No pilot has ever begun a career with the goal of becoming a career pilot for a regional airline. It almost always happens unexpectedly.
For some it is the result of bad timing, such as getting into aviation late in life and being held back by a series of economic downturns. For others, the lack of a four-year degree becomes an insurmountable obstacle, and others are denied a chance to move on because of a poor training history, DUIs, medical issues, or just bad luck. Most of the pilots I know who chose to stay at the regionals until retirement didn’t need the extra income that a job at the majors would provide. They often had another source of income, military pensions, a spouse with a great job, or had done well enough in previous career fields that flying for a regional was all they needed. As a percentage of the total, however, these folks represented a small group.
Most of the time, career regional pilots wake up and find themselves in the most common of situations: a mortgage, perhaps a spouse who isn’t working outside the home or works part time, kids, car payments, and numerous other trappings and obligations of a middle-class family. They decide that the move to a major isn’t for them. Many cite their current schedules, seniority, days off, et cetera, and believe that they will be too long in getting back to a similar point before the kids are grown.
Should you opt for this lifestyle, or feel forced to stay in it, keep in mind that your job security is tied to circumstances beyond your control. Network managers for your major airline partner decide which regionals come and go, how big each will get, and what you’re going to get paid. Your company controls absolutely nothing that matters.
That said, there are ways to maximize such a career in a way that will keep you competitive if you ever need to get that next job, while providing personal enrichment and satisfaction. One of the easiest is to get involved in the training department, which is larger than most people realize. Sim and ground instructors are the obvious choices, and great teachers with line experience are always valued. Becoming an examiner increases pay and responsibility and looks great on a resume. Training management experience can be parlayed into careers outside of aviation and will never provide a dull moment.
Involvement with updating manuals and procedures is another area of expertise that sounds more dull than it is. Airlines modify or tweak procedures all the time based on human factors studies, accident and incident reports, manufacturer recommendations, and more. When one thing changes, it often triggers an avalanche of manual revisions, which must be done in concert with the FAA. Working with the feds increases your contact network and can lead to great opportunities.
Safety departments also attract a certain kind of person, both on the company and the union side, and they often work hand in hand. Nowhere is this more true than with ASAP programs. The beauty of safety work is that this is an area in which the airlines freely exchange information and data, because safety is universal. There are numerous conferences every year in which safety data is discussed, analyzed, and shared (much of this also includes folks in training).
Staying with the regionals isn’t the typical choice, but for those that make it (or are forced to make it), there are ample opportunities to make a difference, and the job can be as satisfying as you want it to be. You can also stay connected with others in a way that you can use to move on if you choose or have to move on, all while staying current in the airplane. If this is you, broaden your horizons as much as possible, and dive into some of these chances. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright