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Why I Left an Airline Pilot Career Worth $8.2 Million

Once someone finds out that I’m a pilot who left the airlines, the most common question I get is this:
 
“Why did you leave?”
 
I’ve thought of why this question exists, culturally. There are three good reasons we can consider, based on my discussions:
 
1. Pilots are highly compensated.
2. It’s an adventurous and exciting job.
3. You get to travel the world as part of your job.
 
There is something deep inside many dreamers that wants to explore the world at the command of a ship. After all, this has been a part of humanity since long before adventurous types from Christopher Columbus to Neil Armstrong charted new courses to unknown worlds.
 
Early in my childhood, I remember reading a biography of Chuck Yeager, the famous pilot who first broke the sound barrier, and as a result I was hooked on any flight game as a kid. Like many kids, it was more of a fascination than anything else.
 
However, when I chose a university, a professional flight degree promised a lifetime of adventure and excitement, and I took the plunge and signed up.
 
I’d like to respond to each one of the assumptions most people make about this industry.
 

1. Pilots are highly compensated

 
At the time I applied for college, I hadn’t considered the consequences of tuition and flight training loans, or even the ability of the job to pay them back. What I really needed was for somebody to break this down for me, but I didn’t know of any resources and the university itself was out to make as many recruits and student loans as necessary to meet their financial goals, not mine.
 
This was a hard lesson. A student loan is debt on a parasitic level. This leads me to Golden Rule #2: If you don’t understand it, don’t sign it. It’s as easy to sign a contract with a so-called “Financial Aid Counselor”, send tens of thousands of dollars to a university and become a slave to The Collector for 20 years, as it is to sign a receipt for a two-dollar coffee.
 
I didn’t comparison shop or talk to actual pilots to find out what they recommended and if I had, two key pieces of advice would have been discovered. First, a professional flight degree is useless in the real world. Therefore, if you lose your flight medical certificate, which can happen, a backup plan with a useful degree is essential.
 
Second, universities are often the most expensive form of flight training, but to a potential employer, flight hours are flight hours. I could have gotten a useful real world degree (similar to my master’s in finance) with an in-state subsidized university and worked on flight training locally for a quarter of the total cost.
 
In the real world, having a prestigious university on your resume means that you can negotiate a higher-paying job. However, in a trade job such as flying, a university is a checkbox which must be checked, nothing more.
 
This research-type mindset is exactly what I should have used before I made 20-year debt commitments. This is a common, but recurring place I’ve arrived in life. Anyone will offer to say “we’ll take care of the details” to make it seem simpler for you, but your life is anything but simple after you’ve committed to a $400 monthly payment for 20 years with your cheerful Financial Aid Counselor.
 
Multiply that out and it’s $96,000 of gut-wrenching, life-goal altering debt slavery during the time you should be saving the most to sow the seeds of financial freedom. It’s the difference between buying a house you like, and one you don’t. It’s the difference between traveling to those countries you’ve dreamed of visiting. It’s the difference between having one more child.
 
It’s appropriately morbid that the only way out of student loans is death or dismemberment, because that’s how they made me feel.
 
The only way to get the truth is to read the fine print, get out your calculator, pester the admissions salesperson to root out the hidden costs and fees and find out what a fair market price is for this thing. How do you keep this from happening? Golden Rule #2: If you don’t understand it, don’t sign it.
 
Universities have the advantage of making their sales material all about you. In reality, it’s all about them.
 
Here’s another bad idea. My application for all of this debt was based on my parents’ income, not my own. Not even my projected income. If your parents are well off, expect that you’ll shoulder the entire burden of their loans unless they pay for you. It’s like applying for a mortgage based on your parents while you’re in college, except there is no roof over your head in return.
 
Meanwhile, my university continued on happily, proudly proclaiming that it is debt free. The irony here is that I paid huge sums to put a roof over everyone else’s head but our own.
 

My first flight solo. Little did I know that it’d take me 15 years to pay this flight off.


 
Next, we need to actually figure out if this career will pay itself back.
 
Let’s take a look at the financial difference between Path 1: Expensive Private University, and Path 2: Insider Recommendations.
 
I’m assuming that we’re enrolling today, so the cost of all the flight training (zero to hero) at the Expensive Private University is $60,000 and tuition for 4 years adds another $140,000, for a whopping grand total of $200,000. Still want to be an airline pilot?
 
Using the Insider Recommendations, the total ends up being $30,000 for flight training using a freelance flight instructor and cheap rentals, and $40,000 for tuition (remember, a real world degree – don’t ever get a flight degree), for a grand total of $70,000. That’s roughly a third of the cost of going the expensive route.
 
There’s also the military option, but has the tradeoff of signing away your life for a number of years and the uncertainty of getting an actual flight slot, because you may end up in a non-pilot or drone position.
 
For the grand overview, I’ll use my career and substitute my college friend’s earnings for the point where I left the industry at Year 9. He and I had careers running in lockstep with each other up until that point. Airline pilot salaries are an easy one to estimate in the future because they are publicly available in their union contracts.
 

My actual pilot career earnings until year 9, then projected. (Click to expand. Not adjusted for inflation)


 
As you can see, the occupation pays out very well eventually, but it starts out below poverty level even as a university flight instructor, a job where it was impossible to pay off student loans while working for the very school that created your student loans in the first place. I was unable to pay any student loans until Year 4 of my career, when I finally made more than $20,000 per year. I started at the very bottom of the seniority list with a miserable schedule as a regional airline first officer. I was fortunate to upgrade to captain, roughly halfway up the list, in only two years, while some people took seven or more, causing my friends much grief as they tried to pay loans while earning $40K per year.
 
The first peak on the chart is making regional airline captain at age 27, early by most accounts. But now I was back at the bottom of the captain seniority list with a miserable schedule again. I didn’t emerge from this seniority rut until I left the industry.
 
Then you march along at regional captain pay until getting on with a new job – a major airline at the second big bump on the chart near the age of 36. You’re back at the bottom of the first officer seniority list with a miserable schedule again.
 
If you’re fortunate, you’ll again only be first officer for three or four years, but it might be ten or more at this mid-career level. Only after making captain do you reach the upper tier of pay sometime in your 40s. Then back at the bottom of the seniority list with a miserable schedule again for the fourth time your career.
 
Even after getting away from flight instructing, the career takes some time to get anywhere close to being able to pay off your loans and support yourself at the same time. I was ten years into the profession, making $71,000 per year, and was only finally making a middle-class wage by the time I left, with much of my income going into the loans rather than savings.
 
However, there is one hugely flawed assumption to this career estimate. We are assuming that everyone who signs up for $200K in loans is a successful major airline pilot. In reality, many aspiring pilots struggle to get started with their first flight job, lose their medical certificate, become disenchanted with the lifestyle, get stuck in lower paying flight jobs, fail out of training, or otherwise don’t make it to the highest-paying echelon.
 
Sometimes pay disruptions are caused by the seniority system. Even if I was over 50 years old and making over $250,000 per year, I’d start over again at the age 34 pay of $74,000 if I changed airlines, because I’d have to start over with a new major airline seniority list. And that’s assuming a major airline position is available. They typically are not during economic downturns, because pilots at the bottom of the seniority lists are furloughed until recall.
 
To find the real-world results from a sample, I chose my freshman flight class. The total for my freshman class is 20 people, including me, with 17 men and 3 women. We graduated from the same college almost 15 years ago.
 
Here’s how many turned out to be a major airline pilot: One.
 
Remember my friend whose career I paralleled? Out of my entire class, he’s the only one who made it that far.
 
Okay, so how many are active professional pilots with flying jobs?
 
Nine out of 20, plus one drone pilot. These vary from charters, to corporate, to regional airlines. Our average earnings for my freshman flight class has now dropped dramatically, because only my major airline pilot friend is making the wages promised to his peers by recruiters 15 years ago as we decided to join the freshman class.
 
Even though this is a limited sample, this is confirmation of what I’ve heard anecdotally from other pilots in the industry. Only the top 5% of people who wanted to be pilots and pay for the training actually end up earning what the college recruiters advertised.
 
Fascinating, because that 5% holds true to any group of people you pick for any profession. In this case the high earners eventually rise to the top and the students who struggle take more training hours and sink into even deeper inescapable flight and tuition debt. Still have money to spend? The university will keep training you because they are in business to make money.
 
For the pilots, the annual pay for my freshman class is somewhere between $40,000 (regional airline first officer) and $110,000 (major airline pilot).
 
Half of my freshman class chose to pursue other careers entirely, due to financial issues, changing goals, health, or personal reasons. Everyone in my list finished the majority of their training and graduated, indicating that they all suffered under a similar student debt load of more than $100K.
 
This means that there are some poor souls out there who are still paying off debt for a profession they left a long time ago. Just over a year ago, I was one of them, paying off student loans for a job I had left 6 years prior, and a university I had left nearly 15 years ago. The only way I escaped the clutches of the student loans is that I sold my house and moved into a one-bedroom apartment until I paid them off. That was less than two years ago.
 
A drastic lifestyle change or sacrifice is the only way out, but once you’re out, you’re free.
 

2. It’s an adventurous and exciting job

 
Flying is a job that carries with it a lot of respect and prestige. After going through the grueling training process, I can say that the respect is well earned. Each level of training is a shock that forces you to adapt to a merciless environment, particularly when it comes to memorizing procedures, executing them within a time limit, and exercising good judgment.
 
We had two individuals in our airline training class, out of 18 people, that struggled with the increased difficulties of flying a jet. One of them didn’t make it. The instructor told us that in the previous class, 5 people didn’t make it through training. Imagine paying for the amount of training required and amassing flight hours for nearly six years before being eligible to apply, only to fail out airline training.
 

Earning my wings as a First Officer, and later, Captain, was altogether an 8-year achievement.


 
Once you’ve survived training on the ground and in the simulator and made it to the actual airplane, then you have more training in the airplane, with a training captain. Much of the time, your sleep schedule is severely disrupted because you often have to wake up at 3 or 4 am to get dressed in your uniform, pack your bag, commute to the airport, and go through security.
 
You get to prepare the aircraft for its next flight within 20 minutes of parking to the gate. Everything from inspecting the plane to checking the weather, the flight plan, the paperwork, or dealing with disruptions like flight plan changes or weight limit issues.
 
If the plane is one minute late, expect to get a call from the Chief Pilot, asking why you can’t get your act together. The company was obsessed with gaming its on-time numbers because it contracted with major airlines who used those numbers to award more flying.
 
After getting the plane away from the gate, you have to navigate the airport without making any wrong turns or missed instructions, or else you might get a mark on your record, or lose your license. One of the pilots I flew with told me the story of how he accidentally crossed a runway by going straight instead of turning left (most pilots don’t discuss their mistakes).
 
It became a permanent mark on his FAA records, and while he was able to keep his current job, he was dismayed that he had no chance of applying successfully at any other company because of having “skeletons in the closet.”
 
For every takeoff, be on high alert in the event something unexpected happens. After takeoff and climbout, flying finally goes from being very stressful, to incredibly boring. For the most part, you’re following a preprogrammed flight path using the GPS, unless there are thunderstorms or ice to deal with, which is the wrong kind of excitement.
 
If your flight is more than 3 hours, prepare to test your bladder unless you find a good moment to duck out of the cockpit. A flight attendant has to sit in the cockpit while the remaining pilot awkwardly wears an oxygen mask.
 
You’re also subjected to a high amount of cosmic radiation, eye-damaging UV rays, cabin pressurization, deafening wind noise, and dehydration from zero humidity at altitude. All of this, plus sleep deprivation, takes its toll on you over time.
 
You’re also in a space the size of a small closet with another person, chosen at random. Sometimes, you’ll fly with fantastically smart and interesting people. Just as often, you’ll fly with people with all the personality of a wet towel, control freaks, or an obnoxious person who eats an oversized canister of slim jims while bragging about his fraternity conquests.
 

Early on as a First Officer, years before complete career burnout.


 
Other than the thick binders you memorize for systems, operations, and regulations, another order emerges which dominates your life: seniority, and a union contract. The absolute opposite of a meritocracy is seniority; therefore, if you unfortunately lie at the bottom of a seniority list as an airline pilot, your schedule is entirely made up as you go by the company.
 
Planning on getting home by 5 pm so you can have dinner with the family? Instead, you’re notified on your last flight to contact crew scheduling, who needs you to fly another round trip that lands at 11:55 pm, or 5 minutes before your day off, which is allowed per your contract.
 
Every six months, you’re thrown into a simulator to face fires, mechanical failure, instrument failure, disastrous weather, or anything else that you’re required to keep memorized. These are pass or fail events and I’ve seen at least one co-pilot during one of these checks nearly fail an event, in his case because he had a baby at home that was keeping him awake at night.
 
Flying is a difficult, stressful job, interspersed with untold lost hours waiting for airplanes, crews, flights, delays, hotel shuttles. There were many days where I arrived back home, only to sleep until noon on my first day off because I was completely exhausted. On my first day off, I rarely wanted to do anything but recover from the exhaustion, but your family and home life is compressed into your days off and everyone wants your time, which might only be one or two days in a week, especially if you’re commuting. This leads me to my final description.
 

3. You get to travel the world as part of your job

 
Most people imagine that pilots fly one flight to Miami, where they sun themselves at a resort, drinking Mai Tais and enjoy the nightlife.
 
In reality, we were more likely to get sleep deprived and wake up to no breakfast because your hotel doesn’t have a kitchen, or you’re up before the kitchen even opens. In my case, 8 hours of “rest” was from pulling the parking brake to arriving at the airport the next day, usually resulting in 5.5 hours of actual sleep due to getting in and out of the airport, waiting around for hotel shuttles, transport, plus a speedy night and morning routine.
 
I kept packets of oatmeal in my bag and mixed them in a coffee cup with hot water for the worst overnights, which didn’t have dinner or breakfast. Then you just fasted until you arrived at the airport the next day and had the pleasure of eating airport food. Airport food is better called terminal food, because you might be risking food poisoning due to an ex-felon dropping your food on the floor and then throwing it on a plate, as I witnessed while waiting for carry-out.
 
The hotel quality ranged wildly, often dredging up long overnights in 2-star hotels isolated from civilization with no food but Subway sandwiches at the nearby gas station. When you were lucky enough to stay in a nicer hotel in the hipster cities you actually wanted to explore, you’d find out that you had a sleep-deprived short overnight with no time for anything but salvaging sleep.
 
Sometimes our first flight landed before sunrise, followed by 4.5 hours of layover in airports with no crew lounge. We’d make a bed out of the seats on the airplane and sleep again, unless was boiling hot or freezing cold, because airplanes are frequently at extreme temperatures while passengers aren’t sitting in them.
 

Later in my career as a Captain with a typical 6 a.m. taxi in Philadelphia. The twinkle in my eyes is because this was shortly before my escape from the airline industry, which I had worked on for over 2 years.


 
The reason for all this terrible ‘luck’ with the worst pilots, the worst schedules, and the worst overnights, are all due to the seniority system. Even though I was a Captain for most of my career, I spent more than 5 years of a 6-year airline career as a low-seniority reserve (on-call) pilot, who are assigned the undesirable leftovers of the remainder of the schedule holders on the seniority list for your assigned base. You have no control of your schedule as a bottom feeder.
 
If you’re low-seniority, you’ll probably be sent to the worst base to work from, instead of your preferred home city. Both your days off each week are used for a 2-leg commute from Grand Rapids to your home. The worst bases were those that took an entire day of commuting to get there. This takes you away from home even more.
 
After flying for a while, you realize that nothing matters as much as getting back home. Among all of the pilots you work with, everyone will eat each other alive if it means getting home sooner, including dumping flights on reserve pilots by faking a sick call and bolting for home, or constantly calling crew schedulers to trade the worst schedule to you, or sticking you with notorious “3 am reserve”, which usually resulted in being called at 3 am. There is no honor in a pilot seniority system, only low-seniority abuse by high-seniority pilots.
 
When the base in my home city of Saint Louis was closed and I was sent to Chicago, I was unable to relocate because the housing market was falling into a deep hole and my soon-to-be-ex-fiancée was attending a university there. Not only that, but most of my family lived there and were our support network, as it’s hard to make friends if you’re rarely at home.
 
When I began commuting, I commuted for 4-8 hours while trying to fly using any open seat on an airline that constantly bumped our pilots from flights for their own passengers and pilots. This resulted in frantic mornings running to different terminals, often only to be turned away by a full flight, then constantly worrying about missing the flight you’re responsible to fly yourself, as the hours ticked closer.
 
The commute is far from relaxing as you’re constantly checking the weather, flight delays, scrambling to new gates, and calling automated phone lines to list yourself as a lowly freeloader at the bottom of the airline’s priority list.
 
As a result, I spent less than 10 days per month at home. The effects of constantly living out of a suitcase and living a dreadfully unhealthy lifestyle of stress and uncertainty makes you want to see something familiar and stable that much more. If you’re fortunate to find a significant other who is willing to put up with hardly ever seeing you, your relationship as a result feels like a long-distance one, even when it’s not supposed to be that way.
 
You miss all of your friends’ weddings, all of the birthdays, celebrations, and gatherings. Weekends are like a mirage that you can see, but never can touch. Everyone moves on with their lives because you’re unreliable, and they finally tell you that rather than try to set up a time with you, why don’t you contact them when you’re available, because they tire of trying to get together with a ghost. You see pictures of everyone spending time together on social media and despair.
 
On vacation, I tried to use my travel benefits, but the tickets fall into the same lowly freeloader priorities as commuting pilots, even though now you’re paying a quarter or sometimes half the cost of an actual ticket. I had a cruise planned once from San Juan, Puerto Rico, that made a stop in a different island every night. This seemed like a welcome break.
 
Once we showed up at the airport, even though we connected through Houston and the weather was beautiful in most of the U.S., the weather in the airline’s other main base in Newark was creating massive disruptions and delays, causing re-bookings through all of the other hubs – including Houston. Our dozens of open seats vanished and we waited all day for a flight, only to have to cancel the cruise last minute. I was extremely lucky that Royal Caribbean took pity on us and allowed a refund, when they clearly had the upper hand.
 
Our vacation became a staycation after one frustrating day. I never again depended on airline benefits to travel and bought my tickets instead. If you give buddy passes away, expect your friends to be flustered by the same scenarios.
 
After going through the 3 main reasons, how do you feel about the airline industry? Employers outside the airline industry offer benefits and perks that I’d never have dreamed of after leaving. My life was transformed within the first week of my last flight and I never considered going back, not even for a second. Not after the sheer joy of being at home, of leaving all the stress behind, of recovering from chronic fatigue, and finding a thousand reasons to be happier.
 

The Choice

 
After 6 years and 5000 hours of flight time, I calculated all of my ‘life hours’ that were used up in one of the worst months and estimated that 85% of my life was consumed by the airline lifestyle as time away from home, and only 15% was actually doing things with my own freedom.
 
After speaking with many older pilots about my plan to change careers to finance, nearly all of them counseled me in favor of taking an opportunity for another career, if I could, because they said after 20 years, you’ll be completely numb to the airline lifestyle. When I looked far into my potential future 20 years ahead, what I saw was regret.
 
The problem with many pilot careers is that it demands everything that is precious in time and relationships, and it doesn’t start paying back in seniority until you’re old and unhappy and wish you had your youth back. Everyone in the industry was constantly chasing the dream schedule, and I never found it until I left for a corporate job.
 
I consider myself fortunate that I was flying for a miserable regional airline that drove away its pilots, because it took something drastic to force me to redirect my determination. I knew pilots that had that realization when they started a family and the birth of their first child woke them up to the reality of the life they were living.
 
If you work 9-hour days in a corporate job for five days a week, you’re nearly flipping the airline lifestyle around – now you’re spending only 25% of your life away from home and 75% of your time where and how you choose. This could be with your family, spending time with your friends, fitness and sports leagues, community events, enjoying life, sleeping and waking in your own bed, and having the weekends off.
 
After having undergone the transformation myself, it’s incomparable to the airline lifestyle and much healthier. It took me six months to recover from chronic fatigue and regulate my sleep schedule again, which was a huge relief after massive sleep disruptions over 6 years.
 
I set a New Years’ Resolution soon after leaving the airlines to eat healthier and play sports, and was back to my college fitness level within 3 months, played in recreational leagues like softball and volleyball, took up rock climbing, skied and snowboarded, took on challenges in the corporate world, and every aspect of my life improved.
 
If you’re stuck in an all-consuming job and want to seek happiness and freedom in a new job or even a new industry, my next article shows you how I changed careers from the airline industry to the corporate world:
 
I Quit My Dream Job After Burning Out and I’ve Never Been Better. This is How I Started Over.
 
If you enjoyed this article, or want to share your experience, please share, subscribe, connect on social media (links at very bottom of the page), or leave your thoughts in the comments below.
 
Thanks for stopping by The Golden Goose Guide!
 
-Josh
 

Comments(68)

  • Chris Ramputh

    June 16, 2018

    Josh, thank you. Your article is the most complete, concise, accurate and factual summary of our career I have ever read. I will share. Ironic that I read this, having just flown my last flight at my current company as Captain of the Boeing 777 just hours ago. I am one of the 5% who made it, and I am totally burned out at age 54. Although I am in good standing with my company the roster has ruined my health and I have thus resigned and am taking the summer off, to get healthy again, just like you said you did. I don’t know what’s next, but a job is to make a living, and to live, and it’s hard to do that when you are dead of a heart attack jet lagged with heartburn in a hotel room somewhere from sheer exhaustion.. Every word you said could be my own. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  • Ross Aimer

    June 16, 2018

    Very well written article, Josh!

    I was one of the lucky pilots hired by a major airline in the 60’s that is now only mentioned in some airline history book.
    At 21, with very little flight time, that was fortunately paid for when I was 16, pumping gas at a Flying “A” station and later as an A&P Mechanic for the same airline.
    Unfortunately with the cyclical nature of the airline industry, I was furloughed two years later.
    Off to another major, with the same exact outcome, two years later!
    For the next 25 years I became a “non-sked bum.”
    Feast or famine. One year l am flying as a 747 Captain for a foreign carrier, two years later, starting all over again, flying as an “off the street” DC-8 Captain for some dirtbag fly by night cargo hauler.
    And again, I was one of the lucky ones.
    I was always able to find another airline that lowered their standards and offerred me a job! Eventhough some of those “jobs” were awful and darn right abusive.
    After a dozen of those airlines, l finally settled down and started again at the bottom of the seniority list at United Airlines. At the tender age of 45!
    Never mind that l had 20,000 hours by then, of wich 10,000 hours was as PIC on heavy jets. My probationary pay was a whopping $1,500 a month!
    The next 15 years was great and I got to retire at age 60 as a wide body Captain from United.
    Little did I know the CEO needed my retirement more than I did!
    After 40 years of airline flying, with hardly any retirement, l am lucky still to be flying for food!
    Had l started as a shoe salesman 55 years ago, I would now be a rich retired owner of a chain of shoe stores.
    But I chose to stay in the airline industry!😎

  • Tyler Shaikh

    June 16, 2018

    You know you’ve finally made it in aviation, when you finally leave aviation.

  • Dave A

    June 16, 2018

    Interesting read, but I don’t think this narrative applies to everyone in the industry.

    I completely agree with him on the “how to get there” part – NOT going after an aviation degree, rather, majoring in something other than aviation as a “backup”. In my case, I felt that when I left high school (1998), an aviation degree WAS a good resume booster (if you didn’t go the military route). But in TODAY’s industry, it really isn’t necessary.

    As for the other miseries he talks about, it is certainly a case-by-case…or airline-by-airline basis. I spent 12 years at Eagle/Envoy. I was hired in 2006, and only spent the first four months on reserve (I spent about 2 and 1/2 years on reserve as captain). Yes, I had to commute, and there were definitely some frustrating days, but for the most part it wasn’t nearly as bad of an experience as he had. For contrast, he had a STL-ORD commute, which is a route with an EXTREMELY high commuter load (due to the TWA merger and subsequent draw down of STL flying by AA), whereas I had a BWI-ORD commute: fewer flights per day, but maybe a dozen total commuters per week. Also, I had the benefit of jumpseat priority on Eagle flights. I can count on 2 hands the number of times I was bumped off a commute in 12 years, and I had to use a total of 1 commuter policy miss (we were allowed 6 per year).

    As for career progression, I do consider myself VERY lucky that I ended up at a legacy, but at the same time, there is a lot of movement right now that just about anyone can take advantage of. I’m 38 years old, and next month I’ll be based at home with a legacy carrier that I’ve only been at for a few months, AND I’ll be holding a line with 18 days off. Honestly, not too shabby for this point in my career.

    I get that Josh had a bad experience, and I really do feel for the guy, but this is definitely a “worst case scenario” situation.

  • Paul Swanson

    June 17, 2018

    Well…It’s not for everyone. But I can tell you once you make it it’s pretty damn awesome. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    • Asher

      June 17, 2018

      Yep! So glad I kept going ( I never wanted tondo anything else)…18 days off a month suits me just fine! Oh, and I make over 200k as a 3 yr FO.

      • Dan

        June 19, 2018

        Good luck with your career. When you make widebody FO, flying the Pacific, with your circadian rhythms so shot it takes you a couple days to recover from a trip, you might rethink the “magic of an airline job.” Stats still say that a hefty percentage of us (I’m a pilot at a major airline) will die before we get more than a handful of years in retirement. So will you get to spend all that money you stuffed in your accounts? Fate, schedules, personal genetics, and retirement age will determine that.

  • Steve

    June 17, 2018

    Sit in a cubicle for 8-9 hrs a day, 5 days a week. Sit in rush hour traffic twice a day, 5 days a week. Have to shop at Costco on a weekend. Only see thunderstorms, sunrises, sunsets, mountains from the ground. Tell my kids that for work I “use a computer all day”. No thanks.

  • 121Pilot

    June 17, 2018

    There is no doubt the airline career path is a difficult one but the authors experience is far from representative. Without attaching any criticism to him it’s a case study in how to have a miserable career 101.

    I was at my first regional for 9 months based in an expensive area where on their (TSA) scumbag pay levels I was falling behind financially despite living frugally. When they closed my base it led to a move to regional number 2 where I stayed for 7 years until a failed attempt to become a LCC led to bankruptcy and me being on the street out of work. It was an extraordinarily difficult and stressful time in my life especially with multiple failed job interviews as i tried to escape the sinking ship. I was able to get hired at a fractional and then 9 months later a LCC major which has been a good place to work. After 11 years as an FO (having delayed upgrade for Quality of Life) I’m a Captain now and lineholder. I love what I do and even post upgrade have a decent quality of life.

    I commute but I’ve never done the multiple leg or trans-con commute that some do and which is exponetionally more difficult. We non-rev pretty regularly and by being smart about it have had good luck. You have to be flexible of course but the flexibility has pulled us out of some tight jams when a storm fouled the system and filled out plane. I’ve also given out plenty of buddy passes over the years again with good luck in part because I think of good planning.

    My career has certainly had its ups and downs but I wouldn’t change it. I’ve travelled to Europe and Asia for free several times in First or Buisness class not to mention a lot of other trips that never would have happened had I been paying for tickets. I get payed to do what I love fly airplanes and my layovers have been far better on average than what the author described above.

    His should certainly be a cautionary tale to those thinking of entering the industry but theitnare many like myself that even with a bankruptcy in my rear view mirror have had enjoyable careers.

  • A

    June 18, 2018

    So what do you do for a living now? Having worked the 9-5 in professional job for 15 years in the type of place that also requires an expensive education, it seems like your complaints aren’t super specific to the airline industry, especially when you consider analogy problems that everyone has for work.

  • Alex W

    June 18, 2018

    I won’t lie this was fairly brutal to read… I appreciate the authors candidness regarding his career but matter of factly it looks to spur the profession to those considering it based on his poor choices (although the caution is certainly important). There are so many paths in aviation, sadly he chose the wrong one. I got a flying degree, but skipped the regional and went and flew C-17s for the Air Force reserve, 4 years later I was MD-11 FO for one of the big guys by age 31 and absolutely love my job. There we so many points in his article that were just plain wrong. Missed friends weddings – nope. Important family events – nope. I’m sorry it didn’t work out, hopefully you’re happy… I just don’t want folks to be scare away based on one dudes regional career.

  • Ray A

    June 19, 2018

    Interesting read and a good “worst case scenario” for up and coming pilots. The training and school write up is spot on. I myself only went back to school to finish my degree on the chance I’d go to an airline that required it although many now seem to not be too concerned.

    Where I differ is the career pathway. I started my career as an A&P before continuing the flying side and having already been making a decent pay check I chose to follow the paycheck not the plane or airline. This led me to some fly by night operators and a piston powered regional that paid double to triple what the jet/turboprop regionals paid and amazingly had CASS.

    During my time there I jumpseated quite a bit and heard all I needed to hear about how miserable some of the pilots were with their schedules. I went on chasing the pay and quality of life which meant working harder than most at airlines and it eventually landed me in a corporate gig flying an average of 250 hours a year and averaging less than one overnight a month excluding training all while making 5-7 year legacy captain pay. I’ll never top out at what I could of made but broken down by duty and flight time I actually make a lot more and haven’t gotten divorced yet!

    I am lucky for sure but I don’t believe I fit the same 5% you speak of. I see where your career was becoming a mental and physical pain but before your giant 180 degree career change maybe a change of scenery would of kept you in the cockpit. Plenty of pilots make careers in other forms of flying, maybe you’ll get back to it one day!

  • Allan

    June 19, 2018

    Very interesting. I left the career as an RJ captain after 9-11. In my post airline careers I have had some great success. I built a company with 90 employees and sold the company to a Fortune 500 company. After selling the company, I decided to go back to flying – I didn’t need to work, but needed to have a passion in my life. I didn’t want to start another company as that is totally life consuming. Call it an itch, call it a passion – I went back to the regional airlines. I have about 20 years left to work, and thought that flying would be a good job, quality of life and time off were important.

    After working in the “real world”, it was amazing to observe the airlines again. If I were to interview for a real world job, I interview at a very high level. During my interview at the airline, non of my accomplishments mattered. The interview consisted of “tell me about a time that you had a difficult time with a captain” – well that was 20 years ago, we also spent time talking about my grades in college, and I had to justify a grade that I got at graduate school (@ the top school in the country). In the real world, the degree is impressive, no other business would ask about the grades that I got in school, two decades ago.

    Going through training and life on the line, I am judged, not by my accomplishments, but by how much time that I have.

  • FlyingJ (John)

    June 20, 2018

    Nice article Josh (depressing read, but very informative)

    Sorry the airline route didn’t work for you, but happy you found a career that you can appreciate!

    I was once an airline guy too, started in 2006 and things seemed absolutely great. But my training environment had worse results than yours, we lost 30% of our 40 person class in training, while a class in late 2006 had a 50% washout rate!

    I was burned out in 2009 after an upgrade to CA was followed by a downgrade, and I too looked for an exit. My aviation degree and flight experience landed me a job outside the cockpit where I worked for six years. I made a good living, and worked the normal corporate job, slowly graduating from cubicles to an office all the while missing a flying lifestyle.

    I eventually found a charter company that would allow me to “live” with a decent wage. After a year and a half with them, I had a amazing opportunity to join a corporate flight department and have been living a dream here. I’m not paid at the level of a senior legacy captain but make a great Midwest living! I’ve averaged 10 days of work every month, several overnights, and can enjoy the “travel” lifestyle many of us envision getting into the industry (fly one leg, sit on the beach for a couple days, fly home).

    I hope finance keeps your interests and that the lifestyle is exactly what you’ve always hoped for!

  • B.C. Krygowski

    June 24, 2018

    Wow! Thanks for writing all that up. Your number three sounds a lot like conversations we’ve had in our household this past year—and we finally took the plunge to having BOTH of us work part-time, even though it meant about a 3/4 pay cut for my husband. So, as we say in the medical field, strong work!! Thanks again!

  • Xrayvsn

    June 24, 2018

    I came across this post from Physician on FIRE and it was a great read.
    It is scary how similar the paths to being a physician and pilot are in terms of huge student loans, delayed gratification, challenging lifestyle, etc.
    In fact I would say that the pilot situation is even worse with the apparent multiple times you have to go back down to the bottom of the food chain. For physicians typically after residency we have a better financial trajectory and don’t get subject to seniority issues as often.

    Sounds like you make a hard but great choice switching occupations. I made a similar choice which I started my blog with when I went a couple of years into residency and changed specialties (a difficult decision at the time but one that had brought me much happiness)

    Well hope you continue on the right path to happiness which it looks like you are

  • Hatton1

    June 24, 2018

    I found this article from Physician on Fire. Like xrayvsn I am a doctor. The path to pilot hood sounds like medical training. Sleep deprivation is a medical training issue also. Now hours are limited to 80 per week in training. No limits when I trained. Interestingly my nephew is a pilot for Southwest. He spent 20 years in the airforce. I think the military training helped him. If you can fly around Iraq and Afghanistan I suspected nothing in Dallas is going to bother him. I will send him this article.

  • Toby

    June 24, 2018

    I looked at going to LeTourneau, but ended up in Boiler country instead. I also flew at the great CHQ (I wonder if we flew together) and left to fly 747’s for a while before helping to keep “The World On Time” now.

    I got my private license while still in high school and paid for it by mowing lawns, which saved me the costs of paying for it in college. Between working (a lot, mostly as a dorm RA for free tuition) and a bit of my parent’s savings, I was able to graduate debt free. That made the transition to the 727 panel and then the regionals a lot easier. I’d have F/O’s tell me they spent $120k at Riddle for their degree and I’d politely ask, “Didn’t you see the pay rates here before you applied?” They’d laugh because we all knew that the allure of future benefits would hopefully outweigh the down sides of entry-level RJ flying.

    And I think, on the whole, the industry will pay off. The key is seeing the long game. There will always be, however, a certain percentage that always struggle, either because of timing or bad luck. Get hired at the right time, and the industry is yours. Get hired at the back of the wave, and perpetual reserve is the world you’ll know. The industry runs in cycles and hitting the right one takes both luck and planning. I have a good buddy I flew 74’s with who was furloughed after 13 years at USAir, then didn’t pass his upgrade at the company where we flew together. Like you say though, if he leaves for yet a third airline, it’s bottom of the list, bottom of the scale.

