If you've ever dreamed of flying, now could be the right time to break into aviation.
There is a high demand for pilots, industry experts say. Older pilots are retiring and regional airlines are expanding and hiring, even as a few major airlines are cutting back.
The catch is, training is expensive and many of the available entry-level pilot jobs are relatively low-paying -- as little as $8 an hour -- and demand time away from home and family.
"It's definitely one of those 'for the love of the job' kinds of things," said Jerry Williams, owner of Sonoran Wings Flight Training Centre at Tucson International Airport.
Historically, it has been hard for a wannabe pilot to get into the airlines, he said. Now, airlines are dropping their required levels of experience and recruiters are showing up at his school asking if he has any students ready for hire, Williams said.
The number of new hires at airlines has been steadily rising since 2003, said Kit Darby, president of Atlanta-based Aviation Information Resources Inc. Airlines have increased hiring for the past two years, following declines from 2001 to 2003.
Darby said he expects airlines will hire between 8,500 and 10,500 new pilots this year.
Some of the Sonoran Wings students are teens starting on their first career track. Others are adults who got tired of their desk jobs and were looking for excitement.
Many are hoping to be military pilots and see the airlines as a "plan B." For Brian Flynn, a 19-year-old University of Arizona student, joining the Air Force was an easy way to get paid pilot training.
"It's always been something I've been interested in," he said, adding he loves the way the world looks from the air. He's been flying for a little more than a year and has a flight simulator at home, he said.
The costs associated with training and licensing at the commercial level add up to $40,000 or so at local schools, although those affiliated with community colleges can help students find financial aid. There are about a dozen flight schools in Tucson.
The regional airlines are hiring hundreds of beginners to fill openings. Mesa Airlines Inc. in Phoenix hired about 600 pilots in the last year and is looking to hire 80 more this month, said pilot recruiter Chris Bender. The company expanded its contract with Delta this year and started new flights to Hawaii in June, adding more planes.
Starting pilots make $18,000 to $21,000 a year at the company, Bender said, but make $60,000 or more when they are named captain after a few years of experience.
Mesa loses about 30 pilots a month to larger carriers, Bender said. Many pilots use regional airlines as a way to reach the majors, where they get another pay hike. The nationwide average pay for airline pilots is $135,040 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last year, the major airlines hired 2,500 pilots, and Darby said he expects they'll hire about that many this year.
Half of the major airlines, including low-cost carriers such as Southwest and cargo fliers such as FedEx, are hiring. The other half still have a combined 8,300 pilots on furlough, although some are being recalled, Darby said.
And while some of the major carriers have reduced salaries and cut benefits, the outlook is good for newcomers who haven't known higher pay, Darby said.
Adding to the demand is the effect of many pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60, although there is a movement to push the retirement age to 65. About 12,000 pilots will retire in the next five years, Darby said.
"That's going to mean more opportunities for young people to get into the business," Williams said.
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Older pilots are retiring and regional airlines are expanding and hiring, even as a few major airlines are cutting back.
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