Posts Tagged ‘aviation careers’

The hardest parts of the job

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

My dad was an attorney, and I distinctly remember periods of time when he did a lot of traveling, and times when he worked a lot of weekends. Because he litigated cases, he spent a lot of time in court, and those weekend work sessions were often spent preparing for a trial that was either upcoming or ongoing.

As I got older, I asked him a lot of questions, and one of them was, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” His answer generally was getting ready for certain trials.

When I got established in my career, I was often confronted with the same question. As I suspect my dad also experienced, one answer didn’t always do the question justice. Here are three main challenges, any of which might stand on its own.

  • Training. This refers to either initial training or training on new equipment. My first training event was definitely my worst. I had no idea what I was in for, let alone what I was doing. It was overwhelming and hard. However, future events were made easier by the knowledge of how to handle it. But some pilots have never learned to relax in or enjoy training, and they get extremely stressed. Some pilots become physically ill before returning to the simulator for recurrent training. Good study habits are the best tonic for making it through training unscathed.
  • The schedules. Pilots get a lot of time off, but we’re also gone a lot. We’re away from home for two or more weeks a month. We never know our schedules more than six weeks in advance, and if your seniority is bad, you’ll be working every weekend and holiday. I prefer working weekends because it’s easier to get errands done during the week, but with kids, weekends are the best times to be off.
  • The other problem with the schedules is the constant adventure of living out of a suitcase. You can either love it or tolerate it and be OK, but if you hate it, your career as a pilot will be short. It isn’t unusual to wake up in a hotel and have no idea where you are. In fact, I’ve woken up in my own bed and found myself momentarily confused.
  • Time away from family. If I had to pick one thing, this would be it. You miss a lot as a pilot, especially when your kids are younger. Some pilots have never been home for Christmas, and that’s hard. It’s no fun missing your kids’ activities or games or big school events, but it is part of the deal, unfortunately. Spouses need to be on board with it or resentment becomes an issue. Sometimes, you just want to be home to soothe hurt feelings or to fix a broken toy.

The job has a lot of benefits, and it’s a lot of fun. But it has its challenges and pitfalls. You’re gone a lot, but you’re home a lot. The time away from your family is only equaled by the fact that when you’re home, you’re home, and not working (unlike my dad). In the end, it’s what you decide to make it.—Chip Wright

When does the interview end?

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Several friends of mine recently interviewed at a legacy carrier. Three of them interviewed on the same day, back to back to back. I spoke to two of them afterwards, and each was lamenting the fate of the third: In their minds, it was pre-ordained what was going to happen.

In the brief period of time that all three were together in the lobby, one of them was not-so-quietly disparaging his own performance. Now, bear in mind that he wasn’t saying anything negative about the company or the process they used for the interview. Far from it.

The interview was a two-part process. The first part was the actual interview between the candidate and the interviewers, in this case a captain and a representative from human resources. There’s a break between them as people trade places. The fellow in question completed his interview first out of the three, and he was chatting with the other two before leaving to go back to the hotel.

While talking, he was second-guessing his answers to the questions he was asked and openly talking about how poorly he had flown the simulator. Here’s the catch: He really had no idea how his performance compared to anybody else’s. It’s quite possible that he was average or above. The problem with airline sim rides is that they are almost always performed on equipment that you have never flown, so the evaluation is made with that in mind. It’s almost like grading on a curve.

As for the interview itself, chances are that he went in with a lack of confidence to begin with, as though he was expecting to do poorly. While he was in the lobby, he didn’t take into account that the process was still going on, though in a more passive way. The secretary heard him, and at least one of the other folks participating in the hiring process heard him.

In the end, he didn’t get the job. The other two pilots did, and each relayed to me their belief that this individual had done himself some damage by being so self-critical, which also came across as a lack of confidence.

Years ago, at another legacy carrier, a pilot had been provided the standard round-trip transportation to the interview and had received a complimentary first class upgrade on the way to the interview. The interview itself went extremely well, to the point that the interviewer relates that this pilot was one of the few who would have made a lasting impression even without this story. His job offer was ready to go in the mail (this was pre-email) the next day.

At the airport, he was under the impression that he was entitled—entitled!—to a first class seat for the return trip simply because a gate agent in his home town was kind enough to extend one to him as a courtesy on the first flight. He apparently launched into a tirade and caused such a scene that he was denied boarding until a later flight. His reservation stipulated that he was a pilot applicant, and the agent, who was furious, couldn’t call the recruiters soon enough. His offer was rescinded, and a multi-million-dollar career was lost.

