After spending thousands of dollars on your training, and getting paid an unpredictable income as a flight instructor, you’ve just gotten a call from a regional airline offering you a job. You’ll be flying a new, state-of-the-art regional jet, complete with autothrottles. There is just one minor detail to be discussed: the airline wants you to sign a training contract. It states that if you leave before a specified date, you will be required to repay some or all of the cost of your training—a figure that might exceed $20,000.
What do you do?
Many pilots have just shrugged their shoulders, grabbed a pen—probably with the company logo on it—and signed on the dotted line.
At least two airlines in the United States are using these training contracts today, both of them on the Embraer 170/190 series of jets. The rationale is that cost of training is so high, and the availability of simulator time so low, that they do not have a choice. It is a means of hedging their investment and preventing a pilot from going through training, getting a type rating, and leaving as soon as possible for greener pastures. Those greener pastures are often overseas, where American pilots on the 170/190 step into starting pay that is well north of $100,000 a year, and often includes subsidized housing or a positive space ticket back home once a month. U.S. airlines’ concern abou pilots leaving is not unfounded.
The problem with these contracts is many pilots assume that they aren’t enforceable, especially since they are not a part of any union collective bargaining agreement. However, the airlines are beginning to pursue legal actions against pilots who try to leave early. “Early” is usually defined as two years.
If all goes well, the contract isn’t a problem. With the new rules in effect, a pilot can’t upgrade to captain of a U.S. airline until he or she has at least 1,000 hours as a first officer. Taking into account the time spent in initial training, the typical pilot will hit that 1,000 hours about the time the two-year commitment is up, give or take a few months.
As for the amount to be repaid, it behooves you to pay attention to the details. The contract may allow for prorating the amount owed based on the amount of time serve—but it may not. You may be on the hook for the entire amount if you leave just one day early.
Other details to be studied include your obligations if the company goes out of business or if you are furloughed. Likewise, if you lose your medical, is there any relief available?
Training contracts are not new (“pay-for-training” used to be very common), and they are commonly employed overseas. However, they are not the norm in the United States. I doubt that they will become the norm either, but if you find yourself entertaining—or needing—a job from a company that utilizes such a tool, it is worth discussing the language and commitments with an attorney. As for enforceability, it could cost you a ton of money just to get that question answered. If you’re going to sign one, assume you will have no choice but to honor it.—Chip Wright