The Power and Limitations of Networking

Before COVID, airline hiring conferences were big business…and they were horrible! Attendees paid hundreds of dollars (plus travel expenses that we’ll enumerate shortly) to stand in line for 8-10 hours in hopes of getting 15 minutes with an airline recruiter who’d spent those same 8-10 hours looking at nearly identical resumes and having essentially the same conversation every 15 minutes. Gag!

The death of this type of hiring conference is the only COVID casualty I celebrate.

During COVID, major airlines let thousands of pilots retire early. Then, the post-COVID recovery happened more rapidly than anyone could have imagined and every airline found itself desperately short on pilots.

Despite scoring applications as quickly as possible, airlines realized they needed some other way to get to candidates. Thanks to an enlightened desire to include more people in this awesome profession, most airlines have also discovered a desire to increase hiring from among demographics with less representation in the pilot community.

These pressures led to a rebirth of the airline pilot hiring conference. Events like NGPA, WAI, TPNx, RTAG, PAPA, and others have enjoyed attendance of any airline serious about hiring pilots in this post-COVID boom. These conferences are formatted somewhat better than their previous iteration, though it’s always a delicate balance between honest Networking event and pilot meat market.

I frequent some online groups for low-time pilots and constantly see new aviators ask whether they should attend these conferences.

Responses range from, “Of course you should! You can never start Networking too soon!” to more balanced perspectives. I lean toward the latter of those two, and I’m writing this to illustrate my reasoning.

Yes, Actual Superpowers

Of all my online articles, I’m particularly proud of this one: Networking – The Pilot Superpower. If you haven’t read it, you should, but the title says it all. I have enjoyed fantastic opportunities, both inside and outside aviation, thanks to Networking.

Even better, I’ve been able to leverage my personal network to play matchmaker for others. I’ve helped friends and even acquaintances enjoy fantastic opportunities, both inside and outside aviation, thanks to Networking.

I hope my article on the subject explains how much I stand in favor of Networking. Before that article, I also wrote another post about Making Your Own Stars Align. It’s tangentially related, but worth reading. For many opportunities, especially in aviation, some effective Networking can be the last little nudge that locks those stars into their neat little row.

I believe most pilots would benefit from learning about effective Networking much earlier in their careers. This means my fellow CFIs and I need to ensure we understand Networking ourselves, and that we spend time instructing our students on that important discipline. (Yes, being a CFI means more than just teaching about stick & rudder.)

Practical Limitations

As strongly as I support the idea of genuine Networking, I believe it’s critical for us to understand that it has its limits.

If a 250-hour Commercial pilot were to show up at an airline hiring conference expecting to have a productive conversation with the United Airlines recruiters, that person will be sorely disappointed.

Those recruiters will be polite. They’ll appreciate the young pilot’s enthusiasm, probably remembering what it was like to walk in those shoes many years ago. They may be able to offer some useful overall career advice.

However, when it comes to landing a serious airline job, there’s nothing they can do. This candidate is more than 1000 hours short of meeting United’s hiring minimums. There is nothing in their corporate structure that allows them to give this aspiring aviator anything concrete. (Blame it on their blood-sucking lawyers!)

Now, these recruiters will certainly encourage a young pilot to apply for their Aviate career pathway program. However, our intrepid young pilot doesn’t need to attend a hiring conference to get that shot. All it takes to apply for that program (and/or similar programs at other companies) is to go to the website, read the instructions, and then correctly follow those instructions.

Make no mistake: the airlines need more pilots than are currently available. You do not need a “leg up” to get serious consideration from a pilot pathway program. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. If you can’t tell what they’re selling, then you are their product.

None of this means that United is being mean to our young pilot. They simply have standards they must uphold, and can’t do any favors for anyone who has failed to meet those standards.

(Again…we can and should blame the lawyers here, though we can probably all agree that this is morally correct position despite the attorneys’ involvement, right?)

Remember: Networking is not and can never be an excuse to give someone a benefit for which they are unqualified. That is a completely different concept called patronage…and I hate it even though I (perhaps unfairly and certainly unintentionally) benefitted from it during my active Air Force service.

It’s tough to be on the senior side of a mentoring-type Networking relationship. You invariably like the person with whom you share a connection. You want them to succeed. You wish you’d had someone like yourself when you were their age to provide advice and feedback. It’s damn tempting to start helping the unqualified because you believe they deserve it.

The idea of deserving, of being entitled to, something is dangerous. We see this in sticky situations throughout our society. In the military, this results in bad (non)leaders being placed into choice assignments or even command roles for which they’re unsuited. In business, this results in lost productivity and profits, or worse.

In aviation, this can be deadly.

As a pilot you should never ask someone to give you what you have not earned. It’s not fair to you, your family, your customers, or your employer.

Easy Straightforward Solution

Thankfully, the solution to avoiding patronage in aviation is straightforward: do what it takes to earn new opportunities.

Yes, I know. That’s expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Not every pilot is blessed with the ability to ride the US Government gravy train as a military pilot, or has the savings or credit history to easily fund flight training. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners.

I wrote a 6-article series suggesting several ways for aspiring pilots in tough spots to affordably break into this industry. I firmly believe that any person willing to work hard can put those strategies to use and make it to a dream job in aviation.

On a more practical level, this makes the decision on attending an airline hiring conference simple. Are you at or very near the minimum requirements for one or more companies at that conference? If so, then attending might be worthwhile.

If you’re nowhere near anyone’s minimums, then you’re far better off staying home and working on reaching those minimums. What would it cost you to attend that conference? Put the same amount of money into getting another rating, buying a block of flight hours, or just paying your rent while you hunt for low time pilot jobs at home. Speaking of which….

Low Time Pilot Jobs

The new wave of hiring conferences has been extremely successful, with pilots showing up in droves. Although big-name airlines are benefitting from this, many smaller employers have also realized they can show up and accomplish some meaningful recruiting among lower-time pilots who need a few hundred hours before the airlines will hire them.

This means these hiring conferences can still provide excellent opportunities for pilots nowhere near big airline hiring minimums.

For a pilot who has run out of other options, attending one of these conferences is a great way to get an entry- or mid-level pilot job that can help bridge the 1000+ hour gap between earning a Commercial Pilot certificate and reaching ATP minimums.

If we stopped this discussion right here, we’d have easy decisions for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or how unqualified you might be. Show up at any of these conferences because there’s probably someone willing to offer you a job within 249 hours of your current total flight time. If only it were that simple!

Real Costs

Thankfully, hiring conference ticket prices have gone down over the years. Tickets used to cost several hundred dollars, with fast passes available as up-charges. Again, gag!

I happen to know the guys who run TPNx, and know that it costs them far more than my wife and I spent on two weddings to host their conference each year! They charge a (nominal, though not insignificant) fee for people to attend. They also do this because they know that putting a $0 price tag on a thing leads many consumers to treat that thing as though it has no value. With limited airline interview slots available, they don’t want to waste anyone’s time by having a potential attendee back out at the last minute because there’s no associated monetary cost. Sadly, that happens a lot. People are weird that way.

Some conferences these days believe their attendees are more reliable, more hungry, or both, and offer free or very cheap admission anyway. You’ll hear their promoters go on and on about how everyone should attend because there’s no cost to the attendee. While that may technically be true when discussing entrance tickets, it’s at best a gross oversimplification. At worst, it’s disingenuous.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that you can’t get something for nothing.

This is also true of hiring conferences. Let’s consider the range of costs you might encounter for attending something like the LPA Conference in St Petersburg, FL, later this month.

  • Airfare: $50-$200+ in each direction
  • Lodging: $50-$150 per night
  • Local Transit (Airport shuttles, Ubers, and or rental car): $10-$100 per day
  • Materials Prep (Resumes, printed on decent paper, business cards, etc.): $10-$100
  • Wardrobe (a nice, well-tailored suit + accessories): $300-$1000
  • Food: $25-$50 per day, if you don’t attend any parties or go drinking with friends
  • Conference tickets: $0-$400+

If you go the cheap-o route, buying a suit from Goodwill because it might not even fit by the time you get your next 1250 hours and do airline interviews, staying in a roach coach motel, eating off the Taco Bell value menu, flying on an uncomfortable ULCC, and only walking or taking the airport shuttle, you might be able to get through a weekend conference for as little as $500.

If you’re interested in actually looking good, you want to stay somewhere at least safe and hygienic enough to get some decent rest, and you want to go out to dinner with some friends (see also: Networking), these costs could easily pass $2000.

Holy cow!

For a low time pilot who just buried themselves in debt just to get to the 250-hour mark, $500 is a lot of money. Spending a couple thousand on something like this is downright crazy. Do not let anyone tell you that attending a pilot career conference is free!

What could a pilot do with that money? At the school where they just got their ratings, adding on CFI, CFII and/or MEI would certainly be within reach at those prices. A seaplane add-on can be done for about $2100 at Jack Brown’s, and a Glider rating could be even cheaper. A tailwheel endorsement should be attainable at the low end of that $500-2000 range. Those are expensive ways to get a few hours, but you’d be shocked at the employment opportunities they open up!

A low-time pilot could use that much money to buy a block of flight hours. They’d only get a handful in a twin, but I’ve seen deals offering time in singles around $100/hr.

For many low-time pilots, that chunk of change might be enough to cover rent and basic living expenses while shopping for a local flying job, which brings me to my next point:

Shop Local

Before you travel to some fancy, expensive conference you should (and I’d rather say “must”) exhaust options in your local area.

There is a very high probability that employers in your local area want to pay you to fill low-time pilot jobs. I’ve rarely heard of a flight school with too many instructors before the airline hiring boom. Nowadays, I suspect any school would welcome help. There are also always opportunities for tour operators, banner towing, glider towing, dropzone pilots, small freight carriers, pipeline patrol, survey, small charter services, and so many more jobs!

As long as a job is safe and provides a reliable source of flying hours and experience, you should not pass up a good opportunity in your area.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be willing to move. On the contrary, I’ve known too many pilots who feel entitled to a safe, high-paying, non-CFI flying job in their local area. One of my buddies refused to move in pursuit of better jobs, then had the audacity to complain about not being able to find the types of jobs he wanted.

As a pilot, you must be willing to go where the work is. However, moving isn’t free. Also, the sad truth is that low-time pilot jobs are not the most steady form of work. I’ve heard countless stories of a pilot moving far from home to pursue a job, only to be told that the owner sold the aircraft, or the contract dried up, or someone bent the airplane and it’ll be down for months.

Moving for a job is absolutely the right call, but only after you’ve exhausted options for good, safe jobs in your area.

Local Networking

Remember that we started this all off with a discussion of Networking. If your flight instructors, family, and friends know you as a hardworking person, you already have a strong base to start Networking in your local area. Have you asked your flight school if they know of anyone hiring? I guarantee they’ll give a strong recommendation for a sharp, hardworking graduate of their flight program. I guarantee they know aviation employers in your area and frequently discuss job opportunities.

If you want to start meeting people, there’s nothing easier than driving (or even better flying) to all the local airports in your area. You can start by just wandering around with a stack of business cards and resumes in hand and introducing yourself. This is essentially the same as attending a fancy hiring conference, except you can do it every day of the week for the cost of gas.

If you try this strategy, you may be surprised at how many connections you already have through your family, your church or other community organizations, your schools, past employers, etc. Those types of things are the basis of effective Networking.

Compare this to attending a pilot hiring conference. As a low-time pilot, you’ll be a stranger to everyone present. You will wisely be doing what Networking you can, but it’ll be a slow start and you’ll be just one little fish in a big pond full of similar looking fish. It’s tough to stand out in that crowd, compared to driving to places near home and being the only professional-looking pilot in months to show up. (Uncle Emet’s hints: Get a haircut. Shave, shower, and comb your hair. Put on a clean shirt with a collar. Wear khakis or similar pants and shoes slightly nicer than sneakers. Confidently introduce yourself, shake hands, look people in the eye.)

If you’re offered a low-time job at a hiring conference, you’ll need time to relocate before you can start working. If you’re Networking near home, you could get invited to fly/interview on the spot. Great! Your headset and EFB are in the car. Here are my logbook and resume to pursue while I grab them. If you get hired, you can literally start that same day, then drive home that night after work.

Time and Place

Let’s take a step back and consider the point of this whole discussion. Your goal is to earn a shot at a great flying job. You want a major airline, or a corporate gig flying G800s around the world, or something else equally compelling.

In order to reach that, you first need to get from 250 hours total time to 1500 hours total time without going bankrupt. Even when you reach 1500 hours, you’ll need to earn your ATP and then probably get a job as an FO at a regional airline or ULCC, or in the right seat of an Embraer Phenom 300.

Yes, you may need to attend a hiring conference to get that 1500-hour jet job. However, you won’t be competitive for that job as a 300-hour Commercial pilot. You need to do whatever it takes to bridge that 1200-hour gap as quickly, safely, and ethically as possible. Attending a hiring conference for that job as a 300-hour pilot will not help.

You could spend a lot of money trying to get a low-time pilot job at an expensive hiring conference. However, before you try that, you are far better off at least checking for opportunities in your local area. You could save your money and put it toward flight hours, advanced ratings, or even just rent, while you pursue local employment opportunities.

Let’s also note that hiring conferences are not the only way to get a non-local job. Employers post low-time pilot jobs all over the internet. After a day of job hunting/Networking at local airports, you can and should hop online to check job websites, message boards, Facebook groups, LinkedIn, and countless other sources for jobs. You’ll be able to apply for these opportunities from your couch without having to spend a dime.

You can and should also be asking every person you speak to locally if they know of any far-away employers looking for pilots. Aviation is a small world, and an in-person Networking interaction like that will be every bit as effective, if not more so, than a hiring conference attended by hundreds of pilots with resumes just like yours.

You can and should also spend your evenings submitting online applications to pilot pathway programs for a variety of companies. (Just be careful which ones you choose. I strongly recommend not locking yourself into a pipeline for your #1 or #2 airlines. Instead, pursue pathways for your #3 and later choices as backups. This will preserve your ability to apply outside the pipeline for your top choice companies.)

If you’ve truly exhausted all your local options and can’t get any traction with remote applications, then by all means try a hiring conference! You’re far better off moving away from home and taking a good job elsewhere, than sitting around in your parents’ basement complaining that nobody’s giving you the local job to which you feel entitled.

However, don’t let someone convince you to spend your money attending a conference, before you’ve exhausted local options, when you’re so far below the minimums for the airline/jet jobs that are at the heart of those conferences.

I wish I could promise you this path would be easy. I wish airlines could interview and give firm job offers to pilots the moment they started training. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Keep working hard, because the end result is worth it!

Do right by your employers, be safe, stay out of trouble, and treat any personal interaction as a potential Networking opportunity. If you can earn a good reputation, it will follow you! Aviation is a small community and the more you get known as a safe, effective, reliable pilot, the more opportunities you’ll get. A hiring conference may be a step in that process, but don’t break the bank on one until it makes sense.

This post’s feature image is from Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Widget MBCBP Final Update

We’re rapidly approaching the last day on which a Widget pilot will have the opportunity to chose whether or not they want to participate in the new Market Based Cash Balance Plan (MBCBP), or make a one-time, irrevocable election to maintain status quo (and not participate).

Overall, I still feel like the MBCBP is a good deal for most pilots. Unless you’re already very involved in alternative investments, you’re probably better off participating in the MBCBP. I have several alternative investments, and I’m leaning toward participating in the MBCBP anyway. I can use the $300K loophole to throttle how much goes in there for now.

If you’re still not sure about participating in the MBCBP, you need to chat with some type of Certified Financial Advisor ASAP.

Even if you think you’ve made a decision, you definitely need to read Negotiators’ Notepad 23-18, an FAQ with updates sent out on 7 July 2023.

Last-Minute Decision Change

One of the most important items in this FAQ is that if you’ve already filled out the form electing to maintain status quo and not participate, you’re now allowed to change your mind up until the end of the window on 31 July 2023. The NN has an email address you need to write to immediately if you change your mind.

Collective Investment Trust vs LIRIX

In past updates, the plan was to invest all MBCBP money in Blackrock’s LIRIX fund…for now. This wasn’t because LIRIX is anything special, but because it met the contractural specification of investing in 40% global equities (stocks) and 60% bonds. Since LIRIX is a lifecycle fund, that ratio would have changed over time, requiring the MBCBP to move at least part of our investments into something else.

As of NN 23-18, LIRIX is no longer the plan. Instead, the MBCBP will be invested into a Collective Investment Trust (CIT). Overall, this is…well…fine.

In NN 23-18, they explain that the expense ratio, the percentage that PCW will charge for managing our money, will be significantly lower in the CIT than it would have been for LIRIX or other similar options. So, that part is a win.

And yet, this development is potentially a bit of a disappointment.

The only drawback here is that it means someone will be picking stocks for us. I firmly believe that for most people, paying someone else to pick stocks for you is a bad idea. (The only thing worse is trying to pick stocks yourself).

If you haven’t already read The Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins, or the “Stock Series” on his website, you need to go read this article right now: Why I Can’t Pick Winning Stocks, and You Can’t Either.

The bottom line is that Standard & Poors publishes an annual report of actively managed investment funds (like our CIT might be) and how they perform. Throughout the history of these reports, the majority of actively managed funds have performed worse than the market on average, or a low-fee whole-market index fund.

So, if PCW pays a bunch of expensive analysts to pick stocks for our MBCBP’s CIT, there’s a good chance they’ll do worse than the market average. If they instead just invest in low-fee index funds, we’ll be fine.

I hope PWC doesn’t try to play stock guessing games with our money. If they do, I think it’s probably within our purview to direct them to pursue a different strategy.

Like I said, this isn’t a huge deal overall. If they guess poorly, they probably won’t lag the market by too much. There’s plenty of time for us to provide feedback/redirection.


Although I’d been under the impression that all fees for the MBCBP would be paid by the company, the NN 23-18 FAQ says otherwise.

It specifies that all “recordkeeping, actuarial, and consulting fees” will be paid by the company. However, PWC will also charge a 0.05-0.06% “investment fee” for all money managed in the plan. That money will come out of our investment returns. (This is the Assets Under Management or AUM model I’ve mentioned in other posts).

On one hand, this disappoints me. I’d been under the impression that all fees meant all fees. That appears to be a miscommunication, or false assumption on my part. (You know what happens when you assume, right?)

That said, 0.06% is a very low fee. Unless you’re investing in a zero-fee index fund like FZROX, you’re probably paying somewhere in the range of 0.01-0.05% in fees on the Fidelity index funds in your 401k.

The first law of Thermodynamics is: You can’t get something for nothing. This applies to finances too. We can’t expect someone to manage even a basic mutual fund without charging us money for their time. I’m okay with that as long as they’re acting as fiduciaries on our behalf. I just wish that the company would cover those costs like I blithely assumed they would.

What Are You Doing, Emet?

I get this question a lot. I keep saying that:

  1. You need to talk to a pro
  2. Unless you’re already involved in alternative investments, the tax advantages and automatic nature of the MBCBP are probably advantageous for you

I have a lot of those alternative investments. My family owns two rental properties, one long-term rental and one short term (Air BnB). We’ve recently invested in real estate syndications with Vault Capital and Turbine Capital. We have money invested in a couple Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). We also made what amounts to a seed or angel investment in Flying Eyes Optics, makers of what I believe to be the best aviation sunglasses on the planet. I also invest time and money into the company under which I write this website and a lot of other material.