    I’m sorry your airline career didn’t pan out, but I’m really happy you found something else you love. Reading your post reminds me of how brutal the industry can be, but also how blessed I’ve been. The next time I want to complain, I’ll remind myself that it can always be worse. All the best –

  • Planedoc

    June 24, 2018

    I work professionally with many airline pilots….it amazes me the drastic variation in their experiences and happiness. You have the guys who made it into military flight training, enjoyed it, got hired at a major in their id-30s, and are loving life. You also have guys who have flown for every defunct airline there is.

    I never made it into the airline cockpit….fortunately, I didn’t pay a lot for commercial ratings/ATP. After doing a long cross-country as a CFI with a doc, I said to myself “he has money to fly, and I’m as smart as he is….” so I went to med school. A couple of residencies later, I now have a summer job flying (fires); and a winter job doing locum tenens. By having “another career” I was fortunate enough to have an airshow career, and get to fly warbirds (mustang/corsair/fury/P-40). Never underestimate the role of luck…..

    I suspect there is more variation person-to-person in airline careers than just about any other career, except perhaps “country musician”.

    Enjoyed your write-up.

  • You had a ton of student debt 15 years ago, but I’m wondering what the cost is currently of these pilot programs? Are they mostly structured as undergrad institutions or do they set them up as master’s degrees or graduate study? Wondering if it’s mostly all private student loans or federal that you had to take?

  • The FIminator

    June 29, 2018

    Great insight. My career in consulting could be seen in a similar light..with less initial costs but similar earning potential. Not as much stress but still not pleasant…

  • FlyJ

    June 30, 2018

    You almost made it.. the ‘lost decade’ in the industy sucked for all, but things have drastically changed.. I graduated (flight degree) in ‘05. And while it has been a rocky road, I’m at a major averaging 15 days off a month making $200k/yr. Quite a few of my friends got out of the industry in the 2007-2009 timeframe and now regret it. I wonder if you are feeling the same regret?

  • Eric Curtis

    June 30, 2018

    Change only a few words, and this same story could be about IT professionals, or management types, or finance gurus, or anything. Having a career plan that includes fallback plans and industry exit plans are important in every industry or job. You don’t need flight time in the corporate (non-aviation) world, but you do need years of school (masters degree), continual professional improvement (e.g., studying), qualification tests (e.g., certification), horrible hours (many high profile careers come with 7x24x365 oncall – much more invasive than a few months or years at the bottom of a seniority system), and even inept coworkers protected by a “union” (aka, overzealous HR departments). It’s your job – it is what you make of it every time.

    Once someone finds out that I’m an IT guy who left the corporate world, the most common question I get is this:
    “Why did you leave?”

    I’ve thought of why this question exists. There are three good reasons we can consider, based on my experiences:
    1. IT guys are highly compensated.
    2. IT is an exciting job.
    3. You are the lynchpin that holds a company together.

    There is something deep inside many dreamers that want to be important, rise through the ranks of a company, and be “that guy” that makes it succeed. After all, this has been a part of humanity since long before adventurous types from Christopher Columbus to Neil Armstrong charted new courses to unknown worlds.
    Early in college, I remember reading a biography of Jack Welsh, the famous CEO who made GE a powerhouse, and as a result, I was hooked on being in a position where I could make a company successful. Like many college grads, it was more of a fascination than anything else.
    However, when I chose a university, a professional IT degree promised a lifetime of excitement, and I took the plunge and signed up.
    I’d like to respond to each one of the assumptions most people make about this industry….

  • Robert Knight. - Vetus nauta at LinkedIn

    July 1, 2018

    Loved Josh’s story. To “country musician” (Planedoc June 24th) add “merchant seaman”. Having had a chequered career myself, ship’s captain, local government officer, university lecturer and a few others, I submit that a varied career, with all its struggles, gives many more memories to cherish during one’s old age. I’m 85 and still not sure what I really wanted to do to earn a living. “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. John Lennon”

    • planedoc

      November 13, 2018

      You make a great point!

      Having done some “different things”, makes for great memories. OTOH, I’ve taken a lot of grief for “not being conventional” in any of the things I’ve done.

  • Trevor Gagnier

    July 2, 2018

    Josh very well written article and expresses obviously what so many part 121 pilots have come to know. However the flip side is that you were fortunate indeed to land left seat at 27 years of age. In my twenties there were up to 200 resumes to fly Beech King Airs . I had to scrimp and save in my thirties to pay for lessons , too scared to get into debt and at 36 had my commercial and CFI tickets. In 2002 I had enough time for qualifying for regionals but 9-11 killed it – 8 interviews at most of the regionals with 15-30 applicants all with resume and blue suit and maybe 10% got a class date. At 40years of age I began studying thinking to get into law school while instructing part time to just stay current and at 44 finally landed a FO job at a regional going backwards financially for almost six years including a furlough of 18 months with cost of renting a room and eating out. I was almost fifty before going overseas just to bank money for retirement .

    So as poignant and accurate as your article is you achieved what many struggled to attain at a young age and we all came by our sacrifices at different angles. I’m glad I experienced what I did but won’t ever return to that kind of miserable existence. I saw pilots never vacation, in fear of taking time off and a few get medical problems they never foresaw. Thank you for that well written piece. I know many pilots who walked away from this profession and most never regretted it. I’ve seen cool places that a regional would have never given me the chance to see and many pilots have had to go overseas to see this career as a rewarding one.

  • Larry

    July 6, 2018

    Josh,
    Glad to hear things are going better for you after changing professions. You are correct: the job isn’t for everyone. But after 31 years of flying for a major international airline, 20,000+ flight hours, thousands of hotel rooms, two mergers, a strike, and one bankruptcy, I’d do it all over again if I had the chance. It was a thrilling and rewarding career for me. Sorry it did not work for you.

  • Jonathan T

    July 9, 2018

    Josh – I’m soaking up your article and comments. Learned even more from your comments to the comments. Outstanding job here, and a word in season to many who are making decisions in this alluring time in aviation where pilots have a clearer chance at the dream than ever before. While pilots are running to the regionals, it makes a life in the corporate and private flying world much better a quality of life. I’m home much more than airline pilots out there, and when i’m on the road, I have time to enjoy being where i’m at. The payoff over time is not what your visualization projects, but the reward in spending time with my family and having discretionary time makes losing out on the future $ value worthwhile. FYI thanks for teaching me how to fly!

