One route for pilots to reach the cockpit of a major carrier is by flying for a regional airline first. It’s a well-trodden path, which still requires dedication from those wishing to follow it.
Whatever the level of skills and qualifications someone has, building a career is never an easy task. That assertion is certainly true for those wishing to be airline pilots and make it all the way to flying intercontinental routes for a major carrier.
The routes through the industry to reach such levels are varied. According to Monserrat Barriga, director-general of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), during periods of consistent recruitment, there exist two streams of pilot employment within Europe. “Mainline and larger low-cost employers may engage in sponsorship or mentoring programmes for first officers straight from training, or regional operators are often used as a stepping-stone to these larger mainline airlines that provide higher remuneration,” she explains.
“In the past, the path to achieving a professional pilot’s licence was limited, with either a lengthy course for an Integrated Airline Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL), or alternatively a self-improver course of training,” Barriga adds. “Traditionally, a self-improver would most likely start their professional flying career as a flying instructor, or perhaps conducting other aerial work activities. From this they would move up the ladder to flying light piston engine twins on charter-type work, all the time gaining experience and improving eligibility to eventually join a typical regional airline. Gaining valuable airline experience and flying hours would then be prioritised before considering progressing to larger types or perhaps long-haul flying.”
These days, the ERA director-general notes, mainline and low-cost operators often have well established relationships with approved training organisations (ATOs) and, in some cases, ab initio schemes exist where student pilots are identified as having high potential and ‘tagged’ by the school and airline throughout their training.
“This allows the airline to mentor them throughout their training and hire them once they are type rated and certified,” remarks Barriga. “It provides the trainee with a structured career path and the airline with a predictable flow of high-quality graduates, strongly motivated and with a sense of commitment to their sponsoring employer.”
This is similar to how many airlines in the USA have partnered with a training provider and/or with universities to create pathways from training to regional airline to mainline carrier. Bill Whyte, vice-president, aviation operations & technical services at the Regional Airline Association (RAA) assesses how prevalent these are becoming and their attractions for stakeholders.
“Much depends on who’s developing what and where. In the US, a lot of things are regional in terms of geography – how things develop based on airlines [and their location],” Whyte says. “But the major airlines each have their own ideas about how they're going to get student pilots into the system and so on in terms of providing training, providing grants, providing scholarships. Everybody's fishing in the same pool.
“From simulator manufacturers, who also run their own training organisations, all the way down through colleges, universities that have an aviation programme, and then all the way down to ‘Mom and Pop’ flight schools,” he continues. “All these get involved in getting a pilot into a regional and then to the mainline.”
After getting a private pilot’s licence, the pilot then goes into commercial flying with an instrument rating. “At that point, depending on what the type of programme is, everybody has to get the dreaded 1,500 hours,” Whyte states in reference to the requirement needed to get an ATPL, which was introduced after the investigation into the Colgan Air crash in February 2009. There are exceptions to this depending on whether somebody goes through a collegiate programme or enters from the military. These can lower the required hours before a Restricted-ATP is granted. “Then you've got to take the written tests to do what's called an ATP CTP,” the RAA vice-president adds. Eventually the path leads the full ATP written exam, after which the candidate can start training with an airline.
The time between a pilot arriving at a regional in the right hand seat and being eligible for the left hand seat varies according to the number of hours defined by each airline. “There is a minimum hours requirement, before you can actually be a captain,” Whyte says. “Being a regional FO usually lasts about three years before a move into the left seat. Then there's about three or four years as a captain before going to the major airline.
“There may be a few people who want to stay where they are, as they have the work–life balance they want,” he adds. “For most though, getting to the majors is the goal, because that's where the big bucks are; that's when you start getting the payback for all the money that you've invested to get your certificates and licences.”
Whyte points out that major airlines have realised that there are not enough applicants in the system as a whole to feed the demand. “The whole system that provides pilots has been likened to farming and harvesting. But for too long, we've just harvested, but we need to start the farming part of it – sowing the seeds of being a pilot,” he says. “That’s what a lot of the airlines are doing now with their programmes. United’s got Aviate, Delta has got Propel and American has its Cadet Academy. They all differ, but the whole idea is to encourage youngsters into an aviation career.
“The major airlines have the money to do this and created these programmes, to encourage youngsters, provide incentives and get a more diverse pilot pool. Because in a lot of poorer communities, folks wouldn't even consider a pilot career because they couldn't afford the fees – that was just beyond their means,” Whyte emphasises.
In Europe, there are two types of pilot’s licence that can be obtained for non-personal use, according to ERA’s Barriga. “These are the Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) for low hours, multi-crew and single-pilot operation; and an Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence (ATPL) for experienced multi-crew commercial pilots. The experience required to receive a CPL is 200 hours total flight time, while an EASA ATPL ‘unfreezes’ once a cadet has successfully flown and logged 1,500 hours,” she explains.
Under the duty periods stipulated by EASA, a pilot could technically move from a CPL to an ATPL after less than seven months. “Nonetheless, for the integrated graduate these days, there are also opportunities to join larger low-cost employers almost directly with only 250 hours carried out – a considerably appealing offer for those able to secure funding,” Barriga asserts.
She offers another thought to aviators. “Qualified pilots are in huge demand around the world. At the core of the crisis are training costs, type ratings and pay and conditions, but for regional airlines, there is an added difficulty of increasing competition. Therefore, in ERA’s opinion, pilots should actually reconsider any strategy to move from a regional airline to a mainline airline,” she suggests.
Like Whyte, Barriga highlights the benefit for pilots at regional airlines remaining local to a base for lifestyle and family commitments. “Unfortunately these can often be overlooked,” she comments. “Additionally, mandatory retirement ages differ in other parts of the world, and some pilots will wish to continue flying beyond statutory retirement thresholds imposed by legacy long-haul airlines. A smaller regional operator holding an EASA AOC may be able to provide this opportunity for pilots to continue flying.”
The route to a seat in a mainline cockpit via a regional airline is still a key pathway. Regionals know it and cannot really fight it – it’s human nature. The challenge for the whole industry lies in keeping that pipeline well stocked, otherwise regional flying is cut due to lack of pilots (and it has already happened on a few occasions recently) and the mainline carriers will feel the knock-on effect.
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