We only started investing seriously in these sorts of things after we’d filled up a basic Treasure Bath using a combination of IRAs, TSPs, 401Ks, and traditional brokerage accounts. If you aren’t maximizing contributions to traditional accounts yet, I’d lean toward doing that before you pursue alternatives.

And yet, each of these investments has unique tax advantages and varying potential for making money. We plan on investing in more of them. This kind of investing needs education, and in many cases, personal relationships. It also requires having capital on hand to invest.

If I lock up potentially tens of thousands of dollars per year in the MBCBP, that’s investments I can’t make in another syndication or a down payment I can’t make on a new rental property.

However, I can use the loophole I mentioned to minimize money going into the MBCBP in years when I’d rather focus on alternative investments. I can let the company fund 100% of my 401k contributions on the first $330,000 of my income this year. That leaves me with a lot of cash available for alternatives.

This would mean have my company putting $52,800 into my 401k next year before I contributed a cent of my own. I could choose to fund the rest of the $13,200 to reach the annual IRS limit of $66,000 myself after the company maxes-out the contributions they can make.

From that point, the entirety of the company’s 16% Direct Contribution (DC) will go into the MBCBP. I won’t be able to use those funds for alternatives. However, in the grand scheme of things, 16% of my earnings over $330,000 isn’t a terrible burden if I’m investing in alternatives.

Delta pilots start their careers around the 85th percentile for income among all Americans, and rapidly reach the top 1 percent. Unless I start spending like an absolute moron, I should still have plenty of cash to use for alternative investments even if some of my compensation ends up in the MBCBP.

The good thing about this though is: if I change my mind in the future and decide to press the “Easy” button by just maximizing the dollars in my MBCBP, I can race the company on 401k contributions early in the year and potentially get more money into my MBCBP than can be contributed into my 401k for the year. That’s a lot of tax-advantaged savings!

I’m still not 100% sure on this strategy, but it’s where I’m leaning for right now.

What’s Your Plan?

In general the MBCBP is a good deal for most pilots. I do a lot of alternative investing, and I’m still likely to participate in the new plan. That’s just me though.

What’s your plan? Do you have any unique circumstances that led you to decide on way or another? Did you get any valuable insights by consulting a pro? Those insights won’t translate directly for other pilots, but they may provide some good starting points for a new discussion with a pro of their own.

FedEx MBCBP Considerations

Disclaimer: this post, along with everything else on this website, is the personal opinion of a random dude typing on a computer. It is not endorsed, approved, vetted, sponsored, or tied by or to any other person or organization. I humbly ask you to treat it as such.

This post started as an examination of the Market Based Cash Balance Plan (MBCBP) offered in the FedEx pilots’ TA. I’d written similar material about the Delta pilots’ new MBCBP. Aware of my past work, several Purple pilots asked my opinion on their MBCBP offering. I figured I’d write a single post to cover some basics, rather than continuously duplicating my responses, and hopefully help other curious pilots as well.

As friends started explaining more about their TA, and as I dug into the TA documents, I formed a very strong opinion about the Tentative Agreement itself. Feeling that the overall TA represented important context for understanding and evaluating the MBCBP, I ended up writing a post laden with my personal opinions.

I got a lot of responses. The overwhelming majority of those responses were positive. They agreed with my evaluation. I knew they would because I’d gathered input from several very smart Purple pilots before I wrote a single word.

However, some other readers felt slighted by my opinions.

I apologize to those with hurt feelings. I intentionally use a snarky writing style to keep attention and spur active consideration, rather than passive consumption. I like to think of myself as supportive of all people no matter their identity, background, or beliefs. I regret if I failed to live up to that ideal for you.

So, I’ve deleted my original post and associated comments. What follows focuses on a discussion of the proposed FDX MBCBP. I make references to and comparisons with the DAL MBCBP when valuable. However, please understand that these two plans are very different because they were created for different goals. That’s okay.

I just want Purple pilots to understand how their offering stacks up against the rest of the industry. I also think they have some questions to take back to their MEC. If they happen to get a chance to renegotiate any MBCBP provisions, I want them to know what may be possible because it’s already been approved by the Treasury for another group of airline pilots.

In my first attempt at this completely revised version of this post, I made a statement about Scope, the most important part of any pilot contract. I’ve been asked to remove that section, so you may notice it missing here.


Let’s move on to the MBCBP. In general, this is a good deal for many pilots.

MBCBPs are not uncommon in corporate America. The IRS caps total contributions to a 401k account at $66,000 per year (in 2023). Many high income earners want an additional tax-advantaged saving and investing vehicle. A MBCBP is exactly that: a way to defer taxes on more than the IRS limit of $66,000 per year.

MBCBPs fall under the same rules as Defined Benefit (DB) plans. One of those rules says that if a company offers this type of plan, every employee in a given employee group must participate. That’s not ALPA or our company trying to force anything upon us. That’s the US Department of the Treasury.

This rule means that every future pilot at an airline with a MBCBP will be required to participate. However, for pilots who worked at an airline before a MBCBP was enacted, the Department of Labor’s Railway Labor Act (RLA) also applies. The RLA requires pilots (and to a lesser extent their employers) to maintain status quo when negotiating new contracts. (Listen to Episode 12 of the Engage podcast for more detail on this part of the RLA). The status quo mandate in the RLA provides a loophole whereby the Treasuring is allowing pilots an irrevocable, one-time choice on whether to participate in a new MBCBP or not.

It’s good we’re getting this option. I believe that every airline pilot facing it should consult a Certified Financial Advisor before making their choice.

For FDX pilots, the MBCBP is also an opportunity for the company to reduce their burden for funding their legacy pilot pension plan. For pilots who choose to participate in the MBCBP, it will replace their pension altogether. For these pilots that’s a fantastic opportunity!

The FDX TA specifies that pilots switching over to the MBCBP will immediately receive “contribution credits” equivalent to what they would have had if they’d been participating in this plan for their entire career. For senior FDX pilots, this could easily result in a seven-figure balance in the MBCBP the day it’s enacted.

Both the Purple and Widget MBCBPs include a provision allowing pilots to start withdrawing money from the plan at age 59 ½, and then annually each year thereafter until retiring. Again, for senior FDX pilots, this is an enormous benefit. Many should be able to switch to the MBCBP, immediately get a very large balance in the plan, and then immediately transfer those funds into an IRA.

They will have full control over how the funds in that IRA are invested. That’s a personal account in their name that nobody else can touch. The fact that participating FDX pilots get contribution credits based on their entire career is a triumph, and a much better deal than Delta pilots get because they lost their pension more than a decade ago.

Administration, Fiduciary Duty

One of the restrictions that the Treasury puts on MBCBPs is that it does not allow individual participants any control over the fund’s investments. The entire fund must be managed by a third party. The participants can specify investment goals, but cannot have direct control over how the third party administrator pursues those goals.

The Delta pilots’ MBCBP will be administered by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The proposed FedEx pilots MBCBP would be administered by FedEx itself.

In theory, each plan’s administrator bears a fiduciary duty to the plan’s participants. The concept of “fiduciary duty” is very important in finance, and represents a binding, enforceable obligation for a service provider to act in the best interest of their client.

It is advantageous that neither Delta Air Lines, the Delta ALPA MEC, or the Delta pilots themselves can directly control the MBCBP, and that their third party administrator bears a fiduciary duty to the Delta pilots.

The fact that FedEx itself would administer its pilots’ MBCBP could potentially represent a conflict of interest.

This fact bears detailed consideration by all FedEx pilots, especially those considering participation in the new MBCBP. If I were part of that group, I’d ask my union reps if there was a way to assign a different administrator who may be less vulnerable to a conflict of interest.

Expected Returns

A MBCBP is valuable because it defers taxes, giving your money time to grow before the government takes its cut. However, since these plans are required to preserve capital and serve a diverse group of investors, they usually target investments with low volatility. This frequently also means investments with low returns.

Traditionally, MBCBPs might invest in bonds or Treasury Bills for which a 3% return would be very high. That type of return is so low compared to the performance of a low-fee whole-market index fund, that in some cases it would be more advantageous for individuals to take the tax hit up front and invest on their own.

The Delta pilots’ MBCBP got approved to invest in somewhat riskier securities that offer somewhat higher returns. The fund that PWC has chosen to invest in for now enjoyed annual returns upwards of 8.5% before the current bear market.

I have been unable to determine based on available documents what investing strategy the FedEX pilots’ MBCBP would use. It will be very important to find this out before choosing whether to participate or not. Only after a pilot knows the fund’s target/expected return can they have a meaningful discussion with a Certified Financial Advisor on whether it makes sense to participate.


One major advantage of the MBCBP is that the money is protected from an airline’s creditors in case of bankruptcy. The funds are all commingled and each pilot’s “account” is sort of theoretical until the money is withdrawn. However, it is very well protected.

Even better, Treasury rules require each pilot’s payout to never be less than the amount of capital invested on his or her behalf. If a market downturn has a pilot’s theoretical account balance below what was invested, the airline is required to make up the difference out of pocket. That’s a good provision.

Many FDX pilots will choose to not participate in the MBCBP, instead sticking with their traditional pension.

While that may be the best option for many senior pilots, it’s worthwhile for more junior pilots to consider how confident they feel in the long-term solvency of their pension benefits. FDX is one of the few airlines, let alone American companies, that still offers a traditional pension. If you ask a pilot at almost any other airline, they’ll tell you a frustrating story about how the promise of a very lucrative pension vanished, practically overnight, due to circumstances far beyond their control.

A MBCBP may offer protections for a pilot’s earnings that a pension cannot. How much to trust either of these vehicles will be a very personal decision.

MBCBP Purpose, Funding, and Caps

Although the general purpose of a MBCBP is to provide tax-advantaged savings above the annual IRS 401k limit, the FDX plan is intended as a direct replacement for the legacy pension.

The DAL MBCBP is also generally intended to replace a lost pension, but it’s not structured as a 1:1 replacement nearly as much as the FDX plan is. I’ve encountered a great deal of confusion over this, so please take an extra moment or two to notice the specifics in this section before sending me feedback.

FDX pilots’ 401k is funded through a combination of a 9% company Direct Contribution (DC), extra hours in a sick bank, and personal contributions. This combination of sources can put up to $66,000 per year into a FDX pilot’s 401k account. Note that the IRS limits the company’s 9% DC to the first $330,000 of a pilot’s annual earnings. (That limit tends to increase each year).

The proposed MBCBP would be funded by a separate 11% company contribution. Based on information in some of your MEC’s materials, and at least one frustrated comment to my original post, it appears that this 11% contribution will happen in parallel to funding of a pilot’s 401k account. The 11% MBCBP contribution will also be limited to the first $330,000 of a pilot’s income meaning the absolute maximum that could possibly be contributed to a pilot’s MBCBP would be $36,300 per year. As far as I can tell, there is no other provision for putting more money than this into a pilot’s MBCBP in a given year.

This means the absolute maximum that a FDX pilot could protect in tax-advantaged retirement accounts would be $102,300 per year.

The DAL pilots’ setup is quite different.

Delta pilots get a 16% company DC into their retirement accounts. Under their new contract, this DC increases to 18% in a few years. For these pilots, absolutely nothing is contributed to the MBCBP until after their 401k account reaches the annual IRS limit of $66,000.

In general, it’s always desirable to maximize contributions to a 401k first because it offers the pilot better control over their investments, and more flexibility on how to use/withdraw the money.

Delta’s DC is subject to the same limit of $330,000 in income, meaning the most the company could contribute to a Delta pilot’s 401k in a year is $52,800. At either company, a pilot wishing to reach the $66,000 per year limit in their 401k must make up the difference with their own funds.

For Delta pilots not participating in the MBCBP, once the company’s DC reaches $52,800, or the pilot’s total annual 401k contributions reaches $66,000, the company’s 16% DC goes to the pilot as taxable cash each month. For pilots who choose to participate in the MBCBP, the entirety of that excess 16-18% DC will go into the MBCBP.

Note that there is no limit on how much money can be contributed to a Delta pilot’s MBCBP in a given year. I’ve run the numbers and found that it will be possible for the most senior Delta pilots to get more than $66,000 into their MBCBP each year, if they so desire.

This means the absolute maximum that a Delta pilot could protect in tax-advantaged retirement accounts will far exceed the annual $102,300 figure available to FedEx pilots. For pilots choosing to participate in their MBCBP, the Delta version offers a significant advantage here.

This setup also gives Delta MBCBP participants significant control over how much money is contributed on their behalf each year. It will be possible for a Delta pilot to make the one-time decision to participate in the MBCBP, but ensure that very little money actually makes it into the plan in a given year. Then, when that pilot wishes, they will be able to switch strategies and maximize MBCBP funding each year at the point where it becomes most advantageous.

If I were a FDX pilot, I would address this difference with my union reps. I’d hope that my union might be able to negotiate a way to get more money into the MBCBP for those pilots wishing to participate. I’d also prefer the option of having more control over how much money goes into my MBCBP in any given year.

Exit Options

As mentioned, both versions of MBCBP allow a pilot to start getting their money out of the plan at age 59 ½.

Delta pilots will have three major options for withdrawing their money from their MBCBP:

  1. One of a few types of annuity
  2. Taking a lump sum as (taxable) cash
  3. Rolling over their balance into a tax-advantaged account, probably an IRA. (This is a non-taxable event).

I suspect that FedEx pilots will have the same options for getting their money out of their MBCBP. However, the documents available only specifically mention options #1 and #2 above. This would be undesirable.

Annuities are frequently laden with unnecessary fees and provide lower payouts than a reasonably educated investor can achieve by managing their investments themselves or with cheaper help from a CFA. Subjecting a lump sum to a single, immediate tax hit negates the entire purpose of a MBCBP in the first place.

The FedEx pilots must clarify with their union reps whether they will also have the option to do a direct roll-over into an IRA as a non-taxable event. I suspect the failure to mention this specific option is an oversight. If not, it would be worth advocating for this provision to be added to the plan before electing to participate.


These two versions of MBCBP are very different. That doesn’t necessarily make one better or worse than the other. What matters is that each pilot considers how their plan’s provisions might affect them. This should absolutely be done with the help of a Certified Financial Advisor.

The FDX pilots’ MBCBP has some very attractive qualities. However, there are also some outstanding questions that need to be resolved before each pilot makes their decision.

I hope this helps you frame your questions for your reps, and your discussion with your finance pro.

I don’t plan to adapt my MBCBP Calculator spreadsheet for your plan. It would require a lot of redesign and reprogramming. However, you’re welcome to download your own copy and edit it as you see fit.

I don’t intend to allow comments on this post, based on the negativity I got in some comments on the last version. If you have a question that I might be able to help with before you go to a CFA, please reach out to me. If my writing has not been valuable to you, I hope other resources will be.

The feature image for this post represents a potentially wet leased aircraft.

MBCBP Participants Get a $330K Control Loophole

Apparently, some pilots have gotten themselves very worked-up over the fact that US Department of the Treasury rules state that if an employer offers something like our MBCBP, all members of a given employee group must be included. Some pilots plan to use their one-time, irrevocable chance to maintain status quo to not participate in the new MBCBP based largely on this fact.

I haven’t heard this drama first-hand. I left the angry widget pilot Facebook group a while ago (and my QOL has skyrocketed.) I don’t really care what Poor Old Joe does at this point, but before you listen to him, you should read about the loophole I just realized related to the mandatory nature of the MBCBP.

Frankly, I’m ashamed I didn’t latch on to this sooner.

Sorry for the clickbait-y title. I think this will make a big difference for a lot of pilots.

The Old 401k Horse Race

It used to be that any pilot wishing to maximize Roth 401k contributions had to “race” the company to fill up as much of their 401k with their own Roth contributions as possible. Each month, any money from the company’s 16% DC would (and could only) be deposited as Traditional 401k funds.

Some years, this led me to set my personal contributions at the maximum 75% allowed by Fidelity’s website. A senior Delta captain might have been able to reach the $66,000 total per year 401k contribution limit in February, especially if it was a good profit sharing year.

Then, about 18 months ago, Delta and Fidelity changed this policy to allow in-plan conversions for company contributions. (You may be able to read the details in MEC Alert 22-02.) This means that no matter who contributed the funds, the pilot or the company, those funds can all be converted into Roth 401k money.

This is a big deal! It’s easy and valuable for anyone who wants to maximize the Roth side of their account. (That may not necessarily include you. Talk with a CFP to find out whether it does.)

Note that the pilot will have to pay ordinary income tax on any funds converted from Traditional to Roth dollars. If that’s your goal, though, it’s worth it.

A pilot maximizing their own contributions to win the old horse race with the company would have ended up receiving a lot of 401k Excess (“spill cash”) for the rest of the year. I also didn’t mind this. It was like getting a 16% raise starting around March or April every year.

It turns out that we’ll be able to use a similar strategy to exercise significant control over how much money goes in to our MBCBP each year. Although it’s not full control, and it’s not a perfect solution, it’s enough control that it should tip the scales in favor of the MBCBP for many pilots.

Minimizing MBCBP Contributions

Let’s see what things look like if a pilot wants to minimize the dollars that the company puts into the MBCBP on their behalf this year. We’re going to use the MBCBP Calculator I built for this purpose. (Please, for the love of all this is good in this world, stop asking for permissions to view, comment, or edit this file. Just use “File -> Download” or “File -> Make a Copy” to get your own version.)

The key to making this happen is for our theoretical pilot to minimize their personal 401k contributions. Don’t worry about all of the other setup parameters in the calculator for now. Just make sure that the yellow box next to “Personal 401k (%)” is set to 0% like this:

For this exercise, we can ignore the middle part of this spreadsheet. (I even highlighted all those rows, right clicked, and selected “Hide Rows” to get them out of the way.) Here are this pilot’s results:

For this Year 8 B737 CA flying a lazy 72 hours per month, the only money that goes into their 401k for the year is the company’s 16% DC. This ends up being a total of $45,155 for the year. Note that since this is below the IRS limit of $66,000 (with some caveats we’ll discuss shortly) this pilot receives zero 401k Excess.

For a MBCBP participant, this would mean zero dollars were deposited into their MBCBP for that entire year.

This means that this pilot had full control over their MBCBP this year, despite having made a one-time, irrevocable decision to participate in the plan.

Think about the significance of that for a moment.

Maximizing MBCBP Contributions

Let’s say this pilot has an identical twin who loves tax-deferred dollars piling up in their MBCBP and wants as much money in it as possible. This twin pilot sets their “Personal 401k (%)” to the maximum 75%:

And here’s the result:

In this situation, the company only manages to get $11,289 into the twin’s 401k account. The twin maxes out their $22,500 annual IRS limit for regular 401k contributions and then uses the back-door (401A) option to put another $32,211 into their account.

(Note that the $32K 401A dollars are after-tax money, so our twin might as well convert them to Roth dollars. The $22.5K could be Traditional or Roth, but if this pilot is trying to maximize MBCBP funds, they’re probably trying to maximize tax deductions and would leave this portion as Traditional 401k. A Certified Financial Planner (CFP) can help you make that decision on a year-to-year basis.)

Since this twin hit the $66K per year IRS limit on their 401k in April, every other dollar of the company’s 16% DC for that year would go into the MBCBP. (In a year with good profit sharing, the twin would have probably hit the limit even sooner.)

Both pilots had the same overall compensation just over $327K. However, the second, maximizing twin put a total of $99,866 into tax-advantaged accounts while the minimizing pilot from earlier only put $45,155 into those types of accounts. The twin got an extra $54,711 in tax-advantaged income this year, and would pay a lot less in taxes.