Interviews for any airline—major, regional, passenger, or cargo—do not end until you are either hired or are “regretfully informed.” Even while you are waiting for your answer, you should consider it an open process, because if anybody knows about your interview, they can always make a phone call or send an email. Be confident, be nice, and assume that “Big Brother” is watching. He (or she) just might be.—Chip Wright

Training contracts

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Embraer 190 AzulAfter 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

The cover letter

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

As you start looking for your first job—or even if it isn’t your first one—you might be working on your resume and cover letter. What goes on a resume is pretty straightforward: It’s a quantitative and qualitative summary of your experience and the skills you bring to the job.

What about the cover letter? What do you put in the cover letter? What do you not put in the cover letter?

Some of the greatest advice I got about cover letters came from someone who makes a living reading them: A cover letter should not just be a regurgitation of your resume. If that’s all it is, then it is a waste of your time and the time of the person reading it.

Instead, your cover letter should be used to talk about what is not in your resume. Use it as a chance to talk about other experiences or skill sets you offer that may not necessarily be a part of the job, but will help contribute to your performance. For instance, if you coach a sports team or volunteer in a local school, you are demonstrating leadership. In fact, any kind of volunteer work should be highlighted, because companies—not just airlines or flight departments—like to see candidates who do something to give back to the community. It might be that you volunteer in a church, at an animal shelter, or a zoo; it doesn’t matter. You are demonstrating a desire to make a difference and a willingness to give your own time.

Mention other achievements or skills that you might be able to offer within the work place. If you are a certified trainer in something (besides flying), it demonstrates a desire to continue learning and pass on what you know. That, too, is impressive and important.

A cover letter is also a great place to briefly (as in two to three sentences) describe why you want to work for that particular company. That’s hard to do on a resume. Maybe you want to work there because your parents did, or because you grew up in the shadow of its headquarters (or, in the case of an airline, in the shadow of one of its hubs). This is your chance to show your loyalty to a company before you ever set foot in the door. It won’t always work, but you have nothing to lose by trying.

If you are still shy of the minimums for a particular company, use the cover letter to explain what you are doing to close the gap, and give an estimate of how long it will take you to get there. Sometimes, just the enthusiasm and work ethic that you demonstrate can be enough to get your foot in the door.

The cover letter is a bit of a lost art, so if you do it well, it will help you stand above the rest. Use it to your advantage, and keep it to a page or less. And whatever you do, don’t just repeat what is on your resume!—Chip Wright

Check your work

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the zeal to get a job, it’s easy to get a bit ahead of yourself. Or to just do something dumb. An urban myth has made the rounds for years about a pilot who really wanted to work for UPS, and when he sent in his application, he did it via FedEx. Or vice versa.

The point is, you don’t drink Coke in a Pepsi plant, and you don’t use the biggest rival of the company you want to work for to advertise your desires.

A friend recently asked someone to help him get a job by carrying his resume directly to the head of pilot recruiting. The “someone” didn’t think it was his responsibility to proofread the resume, and just handed it in. Under the heading of Career Objective, the pilot had put that he wanted to work for another carrier. The “someone,” whom I also know, got a phone call from the recruiters explaining what happened, and felt extremely embarrassed. The applicant had burned a bridge that he couldn’t afford to lose. He too felt ashamed.

In this age of point-and-click, it’s ever more important to proofread everything you send, because once it’s on the internet, the damage is done. A number of regionals use airlineapps.com as their portal. For the most part, it’s an easy website to use, but as you start targeting airlines and soliciting references, you need to be extremely careful that you don’t target Airline B by telling them you want to work for Airline A. When you ask people for references, make sure you request both a generic letter of reference as well as one that is specific to a given company.

Application websites can be long and tedious. But you have to jump through the hoops, and it is critical that you follow your old math teachers’ advice and check your work. Print out the application before you send it. Have someone else proofread it for you. Once you are finished, set it aside for a day or so, and then read it with fresh eyes. Make sure that all of your flight times are accurate, dates are correct, and anything with an expiration date is up to snuff.

You need to do the same thing with your resumes. If you go to a job fair and you are targeting a specific airline, make sure you hand them the correct resume! If you need to use a generic one, that’s fine. Better safe than sorry!

In fact, you should keep a generic resume handy that you continuously update, and use that as a basis for printing copies for specific airlines. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to use an accordion file to store all of your information for each airline—printed applications, resumes, contacts, information from their websites, et cetera.