  • Rowan Bean

    July 13, 2018

    I feel this article was a massive “regional airline” grievance therapy session. Congratulations on your new found love of a job in the Financial community!

    For what it’s worth, The statistics from my University displayed good experiences at their regional airlines and are now working for companies such as Southwest, Alaska, Jet Blue, Virgin America, United, American, Delta, and Allegiant.

    This article is massively misleading as the work rules, contracts, and regulations have changed since this pilot has left the field. (Over 7 years ago)

    This article highlights some potential challenges and pitfalls, but talk to some pilots in the community and you’ll learn what companies offer a better quality of life over others.

    The airline community is filled with many jobs other than being a pilot. People may want to pursue those opportunities as well.

    Best of luck with your financial dream job! I hope this blog provides you with lots of additional income and client business. Also, may this blog continue to provide good financial counseling and tips to others that are seeking it!

  • Les

    September 15, 2018

    I really enjoyed your article. As stated by others, you were an accomplished airline pilot who made it to the left seat in a jet in your 20’s, albeit with a crappy regional, and you would most likely be with a major airline now had you not switched careers.

    My path was similar to yours in that I graduated from the “Harvard of the Skies” in the 90’s and I worked there as a CFI. However, my flying career only progressed as far as a King Air pilot due to lack of better opportunities at the time. When I was 30, a career opportunity in airport operations and management arose, which I accepted and today I’m the CEO of the airport. I still have a passion for flying and I fly tours in a 172 on weekends. When I was 40 I was tempted to pursue an airline or corporate pilot career, but it would have been financially irresponsible to give up a comfortable salary to start at the bottom of the pilot seniority list.

    I’ve always wondered “what if?”. Would I be flying 737s or GVs now and would I be happy? I frequently look up former students and college friends and amazingly many of them are not flying for majors or flying corporate. I’m very happy for those who’ve made it to Captains in the majors.

    Happiness is personal and Josh, it appears you have found happiness. It also appears some of the pilots who’ve made it, the 5%, have also found happiness. While I don’t make as much as a Captain in a major, I am very happy. For me happiness is being with my wife and family, 100% debt free, college for 2 kids fully funded and being on a glide path to retire on an island resort at 60 – boating, fishing and flying too!

  • Tom

    November 21, 2018

    Great article Josh. It is true that 75% of your time is dedicated to your flying career when you work at a regional. Even the folks that made it to the majors have dedicated a large portion of their lives getting to where they are at. The missed holidays, kid events and family time are all part of that sacrifice too. What about your physical health? studies have been proven to show that an unpredictably sleep cycle is detrimental to your health. So everyone essentially spends years, even decades trying to get a job at the majors where you are at a point in your career that you don’t have to work/fly. The irony of it all.

    For all those talking about how great their careers are/or were just don’t forget how fat, dumb and happy the United retirees were until the bankruptcy stripped them of their pensions. It’s amazing how the airlines manage to find employees with such a profound sense of loyalty to their careers, yet at the first sign of falling profits they send out furlough notices. More power to those that make the sacrifice and a career out of flying… I quit at the regional level, but applaud those that put up with them before moving on to the majors. Because now that I don’t fly for a living I do need someone to fly me and my family around when I go on vacation during the holidays. Better you sacrifice your time during the holidays and work than me.

  • Claus THANNER

    November 23, 2018

    I started flying in February 1995 in Denmark. Ripe and ready by the end of 1996. Went off to fly Beech King Airs and Beech 1900’s on civilian UN and Red Cross contracts in East and Central Africa followed by a brief sortie to Afghanistan. I’ve had technical night stops in the middle of f@cking nowhere in the outskirts of Kenya, had 13 year old boys sitting on the wing of my King Air, in Mogadishu, showing me his gun when I told him not steel Jet-A from the UN – and then left it at that. Flown regional turbo props (Fokker 50 and D8-Q400) around the Scandinavian winters and summers, along the Norwegian west coast and 14m30sec domestic Danish sectors x 6 in a day. Relocated to Asia to fly for a renowned Hong Kong airline on the B747-400 and A330s for 5- years. Left comfortable airline jobs to return to Africa and fly Single engine turbo props (Cessna C208 Caravans) around the bush in Tanzania (Serengeti) and to the islands along the coast (Zanzibar etc.). Finally settled on flying pretty Gulfstream G650s around the world for private owners. Has it all been glamorous and easy – no – has it ever been right down tough and boring – no – have I enjoyed most of it – yes – do I still love my profession and lifestyle – YES. The keyword is; find the right place in aviation for you. Best of luck to the ones that, for whatever reason chooses to leave the industry, and best of luck to the ones who has come to peace with it.

  • GTM

    December 3, 2018

    I had a similar path and left the industry a few years after upgrading at SkyWest. This was in 2007 when oil was crushing the market. What I experienced was zero support from colleagues whenever an exit strategy was mentioned. People thought leaving that career was crazy, and treated me like a crab trying to escape the bucket. You might enjoy my dystopian list of archetypal personalities found at any airline:

    1) Survivors: have to pay alimony, hate the job but need the paycheck
    2) Dreamers: so in love with planes they will work under any condition as long as they can fly
    3) Bennies: there for free travel and a nomad lifestyle
    4) Weirdos: dysfunctional in team and/or social environments, but able to hide in the cockpit
    5) Bus drivers: workaholics who are resigned to their lot in life, but love to complain loudly about the system
    6) Cynics: waiting for an excuse to leave
    7) Rare aviator: highly educated pilots who appreciate aviation’s history

    A surprisingly large number of airline pilots are ignorant about aeronautical engineering (e.g., ruddervators) or aviation related events prior to the movie Top Gun.

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