What really matters though? Both pilots got exactly what they wanted.

The maximizing twin got the largest possible amount of tax-deferred income for the year, and reduced their tax bill. The minimizing twin prevented any money from going into the MBCBP, even though they’d made the irrevocable decision to participate in it.

The beauty of this is that each of these pilots has the power to continue changing their mind from year to year, even though they’re locked into the MBCBP.


Let’s discuss two important caveats.

First, remember that pilots over age 50 get an extra $7,500 per year in their 401k, for a total annual contribution limit of $73,500. That could potentially allow a MBCBP participant to spend more years without putting money into the plan, if desired.

Second, there’s a limitation to this strategy that I haven’t addressed at all until now. In the convoluted bowels of the IRS code lies Section 401(a)(17). This section sets a maximum income limit for a person to receive company direct contributions for a 401k account. For 2023 this limit is $330,000.

Our contract addresses this limit, and after reaching $330K in total compensation for the year, we just get the rest as 401k Excess dollars. Starting in October, those dollars will go into the MBCBP for most pilots.

(I didn’t program the $330,000 compensation limit into my calculator. Apologies. That section was already complicated enough. Maybe I’ll get around to it at some point.)

This may require some manual calculations on your part. The key takeaway is that if you’re a MCBCP participant trying to use this loophole to minimize money going to that plan this year, the best you can do is 16% of $330K, or $52,800. Again, this loophole isn’t perfect, full control over the MBCBP, but it does allow participants to maintain a lot more control than I’d realized until a couple days ago.

For pilots who use my calculator and see that it doesn’t cumulatively make sense for them to start participating in the plan for a few years, this strategy could tilt that math in favor of participation now.

For pilots who want to look at the older decision point on my calculator from when we thought we’d be able to jump into and out of the plan from year to year, this strategy gives you most of that option back.

I hope this helps many pilots breathe a sigh of relief.

More Examples

You should use my calculator to try out some scenarios. However, let’s consider a few here. First off, let’s consider a senior Delta widebody FO. At today’s pay rates, this pilot could fly an average of 95 hours per month without a single dollar going into their MBCBP.

If this pilot decided they wanted to instead maximize MBCBP contributions, their results might look like this:

This pilot would be able to get $44,037 into their MBCBP, protecting a total of more than $104,000 from taxes. (Of note, that’s how much money I made in my first year at my airline. Impressive.)

Since this is the highest FO pay rate on our charts, pilots in any other aircraft should be able to work even more hours while being able to prevent any of their compensation from going into the MBCBP in a given year. That’s a lot of control.

Let’s look at some possibilities on the Captain side too.

On the low end, it appears that a senior B717 CA participating in the MBCBP could credit an average of about 91 hours per month without a single dollar being deposited into that plan:

A Captain at the top narrowbody pay rate would be more limited, only able to credit an average of 78 hours per month if the goal was to keep money out of the MBCBP:

A harder working narrowbody captain would end up with some spill cash going into the MBCBP, but it wouldn’t be an extreme amount. At 100 hours of credit per month on average, this captain would end up with less than $15,000 contributed to their MBCBP for the year. (The calculator only shows $1,104, but remember the stupid IRS rule that caps 401k contributions at $330K of income. That would trigger for this pilot around September.)

Even if this doesn’t meet 100% of this pilot’s goals, it’s still a pretty good deal overall. This would end up with $67,104 in tax-advantaged dollars for the year, in addition to $419,000 of regular income.

If the MBCBP will be the right answer for this pilot at any point in the future, would it be worthwhile to reject that option forever based on an extra $15K going in to tax-advantaged accounts this year? I say no.

So What?

Some pilots seem to erroneously assert that choosing to participate in the MBCBP will lock away large portions of your income until retirement. That uneducated opinion could lead pilots to miss out on a great opportunity.

Most MBCBP participants will retain the ability to choose how much money gets contributed to our MBCBP each year, up to the IRS’s 401(a)(17) income limit of $330,000 per year. (Note that this limit increased $25,000 from the 2022 number. I suspect it’ll continue to rise, giving us increased maneuvering room over time. This is good because our pay rates also continue to increase, and the company’s DC rises to 18% by the end of our new contract.)

For pilots with incomes high enough to exceed that limit, the amount of spill cash that ends up in the MBCBP won’t be so much that it should ruin anyone’s short-term financial plans. I think that many pilots will be better off participating in the MBCBP, using this loophole to exercise significant control from year to year, and then using their time from now until age 59 1/2 to plan how they’ll put their MBCBP funds to use once they can roll them over to a (potentially self-directed) IRA.

That’s just one guy’s opinion though. Run the numbers for yourself. Then, go talk with a financial pro who can give you some authoritative advice. Then, let yourself ruminate on things for a while. The window for choosing to maintain status quo and not participate in the MBCBP doesn’t close until the end of July. You have some time to think things over before you make a decision.

Thanks for reading this far. I hope this helps your family meet your financial goals. Fly safe!

MBCBP – Detailed Update w/ Zoom Links

We’ve received a lot of information since I first posted about the Market Based Cash Balance Plan (MBCBP). I worry that some pilots are latching on to incomplete information and risk making decisions they’ll regret.

So, I’m trying to put out some better information with a hint of context. Other than saying the MBCBP is a good opportunity for most pilots, I’m trying to avoid outright opinion. Why? Because this is not tax, investing, or official finance advice. This discussion is for informational purposes only.

No matter what you hear or read from anyone, you should absolutely talk with a professional financial advisor before you do anything permanent. Speaking of permanent…

Maintain Status Quo

As promised, the Delta MEC preserved each individual’s choice to participate in the MBCBP…to the maximum extent allowed by law.

However, the way this works is not what I’d hoped. Instead of being something that pilots can jump into or out of, participation in the MBCBP is a one-time, irrevocable decision.

Don’t let this scare you too much. The volunteers at your MEC have been working on this for more than 5 years because you asked for help reducing your tax burden, and increasing your tax-advantaged retirement savings. This is the best tool we’re going to get for meeting those objectives.

This type of plan is not uncommon in the corporate world. These plans are governed by the Department of the Treasury, an organization with reach far wider than a few pilots at one airline. The Treasury’s rules require that if an organization offers a plan like this, all employees must be included, no exceptions. This isn’t something that Delta or ALPA decided, it’s a mandate from the Treasury.

The only counter to this is that our beloved Railway Labor Act protects maintenance of the status quo above all else. This usually hurts us, a lot. However, in this case the Treasury is allowing the Labor Department’s rule to take precedence. Since the status quo for most of us hasn’t included a MBCBP, each of us has the opportunity to elect to maintain that status quo by not participating in the plan. This is a forever decision. You’ll continue to see the phrase: “one-time, irrevocable.”

This only applies to pilots hired before 1 June 2023. For anyone hired on or after that date, the Treasury and Labor departments decided that the MBCBP is part of their status quo, so they must participate.

Don’t Rush!

I feel like some pilots are acting like they must make a decision on this immediately. That would be a bad choice.

If you do nothing between now and the end of July, you’ll be automatically included in the MBCBP. For most pilots this is a good opportunity. It’ll be an easy, transparent, passive way for you to increase your savings and decrease your tax burden, two things I strongly advocate in Pilot Math Treasure Bath.

If you want to maintain status quo instead, and not be part of the plan, you will have to take action to file paperwork within a specific window from 1 June to 31 July.

Don’t rush. That’s two full months to make a decision.

Research everything you can about this plan. Then, go speak with a professional financial advisor! They can help you take a look at your specific financial situation and figure out what works for you.

Even they may not have the full perspective you need. We’ll discuss some of that later.


We have an official answer that the MBCBP will be invested in a 40/60 portfolio of stocks and bonds. Yes, this still reduces overall return, but also reduces risk (volatility).

For now, our provider has selected BlackRock’s LifePath Index Retirement Fund, LIRIX, to fill that role. No, it won’t remain invested in that forever because LIRIX is a lifecycle fund and will gradually shift away from that 40/60 balance. Our provider will have to adjust our investments to ensure that 40/60 balance.

LIRIX’s 10 year return is only 4.35% right now. However, note that the entire market is down this year. For just the year 2022, LIRIX was -15.31%, but VTI (Vanguard’s Total Stock Market ETF) was at -19.51%. So, LIRIX actually did 4.2% better than the overall market in a down year.

Prior to our recent recessionary environment, LIRIX had a long-term return in the 7.8% – 8.3% range. Past performance does not predict future gains; however, if you look at a chart comparing LIRIX to the overall market (using Vanguard’s VTI as a proxy) it looks like a less volatile version of the same thing with less overall performance. For example, here’s a chart comparing these two funds over the last year:

There’s roughly a 5% difference in performance, but you can see that LIRIX resembles a less volatile VTI. Here’s the 5-year chart:

When (not if) you talk with a professional financial advisor about all of this, they’ll complain that LIRIX has low returns. They’ll be correct, but these returns aren’t low like I thought they’d be. Over the very long run, it appears that LIRIX has only lagged the overall market by 3% or so.

You also need to ask yourself what your financial pro is trying to talk you into, if they say they don’t like LIRIX. If they’re advocating you simply invest in something like VTI instead, then they’re getting you better performance. If they’re trying to get you to let them pick stocks on your behalf, you’re much more likely to underperform the market.

Also note that if they want you to let them buy shares of VTI on your behalf, they’re likely charging you extra fees. The kinds of advisors you’re probably working with may want as much as 1% Assets Under Management (AUM). This would be a bad deal. I strongly recommend you only work with a fee-only financial planner. It’ll feel like it costs a lot upfront, but it’s far better than losing 1% of your investment every year.

Fees and Losses

Another good part about this new MBCBP is that we have official word that Delta will cover all fees for this plan. Also: your capital is protected. If the market is down when you retire, and your balance in the plan is less than the capital invested for you, Delta will make up the difference out of pocket when you retire.

There’s good and bad there, right?

You’d rather it be invested in something that will protect against loss. Sadly, that’s never guaranteed, no matter what you invest in. Even if you opt for status quo and choose your own investments, if the MBCBP is down then your other investments may be down as well, except that your personal investments wouldn’t be backed by Momma D’s deep pockets to at least make you whole.

It’s monumentally good that nobody else has access to the money in the MBCBP, not Delta, not ALPA, and not Delta’s creditors! Nobody can take the assets of this plan in case of a bankruptcy (God forbid!) However, if a pilot happened to retire during a bankruptcy, the market would probably also be in the tank. In that case, it is possible that Delta would not have the financial capacity to make that pilot whole, or that a bankruptcy court would allow Delta to evade that responsibility. Worse has happened to Delta pilots.

I feel like the MBCBP is far safer than the old Defined Benefit pension plan, but it’s not perfect. However, there is a good deal to help:

In-Service Withdrawals

We’ve officially received word that each pilot will be able to take an in-service withdrawal and roll their MBCBP funds over to a personal retirement account (like an IRA) starting at age 59 ½. Even better, each pilot will be able to continue doing these roll-overs annually until retirement.

This is huge!

I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing about the fact that this money is tied up, just like the funds in your 401k, TSP, IRA, etc. Getting access at 59 ½ is a great deal.

For most pilots, this gives you a lot of time to work with a professional financial advisor and prepare a place for that money to go. You’ll even have the option to roll your MBCBP dollars into a self-directed IRA and use it for alternative investments.

I speak with a lot of pilots who say, “I could make better returns and get superior tax benefits with my 401k Excess money by investing in alternatives like real estate or starting my own business.” This is true; however, it takes time and effort to find and learn those things. In discussions about the MBCBP, I’ve been telling pilots that if you aren’t already actively participating in those types of investments, you’re probably better off participating in the MBCBP.

There’s a lot of aspirational thinking in this world. The step from doing nothing to actually taking meaningful action toward alternative investing is a gigantic one. The learning curve from that to being effective at those investments is even steeper.

If you aren’t involved in alternative investments, but think you might be some day, why not participate in the MBCBP for now? Give yourself some time to learn and make mistakes. Then, by age 59 ½, you’ll have things wired. You’ll know some very effective ways to employ capital. You’ll be able to roll your MBCBP funds into a self-directed IRA and use that capital infusion to turbocharge your successful investment activities.

I worry that a pilot might avoid the MBCBP, but not do what it takes to effectively get into something like serious real estate investing, and end up regretting the fact that they spend several years doing nothing (or worse) with their money.


Right now, ALPA takes 1.85% dues from our 401k Excess dollars, even though those dollars have only ever been intended as retirement dollars in replacement for a lost pension. This is a bad deal that Delta pilots have been fighting and losing at ALPA National for years.

The MBCBP is inarguably a retirement account, so ALPA will not charge us dues on that money. This means choosing not to participate in the MBCBP costs you a 1.85% penalty upfront.

If you don’t like that, talk to your LEC reps. They’ll probably commiserate. They won’t be able to fix it though.

If you were to maintain status quo and hire someone to manage your money at 1% AUM, you’d be losing 1.85% upfront by paying dues, and then another 1% per year forever to pay your pro. That’s a lot of ground to make up for when specifying your investment return assumptions in my calculator. Speaking of which…

My Calculator

I built a spreadsheet to help individual pilots evaluate what the MBCBP can do for them. You can make a copy of or download the original one here. Please, please don’t ask to edit my copy. You can’t. Please use:

File -> Download


File -> Make a Copy

To get your own version to edit.

Although this calculator will tempt you to make a decision about participating in the MBCBP, I strongly recommend that you speak with a finance professional anyway. This calculator is a great tool for facilitating that discussion. If you set up your numbers as best you can, then send it to your pro, they’ll be able to spend 10 seconds looking at it and launch into their advice. Please use it this way!

I originally built this calculator when I thought that we’d have the opportunity to jump in or out of the MBCBP more than once. The intent was to optimize the point in your career at which you would start participating.

Since the actual plan won’t work that way, the original point of the calculator is moot. I built an updated version that identifies a different kind of optimal point for participating. This is the columns and boxes in purple, or shades thereof.

This calculator only considers one year at a time – the next year of your participation in the plan. I built it that way because if it makes sense to participate in the plan now, it continues to make sense to participate in it until you retire.

If you participate in the MBCBP, your taxes will decrease. This calculator assumes that you invest those tax savings, every year, in a brokerage account of your own. If you don’t have the discipline to do that, the MBCBP becomes somewhat less attractive.

This calculator does account for taxes, in the current year and when you cash out your investments in future years. Yes, it differentiates between ordinary income and capital gains at appropriate places, within the assumptions I’ve mentioned.

The calculator shows you one year of ALPA dues saved by participating in the MBCBP. It does not show the ongoing effect of paying dues if you don’t participate in the MBCBP. Sorry, I just didn’t have time to cleanly program all of that once I found out about this.

Could this calculator be edited to show total balance over many years, allow you to specify changing aircraft over time, project pay increases or changing tax rates, or more? Absolutely! Please edit your copy to your heart’s content. It took a fair amount of programming to get my calculator to do the point it’s at, and I just didn’t have it in me to update it with any of those features. I apologize that it’s an imperfect tool. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

Part of the reason I feel okay not updating the calculator is that I don’t think this needs to feel like as big a decision as some people are making it out to be. For most pilots, it’s a good opportunity.

As I run the calculator, the MBCBP makes a whole lot of sense for anyone within about 25 years of retiring (and that’s not necessarily age 65). I think it also makes sense for any pilot not interested in adding a second full-time job as a real estate investor or business owner. Some pilots are already doing exactly that, and they already know what’s best for them.

There’s a small group of people who are getting hired so young that they’ll have closer to 35 or 40 years until retirement. They’re the subset of people on the bubble where it might make sense to run things on their own. However, that can only be decided after some serious discussions with family and a professional financial advisor.

Zoom Discussions

I hosted an unsponsored, unendorsed, non-authoritative discussion about the MBCBP a few days ago, and I think it was valuable for everyone who participated. I’m hosting two more of these discussions on Thursday, June 1st at 9:30 am and 9:00 pm Eastern time.

Before you attend, I ask that you at least be familiar with the contents of this post and both of these videos (original video and update video).

Here are the invite links. Please share them with your friends, but don’t post them on social media.

Topic: MBCBP Discussion with PMTB
Time: Jun 1, 2023 09:30 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 899 8052 3226
Passcode: 506052

Topic: MBCBP Discussion with PMTB
Time: Jun 1, 2023 09:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 810 4776 8069
Passcode: 954231

Any airline pilot is welcome, though we’re not going to spend time explaining MBCBP basics to non-widget pilots. Also, this is not an opportunity for ranting or pontification if you’re angry. This is an informational discussion, and an opportunity to ask questions.

My Zoom subscription allows a pretty large group. I don’t expect to exceed those limits, but if we do I apologize. If you want to get in, and can’t, please shoot me a message and we’ll look at setting something up another day.

MBCBP for Non-Widget Pilots

I’m ensuring this information is available to pilots from other airlines so can be fore-armed if (or more likely when) you’re presented with a similar option.

This plan is a marked improvement in retirement savings for US airline pilots. Delta has officially made it the industry standard. American’s recent AIP specified formation of a MBCBP. I suspect pilot at other airlines will soon get similar offers.

Worried About Checkride Failures? Ask Better Questions!

I’m tired of seeing this question:

“I just failed a checkride (or I’ve failed numerous checkrides). Will this hurt my chances of getting an airline (or other flying) job?”

If you know someone asking this question, please send them a link to this post. Here’s the definitive 3-part answer:

  1. Yes, failing a checkride will hurt your chances.
  2. The amount of hurt depends entirely on you.
  3. You’re asking the wrong question in the first place.

I don’t think you would have asked #1 if you didn’t already know the answer. Of course, failing an important pilot event is a negative. Repeated failures will drive a potential employer to wonder if you suffer from some underlying shortcoming that you’ve either failed to recognize, or worse, recognized and failed to fix.

And yet, most pilots experience failure at some point in their careers. I failed my initial glider Instructor Pilot checkride in the Air Force, and my T-38 Contact phase check in USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training.

In all my years, I’ve only known one person who had never failed a checkride. At his USAF retirement ceremony he boasted about completing 31 Air Force checkrides without so much as a single downgrade. That’s impressive, though he was a peculiar individual who had done things like blow tires on a landing zone in the middle of the night on a training flight. Even that checkride ace fell short of perfection.

Your Circumstances Are Not Unique

No matter what job you’re applying for, that company has hired pilots who failed one or more checkrides in the past.

Why do you think those other pilots got hired?

In many cases, it’s likely that when the person doing the hiring heard the circumstances of the failure, they realized that it wasn’t a sign of serious trouble. It’s not at all unlikely that the interviewer had failed the same checkride…potentially even for the same item.

It’s also common knowledge that some checkrides and some flight examiners are tougher than others. Initial CFI rides only have pass rates in the 70-80% range. If a single checkride failure was a condemning factor in future career opportunities, our world’s pilot shortage would be even more dire than it already is.


There are probably also cases of pilots getting hired despite screwing up badly enough on a checkride that the average Chief Pilot won’t just pass it off as a bad day or a bad examiner. This probably results in a very uncomfortable interview experience. And yet, many of those pilots still land the job.


Put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes for a moment. What would you want to hear from an applicant?

I suspect that successful versions of this conversation do not involve the applicant acting cavalier about their failure, or blaming their failure on other people or circumstances.