As you work your way up the chain of companies, recognize that people know each other, and they talk to each other. If you are sloppy at one company, don’t be surprised if the HR person has discussed you with a cohort elsewhere. Also, pilots who work in recruiting at a regional will often move into similar work when they go to a major. You want to leave the most positive impression that you can.

And the opposite is true, as the story above proves. Eventually, someone is going to ask you for a hand in finding work. Make sure that anything that passes through your hands is not going to make you look bad—whether it’s as simple as putting down the wrong company or something more complex, like an obvious lie. Use your discretion, and remember, just because someone asks for your help doesn’t mean you have to say yes. If you don’t want the confrontation of saying, “No,” you can be vague and say something like, “I don’t have a lot of sway around here,” or “If you’re competitive, you’ll get the call.”

Think of each interaction, whether in person or via the ‘net, as a one-shot opportunity to make the impression you want to make. You may not get a second chance.—Chip Wright

So, what goes on up there?

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

I am frequently asked a lot of questions about life as a pilot. One of the most common is, “What do you actually do up there for most of the flight?” Most people understand that the autopilot is flying the airplane for most of the trip, and the crew is in more of a monitoring role, so the question is understandable.

The answer depends on the kind of flying. On short legs, we’re pretty busy on the radio, and we set up early for the approach, check our weights and speeds for landings, and make any special requests for the station to address (lav services, wheelchairs, et cetera). On longer legs with a lot of time spent in cruise, there is more freedom to do various things.

Back up to the first flight together as a crew. Especially at larger airlines, it isn’t uncommon for a pair of pilots to fly together only once. This means that the first time they meet for the trip may be the first time they’ve ever met, and they will spend some time getting to know one another. Pilots being pilots, it isn’t unusual to meet someone and hit it off like you’ve been BFFs since grade school. At other times one of the crew may be more reserved, but there is still a getting-to-know-you period. In no particular order, you can count on certain questions coming up: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How do you like it? Did you bid this trip? What’s your flying background? And so on.

The first leg or two usually consists of a lot of banter about company goings-on, rumors, new developments, or big announcements made or expected. There is a lot of chatter about family life, common interests, etc. Most pilots will try to avoid certain subjects, such as politics or religion, but some can’t resist the temptation. There are a lot of “Have you flown with…?” stories, and usually a few laughs get shared about someone doing something funny or dumb.

But very personal information gets shared as well. If you spend three or four days or longer in a room the size of a phone booth with someone else who has a tendency to dress like you do, it’s inevitable that you get to know—and share—more than you ever thought you would. Personal fears, secret desires, or just plain secrets get shared. I’ve heard stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, crazy tax schemes, you name it. The unwritten rule is that what is said behind that door stays there (except for anything criminal), and most of the time it does. There is a certain sanctity within the cockpit.

And, as you might expect, locker-room style talk and behavior takes place as well.

On longer legs or trips, it isn’t all chatter. There are certain record-keeping requirements for fuel or certain minimum equipment list (MEL) procedures. On long international legs, it isn’t unusual for pilots to read or do crossword puzzles just to keep themselves alert.

But, like the proverbial light switch, when the situation calls for professionalism, that’s what you see. Whether it is a mechanical problem that becomes apparent, or a regular checklist or a weather deviation, pilots never forget who they are and where they are, and when the situation calls for it, the shenanigans are discarded and attention is focused on the job at hand.

It isn’t always work and it isn’t always play…but most of the time, if nothing else, it’s fun!—Chip Wright

Record foul-ups

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

A friend of mine was recently terminated while in training with a regional airline. In the regional sector, it’s not unusual for an airline to terminate a new-hire without giving a specific reason. That was the case here, and the only explanation he received was that “there was something in [your] application.”

That’s vague, and he was convinced that it was bogus. One of the reasons he was so sure is that he had been employed by another airline for over a decade with no problems. He had disclosed his lone Part 121 checkride failure. But, just to be sure, he began a dialogue with the FAA. He was shocked at what he found.

To make a long story short, he had started an oral exam for a checkride, but he had been sick. The event was going well, but he had to bail out because of his illness. The next day, he finished the oral (and passed), and took the checkride (and not only passed, but got high praise from the examiner). However, that event was almost 20 years ago, and he had forgotten that he had signed a second 8710 for the oral. The first one was recorded as a failed event. Right or wrong, agree or disagree—that’s what went into his file.

Fast forward to now. The records that he had in his possession prior to starting this job did not include the 8710s and did not indicate that he had a failure of a checkride (remember, it was the oral, not the ride), and it cost him.

