, this job brings with it small but significant financial improvements. First and foremost, I can finally afford to eat something other than ramen! Probably more importantly, though, I finally have a 401(k) and a very modest savings account. Before this, my contributions to any type of retirement or savings account were minimal; as a flight instructor my checks usually just covered rent, food, and transportation.

Also, because everything in aviation is seniority-based, the longer I am at my current company, the more money I will make. Eventually, I will become a captain, which not only puts me in charge of the airplane that I fly but it also comes with a significant pay raise. Ultimately, if everything goes according to plan, I will never make less than I am making now. Things should only get better financially. Many people in the industry look at it as paying your dues. Because flight training is so expensive, new pilots understand that they will spend a few years suffering and having to scrounge financially. But we are all willing to put up with it, partially because we love what we do, but mostly because we know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Captains at major carriers can potentially make more than $200,000 a year flying trips to interesting places around the world. Or so I am told.

What are your plans for the future, both career-wise and financially?

The plan is to ultimately end up flying at a major airline, to pay off my flight school loan as quickly as possible, and to maybe end up with enough free time and money to really enjoy the benefits of being able to fly around the world for both work and leisure. Though, to be honest, I already try to do as much of that last bit as possible.

The whole point in suffering through flight training, after all, was to get back to the airline lifestyle. The rest of it will come eventually. As long as people keep using airplanes for travel, I feel that my industry will be around for a while. I have about another 35 years to work on those other two goals before I reach the mandatory retirement age for pilots. In the long run, I think I made the right choice with this career change despite still having to struggle with my finances in the present. I guess time will tell, but right now I can tell you that I am pretty thrilled to be where I am, doing something I love, and getting paid to do it!

Kimberly Lew is proud of her friend Erika.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Career Change series.

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