Wouldn’t you rather hear an applicant take ownership of their mistakes? What if they followed that up by humbly stating a few concrete points they learned from the experience, then mentioned how they’ve changed their habit patterns to avoid similar mistakes?

I bet that attitude is more successful than, “The examiner had it out for me,” or “My flight school’s gouge packet didn’t mention that item.”

While a good attitude can result in successfully explaining an egregious checkride failure, it’s also important for those seemingly less-significant ones.

Did you fail your PPL check for a soft-field landing? Take ownership! State, specifically what you did wrong that day. Then, explain how you went out and became a master of soft-field landings and passed your re-check with flying colors. Don’t stop there though! Explain how this changed your checkride preparation strategy to hopefully ensure you’d never suffer from a similar lack of preparation on any other maneuver again.

A wise job applicant could make this a really outstanding interview question response. A terrible applicant would give a short, weak answer here, forcing interviewers to ask another boring, canned question that you’ll answer robotically with a response they’ve heard a hundred times. What do you think they’d prefer?

Job interview or not, every checkride failure is a chance for you to learn, improve yourself, and develop Grit. [Amazon affiliate link.] You’re more than welcome to take advantage of your failure, or choose to impotently piss and moan.

Digging Deeper

It’s pretty easy for even a mediocre job applicant to prepare a good response to a question about one or two isolated checkride failures. Having numerous failures makes things tougher. I’ve recently seen anonymous posts from pilots who have a surprising number of failures; many on important and expensive checkrides.

Let’s cut to the chase here.

I know that some people just have a lot of anxiety about taking tests. Some people also have a series of innocent mistakes. However, with your best interest at heart, I have to ask the rest of you:

If you’ve failed a lot of checkrides, have you ever sat down and wondered what it is about you or your approach to flying, training, and checkrides that contributes to this trend?

Asking Better Questions

This is the point where we can start asking better questions.

“Will this affect my employment chances?” is a lazy, and useless question.

Instead, you should ask good questions like:

“What is it about my approach to flying, training, and/or checkrides that has resulted in so many failures?”

“Is there something my peers do to prepare for these events that I haven’t caught on to yet?”

“When I finally have the hours to interview for my dream job, what do I want to be able to say about my failures, what I learned from them, and how I developed as a pilot because of them?”

I believe that every pilot is capable of improving their checkride performance if they will take the time for this kind of introspection.

In many cases, you’ll need more than just personal reflection to gain the most from these questions. You should actively and humbly seek out mentorship from authoritative sources like senior flight instructors, chief pilots, and professional pilots currently enjoying what you picture as your dream job to help you figure out these answers.

Spoiler alert: a crowd of random and unknowable commenters on social media is almost always incapable of providing anything approaching this kind of mentorship.

Bonus Pro Tip

We need to move on to another set of good questions, but first I have a bonus pro tip for checkride success.

You have the answer key for every checkride you will ever take. For FAA events, the defining documents for checkrides are called Practical Test Standards, or their evolving replacements, Airman Certification Standards.

These documents list every piece of knowledge you must have for the oral exam. They list every maneuver you have to do on your checkride, and the deviation tolerances for those maneuvers.

(Note that the PTS/ACT even allow “momentary deviations” outside these parameters. Sometimes there’s a gust of wind, a really bizarre instruction from ATC, or a completely unexpectable traffic situation. This allowance isn’t even necessarily for your benefit; it makes your flight examiner’s life much easier. Without leeway to use some judgment on their own, they’d have to hand out far more pink slips and they’d have to spend more of their precious checkride slots giving rechecks. You should absolutely not rely on this allowance for your success. However, it should give a prepared pilot great peace of mind!)

On a checkride, you must be prepared to discuss every knowledge item on this list. You must be prepared to execute every maneuver to the standards specified. You’re the one flying the aircraft when you train. You have the power to know whether you’re meeting standards or not. You also have the power to study the knowledge areas until you’re confident in your ability to discuss them.

None of this should ever be a surprise to you.

I’ve encountered too many flight students who act like it’s their flight instructor’s job to spoon-feed them everything. They expect their CFI to hand them every nugget of information from every knowledge area, and expect that regurgitating this information to an examiner will be enough to pass their oral exam. They expect their CFI to tell them whether they’re meeting maneuver parameters.

This is not how to be a pilot.

Some professions allow room for error, and leaning on others if you’re weak. Aviation makes no such allowances. When you’re flying professionally, the success of your mission, and the safety of your passengers and/or cargo depend entirely on your ability to get the job done without outside help…or to make the good decision not to go in the first place. This will lead us to a tough question in a moment.

In the meantime though, if you’re concerned about failing checkrides, then make sure you download a free PDF of the PTS or ACS applicable to the rating you’re working on. Print it out and take notes all over it! You shouldn’t even consider showing up for a checkride unless your papers are covered in memory joggers and citations for regulations or manuals where you can read the answers to all the questions in source documents.

I took several checkrides from an outstanding DPE who expected me to show up with my marked-up PTS in hand every time. His oral exams took some pilots hours and hours to finish, because he expected examinees to show him the answer to every question in a source document. However, he loved it when my PTS had handwritten notes all over it because it showed that I’d put in effort to prepare, and the exam ended up going faster and smoother.

Your DPE may or may not allow you to use your annotated PTS/ACS as a note sheet during your checkride, but you’d be a fool not to show up with one in hand and ask permission to use it! If the examiner approves, you have the answers to all of their questions.

Even if you don’t get to use it, the examiner won’t be able to help but notice how much preparation you’ve put in before showing up that day. This will always work out in your favor.

Whether you try this or not, there is no excuse for going to a checkride without adequate preparation. You know what’s required of you. You know whether you’re prepared to meet those standards or not. Take ownership of your training and make the call yourself.

(Next pro tip: Don’t copy or even “borrow” someone else’s annotated PTC/ACS. Don’t show up with something that is typed-out. The notes on this document should be written by your own hand. Examiners give lots of checkrides. If they start seeing the same “borrowed” PTS/ATS documents show up, they’ll start giving you a very hard time about it.)

More Hard Questions

Seeing checkride failure questions posted (usually anonymously) online frustrates me because the direct answers are so obvious, and I think they’re a crutch for avoiding more important questions.

We already identified some of the better questions a pilot should be asking themselves and their mentors. However, I think some of you are trying to get at other things.

Since airline pilot hiring started booming in 2014, and resumed booming post-COVID, I’ve noticed significant pressure among young pilots to rush through their ratings and get their spot in line as soon as possible. I’m probably even guilty of contributing to that.

I worry that many of these young pilots view flight training and low-time pilot jobs less as valuable opportunities for learning and development, and more as useless obstacles that have to be skimmed over as quickly as possible.

This is a detrimental attitude.

When I see these pilots asking about checkride failures, I’m worried that some of them are saying:

“I’m frustrated that I wasn’t able to effectively min-run this training event and move on to the next one quickly enough. Does anyone else agree that this is unfair?”

Sometimes, these lazy checkride failure questions aren’t being asked in pursuit of feedback that should be obtained elsewhere anyway, they’re being asked to justify a bad attitude.

I don’t think this is anywhere near universal. I think most pilots are honestly trying hard to do the right thing. However, I’ve known a lot of pilots and a lot of students in my time, and I know that many of them have exactly this attitude.

This leads us to some more very important questions:

“Why are you pursuing aviation in the first place?”


“What is it about aviation that you love so much you want to possibly devote the next few decades of your life to it?”

You don’t have to eat, sleep, and breathe aviation to have a good career as a pilot. However, if you don’t have at least some love for flying, this is not the career path for you!

The barriers to entry are just too high!

Flying is expensive, and employers require pilots to obtain a lot of hours to land a desirable job. Work days for pilots are long, and frequently uncomfortable. You’re expected to keep yourself educated and proficient in a wide variety of knowledge and practical areas.

If you’re only in this job for the money, or the image, or something else, you will not enjoy it. I know a lot of miserable pilots. They’ve wasted their working years doing something they don’t love for the wrong reasons, and many of them make pilots around them miserable too, whether they realize it or not.

If you want money, go get a degree in finance. Go learn to code. Go binge everything on BiggerPockets and start investing in real estate. So many other careers offer an easier path in life than aviation.

Perhaps the most important question that you should have asked instead is:

“What kind of person am I?”

Or, maybe:

“What kind of person do I want to be?”

Even if you care nothing for your passengers, cargo, or mission, your life depends on your ability to be a self-starter and always do what it takes to be good and safe at your job.

If you aren’t that kind of person, aviation could actually kill you.

If you’re the kind of person who always relies on others to spoon-feed you whatever it is you need to know or do, you will not enjoy aviation.

If you’re the kind of person who blames others instead of yourself, aviation is not for you.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks you deserve anything in this world you haven’t worked for, you should not pursue a career as a pilot.

I’m sorry. I know many of you didn’t want to hear this, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing you think, and nothing I say, will change the realities of this profession.

If you’re worried about repeated or egregious checkride failures, you need to spend some time considering whether you are or are willing to become the kind of person who puts forth the effort to gain the skills, knowledge, and ability to do the job.

You should not resent your training and the experience you get from low-time pilot jobs. This stuff is invaluable! I promise that you do not want to end up like pilots from many foreign countries who have so little meaningful aviation knowledge and experience that they crash jets and/or kill people for stupid mistakes.

You don’t want to be the Air France pilots who had a jet stalled for over 3 minutes as it plummeted thousands of feet into the ocean. You don’t want to be the Asiana pilots who crashed a $300M B777 flying a visual approach into KSFO.

Technology erodes every pilots’ skills…even mine. You need every minute of challenging flight experience you can get. Take advantage of opportunities to obtain it! That experience will be the foundation of your resistance against things like autopilots, autothrottles, and automation lulling you into incompetence.

Once you’ve asked yourself a good question about what kind of pilot you want to be, if you go to social media at all, a more effective question to ask might be something like:

“How have you developed yourself into the kind of person who is always prepared? I ask because I’m demonstrably not there yet and I’m looking for strategies to take ownership of my life and ensure I always meet the standards I set for myself.”

If necessary, you might consider reading a book called Extreme Ownership, by the incomparable Jocko Willink. If you want to succeed at anything in life, you’re far better off understanding and adopting at least a little of his philosophy than making useless social media posts that attempt to vindicate your maladaptive attitudes.

Take charge of every part of your human existence. In this context, take charge of your flying. Don’t depend on anyone else to spoon-feed you anything. You know exactly what’s expected of you for every rating you pursue. Work relentlessly until you know, deep in your soul, that you’ve achieved those standards. Then, when you go to your checkride, you’ll be able to push past nerves or mediocre examiners thanks to your wealth of preparation.

If you need help putting this mentality into action, look back at some of the better questions we’ve asked here. Find some real mentors who have the ability to help you develop yourself when needed. You will not find that mentorship by anonymously posting lazy questions on social media.

If you embrace a mentality of Extreme Ownership in your flying, checkride failures will not be something you ever need to fear. You’ll experience fewer of them in the first place, and you’ll be able to explain how you learn from them so effectively in job interviews that you’ll wow your future interviewers and actually increase your chances of getting hired.

Now, go study hard and fly safe. Earn your spot in a dream job. I look forward to seeing you on the line.

Fixing The Pilot Shortage – Part 1: Regional Airlines

The United States, and perhaps even the whole world, finds itself in the midst of a pilot shortage. This is not debatable; this is fact.

You may choose to debate whether it’s a pilot pay shortage, or just a lack of qualified individuals. The bottom line though is that airlines are having trouble filling pilot seats on their jets.

Desperate airlines have attempted a variety of recruiting and retention efforts, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The most poorly-managed airlines have attempted to use sticks, rather than carrots, in those efforts. As reported by Aero Crew News, the most recent airline to try a real screw-job is Republic Airways. They’ve decided that any pilot leaving the company having served fewer than two years as a Captain will be forced to repay any bonuses and pay $100,000 in damages.

Let’s be clear: this is morally wrong. It’s the worst human resources policy in our industry in recent memory. The geniuses who thought this up should get immediate performance reviews.

I suspect the Teamsters will find it relatively easy to fight this policy, and that it will go away quickly.

It doesn’t matter whether they succeed though. If you are a young pilot thinking about applying to a regional airline, you should avoid Republic Airways at all costs!

Even if this policy gets revoked, the fact that this company’s management was clueless enough to publish it in the first place should tell you everything you need to know about what it’s like to work there.

I think Republic will suffer a lot more than it already has from this policy. Remember that they’re the company who went bankrupt in 2016 specifically because they couldn’t staff their airline. It appears that they had no idea how to attract or retain talent back then, and they haven’t learned even after screwing over their shareholders and creditors. I’ll be surprised if this company continues to exist in the long term.

The Rock and the Hard Place

To the managers at all the other regional airlines: we all understand your position. You work at the mercy of bigger airlines. They compete you against each other and lock you into the least lucrative contracts possible. You have to honor those contracts flying the least efficient jets in the industry.

Your pilots have gotten nearly as expensive as their mainline counterparts. You have a terrible time retaining them. God’s honest truth is that any pilot who is qualified to work for you is qualified to work for better pay, flying better jets, under better work rules at a ULCC…if not a major like American, Delta, or United.

You’d probably love to hire some shiny, new, inexperienced pilots, but despite ALPA’s insistence, there aren’t enough of them to go around. (Part of the problem is that ALPA is counting a lot of pilots who have no intention of ever becoming airline pilots, but I digress….)

To have any hope of continuing to exist as a corporation, you must staff your aircraft and cover your flights. It will take incredible creativity and leadership (as opposed to management or administration, my esteemed MBAs) to achieve your objectives.

What follows are some suggestions on key points.

I don’t care if you like what I have to say or not. I’m just a random line pilot typing shit into a computer. My family has adequately filled our Treasure Bath and don’t even depend on my airline’s wholly-owned regionals for our subsistence. If you choose to give my thoughts consideration and try my suggestions, I think you have a chance of succeeding in this environment. If not, well, good luck.

What Are Our Assets?

When the Dread Pirate Roberts awoke from his mostly-death experience facing an enemy force twenty times the size of his own, this was one of his first questions. You should be asking yourselves the same thing.

My sources suggest that this is an actual photograph from the Republic Airways board meeting where their most recent pilot retention policy was approved. And you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make pilots happy, hmm?

However, before you get to assets, you should ask yourselves, “What are our weaknesses?”

You have two big ones, and they’re titanic:

  1. Your Scope sucks
  2. You have the worst work rules (and therefore pilot Quality of Life) in the industry

These facts are so important that I recently published a novella encouraging all pilots to completely avoid your section of the industry if at all possible.

You can try to ignore these facts, but if you do you will fail.

So, what might you be able to count as assets? Here are a few things:

  1. You can (and do) hire the least experienced pilots in the industry
  2. Your relationships with major airlines present exclusive opportunities for flow-through programs
  3. Your companies have always been short-stay locations for many pilots, and you’ve always been structured to deal with that as best you can.

And I’m spent. Sorry. If only we had a holocaust cloak….

The only solutions to your problems will have to address your weaknesses and capitalize (effectively) on your assets.

Simple Defense

Some of this should be easy. Your line pilots and their unions are probably suggesting everything I’m about to say and more. If you’d bother to listen, they’d essentially solve your problems for you.

Since your Scope sucks, you need to go out of your way to meet as many of your pilots’ needs as possible. On this front, realize that they:

  1. Need as many total flight hours as possible, as soon as possible
  2. Need to put feed their families

Part of fixing this is getting your pilots their hours. I know, it’s tough to do this flying EMB145s or CRJ200s. A friend of mine used to complain that he’d work a 12 or 14 hour day flying 6 legs on the CRJ200, but he’d only log 2.5 hours because the legs were so short.

Sorry, but no pilot feels compelled to stick it out in that situation when they can go to Frontier and fly legs 2-3 times as long on a jet with 500% more flight deck floor space and a tray table. This means you need to tailor your trip mix to share the love on long legs. It also means you need to be lobbying your major airline masters, hard, to abandon inefficient 50-seat jets and at least fly the CRJ900 or EMB175.

I think you’ve largely figured out putting food on tables. Regional airline pay rates have skyrocketed lately. Until Delta’s recent contract, it was the Line Check Airmen at American’s wholly-owned subsidiaries who enjoyed the highest pay rates in the industry.

Your pay is fair. If it’s proving insufficient to attract and retain pilots, that means you’ve only just caught up to the industry standard on pay and now you’re lacking in other areas.

This goes back to your second major weakness: you treat your pilots terribly.

I’m a B737 Captain in NYC, which means I fly with new-hire FOs coming from every other airline in the industry. I love hearing about life at their past airlines, but I am constantly shocked at some of your policies. Your reserve rules are brutal. Your trip construction is overwhelming. Your scheduling practices are shady. Your commuter policies, if they exist at all, are insufficient. I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve been ignoring similar feedback for years.

I don’t care if you agree with me. I don’t care if you think I’m uninformed. Either you fix this, or you will go the way of the Republic.

You need to give your pilots enough days off to have a real life outside work. If they want to volunteer to do extra flying to get hours sooner, fine. However, if you’re at all forcing or cajoling that volunteerism, you will fail.

You need to give your pilots the ability to do the right thing. Give them schedules, reserve rules, and commuting policies that recognize reality.

You change your pilots’ bases so capriciously that they will not choose to move to a base just because you assigned them there. Make it easier for them to get to work, and give them policies that keep them whole when their honest and reasonable efforts to get to work fail.

These are just some simple basics. These are table stakes. If you want to succeed, you’ll have to start from here and think of even more ways to mitigate your weaknesses.

Yes, this will cost you money. Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy are paying LCAs $427/hr. You can afford to splurge a little on work rules.

Credible Offense

Now that we’ve covered the table stakes for addressing your weaknesses, let’s consider some opportunities for a creative airline to gain an edge on recruitment and retention.

Since you are capable of hiring, training, and employing the least experienced pilots in the industry, you should be out spreading that message with those pilots! You need to be at every industry conference, you need to be hosting get-togethers at aviation training hotspots and in major cities, you need to be buying chances to write sponsored content in trade publications, you need to on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram showing how you take care of young pilots.

Many of you are doing this already. Good job; keep it up. However, the trick here is not to be like all the worthless influencers on social media these days who try to look cool, but don’t have any substance.

I can’t stand all the fitness gurus, home improvement “experts,” investing “pros,” “models,” etc. who try to pass themselves off as experts, yet provide nothing of actual value. (Hell, some schmuck airline pilots even have the temerity to blog about big-picture industry issues. I hope those chumps have some experience to back up what they’re saying!)

If you’re going to assert that you’re a great place for young pilots on social media, you need to make it true. Table stakes are mitigating your weaknesses, like we mentioned above.

Another part of this is not implementing policies that screw your people over. Republic’s most recent catastrophe is the perfect example. Another is Endeavor. Since Delta (wisely) relies on their wholly-owned regional to fill up larger jets at their hubs, they’ve made efforts to keep pilots at Endeavor for as long as possible…in fact they’ve tried too hard.

Though nobody will admit as much, it’s apparent that Delta is punishing any pilot who attempts to circumvent Endeavor’s flow agreement by applying directly to Delta or by going to another airline and applying for Delta from there. This is a terrible policy, and because of it I encourage pilots who want to fly for Delta to avoid Endeavor like the plague.

This is enough of a problem throughout our industry that I wrote a separate diatribe just on this topic. Only a great fool would go on social media purporting to be a good place for young pilots while implementing this type of policy.