The lesson from this for any pilot is two-fold: Never lie on an application, because it will be found. He didn’t lie; he simply didn’t realize the full ramification of what was going on when it happened. But, the point is the same. If you try to hide something, it’s going to get uncovered. Second, when you start the process of applying to airlines, whether it’s a regional, a major, a foreign carrier, or anything in between, get in touch with the FAA in Oklahoma City, and get copies of everything that might be in your file. Ask questions.

You should keep your own detailed records with regard to ratings, certificates, et cetera. Whenever you take a checkride, make a note of the date, time, place, and examiner. If there is a mistake found later, you will know where to start. In this case, the school was long gone, and the examiner had passed away.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to get a job with checkride failures, even after the Colgan accident. The thing to remember is that you need to fully disclose your past, and you need to own up to your mistakes. If you aren’t sure of something, get it taken care of.

In a case like this, if it happens to you, your best recourse is to write a detailed description of everything that happened. As you apply to airlines, you can attach this to your application or take a copy to the interview.—Chip Wright

Living and flying overseas

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s one thing to read about the number of American pilots who have embraced the expat opportunities overseas, especially in Asia, but it’s something else to hear it on the radio. I recently flew a trip to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Saigon, and along the way, I heard a large number of pilots flying for Korean Air, Emirates, Dragonair, Cathay Pacfic, Singapore Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air (a Philippine carrier), and Vietnam Airlines that were clearly from the United States (as well as Canada, Great Britain, and Australia). Korean, Emirates, and Cathay are very popular for American pilots because of the pay and the better living conditions in Seoul, Dubai, and Hong Kong, respectively (especially the pay).

I know many pilots who have pursued these opportunities, and many are having the time of their lives.

Americans are needed here because flight training in Asia is virtually nonexistent. There is no infrastructure (almost no general aviation airports, no GA airplanes , no 100LL fuel, no instructors), and the airspace system was not designed to accommodate flight training. The military owns the airspace and is not willing to share.

Most of the Asians learn to fly in the United States (including on Guam, U.S. territory in the Pacific) and Australia, then come home. However, they enter the work force very inexperienced and with a nearly pathological fear of hand-flying a big airplane. Americans are desired because of their experience. We’ve spent years learning how to fly, and we’ve flown in the most demanding airspace in the world. Further, Americans love to turn everything off and just fly. The Asian pilots have yet to embrace that concept, and they know they need to.

This is not to say that Americans are always welcomed. Sometimes they are viewed as a necessary evil. But many pilots go on to long, happy, productive careers living as ex-pats, taking advantage of the ability to move around to different countries every couple of years while seeing parts of the world they’d never get to see otherwise. Once you have this experience, it’s also easy to parlay it into a job as an instructor teaching the locals in the simulators.

There are also those who go abroad for a few years and then come home. In years past, pilots with international experience could just about pick out the airline they wanted to come home and work for. It remains to be seen if that holds with the new round of hiring. Also remaining to be seen, for that matter, is just how many pilots will even bother to come home. Foreign compensation packages have gotten so good that many will find such a move hard to justify.

Moving overseas to fly is a huge commitment, but if you are open-minded and can get past what you think “oughta be,” it can be an extremely rewarding, fun lifestyle—even if only on a temporary basis. After all, what better way to see the world than to get someone else to pay the bill?—Chip Wright

Should you move for a regional?

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

U haul truckThis is a tough subject. Most people would rather not have to commute to work, and commuting for pilots is different than it is for any other job. One of the advantages to being an airline pilot is the option of living just about anywhere you want to live. However, it isn’t all peaches and cream either.

Having been a commuter and a noncommuter, I’m here to tell you that if you can avoid commuting, life is much, much better. I have lived as close as 10 minutes to the airport, and being able to leave my house 30 minutes before I am scheduled to report is wonderful. I’ve also had to commute to New York, which is notorious for its traffic problems. There were times when I had to leave my house in the morning for a trip that started the next afternoon because the flights were full, which meant that I lost a day and half of my time with my family. The same has happened getting home.

It’s one thing to move for a job that should be a career. But few pilots catch on with a regional figuring that it will be their final stop. This makes the decision to move even more difficult. A low-time pilot is going to be at a regional for several years, and that might be an argument in favor of moving. However, most crew bases are in busy hubs, where housing is more expensive. If you can find the right suburb, you can get lucky, especially if you are willing to drive a bit longer to get to work.

Commuting on reserve is even more challenging, and it can be frustrating as you spend days in a crash pad waiting to go to work—days that could have been spent at home.

