Aviation is a relatively small industry, especially for pilots and flight attendants. There are fewer than 100,000 airline pilots in the U.S., and barely half of that number at the major airlines (including FedEx and UPS). It’s no wonder that getting your dream job can be so hard. In spite of the published minimum experience requirements, the reality is that a new hire for a major airline in this environment is going to have at least 5,000 hours of total time (probably closer to 10,000), the majority of which will be turbine time (usually jet time) and at least 1,500 hours of turbine PIC time. Some exceptions are made for pilots with a lot of international experience or wide-body SIC time, but those exceptions are just that: exceptions.
And once you have all of the above, your application is nothing but a computer file on someone else’s hard drive that is just like thousands of other applications. Gone are the days of the paper application that you might be able to personalize and make stand out in some way. Most airlines use either their own on-line system or share in a pool such as airlineapps.com, which collects far more information than any one airline needs, but is tailored to collect all the information that at least one airline wants, which allows each one to sort the files for their own requirements.
So, what’s a pilot to do? Remember the fad game “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which the goal was to link an actor or actress to a movie in which Bacon appeared through no more than six other actors or actresses? Aviation works the same way, only it’s called networking.
Networking is critical. Every time you meet someone and can get their contact information, you should get it, and keep in touch on at least a semi-regular basis. It may turn out that person A is not the one you need to know, but he may know someone who may know someone who may know someone who has access to the recruiting department at your dream company. Having personally witnessed and used this process myself, I can tell you that it works. Your job is to maintain the links to the people you meet, and to make sure that the “you” that you are presenting is real.
People can see through a fake persona very easily. Be honest in your dealings, especially with regard to your flight experience, and keep those contacts posted about where your career is going. At some point, one of them will be able to help.
Keep in mind that this works both ways. If you get yourself in trouble—with the law, the FAA or any other form of authority—the word will spread. Likewise if you become known as a jerk or a complainer or a hot-head, or just someone who is unpleasant to fly with, you will have a difficult time getting a job. Some airlines openly post the names of pilots being considered for an interview, and any current employee at that airline can comment on anybody on the list; all it takes is one person to say something negative about you. You will never know who it was, or what happened. But your phone will not ring.
When you do get your job, it is very possible someone helped you out in some fashion. Remember the favor, and whenever you can, keep the system alive, and pay it forward.