The Professional Pilots of Tomorrow specialize in mentoring aviators. Any airline manager worth their stock options should be begging PPoT for some ideas on how to do better by their people.

Instead, you should have the world’s best mentoring program for new pilots. You should go beyond just basic airline career coaching and hire financial advisors, come up with job placement programs for spouses, and set up deals for affordable child care with credible providers, at least near your pilot domiciles.

You also need to put the right pilots into your training department. Some of you have a reputation for being too tough, and I promise you’re suffering for it. You can accept a reputation as, “tough, but fair,” but you need to publicize how you go out of your way to give every pilot a great shot at succeeding.

Like it or not, you also need to celebrate when your good pilots move on to bigger and better things.

We’ll get to how you can make these strategies win/win in a moment.

Before we go there, you also need to figure out how to make your flow-through programs non-punitive. If your program looks like a trap, pilots will assume that’s the case. You need more carrots here than sticks.

Part of that means getting better assurance of progression to your major airline partner. As I understand it, when a pilot interviews at Horizon, they are also interviewing at Alaska. There is no second interview. There is no “maybe.” Once a pilot has checked a clearly-defined set of boxes at Horizon, they move on to Alaska in one of the next two or three classes. Period, dot.

That’s the bare minimum industry standard for a half-decent flow through program.

If that’s not how yours looks, fix it. Does your major airline master dislike this fact? Ask them whether they want you to be able to staff yourself to cover their schedule or not. It’s that simple.

Mutual Benefit

Much to my chagrin, it appears that neither airline managers nor union bosses get sufficient training in logic or psychology. This is most evident in their inability to successfully win the Prisoner’s Dilemma in their pilot retention efforts.

Both sides act as though their only hope of success is screwing the other side over as hard and as often as possible. As a union member, I tend to believe that the management side has more than earned its distrust. However, labor relations at some companies have become so toxic that it’s too much for me to stomach.

Both sides in these battles must admit that there are mutually-beneficial solutions to all of these problems.

Airline managers should realize that their unions have probably been trying to explain these solutions for ages.

Union bosses need to get over the stigma of being in the company’s pocket and realize that it’s okay to work with the company for mutual-benefit.

Both sides need to sit down and work together in good faith to find ways forward. If I were king for a day I’d have the two groups sit together around a campfire with coolers full of chilled beverages and a table full of pizza nearby. Each side would spend as much time as necessary explaining what they think the other side’s pain points are.

There’d be no discussion, debate, or problem solving until both sides had said their piece.

If they accomplished that simple exercise, they’d realize they already understand each other, have some common ground, and that they both dislike some of the same things.

From there, a group of mature adults should be able to start figuring out ways to ensure reliability and flexibility for the company, while protecting pilot pay and QOL.

If I didn’t like my situation at my current airline so much, I’d think about branching out and starting my own airline based on this philosophy. I’m confident that I could come up with a more efficient and reliable system while attracting and retaining pilots that would be so happy we’d cause huge problems for the rest of the industry.

I honestly hope someone else gives this a try. If you do, you’ll be the one that all the other CEOs and union leaders envy.

Or you could just be the next company to “pull a Republic.”

(Nope, it’s not too soon. They made that phrase part of our industry’s lexicon all in one day!)

Ultimate Solution

Like it or not, these are only stopgap measures. Regional airlines should never have existed in the first place.

These atrocities only came into being in the wake of crooks like Frank Lorenzo who raped and pillaged our industry by ruining good companies and the lives of the families who built them.

They demonstrated that some pilots could be desperate enough to work for less pay and under bad contracts based on the promise of something better down the line. That, combined with the introduction of smaller passenger jets that never lived up to their promises, prompted major airline execs to form regional airlines. These shitty shadows of their major airline masters were places where execs could bank losses, pay pilots peanuts, and treat both customers and employees like garbage.

I say again: Regional airlines should never have existed in the first place.

That knowledge presents the obvious solution: get rid of regional airlines.

There is truly no point to a wholly-owned regional today. Regional pilot pay rates offer no savings. You’re forced to duplicate your corporate structure, including very highly-paid management and executive positions. Worst of all, you’re operating the least efficient jets in the industry.

I flew the A220 for a couple years, and it is a masterpiece! It should replace every regional jet owned by a major airline. The A220 has roughly the same hourly fuel burn as a CRJ900 or EMB175, yet it carries 30-50 more passengers!

Not only that, the A220 has the best narrowbody cabin in the industry. It has real overhead bins and real cargo bins. It can efficiently cover regional jet routes, but it’s also capable of flying a US transcon with an alternate. Bombardier even flew one from London City Airport to NYC, westbound, in the winter!

As much as I love the A220, it appears that the A321neo and B737MAX are even more efficient. While I’d rather see more A220s in the skies, you can probably increase your profits and pax ex by using some flavor of re-engined Airbus or Boeing product to replace your 76-seat regional jets in many of your markets.

No matter what aircraft you choose, there is no excuse for you to be operating worse, less efficient aircraft at wholly-owned subsidiaries. Even if you hated your pilots, you have a fiduciary duty to your shareholders to make the right decision here.

Will there always be a need for the smallest jets in the industry to serve the smallest markets? Yes.

That’s what independent companies like SkyWest are for. Hire them to provide feed between your smallest markets and your hubs. Let them specialize in that. If they want to waste money, they can do it in 50-seat jets. Or, they can fly 76 seaters on those routes while you fly 110-130 seat A220s on routes that your wholly-owned 76-seat jets used to fly.

If you want, you’re welcome to keep some of your 76 seaters as mainline aircraft.

I’ll probably commute for my entire career. If I had the option of driving to work to fly a mainline EMB175, I would absolutely consider volunteering. You’d probably find a lot of pilots like me. You wouldn’t need them though, because all those pilots from your wholly-owned regional would now be available to fly those jets as mainline pilots.

That is the ultimate answer to designing a better flow-through program and not trapping pilots in it. Don’t make it a flow-through. Make all your pilots mainline. The junior ones will get stuck flying junior jets at junior bases. You’ll have a better spread of experienced pilots to fly with them. You’ll eliminate your expensive and wasteful redundant corporate structures. You’ll give your passengers a better and more consistent experience.

This is not a win/lose strategy. This provides wins for everyone.

The first airline to figure this out will change our industry (for the better) forever. They’ll also get a huge lead on pilot attraction and retention. I hope it’s mine, but if not, I hope it’s yours.


This is Part 1 in a series that will address pilot retention at various levels in our industry. As it turns out, the stakeholders at all of those levels have good options for winning, if they’re willing to exercise some conscious thought and try something new. We’ll tie everything up by showing how working together across existing divisions would take win/win philosophy to a whole new level for everyone.

Up next is Part 2: Bigger Airlines

Credit: feature image originally posted to Flickr as Republic Airlines, via Wikipedia.

Scope and Career Decisions

The airline industry has gone wild.

Until Delta’s recent contract, regional airlines were offering the highest first-year pay rates in the industry. Regionals have stopped hiring FOs because, even after forcing hundreds of pilots to upgrade to Captain against their will, they still don’t have enough left seaters.

This is happening because major airlines need every pilot they can get to staff operations that are simultaneously recovering from COVID and growing overall, just a year or two after they allowed thousands of pilots to retire early during the pandemic. The only reason this won’t be the busiest major airline summer in history is that there aren’t enough Air Traffic Controllers in the country to handle the volume of traffic our companies want to throw at them. That only means demand will continue to climb, unsatisfied, until the FAA can get its act together and get more controllers hired and trained.

On top of this, America’s ULCCs are also expanding and hiring like crazy. They’ll hire a regional pilot and get them more hours, more efficiently, in a better aircraft, while working under better work rules, but only if the major airlines don’t snag those same regional FOs first.

Don’t forget that demand for large freight has only increased over time. Amazon is continuously expanding their operations, and other carriers are struggling to keep up. (FedEx is trying to make it look like their demand is dropping. I believe that much of this is shenanigans, driven by Purple management’s stance in their ongoing contract negotiations. Unfortunately for them, Amazon and others are more than happy to scoop up all the market share that FedEx is giving up. Soon, cargo formerly flown by a FDX B777 will be carried on a Hawaiian A330.)

This mayhem gives young pilots a lot of choices, which is both good and bad. I constantly hear questions from pilots trying to figure out the fastest way to the majors. They include:

“Should I upgrade at my regional, or jump to an ULCC?”

“Should I upgrade at my regional, or fly widebody jets at an ACMI?”

“My ULCC seems to have good pay and work rules. Should I really leave for a major airline?”

Amidst that discussion, I also hear some really terrible advice and opinions that lack any semblance of context or consideration. Common refrains include:

“I’m happy where I am. I’m senior and have the best schedule of my career. Why would I go elsewhere to start over as a junior FO?”

“ULCCs are major airlines.”

(It strikes me as ironic that many of the loudest voices behind this one are people who have since ditched their ULCC for an actual major.)

“I make as much as a Delta Captain here.”

“I can’t afford the pay cut.”

Just this morning I read a post from a NetJets pilot who likes his job and can hold an upgrade at 18 months in. He has a CJO at Delta, but is thinking about foregoing it because he’s worried about being on reserve for a few months and possibly missing out on holidays for the next year or two. (I know, I can’t make this stuff up.)

Here’s the bottom line: you owe it to yourself and your family to pursue a job at a major airline. By “major” I mean one of:

  1. American
  2. Delta
  3. FedEx
  4. Southwest
  5. United
  6. UPS

Why? I could spend all day giving you reasons, but I hope to center my points here around a single area: Scope. It turns out that Scope is the single most important factor in every airline pilot’s career.

What is Scope?

When I left the Air Force for the airlines, I had never heard of or considered Scope. Someone explained it to me, and it made sense, and then I voted on our 2016 contract without any consideration for it.

Wow Emet, you were a moron.

Yes I was, but in the words of the guy who got turned into a newt: “I got better.”

Scope is the term for expressing what flying your airline does. It encompasses the types of aircraft, where they fly, and who flies them.

Scope is Section 1 in my pilot contract for a good reason. It is the most important job protection I have. Our scope section states that our company can only fly jets with our livery. Those jets must be flown by two or more (and never just one) pilots on the company seniority list.

We recently signed a new Global Scope agreement with our company that offers us even more protection. Here’s a great podcast episode with details:

This Episode of the Engage Podcast explains the enormous gains the Delta pilots achieved with their new Global Scope agreement. If you care at all about the future of your career, you need to be screaming for your union to negotiate similar protections.

Our company has spent the last decade or so entering Joint Venture (JV) agreements with foreign airlines. They’re like codeshares, but deeper. Until recently, they allowed the company to outsource our jobs to foreign carriers. This was bad. Our new agreement forces the company to reset the balance of flying for which it uses JV partners, and put more of our pilots on our widebody jets for long-haul flying. This is the most important thing that has happened for my pilot group since bankruptcy and mergers in the mid-2000s.

Scope Problems

Although the majors are slow to admit it, they currently depend on regional airlines for their very existence. Delta Air Lines makes 2/3 of their profits each year from domestic operations. Until COVID, this meant $4B of their $6B profit every year came from domestic flying. The only way to make that happen is to have small RJs feeding thousands of passengers into and out of Delta hubs every few hours.

United Airlines has lots of gorgeous B777-300ERs and B787s. It’s relatively easy to get to the right seat of one of those wonderful widebodies. Rumor has it that Captain seats are even going unfilled on those jets.

These aircraft fly to lots of desirable international destinations. However, United has a huge low-end Scope problem. In a good year, United only makes about half as much profit as Delta, total. If you look at market cap, United is only worth about half as much as Delta, despite having more, newer widebody jets. (This post has some numbers to back these claims up. They’re older, 2018 numbers, but I suspect they’ll continue to hold true for the near future.)

What’s the difference? While United was spending all that money on shiny new widebodies (that it had to compete unprofitably with against the ME3 and shitty airlines like Norwegian), it completely neglected the regional end of its operation. Now, they’re having trouble filling those big jets because they just can’t connect passengers from small-town America to their big hubs.

The Scope clause in the United pilot’s contract places significant restrictions on the number of regional jets their company can operate. United’s managers are begging their pilots to modify that scope clause and let them improve their regional feed.

I believe the pilots have taken exactly the right stance: they’ve stood firm and said, “Hell no!”

At the same time, they’ve offered solutions. Essentially, the United pilots told the company it can have as many small jets as it wants, as long as it makes them mainline jets flown by mainline pilots. (Here’s a short summary of this fight.) If I were a United pilot, I’d love to be a CRJ900 or ERJ175 Captain, flying at mainline pay rates…especially if they decided to add more pilot bases in places like TPA or MCO to ensure they had enough ramp space.

Better yet: United could buy the stellar A220. It has the same hourly fuel burn as a CRJ900 or ERJ175, yet carries 30-50 more passengers, has the best narrowbody cabin in the industry, has actual overhead bins and cargo compartments, and has enough range to for transcon flying with an alternate, or even flying across the Atlantic.

In classic airline management style, United’s CEO told his pilots to pound sand. Instead, he went to the trouble of getting FAA certification for a completely new aircraft type, a CRJ700 with only 50 seats onboard, called the CRJ550. This gave United’s managers the leeway to accomplish some of their goals without having to renegotiate Scope with their pilots.

This appears to have been somewhat effective in the short term. The United pilots are smart to try and get more of that flying at mainline. However, until management caves, United is missing out on billions of dollars in potential income. This is bad for their shareholders, bad for the long-term health of the company, and it means United’s pilots may never enjoy the incredible profit sharing payouts that Delta pilots have traditionally enjoyed.

(If only United’s shareholders were to hold United’s executives accountable for this painfully obvious neglect of their fiduciary duties….)

Regional Scope Will Always Suck

Regional pilots must realize that your Scope sucks. Most regionals in the US only work for other carriers. Their customers don’t know the difference between Republic, GoJet, PSA, or SkyWest, if they even realize those companies exist at all. If your company’s name isn’t painted on your jet, you have a Scope problem.

The solution here isn’t to make regional airlines bigger, or to get more recognition for those companies. The sad truth is that CRJ and ERJ aircraft aren’t efficient enough to make a profitable nationwide airline. If a pilot wants better Scope, the only option is to move up to a better company.

Quality of Life

Since most regionals are at the mercy of larger airlines, they are under intense pressure to perform, but also have the lowest priority.

Imagine the pressure that United puts on Mesa to complete each and every flight. They’re so desperate for regional feed that they created the CRJ550. This forces regionals like Mesa to do whatever they can to attract pilots.

Once they have a pilot on the line, they need him or her to fly several legs a day, just to break even. They can’t afford to give pilots more than 10-12 days off per month, and they’re definitely going to use every single reserve pilot, every day.

I’ve heard countless horror stories of regional pilots answering phone calls only to hear, “Come in to work immediately, or else.” One pilot was on a beach, on assigned vacation days, and told she had a choice between coming in to work or being fired.

This is utter bullshit, and yet that is how regional airlines operate.

Regional pilots, please understand that this is not okay. One of the many reasons you need to move on to a better company is that contracts at good airlines protect you from this kind of garbage.

At my major airline, I’m almost never obligated to answer the phone, period. If I happen to answer a call for an IA, I still have lots of protections. I average working 8-14 days per month…probably about the same number of days you have off. My schedulers can’t even reach me, let alone force me to come in to work. You deserve to live under this kind of contract.

This is just one example out of hundreds where pilot contracts at regional airlines have terrible work rules, compared to major airlines. If you stay at a regional, you’re accepting worse Quality of Life than you should have to.

What is This? Career Progression for Ants!?

So, regional airlines pay the worst, and treat their pilots the worst. It doesn’t stop there though! Staying at the regionals means you’ll suffer from that bad QOL for the longest amount of time possible.

I didn’t even realize this until my friend J-Lo spent a few years at Endeavor.

He had enough hours for an ATP, but really needed a quick 1000 turbine hours, and ideally as much turbine PIC as possible, to be competitive for a major. He did the right thing and upgraded ASAP to start logging those PIC hours. Unfortunately, this meant flying the CRJ200…the worst jet in our industry.

One of the many problems with the -200 is the fact that it has short legs and is load limited. While it’s theoretically capable of longer flights, it’s most useful (if useful at all) on very short legs to and from hubs. J-Lo flew many 6-leg days without leaving the state of Georgia. Some days he’d never even touch FL180.

The biggest problem with these short legs is that they happen quickly. A flight between ATL and CSG averages less than 20 minutes. This meant that even after a back-breaking 6-leg day, he might have only logged 2.5 total block hours. Sure, he had a 4-hour average daily pay guarantee, but that doesn’t get you to a major airline sooner.

Compare that to operating an A320 or B737 family aircraft for a ULCC or major. Sure, those aircraft do some short legs just like J-Lo’s CRJ200…especially at certain airlines. However, those jets are also capable of 6- or 7-hour flights. A pilot on one of those fleets stands a much better chance of logging 4-8 flight hours per day for 1-3 legs of flying, rather than 2.5 hours for 6 legs.

It doesn’t take much Pilot Math to realize how much faster flying for a ULCC will get you the hours you need to be competitive at the majors.

While pay rates at regional airlines have recently risen to match those at some ULCCs, they’ll also be the first companies to slash pay rates when times get tough. Also, it’s a lot more efficient to get paid 4-8 hours of pay per workday at a ULCC than crediting up to your 4-hour ADG at a regional.

At this point, you may be wondering why someone would ever fly for a regional. In a way, so am I.

On one hand, many regionals offer flow-through programs to major airlines. Those programs sound good on paper, until you realize that they weren’t instituted for your benefit. They are 100% traps designed to protect regional staffing and low-end scope for major airlines.

The reality of our industry right now is: if you’re senior enough at a regional to be close to getting a flow-through date, you’re competitive for every single major airline. For this reason, I strongly advise pilots to NEVER fly for a regional with flow through to your #1 major airline. This could block you from applying off the street and cost you years. Pick a regional with flow to one of your 3rd or 4th backup companies. Worst case, you can use that program, but only if the company you actually want rejects you.

Another reason to go with a specific regional might be the commute. All else being equal, you’re better off not commuting. If you can live in base at a regional, and get the flying you need, that might be an okay option. However, don’t let getting cozy in that situation prevent you from moving on when the time comes. (More on that shortly.)

Another reason many pilots consider regionals is that they’ll take inexperienced pilots and pay for the ATP CTP course. Some airlines even offer time-building programs, in exchange for indentured servitude in the future.

I get it: when you’re new, money is tight. The idea of getting that stuff covered is attractive. However, if that’s the only thing holding you back, go get another loan! Going to a regional for that reason alone is penny wise and pound foolish.

If taking a handout now slows down your career progression, you’re not missing out on a few months of ULCC new-hire pay. You’re missing out on top-line A350 or B777 Captain pay at a major. Delta’s new contract puts that at $474/hr, easily over $500K per year. Don’t give up months or years of that pay to get a free $5K CTP course or $30K in Seminole hours now.

Major airline FO pay is so high right now that you can rapidly pay off any loans you need to. Yes, this advice is coming from the guy who wrote Pilot Math Treasure Bath and says that debt is a bad thing. In this case, it’s an investment, and the long-term rewards are worth the near-term pain.

So…ULCCs for the Win?

So, if regional QOL is so bad, the ULCCs are just as desperate for pilots, and those ULCCs have essentially the same hiring minimus as those regionals, why not just go fly for a ULCC instead?

In general, I think this mentality is right on.