Further, if you are hired by a regional that serves one major, you may be hired by another major, and find yourself in a city that suddenly becomes much more difficult to get to and from because of the change in your pass benefits.

If you are facing a two-leg commute, or heaven forbid, a three-leg commute, consider moving closer to work. Even if you aren’t dealing with a multi-stop commute, you may live somewhere with sparse service or frequently full flights. In this case, an option would be to move to a city that has a lot of service to (and from) multiple hubs.

A good example is Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, which is served by just about every significant airline, and to multiple hub cities for each one. It’s in a good geographic location for commuting up and down the East Coast as well as to the Midwest.

The same could be said for Indianapolis, Indiana, or St. Louis, Missouri. While it is common for pilots to live in Florida, Florida has its own challenges, namely that so many pilots and flight attendants live there. Also, the Sunshine State goes through periods of the year where getting to and from work is extremely difficult because of Spring Break, a Super Bowl, or the Daytona 500. The more senior you are, the easier it is. As a new hire, it’s tough.

Finding a city that is a happy medium is the best bet, especially if you could be happy there if you get your dream job with the major airline of choice. If you are only renting, my advice would be to move at first, with the possibility of commuting later. If you are fixated on buying somewhere, at least wait until you know the realities of the job and the real estate markets for where you want to live.

Deciding to move is not always an easy choice, and it definitely isn’t an easy task. But move slowly and deliberately so that you can make the best decision.—Chip Wright

Airline charters

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

It’s well known that the airlines fly people from A to B, be it on business trips, honeymoons, going to a funeral, or on a family vacation. What you may not realize is that the airlines also do an awful lot of charter work. The major carriers—especially the legacy carriers—do a significant amount of charter work for college and professional sports teams, and the revenue is significant. Because a team or a group is leasing the whole airplane, the cost is not cheap. The money they pay has to cover not only the cost of the flight(s) in question, but also the cost of repositioning the airplane.

For example, when I was at Comair, we flew a ton of NCAA basketball charters for both men’s and women’s teams. When I first upgraded to captain, the going rate for the airplane was roughly $10,000 an hour. On a typical charter, the crew that would actually operate the flight would either report to work in base or dead-head on the last flight out to an outstation. They would then take the airplane and ferry to the pick-up point. For the University of Maryland, that might mean riding on a flight to Buffalo, and then taking the empty airplane to Syracuse. When the team had finished the game and the press conference, they’d be brought to the airport. We’d then take them to Washington National Airport or Thurgood Marshall-Baltimore Washington International and drop them off. We’d then ferry the airplane back to Buffalo. The fees the team paid not only had to cover the cost of the ride home, but also the cost of the empty segments.

Charters add an interesting mix to the everyday flying. In the example above, the flying took place mostly at night. The same is true in season for baseball teams, the NBA, and the NHL. Football is different, since there is only one game a week, and the teams travel either one or two days ahead of schedule, depending on the time changes. During spring training, baseball teams will often travel during the day. We also did a lot of NASCAR charters, moving the support crews and mechanics around.

Football teams tend to stick with the legacy carriers because they will have access to narrow-body equipment for flights under three hours or so, and they can use a wide-body for flights more than three hours. They also have more people and equipment involved.

There are other charters that pop up as well. Before the spike in oil prices that began in 2001, we used to do a lot of gambling charters to casinos, especially in the South. In fact, I did a couple of three-day weekend trips that consisted of nothing but gambling charters. Those trips can be a lot of fun, because the leader of the trip will often use the public address system to have games and contests in flight, and will sometimes include the crew in the festivities.

There are two major downsides to the charter work: getting groups to honor the schedule, which can lead to a lot of sitting around and late departures, and the fact that most of the time you’re working on the backside of the clock. Getting teams to honor the schedule is easier when they are dealing with an airline versus a true charter company, because they understand that the airplane is due back in service the next day, and the contract calls for a pretty stiff penalty if they horse around with the schedule (overtime games are exempt).

The upside is that sports teams tend to cater a lot of food, so you can eat well for free. Also, you can meet some pretty interesting or famous people. Charters are also a nice break from the routine of line flying, and they can be a lot of fun. While some corporations will arrange for charters (we did one for several years during a major banking merger as employees shuttled between the two headquarters), those are fairly rare, but they do tend to be on RJ-sized equipment. If you head to the airlines thinking that all you will do will be based on the timetables, you will be in for a surprise…but you might also come away with a few autographs in your logbook that you weren’t expecting.—Chip Wright