The ULCCs pay either the same as the regionals, or better. However, you’re likely to log more hours per workday meaning fewer days per month at work, you accrue flight hours more quickly, or both. The work rules at the ULCCs also tend to be much better than those at the regionals.

These are a few ULCCs where I believe most pilots could happily enjoy a full career. You’re much better off getting stuck at one of them than at a regional. So, who are these carriers?

When it comes to Scope, there are several carriers operating A320s, B737s, or even bigger aircraft that didn’t make my list of majors. I think of these as Tier 2 airlines. They include (but are not limited to):

  1. Allegiant
  2. Spirit
  3. JetBlue
  4. Frontier
  5. Breeze
  6. Sun Country
  7. Avello
  8. iAero

There are also several Tier 2 cargo carriers including:

  1. Atlas
  2. Kalitta
  3. ATI
  4. Amerijet
  5. Western Global

Alaska and Hawaiian will tell you they don’t fit in this tier…that they’re “majors” or “legacies.” For me, Scope defines everything here.

In my mind, a major airline is one that owns widebody aircraft and uses them to do international flying to all 6 traditionally-inhabited continents.

(Yes, Southwest doesn’t do that. However, they’re a very large operation and they do a credible amount of international flying within this hemisphere. Yes, Hawaiian does more international flying than Southwest, using A330s and soon B787s, but they’re a comparatively tiny company and that flying is limited to a few destinations. These dividing lines aren’t perfect. I think Hawaiian is a good company, and it’d be awesome to live and fly there. However, they’ll never be able to compete with the QOL available at a true major.)

It isn’t just the flying at these companies though, it’s the work rules.

If you talk to pilots at any of these Tier 2 companies, you’ll hear lots of little complaints about things that seem small, unless you’ve had to deal with them in real life. You’ll hear about scheduling practices, pay protection (or the lack thereof), trip construction, sick rules, vacation policies, reserve rules, disciplinary policies, and more.

I hear about these issues on every trip I fly, because as a NYC B737 Captain I fly with new-hire FOs from all those companies all the time.

Most pilots find ways to exist successfully under these bad or mediocre work rules, but it’s always a struggle. The reason major airlines are so much better than the regionals and these Tier 2s is that our pilot contracts give us much better protection.

We have the best scheduling rules. They guarantee us the most days off per month of any pilots in the industry. They protect our pay, no matter what shenanigans scheduling pulls. They protect us from punishment. They offer us the best possible protection from unscheduled flying. Delta’s new contract locks much of that down by making it extremely expensive for the company to screw with us. Either they’ll have to build better trips, or we’ll get even richer than we already are.


Another important aspect of the whole Scope dynamic boils down to one thing: choice.

Southwest is a great company that pays well and has a good contract. However, if you work there the only aircraft you will ever fly for the rest of your career is the B737. (Unless they suck it up and buy B787s. I hope they never do, because they’d be a powerhouse and I would hate to have to compete against them!)

Southwest works their people hard, frequently flying numerous legs per day, and that can get exhausting when you’re stuck flying what is arguably the oldest and worst mainline jet in the industry. Since there’s only one type of jet and only two seats on each, Southwest has a huge stagnation problem. If you want to upgrade, you’ll be waiting for years. When you finally do, there isn’t a great answer to “What’s next?” You’re going to be doing the same thing on the same jets…until you retire.

This rings true at a ULCC, except your pay and work rules will never be as good as what Southwest pilots get.

One of the reasons my primary definition for the majors includes widebody jets is that it means there is more career progression for everyone, more choice.

At the other majors, there is progression from narrowbody FO to narrowbody CA…or widebody FO if you want. Some widebody FOs will upgrade on narrowbodies, while others will just stay in their seat and enjoy the stellar QOL their seniority brings until they can be senior in the left seat of their same widebody jet. More recently, Delta has awarded new-hire FO spots on every jet in its fleet…to include the A330 and A350.

At major airlines, reserve goes senior among widebody FOs. There are fewer departures per day and those trips are worth a lot of money. Pilots are significantly less likely to call in sick and miss an international trip, so reserve pilots rarely get used. I’ve met more than one widebody FO who works an average of 5 days per month while earning 75+ hours of pay. I challenge you to show me anything at Southwest or a ULCC that can match that combination of pay and quality of life.

Don’t like what you’re doing? Feel like you’re stagnating in your current position? Just interested in trying something new? You’re never more than a 2-year seat lock from choosing to try something completely different in your life at one of these majors.

This aspect alone is a powerful QOL enhancer.

With all these choices, you also see plenty of movement at a major airline. Eventually, most senior FOs will upgrade to CA, and most narrowbody pilots will move on to widebodies. When they move, their seats go to more junior pilots. As Delta expands its fleet and pilot group, this situation has only gotten better. The junior Delta B757/767 (“7ER”) Captain in NYC got awarded his spot after 2.5 months with the company.

When Delta starts having to answer the mail on the new Global Scope agreement it signed with its pilots, it will be forced to immediately offer dozens or potentially even hundreds of new widebody spots. This only means more choice for everyone, more pilots at the top of our pay charts, and more opportunities for junior pilots to advance to positions years ahead of their peers.

You will never get these kinds of choices or opportunities at a company with lesser Scope. There aren’t enough aircraft types, there aren’t enough pilots, and there isn’t enough long-haul international flying.

Sweet Little Lies

With this perspective in mind, let’s look at some of the stupid lies that many pilots in this industry tell themselves or each other.

I’ve heard:

“My ULCC seems to have good pay and work rules. Should I really leave for a major airline?”


“I’m happy where I am. I’m senior and have the best schedule of my career. Why would I go elsewhere to start over as a junior FO?”

This should be clear by now, but the answer is a resounding, “DUH!”

The pilot contracts at major airlines are better than those at Tier 2 companies, period. They offer better protections and more money. I’ll ask you a version of the question I ask military pilots who are too institutionalized to leave:

“What do you love about flying at your ULCC that you can’t also get at a major?”

Do you like your jet? You can fly the same thing at a major airline.

Do you like your schedule? I guarantee you can get the same thing, or better at a major. Yes, if you only fly day turns at Allegiant it will take some time to get senior enough to achieve this at a major. However, it can be done.

Do you like your upgrade times? I’m not sure what beats unfilled Captain seats at United, and 2.5 month widebody upgrades at Delta.

Do you like your seniority? I get it. Even I’m guilty of indoctrinating you on the idea that Seniority is Everything. However, I promise you that even the most junior FO at a major has better pay and QOL than many of the most senior pilots anywhere else. I know this because I hear it from every single new-hire FO I fly with.

I regularly fly with FOs who have never sat a day of reserve at our company because they were already senior enough to hold a line by the time they finished OE. Worst case, they might be on reserve for a few months. Among NYC B737 FOs at my company, a year with the company puts you around 25% seniority.

For now, the argument that you’re giving up seniority moving from a ULCC to a major is shortsighted at best, and lazy or ignorant at worst. You’ll regain equivalent seniority in no time.

In a way, this won’t hold true for ever. The major airlines are on a hiring tear unlike anything in human history. Aircraft orders are through the roof, travel demand is insatiable, and every company is trying to expand. Every company is snapping up pilots as fast as it can.

However, there will be a point where pilot groups get a little too big. The airlines will reach a point of having enough pilots for the aircraft on hand. At that point, hiring will drop from 2000-2500 pilots per year per company to just enough to replace retirements, somewhere around 400-800 pilots per year, steady-state.

If you wait too long to move on from a regional or Tier 2 to a major, you’ll be on the wrong side of that wave and it’ll cost your family millions of dollars and untold QOL. If you value your time or money, moving over ASAP is your best option.

I cannot stand hearing:

“ULCCs are major airlines.”

They simply aren’t.

This doesn’t mean they’re bad companies! I frequently commute to NYC on JetBlue. I think they’re a great company with a lot of potential. If their merger with Spirit gets past regulators, and they abandon Spirit culture wholesale to just make JetBlue bigger, they’ll be a serious contender that should have Southwest worried.

I listened to Allegiant’s presentation at TPNx last weekend, and was very impressed. If you live in one of their bases, the idea of making great pay to be home every night is extremely compelling. I honestly would not fault a pilot for choosing that.

And yet, those companies aren’t major airlines. They don’t have the widebodies, the top-end pay, the long-haul international flying, the fantastic work rules, or the career options available at the majors.

I’ve found that the people who try to make this assertion are usually trying to push pilots into a deal that benefits their business more than it benefits the individual pilots, or they’re making excuses for their own laziness and stagnation. Don’t listen to it.

I’m especially frustrated when I hear:

“I make as much as a Delta Captain here.”

The problem with this statement is it completely lacks context. Can a pilot make that much money as a Line Check Airman at one of American’s wholly-owned regional airlines or as a Captain at a Tier 2 airline right now?


However, to do it, that pilot has to work like crazy.

They probably live on their phone, shopping Open Time. They have to take short-notice trips that constantly detonate their family’s schedule. Many of them are flying so many days per month that they make 20-workday-per-month military pilots on the government gravy train look like homebodies.

Looking at my schedule so far this year, the most I’ve worked in a month was 15 days. With our new contract, I’m likely to work either fewer days per month or enjoy $5K+ in increased monthly compensation for zero additional work because our new soft pay rules are so powerful.

Some regional and ULCC pilots may make as much money as I do, but there’s no way they’re working as little as I do.

I’m a “less work for less money” kind of guy overall, but my phone rings off the hook with premium trips. If I spent as many days at work flying those Green Slips as the regional and Tier 2 pilots making these claims, I could easily make $50-60K per month, if not more.

The pay and contract rules at the majors are just so much better that regional and Tier 2 pay and QOL will never measure up.

Of all the bone-headed lies that airline pilots tell themselves, perhaps the most egregious is:

“I can’t afford the pay cut.”

When I started at my major airline, I made $104,000 in my first year (that’s in 2016 dollars). We’ve gotten pay raises in two new contracts since then. The latest one includes all those great soft pay rules, on top of industry-leading new-hire pay rates.

Yes, regional and Tier 2 pay rates have climbed astronomically above the $200/hr mark. Yes, this means jumping from one of those companies to a major might reduce a senior regional or ULCC Captain’s pay from $200K-250K per year to a measly $150K per year. Yes, that’s a big cut.

There are some serious problems with this mentality though.

First, what the hell are you wasting your money on if you spend every dime of your $250K salary every year? Only a supreme fool would spend so thoughtlessly. You will be the Poor Old Joe of your generation.

I went to great effort writing my book to prove that the average American family can live very happily on about $57K per year. I’m working on an updated second edition, and it looks like that number could climb to as much as $68K per year thanks to inflation. However, that’s a far cry from $250K. In my book, I even allow for arbitrarily doubling your spending when you upgrade to Captain, and that still only accounts for about half of what you’re making.

If the vast majority of Americans can live happy lives at a quarter of your current salary, the idea that you couldn’t be happy taking a temporary 40% pay cut is absurd.

If you’re spending every dime you make, then you need serious financial help. Hit me up and I’ll send you free copies of both Pilot Math Treasure Bath and Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. Yes, I’m dead serious about that.

It could be that someone in your family has serious, chronic health issues that soak up all of your earnings. If that’s the case, you have my deepest sympathy. I think I could probably help you find a way to make moving to a major work.

However, I think this is not the case for the vast majority of airline pilots. If you’re spending everything you earn, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of financial slavery. What you can’t afford is not changing your ways! I promise you can survive a year or two of reduced pay simply by changing your spending habits from “abject insanity” to “ever so slightly less opulent.”

Don’t act like this is a valid reason for staying at a regional or a Tier 2 airline though.

The second problem with this mentality is its malignant near-sightedness. Yes, even with Delta’s new pay rates, your first year at a major airline will be less than a top-line regional or Tier 2 Captain. However, if you look at Year 2 or 3 pay at Delta and UPS, you’ll see that you’re back to break even in a very short amount of time. (The other majors will have to match these rates soon, or they’ll have no hope of staffing their airlines.)

That doesn’t account for premium pay. I frequently fly with Year 2 FOs who are on their 3rd or 5th or 7th Green Slip of the month. This means they have spent several days each month flying for equivalent pay rates even higher than mine…above and beyond the flying they do for single pay! These pilots are making so much money, it’s just silly. Yes, it takes a lot of extra work. However, if finances are your only reason for not jumping to a major, you could probably break even just by picking up premium trips.

Also, don’t forget that upgrade times at the majors are shockingly short right now. It’s very possible to upgrade during your first year at a major airline, hitting pay rates that meet or exceed your regional or Tier 2 Captain pay while your indoc classmates are still on probation.

If major airline rates represent a pay cut at all, the time frame during which that’s true is so vanishingly short that it completely invalidates your assertion that you can’t afford it.

The final problem with this mentality is the long-term costs to your family.

All airline pilots eventually age-out. There’s talk that this age might rise to 67, but many pilots leave before 65 right now anyway. It is critical for you to understand that when you give up years at a major airline, you can’t think of those years at new-hire FO pay. You must think of those as years you could have been flying as a widebody Captain. Delta has set the industry standard for that rate at $474/hr, and it will only go up from there.

When you ignorantly say you can’t afford to take the pay cut, you assertion is based on a pay cut as high as $100,000 in your first year. However, you must realize that what your family is actually missing out on is a year of earning $500,000 or more. This means you’re giving up on an extra $250,000 – $300,00 in the future, not decrease of $100,000 now.

Before you stick to your guns on that one, go ask your spouse or significant other how they feel about it.

I know some of you will say that the Net Present Value of $100K today far exceeds that $300,000 in 10 or 20 or 30 years. While this is mathematically true, it’s only a valid argument if you’re actually investing that money.

In my experience, most pilots making this argument aren’t doing so because they’re only spending $68K per year and investing every other penny. They’re saying it because they’re spending upwards of $250K per year and investing almost nothing.

In that case, taking a pay cut for a year is the biggest possible blessing you could ever get.

This very temporary pay reduction could force your family to take a long, hard look at your finances. If that led you to make long-term spending cuts and/or investing increases, it would benefit you far more than even winning the lottery. Hundreds of lottery winners, professional athletes, and rock stars end up destitute because they never learned to spend intelligently. Unless you can get that figured out, no amount of airline pay will help you build actual wealth.

Take the pay cut. Fix your family’s finances. Learn how to fill up a Treasure Bath. In the meantime, you’ll be accruing seniority at one of the highest-paying airlines in the world and enjoying industry-leading QOL.

Do not scam your family out of these long-term benefits by asserting that you can’t give up a piddly $100k next year.

One Caution: American

Although I’ve made a lot of broad statements about the Big 6 major airlines, they are not all created equally.

The sad truth is that American Airlines’ pilots are in a tough spot right now. Although I’m not particularly impressed by any airline exec, American’s pilots have been stuck with some particularly toxic managers for far too long. These managers have made what I consider to be the terrible decision to try and compete at the low-cost end of the airline spectrum. I frequently sum up my perception of Doug Parker’s business strategy as:

“Let’s try to be Spirit Airlines, but with widebodies.”

It doesn’t take an MBA, C-suite credentials, or a decade plus of watching American’s decline to know that this is a stupid idea. Airline margins can be tight as it is. You simply cannot make more money by charging less for a worse experience. So many terrible long-haul ULCCs have gone bankrupt over the years, that it should be obvious how terrible an idea it is. And yet, that’s exactly where American has been heading for a while.

They’ve repeatedly been roasted by travel bloggers for shrinking seats, taking seatback entertainment screens out of their aircraft (because they actually thought passengers wanted that!), shrinking the size of their lavatories, and more.

Intertwined with the fact that American is drowning debt and not making as much money as their peers because they’re marketing a worse product to the lowest paying customers in the industry, is the fact that their managers have gone out of their way to stick their pilots with the worst contract among their peers.

American pilots have some truly egregious work rules, compared to industry standard, let alone new industry-leading provisions at Delta. Their pay now also lags their peers.

If you read or listen to Flying the Line, you might suspect the author blames this in part on the American pilots abandoning ALPA and getting stuck with a union that is way too closely tied to their company. (I get the feeling that anyone holding grudges is on their way out, and America’s pilots would be welcomed back into ALPA with open arms. Wouldn’t that be a coup for our entire industry?)

No matter why the American pilots are in this position, they have the longest way to go in the current round of contract negotiations. To their credit, they just completed a Strike Authorization Vote with overwhelming support similar to the results at Alaska and Delta that led to improved negotiations and new contracts.

I sincerely hope that the American pilots will prevail in their negotiations and achieve the contract that they deserve. I similarly hope that their execs will come to their senses on business strategy so that my friends there can enjoy working at a better company. I say this knowing it’d mean more competition for me, and that’s okay. Competition makes us all better, and I live in fear of my company getting lazy!

This said, until and unless American’s pilot group gets a better contract, I personally don’t believe it’s the best company for most pilots. I think part of what it will take to improve things at American will be for us as pilots to avoid that company like the plague. They need to feel the worst of the ongoing pilot shortage before they’ll be willing to make the improvements their pilots, customers, and other workers deserve.

This means that if you’re at a regional or Tier 2 airline (or American itself,) I can really only recommend applying to 5 of the US major airlines.

That said, I also hesitate to recommend Southwest based on the arguments I’ve made here. I lump them in with the majors because they’re a big company with a good culture, their pay is competitive with their 5 peers, and they have a very good contract. However, I couldn’t bring myself to do nothing but long days flying only the B737 around North America for the next 22 years. I need more variety in my life. I couldn’t handle that kind of stagnation.

I also worry that some of what makes Southwest special is eroding with time. They still throw the concept of “LUV” around like an Air Force Wing Commander promoting *Synegry*, but evidence shows that things may not be as LUVley there as they used to. Also, Southwest’s pilots love their archaic line-bidding process in part because it lets them scam 5 months of getting full pay for almost no work with just 5 weeks of officially awarded vacation. I worry that at some point their management (or their shareholders) will say “enough is enough” and that their good deal will go the way of the dodo…just like it did at every other major airline.

Overall, Southwest is still a good company for the right person in the right circumstances, but most of the arguments I’ve made here against Tier 2 airlines apply to them as well. Like I asked earlier: What do you love about flying the B737 at Southwest that you couldn’t get at another major?

Get Moving!

Our world, our country, and our industry are full of bad advice. Mine certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s at least better than the kinds of lies and part-truths that are holding far too many pilots from achieving better careers.

Don’t let arbitrary catch phrases or outright ignorant statements prevent you from moving on to an airline with superior Scope, QOL, and pay.

If you’re at a regional or a Tier 2 airline, you are competitive for one of the 6 (or 5 or 4) major airlines. Your family deserves a shot at the pay and QOL those companies offer!

Clean up your logbooks, resumes, and applications, and submit them! This is an unprecedented time in human history and your family at least deserves the opportunity to turn down an offer from a company that has the kind of Scope that gives you all the benefits and all the choices.

Should I Buy an Airplane for Training?

Flight training is a huge investment of time and money. You’re not the first person to wonder whether it wouldn’t just be cheaper to buy your own plane, hire a freelance CFI (or teach your own kid,) and then enjoy or sell the plane once your target audience reaches 1500 hours and/or gets a full-time pilot job.

You can make this work if you get the right aircraft with the right setup. However, it’s not the right answer for everyone. Let’s consider the factors:

Aircraft Choice

Since you’re doing this, at least in part, to cut costs, you must target the right kind of aircraft. You need something tried and true, familiar to every mechanic in the country, with lots of spare parts easily available from major suppliers.

You also need something simple. That means a fixed-pitch prop turned by a single engine, fixed landing gear, and 2 or 4 seats. No exceptions allowed. More complex aircraft just have more moving parts that need to be inspected (expensive) and have more opportunity to break (expensive, and prevent training for weeks or months until repairs are completed,) and require more expensive insurance.

Basically, this limits you to about three aircraft types:

  • The Cessna C-172
  • The Piper PA28 family (Cherokee 140, Warrior, Cherokee 180, Archer)
  • The Cessna C-152 (not the C-150)

Older C-172s were powered by the Continental C-145, or O-300. Having owned an aircraft with this engine, I think it’s a piece of junk. If you spend any time in any O-300 owners forum online you’ll hear constant complaints about maintenance issues. If you’ve been working on car or airplane engines for decades and/or can find an aircraft with a factory remanufactured or factory overhauled engine, you can consider an O-300. Otherwise, buy an aircraft with a Lycoming O-235, O-320, or O-360.

Yes, there will be thousands of other aircraft that fit your criteria and budget. Yes, many of them look cooler, fly faster, or cost less. It doesn’t matter. The FAA could care less how many miles a pilot has traveled. All FAA ratings are based on hours. If your airplane flies slowly, you just log more hours any time you go somewhere. This purchase must be about one thing: your mission.

That mission is: reliably flying as many hours as possible in the shortest possible amount of time, up to 1500 total hours per trainee. Allowing yourself to be distracted from that mission in any way only brings heartbreak, and large checks with your signature in the corner.


Avionics are important and expensive to install. If you plan for this airplane to serve as an IFR training platform, you need to buy one that already has some upgrades. At a minimum, this means a pair of Garmin G5s or uAvionix AV30s serving as an ADI/PFD and HSI/MFD. Other good options here include products from: Aspen Avionics, Dynon, or the Garmin G3X.

If you’re doing IFR training, you also need an IFR navigation unit. The industry standard right now is the GTN650. It’s gorgeous, powerful, and very expensive. There are “cheaper” alternatives, designated GPS175, GNC355, and GTX375. They’re good enough for your purposes when paired with the appropriate legacy radios and/or transponder.

You will also see aircraft with the previous generation of Garmin’s IFR navigator, the GNS430 or GNS530. They’re fantastic products, but I’m not sure how long Garmin will continue to support them. If you can verify (directly from Garmin, not from the seller) that the unit will continue to receive database updates for at least the next year or two, they’ll be okay.

You can find the PFD/MFD options I mentioned at reasonable prices, and you can get a cheap GNS430 on eBay. You may be tempted to buy a plane with steam gauges and hire your own mechanic to install the new stuff…because it’ll be cheaper.

In general, this is dead wrong.

Installing these new avionics requires major surgery to your panel, wiring, and plumbing. Regular A&P Mechanic shop rates start around $75-100. Specialty avionics shops can quickly double that. You might see individual instrument sticker prices in the single-digit thousands and think they’re reasonable. It doesn’t take many shop hours at these rates for your final bill to more than double the sticker price of the boxes themselves.

We’ll discuss why later, but you must also consider the fact that you’ll probably spend months waiting for the shop to get your work done.

You aren’t reading this because you thought a couple years ahead. You’re reading it because someone in your family is ready to start flying right now. Best case: it’ll take you at least a few weeks to buy a plane in the first place. Then, you’ll have to find a shop willing to do your work, wait for all the parts and gadgets to be delivered, and also wait for them to be installed. You’re looking at a minimum of 6 months before your plane will be usable. In the meantime, you’ll have shelled out $10-30K over your aircraft’s purchase price. Ouch.

Yes, I know you found someone who promised to do things more quickly and for a better price. No, they aren’t intentionally lying to you. They’re just unrealistically optimistic. That misplaced optimism costs them nothing, but it costs you a lot. Again, more on why later.

Instead remember: you’re infinitely better off buying a plane with the avionics you need already installed.

  • 2 x G5s or AV30s
  • GTN650 (or similar)
  • GNS430 (maybe)

Yes, there are great products from some other companies like Avidyne and Bendix/King. They’d work, but the only people who install them in a plane they’re selling are people who are trying to save pennies, while getting rid of something they don’t want, ASAP. Where else might they have skimped with that airplane, and how will that affect its reliability as a trainer for you?

Also, Garmin is the industry standard. You’ll actually find CFIs who are either reluctant to fly for you because of the unfamiliar avionics, or they’ll be less effective because they know less than you about how to use them.

It should go without saying, but you also need an airplane already equipped with a legal ADS-B Out solution. One exception to my “don’t plan to upgrade” rule is the uAvionix tailBeacon, a surprising instance of a quick, easy, cheap solution. This unit works with existing transponders, costs about $2000, and any A&P can install it in less than two shop hours. This means you are allowed to consider an aircraft that doesn’t already have ADS-B, as long as it’s otherwise perfect.

Stay on Target

At price ranges that make sense, you’re looking at aircraft produced in the 1960s or 1970s. You can find newer C-172s and Cherokees, and they’re good options, as long as you’re willing to spend more. (I’ve recently seen later-model C-172s in the $200K-300K range. It’s completely absurd, but it’s the reality of today’s market.)

The catch is that with all the other expenses of aircraft ownership, you’ll rapidly reach the point where it’s cheaper to spend $100K for an accelerated zero-to-hero flight training program at a big-name school and get a job as a CFI the moment you graduate. We’ll run some actual numbers later.

As you start shopping, you’ll come back and tell me that for just a little more money you can get a nicer, newer aircraft like a Diamond DA20 or DA40, or a Cirrus SR20. They’re all proven trainers. However, they’re also more expensive. Even at the top of your budget, they aren’t likely to be newer enough to be more reliable.

If you’re thorough, you’ll also notice options like Piper’s PA20 Pacer or PA22 Tri-Pacer, and Cessna’s C-140 or C-170. Unfortunately, these aircraft are just too old for your mission. They’re worn out. Many have original wiring from the 1940s or 1950s. Parts are increasingly rare, if accessible at all. These are wonderful aircraft for enthusiasts who have the time and means to work on or (better yet) restore them.

That is not your mission.

Why So Militant?

I’ve only owned two aircraft so far, but you could say I’ve been “studying” this art for decades. I’ve worked with or hired A&P Mechanics from all over the US. I’ve advised and helped owners of a very wide variety of aircraft.

Let’s think about the type of vehicle we’re buying: If you were to spend $50,000-$100,000 on a car produced in the 1960s or 1970s, how would you treat it?

In most cases, you’d act like Cameron Frye’s dad. You’d never drive it. You’d just rub it with a baby diaper. You’d take it to car shows and meetups. You might do the occasional drive for a few hours on a weekend. If you really trusted your kid, you might let them drive it to a special occasion like prom. (Stay out as late as you want, do whatever you want somewhere else, but the car must be in the garage by midnight!) You certainly would not use this car as a daily driver for a long commute.

And yet, that last case is exactly the mission for your airplane.

“It could get wrecked, stolen, scratched, breathed on wrong… a pigeon could shit on it! Who knows?” You can’t afford to treat your plane that way.

Why wouldn’t you drive an older car that much? Well, it’s old! This means the more it drives, the more maintenance it requires. Those parts aren’t getting produced anymore, so they’re only getting more expensive. You didn’t buy this car to keep it at your mechanic’s shop. You bought it to keep at your glassed-in show garage. Even if you’re a car guru who can do all the work yourself, you don’t actually want to spend all your time working on it. You’d like to drive it sometimes too.

You have to consider similar factors with your airplane, except you don’t have the luxury of just letting it sit in the hangar. The only reason to buy it was to put it to work. You’re going to spend just as much on this plane as you would on a vintage muscle car, but you’re getting the equivalent of a 1980s Dodge Caravan. However, the fixed costs of owning an airplane are way higher than those associated with owning a classic car.

You’re stuck with this option because used aircraft prices are already insane. The 60s or 70s Cessna and Piper spam cans are the best balance of capability, reliability, insurability, and price. You can still find parts, any A&P will work on them, and they have a history of reliability that should keep them out of the shop. Anything fancier or faster and you have to sacrifice some or all of those benefits.

Why Such Focus on Maintenance?

For me, maintenance has been the most frustrating part of aircraft ownership. Airplanes, especially trainers, work hard. Unfortunately, most pilots lack the mechanical savvy to care for their machines as well as they could.

If you buy a used aircraft, especially one that’s been owned by numerous people over numerous decades, there will be a lot of deferred maintenance or updates. Worse, it will be difficult to know about them before you buy. (We’ll look at how to improve your chances with that in a bit.)

If your airplane gets grounded for maintenance, it’s useless to your trainee until it gets fixed. In this day and age, once a person starts flight training, it behooves them to complete that training as quickly and efficiently as possible.

They need to get to their first paying pilot job so they can stop paying for their own hours. They need to get to the regional airlines quickly so they can start building turbine time. Everything should be focused on getting to the really great jobs at major airlines. On some level, everything else is just grind.

Everyone knows that there’s a pilot shortage in our country, but not everyone realizes that the aircraft mechanic shortage is much worse. This isn’t a glamorous job. A&P school is long and expensive, but it doesn’t include a college degree. Many people look down on it and/or think that it doesn’t pay well. (Both of those opinions are stupid and wrong.)

As such, every aircraft maintenance shop in the country has far more work than they can handle. Sure, they’ll agree to work on your aircraft. Most of them will even give you an honest estimate and do good work…when they get around to it.

The problem is that when you bring your airplane in for a job worth $900 to chase brake issues, or even the $10-30K we mentioned for an avionics upgrade, you’re not a very lucrative client. Since demand for maintenance is through the roof, your shop will always have another Bonanza waiting for a $75,000 avionics upgrade or a Baron with $125,000 in engine changes.

That shop is financially better off finishing those lucrative jobs first to get more cash through the doors. They’ll take care of your piddly $2100 uAvionix tailBeacon install when they get a chance.

Definitely this week.

Oh, except they just got a Saratoga in for an annual inspection that’s going to run at least $15,000.

Definitely by the week after that though.

Sadly, this never ends.

Does it frustrate you? That’s okay. You’re welcome to try another shop next time.

We small-time aircraft owners won’t ever win this one.

This is why you need single engine, fixed-pitch propeller, and fixed gear. You need something that has the fewest number of things possible to go wrong. And when they do, you need them to be something that your mechanic is familiar with and can do quickly, when they get around to it.

Airplane Shopping

I have three favorite places to shop for airplanes:

FLYING Magazine is launching a marketplace that has some potential. If you want access to the beta, hit up Preston Holland on LinkedIn. If you’re looking for a glider I like the classifieds at Wings and Wheels.

Go. Shop. Enjoy.

Trade-A-Plane is one of my go-to resources for airplane shopping.

As you do, remember that classified ads are like online dating profiles. Pictures were taken on the best hair day ever, right after a muscle-toning workout, with any belly sucked way, way in…probably a few years ago. Profile details are…optimistically…true, but you’re always going to be a little surprised when you actually meet in person.

I’ve gone to look at many airplanes that I (thankfully) didn’t buy because even my non-mechanic eye could see issues too expensive or difficult to fix to make the asking price reasonable.

Also realize that you will fall victim to a phenomenon I call “mission creep.”

You’ll be shopping for that reasonable C-152 when you realize that for “just a few thousand dollars more” you could get a 4-place plane like a C-172. A few shopping minutes (or hours) later, you’ll realize that for “just a few thousand dollars more” you could get one with the nicer IFR avionics I mentioned above. Then, you’ll realize that for “just a few thousand dollars more” you could get something a little bigger, a little faster, a little cooler, etc. Soon, you’ll find yourself looking at C-310 twins and TBM-700s.

When (not if) this happens, you need to push away from the computer for a moment and realize that you’ve exceeded your mission parameters. Start all the way back over at C-152s and try again. Don’t feel bad about this. Mission creep happens to me every time I shop.

Always focus on finding the best value for your mission.

Fundamental Criteria

Aside from the types of aircraft and avionics we specified above, a few easy criteria can quickly rule out an airplane, or show that it warrants further consideration.

Engine Time

The engines you should be considering (O-235, O-320, O-360) have a Time Between Overhaul (TBO) of 2000-2400 hours, depending on the model. As long as you’re not a charter operator, you can fly an engine past TBO.

A motor with a very recent overhaul is actually the worst deal, even though sellers charge the most for them. Overhaul quality varies…significantly. A “zero-time” motor with a shitty overhaul is nothing but an expensive Pandora’s box. You want at least 300 hours on an engine so the A&P doing your pre-buy inspection (more on that later) can know if the motor was broken-in properly and how it’s actually running post-overhaul.

Overhauls are expensive; however, I’d be tempted to pay a lot less for an engine near or past TBO and pay for a top-shelf overhaul myself (or just replace the engine with a new one.) That way I’d know what I’m getting. Just realize that this means several months of your airplane sitting in a hangar without flying.

If you have the time to wait, and the $35K-50K to invest above purchase price, this is actually a great way to get a deal. If not, look for a “mid-time” engine with not less than 300 hours.
Important terminology here includes:

  • Time Since Major Overhaul (SMOH) – the number of hours since a full overhaul was done. There’s no formal definition for a major overhaul, and quality varies. That’s why you don’t want a plane with a fresh one.
  • Time Since Factory Remanufacture (SFRM) – sending a motor to the factory is the best option short of just buying a new motor. The quality is all but guaranteed. Watch for sellers claiming a factory reman that wasn’t.
  • Time Since New (SNEW) – if this means an airplane’s 50+ year old is original without ever being overhauled, either plan to just buy a new one or run screaming from the building. However, if this means the seller opted to buy a factory new engine instead of doing an overhaul, this could be a great deal. You still need a qualified mechanic to confirm that.
  • Time Since Top Overhaul (STOH) – Again, there’s no definition of a “top” overhaul. This means the motor had issues. It’s possible that a great mechanic knew exactly the problem, replaced some cylinders and perhaps lapped some valves, set everything else back to stock configuration, and fixed everything. More likely, the owner was too cheap to do the full overhaul the motor needed. The mechanic earned a bunch of money treating symptoms, and you’ll have to deal with the underlying problems after your purchase. At best, this adds zero value to a listing in my book. More often, it’s a red flag.

Paint & Interior

Many otherwise bad airplanes have sold to unsuspecting buyers thanks to a gorgeous new paint job. Why did the seller pay $10K-15K to paint this 50+ year old aircraft right before trying to sell it? If it has new paint, you’re going to need a very conscientious mechanic to do a lot of looking inside the aircraft structure for things like corrosion or hidden damage. Don’t let outer beauty distract you!

A nice, new interior isn’t as much of a concern. This part really is only skin deep, and is made to be removed for inspection. Your mechanic will be able to see past this, so it could be a bit of a bonus. (A nice, new interior will cost you $5-10K.)

In both cases, the logbooks should make it very clear how recently these things were done. If the updates happened 5 or more years ago, there’s a better chance they aren’t trying to hide anything. If they’re less than a year old, or worse, in the paint shop right now, I’d need some compelling reasons to continue considering that aircraft.

Damage History + Logbooks

When I see an ad that says “no known damage history” I almost always close it and move on. Why don’t they know? Any damage should be in the aircraft logs. For me, this seller is trying to hide something.

That said, aircraft occasionally sustain damage. The damage and the subsequent repairs should be well documented. A good seller will be upfront about this. Most repair jobs are pretty easy for a mechanic to inspect. They can tell if the firewall is bent from a prop strike, if sheet metal is buckled or damaged, etc.

If the aircraft did experience a prop strike, either there should be an extensive report of the inspection that deemed the engine okay to continue in service, or records of an engine overhaul or replacement.

Many of these aircraft are old enough that their logs have changed hands many times. Fires, floods, thefts, and divorces have all been known to destroy these records. However, that drastically decreases an aircraft’s value. You need to be able to see the machine’s full history to know what’s happened to it.

Buying an aircraft with incomplete logs is a huge risk. The price you offer for the airplane should clearly reflect that.

AD Compliance

One of the many reasons aircraft need good logs is so you can tell whether owners have complied with Airworthiness Directives (ADs.) The FAA mandates these maintenance actions based on accident trend data. Without compliance, your aircraft is illegal. If you buy an aircraft that hasn’t complied with (an) AD(s), you’re on the hook for some potentially very expensive shop work.

A great seller will have a spreadsheet listing all ADs issued for their aircraft, and notes showing the date and manner of compliance of each. It’ll be easy for your pre-buy inspection mechanic to remotely verify all of this with scanned copies of the aircraft’s logs.

The vast majority of owners won’t have this. You may have to pay extra since a fresh AD search can take a lot longer on the pre-buy. It’s worth every penny!

Making an Offer

This part of the process is similar to buying a used car or a house, just more involved.

Everyone knows this is a negotiation, so the seller will set the asking price higher than they expect to get. You should offer less, with your overall target price somewhere in the middle.

Your offer must always be “contingent on the results of a pre-purchase inspection conducted by a person of the buyer’s choosing.”

This means you’re going to hire someone (probably an A&P, and ideally an IA) to go over this airplane with a fine-toothed comb. (More on the inspection itself next.) The airplane will not be perfect. It’ll need work – some issues minor, and possibly some major.

Your mechanic’s inspection report will include their estimate of the cost to correct each item. Ideally, you would go back to the seller and reduce your offer price by the amount on the inspection report.

In reality, a thorough inspection on most 50+ year old aircraft will find so many items that no seller would agree to your revised offer. You’ll have to decide which items are deal-breaking safety of flight or legal issues, which are highly desired, and which you’ll eat the cost of fixing yourself after the deal closes. Most sellers are willing to make some concessions here. If yours isn’t, walk away.

You’ll probably negotiate your initial offer via phone. You should put together a written version of your offer and ensure that you keep a copy signed by both parties. (I’d offer the seller a copy too, but all I really care about is protecting myself here.) Here’s an example from AOPA that I would edit to fit my needs.

It’s standard to pay some earnest money before your pre-purchase inspection. Be careful with this. Either ensure your contract guarantees the return of your money for a wide variety of reasons, or offer as little as possible.

I’ve seen too many aircraft that were so far from what was represented in online ads that it would have been unwise to put even a single dollar down before the pre-buy. Speaking of which…

The Pre-Buy

There is no formal FAA definition for a pre-purchase inspection. In theory, anyone could perform it, though you should use a qualified mechanic.

No matter what, do not hire a mechanic who has any personal relationship with the seller. I also strongly recommend you find a mechanic who has never done any work on this airplane in the past. Both situations represent conflicts of interest that can only ever hurt you.

The mechanic you hire should plan to work in two phases. First, they should go through digital copies of the aircraft logbooks and any accompanying documents. This will include the AD check mentioned above.

The seller should already have scanned copies of everything and shouldn’t hesitate to provide them. If you encounter any difficulty here, you should strongly consider walking away without any further action. It might not even be a bad idea to tie your transfer of earnest money to a satisfactory logbook inspection.

This part of the inspection could end the deal itself. If your mechanic finds major expensive issues, you’re better off shopping for an airplane that won’t need so much money and downtime invested before you can start flying it.

If the airplane’s logbook passes inspection, your mechanic should travel to it and perform a very thorough inspection. The mechanic should at least charge a flat rate, plus expenses. I would not hire a mechanic who asks for anything less than $500, because that price tells me they won’t be thorough enough. I’d rather have someone so proud of their work that they’ll ask for $1000. (I’d also want recommendations from past clients. Any decent mechanic should be willing and able to provide some.)

At the very least, you want your mechanic to do a compression check, oil analysis (on oil that has been in the engine for at least 15 hours of run time,) and a borescope inspection of the interior of the cylinders.

Modern borescopes are very affordable for mechanics serious enough to use them regularly. This should provide you with detailed imagery of the interiors of all your cylinders. Do not hire someone who doesn’t proudly include this as part of their standard inspection.

Your mechanic should then open every inspection port and cover in the aircraft to look for cleanliness, corrosion, lubrication, wear, and damage. They have to look on the insides because that new paint hides too much.

You want a qualified mechanic doing a thorough inspection on your potential airplane.
Photo by Shelby Bauman on Unsplash

A competent mechanic should be able to get all of this done in a single day. Worst case, you’ll be out the cost of a round-trip airline ticket, a night or two in a hotel, some cab rides or a rental car, and some meals, in addition to the mechanic’s flat fee. This is worth paying! You’re far better off spending $2,000 here, than $20,000 or more and experiencing months of down time after completing a purchase. (Ask me why I’m so adamant about all this!)

Like I said, this inspection will not come back clean. There will be more issues than the seller is willing to address on their own dime. You’ll have to pick and choose which ones you can live with. Safe structure, engine, and AD compliance are non-negotiable. Avionics probably shouldn’t be negotiable. Cosmetics probably can be.

If you look, you’ll have no trouble finding reputable mechanics who specialize in pre-buy inspections. An A&P IA named Mike Busch has formed a business around providing better maintenance services to GA owners. His company offers a SavvyPrebuy service. I don’t know how much it costs, but I would at least get a quote from them before buying any used aircraft.

Care & Feeding

Sadly, getting a pilot’s license doesn’t require any knowledge of real-world care & feeding for an airplane.

You need to have several things in place before you close your deal. Ideally, you should have a pretty good handle on most of these things before you even start shopping.


I think it’s okay to get a loan on an airplane if you’re planning on it being a personal training platform. AOPA has financing options, but shop around.

Unless you have massive personal reserves, I don’t recommend buying all cash because you need some money on hand to cover all your other expenses.


Yes, you have to insure your airplane. You need liability coverage at least. If you get a loan, you’ll be required to carry hull coverage. If not, you can “self insure” the hull, but that’s a bit risky considering your intent to use it for training.

Sadly, you can’t shop around here like you can for car insurance. This industry is one giant cabal. As soon as a broker gets you a quote, you’re stuck with that broker. You can get that one to release you to another broker, but they all work with the same underwriters. Those underwriters have a back-end system that will show them you already got a quote and they won’t even bother giving you a new one.

The only exception here is Avemco. They’re their own underwriter, so you can get a quote from them, and a quote from everyone else without jeopardizing either.

I tried to buy an Icon A5 last year, but my broker didn’t represent me very well and I got some really awful quotes. If I’d gone with someone who could have taken a more individual approach to my situation, I might have been able to get a realistic quote. Sadly, my A5 deal fell through.

I’m okay now; I bought a Pipistrel Sinus instead! Joe Ryan from Wings Insurance got me a fantastic policy. If you’re looking for a broker, I recommend him.

Insurance is another reason I insist you stick to our limited list of aircraft types for this purchase. Underwriters know these aircraft very well. They have hundreds of thousands of fleet hours, and their accident per hour ratio is favorable enough to grant you a better insurance premium. Anything fancier, faster, or more complex will cost you a lot more for insurance.


If possible, you should keep your airplane in a hangar. Nothing good ever happened to an airplane that lived on a ramp.

Unfortunately, I’ve never seen an airport that didn’t have a waiting list for hangar space. In most cases, the length of that list was measured in years. If you aren’t already on the waiting list for every hangar in your area, you’re way behind the power curve. Do your best.

That said, your airplane must be near the person who intends to use it to build hours. If that person has to drive even 30 minutes to get to the airplane, it now takes a bare minimum of 2.5 hours of life to log 1.0 hour of flying. That ratio sucks. If your airplane will be flying more days than not as a training platform, it might be reasonable to park it on a nearby ramp while waiting for a hangar.

Personally, I’d rather spend a few months paying for an empty hangar while I shop for airplanes than not have a hangar when I need it. Worst case, I bet you can find a short-term tenant and sublet until you find your own plane.


In case you can’t tell, I’ve had issues finding good maintainers in the past. I’ve also watched friends and acquaintances endure months of frustration waiting on mechanics to get work done for them, and/or get hit with outrageous bills.

In an ideal world, there would be a nice, conscientious A&P IA on your field who works on a first come, first served basis. They’d give you realistic quotes for all work, tell you when an issue can be safely deferred, and not try to “help you out” by deferring things when they shouldn’t. It took me more than a decade to find a mechanic like this. (You rock Ed!) You should start looking and interviewing mechanics right now.

In your future mechanic’s ideal world, they are the one who conducts your pre-purchase inspection since they’re the one who’s going to have to deal with your airplane’s issues. That inspection is a way for them to decide whether they want you as their client. Remember this, and treat them and your aircraft well from the start.

No matter what, you need to have a plan for aircraft maintenance before that aircraft arrives. Even if you’re stuck with a big, expensive shop, you need to have spoken directly with the owner and know what you can expect from each other.


This article assumes the primary reason to buy this aircraft is to use it as a full-time trainer. You (or your child) may have all the time in the world; however, you can’t train yourself. You need to have a flight instructor who can meet your specific needs.

First, you need someone comfortable teaching in your aircraft. This is reason #34 why we chose such a narrow list of aircraft types. Good luck finding a CFI comfortable with giving primary flight instruction in an RV-8.

Next, you need someone with a schedule that jives with yours. Most CFIs are underpaid and desperate for whatever hours they can get. Your CFI will likely have a full-time job elsewhere, making you the side-hustle. Switching instructors is a hassle, so find someone that you feel is honestly prepared to give you the time and attention you need.

Ideally, this person is from your area. If they moved for a flight instructing job, they’re only here temporarily. They will move on as soon as they get a better offer.

By the same token, look for someone who isn’t close to ATP minimums. This could be 750, 1000, 1250, or 1500 hours total time. You need to know which set of ATP minimums applies to your instructor, how much total time they have right now, and how many hours they’ve been getting per month. Do not hire someone within just a couple months of reaching ATP minimums because they’ll have airline job offers coming out their ears before they even cross that threshold.

If you have enough free time, a nicer option would be to hire someone full-time for a few months and just hit training hard. Like I said, many CFIs are prone to leaving anywhere as soon as they have a better offer. If you’re willing to beat the (probably terrible) hourly rate they’re earning at a big flying school by $5-10 per hour, with a guaranteed minimum number of hours per month, they may be willing to work exclusively for you.

Flight instructing is hard work, and most CFIs can get a job anywhere right now. Treat yours well, pay them well, show up prepared for lessons, and hopefully you’ll all be pleased with the results.

I’ve met several airline pilots planning to train their own kids in the aircraft they plan to purchase. If that’s the case, make sure you’re actually willing to take the time to ensure consistent progression. Remember, your kid gains nothing from sitting around not flying. You need to be prepared to pass up that really lucrative premium trip to fly with your kid. If not, you need to hire someone else to be their primary instructor. (A one- or two-day Green Slip could probably cover a young CFI’s salary for an entire month.)

You’ll need that instructor a lot at first. Private and Instrument ratings will require a lot of dual flying. Once those are done, a trainee can build a lot of hours solo. Ideally, they’ll get some training for Commercial, CFI, and CFII, but those can (and probably should) wait for a hundred hours or so.

You may be able to lock down one CFI for a couple months, then release them to the wild until the time comes for those advanced ratings. If that’s the plan, make sure to communicate it clearly with your CFI so they don’t shuffle their life with plans expecting you to be their gravy train for the next 9-12 months.

Closing the Deal

Ideally, all of this (shopping, offer, pre-buy inspection, and care & feeding) should be complete or set up before you see the aircraft in person. The worst thing you can do is show up to a pre-buy inspection with cash in hand.

Seeing an airplane you hope to buy is a significant emotional event. Flying it is even more so. (There’s a reason used car salesmen are so insistent on getting you to do a test drive.)

If you spend any amount of time with a potential aircraft before the rest of this is taken care of, it will be extremely difficult for you to think logically about the issues your mechanic is pointing out, or about the fact that you don’t have a good solution for financing or insurance yet.

This puts you in serious danger of buying an airplane with issues you can’t afford to address, or worse, don’t even know about.

Instead, make sure everything is in place. Get your mechanic’s inspection report and readdress purchase price with the seller. Do not finalize an agreement or go to pick up the airplane until and unless you’ve settled on a price that reflects the reality of the issues you’ll have to start addressing the moment you get home. This process can take weeks. At the very least, it should last several days.

I strongly recommend using an escrow service to hold the money for your transaction for at least some period of time. Your purchase contract should specify the conditions that must be met before money is released to the seller. At the very least, this should include your airplane making it to its new home and your mechanic getting a chance to verify that any fixes agreed to by the seller have, in fact, been taken care of.

Escrow isn’t free, but it’s worth it. The seller should be willing to split that cost with you. As a buyer, you’re better off footing that entire bill if necessary. It’s easy to find an aircraft escrow service. If you’re getting a loan, your lender may recommend (or insist upon) a good one.

With all this addressed, get the money in place before you show up expecting keys. I’ve witnessed more than one aircraft purchase where the buyer or their designated delivery pilot (aka: me) wasted half a day waiting for the buyer’s bank to wire funds. This is bad form.

Go Fly!

We’re assuming you bought this airplane as a flight training platform. As we’ve repeatedly mentioned: this means you need to fly it as much as possible!

As a long-time instructor, I believe that the bare minimum a new student should fly is three days per week. Trying to do more than six or seven lessons per week may be too much, but I’d recommend trying out five or so, and deciding how it works for you.

Once you finish Private and Instrument, you might as well go fly every day. If you have nothing else to do, plan a maximum-range out & back and get a good 6-10 hours per day. Remember to get instruction on the maneuvers you’ll have to do for your Commercial, CFI, and CFII ratings, and practice those regularly too. Train and take check rides for those ratings as soon as you’re eligible!

If you fly this much, you could feasibly reach ATP minimums in less than two years. That would be a lot of flying, but that’s the whole point, right?

There’s something to be said for going out and getting as much of this as you can stand!

At the very least, you’ll need to do a multi-engine rating and 50 hours of multi-engine flying at some point in there. The rating alone will cost $3-5K. Adding 45 hours on top of that would be very expensive. You may be able to find a multi-engine flying job, or work out a deal for someone to use your airplane (possibly while you’re instructing) in exchange for some of that time. Adding on your MEI will cost another $3-5K, but it’ll be easier for you to find paid multi-engine flying with that rating in hand.

Realize that this all means a lot of wear on your airplane. In many ways, an airplane is better off flying every day than spending long periods of time sitting idle on a ramp. However, if you use the same airplane from Private to ATP, there’s a good chance your engine will hit TBO somewhere along the line.

You aren’t required to overhaul your engine at TBO, but you’ll need to be prepared for it in case it becomes necessary.

What Next?

Eventually, you’ll achieve your training goals. Once you’re eligible for an ATP, the regional and ULCC job offers should start pouring in. At that point, you will probably no longer need this airplane as a training platform. You’ll be tempted to hang on to it for nostalgic reasons. You’ll have spent a lot of time together, afterall.

If your plane is still in great shape and you honestly think you’ll fly it a lot, go ahead and keep it. However, most airline pilots will want to focus on jet flying for a while, and will cut back on their GA.

If this is the case, I strongly recommend selling. Airplane prices held pretty steady for many years. Recently, they’ve climbed to insane levels. I won’t presume to predict the future too accurately; however, there’s a good chance you can sell your airplane for a significant portion of your original purchase price. If this happens, then you’ll have done all that flying for the costs of care & feeding. That’s a pretty good deal.

Another option is to lease your airplane to a flight school. Doing this will likely cover the fixed costs of ownership (storage, insurance, maintenance) and make at least some profit. You must understand that if you do this, it is no longer your personal toy. It is now a business, and you must think of it as such. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly frustrated that it isn’t available when you want it, and that people are caring for it like you used to. If you decide you suddenly have time to fly and want it back as a personal vehicle, end the lease arrangement and you’re good to go.

A third option would be to keep it and give instruction in it yourself. This would be a side-hustle and source of backup income in case of an industry downturn. Like it, or not, there will always be a “next” downturn and I believe every pilot should have some type of plan. However, you’ll need to remain at least somewhat active as a CFI to keep your airplane healthy and to position yourself to ramp up business if necessary.

No matter which option you choose, the good news is that you can always buy another airplane. Having owned one before, you’ll have enough knowledge to write an updated version of this post, and you’ll fare even better at the buying process than you did the first time. You may know enough to be able to go after something more exotic. After all, you won’t need it as a training platform this time. The best way to prepare for owning a Decathlon, M20J, or Carbon Cub in the future is to own a C-172 or Cherokee today.

The Primary Alternative

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m trying to convey the fact that owning an aircraft is not cheap. I wrote a whole article quantifying those costs for Flying Magazine a couple years ago.

Here’s a link to the calculator I made for that post. (Don’t ask for permission to edit this copy! Use File -> Make a Copy, or File -> Download to get your own.) If you’re planning to buy an airplane to use as a training platform, you should use this calculator to figure out the total cost of pursuing this path. In the block for “Annual Flight Hours (Per Partner)” put the total number of hours you need to fly in this plane to reach your goal. It’s probably about 1450 to get your ATP, assuming you’ll get at least 50 multi-engine hours elsewhere.

You’ll need to edit your version a bit if you plan to spend more than one year getting those hours, which you probably should. This calculator also doesn’t include a line for instructor fees. Including that cost will require some more editing.

If you’re planning to get all of your training done in one year or less, the blue block labeled “Total Cost Per Partner” will show you the total cost for doing things this way.

Based on the 1975 C-172M I used in my example, 1450 hours of flying would cost you just over $128,000. Remember, add to that

  • At least 50 hours of flight instructor fees
  • The cost of getting 50 hours of multi
  • The cost of all your check rides – Private, Instrument, Commercial, CFI, CFII, Commercial MEL, and MEI at $800-1000 each.

All told, I estimate this plan as costing about $150,000. Ouch.

Now, let’s remember that as part of this you own an airplane for which you probably paid $50-100K. Like I said, I think it’s actually realistic to expect to get a good portion of that when you sell it. This means your net cost would probably be around $75,000-100,000.

Overall, that’s not terrible. The alternative is an accelerated flight training program at a big-name school like ATP Flight School, or somewhere a little smaller like Mil2ATP. Realistically, those places would charge you about the same $75-100K for all of your ratings. You’d complete that training in 9-12 months, but you’d finish with a mere 170-250 total flight hours. You’d then have to go work for a living (or go buy an airplane) to finish your next 1250 hours before getting your ATP.

On one hand, this could take longer than just doing it all in your own airplane. On the other hand, you could likely spend that last 1250 hours getting paid to fly, instead of paying to fly your own airplane.

There’s also something to be said for experience.

If you spend most of your 1500 hours flying straight-and-level in VFR conditions, you’re getting almost zero useful experience for your airline career. I think a lot of pilots with such limited backgrounds are having trouble in airline training programs.

Being a flight instructor can be very valuable. It can make you a very good pilot. It can put you in situations that you would never intentionally induce on your own, and allow you to get yourself out of them. If you’re the kind of person who can be an engaged instructor, and you’re conscientious enough to take the aircraft a few times every lesson to demonstrate some things (and give your student a break) you can gain far more valuable experience as a CFI than you would smashing bugs in your personal C-152.

However, I’ve also encountered CFIs who are almost completely useless. They sit in the seat and say little. When they do speak up, they point out errors without bothering to actually instruct their students toward improved performance. They never bother to take the plane and demonstrate anything because they’re lazy. Airline training will be hell for those morons, and they deserve it. I hope they get a serious reality check and have to go back out to earn some actual experience before they try again.

You’ll need to decide what type of instructor you’ll be when considering your options.

Real-World Efficiency

One of the main draws for buying your own airplane is efficiency. You have access to it every day, and every night. Your marginal cost per flight hour smells a lot like nothing more than the avgas you burn. You’ll never have to wait to start your lesson or defer a weekend cross country because another student is out flying.

However, I hope you’ve caught my concerns about maintenance. All it takes is one malfunction and your aircraft could be grounded. In an ideal world, you’ll be able to run to your A&P friend and get a fix done the same day.

Unfortunately, chances are very good that in 1500-ish hours of flying, your airplane will be down for at least a few multi-week periods. If you need an unexpected engine overhaul, you’re looking at several months in a best-case scenario.

You can probably work around this. Maybe those are great times to do your multi-engine flying. However, during those sits you’ll find yourself thinking about the alternative.

A big-name flight school probably owns 10 or more of the same make and model of aircraft. They’re configured identically and you could fly any given tail number on any given day. If one, or two, or five go down for extended maintenance, you still have access to several flying aircraft. Chances are good that you will never experience a significant training delay.

There’s also something to be said for the simplicity of renting. It’s nice to be able to land, toss the keys to the kid at the check-in desk, and move on with the rest of your life.

As an owner, you’re the only one who will wash, fuel, and otherwise care for your aircraft. You have to keep track of maintenance and inspection requirements. You have to figure out a plan for repairs, and you have to help shop for parts. This is all doable. For some people, it’s even part of the fun of aircraft ownership. However, realize that it will take up more of your life than renting would.


So, Emet, is it worth it?

In the balance, yes, I think it’s generally worth buying an airplane to use as a training platform for yourself or someone in your family. However, there are a lot of caveats.

If you’re doing it to save money, I think it’s a wash. The upfront cost of getting 1500 hours in your own airplane is enormous. Yes, you can recoup much of that by selling the plane when you’re finished. However, I think spending 1250 hours flying for a pay is valuable in both financial and experiential terms.

If you’re trying to be efficient – to knock out your flying in the shortest amount of time possible, it really depends on the aircraft you buy and what resources you have to care for it. If you manage to find something in good shape for a good price, and you have a good local mechanic who can address problems quickly, you could definitely get your hours faster than any other way. Hell, you could feasibly do 1500 hours in a single year. It’d be back-breaking (especially in a C-152) but you could do it.

Do you need to rush that much? No. I worry that you’d get burned out. Maybe that’s another big point toward working for some of your flying. There’s a lot available, but not so much that you’d break yourself. Also, 1500 hours of boring holes in the sky in a year would not be very valuable for someone who needs to be able to credibly fly a V1 cut, or brief and fly a complex RNP approach the next year.

On the other hand, if you end up with an airplane that has maintenance issues, just a few months of grounding would put you well behind any peers who rented. There’s something to be said for the redundancy of a big flight school’s fleet of similar aircraft. If you can’t come up with good maintenance as part of your pre-purchase care and feeding setup, ownership may not be the best choice for you right now.

I do believe there’s value in learning how to own an aircraft with something simple like the airplanes we’re considering. I enjoy being an aircraft owner, and plan to retain that title for the rest of my life. Eventually, most airline pilots will have the time and means to buy something more interesting than a plain old trainer. Having owned an aircraft before is invaluable preparation for making your subsequent purchasing and ownership experience a positive one.

If you choose to go that route, I hope this helped outline that process for you. Please reach out to me if you have any questions. I love helping people spend their money on airplanes!

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