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 job 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 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 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 $477/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 fly 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 a bulk 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-days-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 $477/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 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!

Is Airline Flying Fun?

Although I don’t go out of my way to mention it, I’m not shy to talk about my job when people ask. Because, uh, in case you haven’t heard: I’m a pilot.

via Mentour Pilot

Airline flying is common enough that most people seem to have experienced it, yet still mystical enough that I field a lot of questions. I frequently get asked: “Is it fun? It seems like it could get boring sitting up there for hours and hours.”

I also lurk a lot of places online where I hear the same question from hobbyist pilots thinking about pursuing a career in the airlines. Many young people look at the time, money, and effort required to reach a major airline and wonder whether it’s worth the investment. I also see this question from people established in a non-flying career, who frequently have a family. Some like their current job, and some don’t, but they’ve heard rumors about green grass on the airport side of the fence.

The most simple answer I can give you is: Yes, this job is fun!

That doesn’t necessarily mean every one of you should pursue it.

I aspire to write an article discussing whether you should become an airline pilot in the near future. I’m unhappy with drafts #1 and #2 right now, so it might be a while. In the meantime, here’s a little more discussion on what’s fun about flying at a major airline.

Size Matters

My wife jokes that when it comes to airplanes, size actually does matter. I suspect that she married me in part because I was flying the B-1B at the time…the sexiest crate of thunder ever fashioned by human minds, grossing out at a healthy 477,000 pounds.

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer, assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., flies over the East China Sea, Jan. 9, 2018. The Lancer serves as premier platform for America’s long-range bomber force, carrying the largest conventional payload of guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Peter Reft)

I haven’t met many airplanes that I haven’t enjoyed flying, but there’s something special about flying a big jet. As I walk through the airport, I constantly see parents pointing my aircraft out as their kids smear cheetos dust on the windows. It’s cool to line up on a big runway and blast off with the lives of 180+ people in my hands.

Not that I don’t love flying dinky little airplanes, but it’s fun to fly big jets.

The A220 is gorgeous. She’s not as big as some, but she can load up a lot of people and go 3,000+ miles. Try that in your Barbie jet.


As we’ll cover more shortly, there isn’t as much fancy stick-and-rudder flying in the airlines. However, when circumstances call for that stuff, it’s fun to do.

It’s awesome to hand-fly down the Potomac River with don’t-enter-or-we’ll-acutally-shoot-you-down zones just across both shorelines, then do a moderately large last-minute turn to plant your jet on a relatively short runway at Reagan National in Washington, DC.

I flew an MD-88 into Tallahassee, FL, one dark night with rain and thunderstorms all around us. Their north/south runway was closed, so naturally the wind was out of the south and gusting up to 30 knots. The pouring rain reduced visibility to minimums. I was a brand new FO, but I must have impressed my Captain on that trip because he let me land. I did a gorgeous (IMHO) crosswind landing on a dark, wet Runway 09 and kept the jet on centerline despite the maddog’s mediocre brakes and a terrible thrust reverser system that didn’t even attempt to sync output between the two engines.

Another night, I flew the ILS to minimums at Chicago O’Hare. When we broke out I didn’t actually see the runway because it was covered in packed snow with a river of white powder blowing across the surface in a strong crosswind. I only knew where to land because of the runway lights. Again, a kind Captain courageously masked his pucker factor while allowing me to land.

This kind of flying checks the boxes for any pilot: fun, thrilling, sometimes even a little daunting.

Both the FAA and airline managers think you can finish a night like this, then arrive at a hotel with exactly 8.0 hours until your show time the next day, and that this constitutes an “uninterrupted 8-hour sleep opportunity.” Anyone holding that opinion is a moron who should not have any authority, whatsoever, over aviation operations. Any adrenaline junky would be satisfied with the fix they get on a night like this, and would need some time to wind down before they’re able to sleep.

Yes, I’ve only described three out of the thousands of landings I’ve done as an airline pilot. There are plenty of other cool stories I’d love to tell you over a frosty beverage, but the honest truth is that this kind of excitement isn’t particularly common.

And that’s a good thing!

In my opinion, professional aviation, done correctly, should be incredibly boring.

Exciting vs Engaging

One way I describe airline flying is that it’s engaging, rather than exciting. I want this flying to be boring because I’m carrying passengers. Nothing that I consider exciting improves their customer experience. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not busy and fulfilled.

When I fly, I constantly work to avoid turbulence and get my people where they need to go more efficiently. Part of the reason I upgraded to captain so early in my airline career is that I like being the kind of person who pushes the rope to fix problems as soon as possible. I don’t like spamming my passengers with noise on the public address system; however, if things aren’t flowing smoothly I like to at least keep them informed.

While there are some particularly colorful flight attendants in the world, most of them are fun and interesting people trying to do a good job. I believe in the military’s idea of a flight crew and try to honor that mindset with my airline crews, instead of simply regarding them as a bunch of co-located employees. I pay attention to my crew’s mindset, fatigue level, and needs. I’m frequently able to use small interventions to improve the lives of my crew, and my passengers’ experience.

At my airline, we take pride in the level of service we provide. As such, we stand in the flight deck door and bid farewell to our passengers as they deplane. I take pride in looking them in the eye, being a good steward of the company that’s treating my family so well, and even taking the heat for a mediocre landing or late arrival. I love it when parents bring their kids up for pictures. I plop the future aviators directly into my seat, put my hat on their heads, and tell them that they can be pilots too. I believe that’s important, and find it fun.

(If this stuff isn’t part of your company’s culture, and you wish it was, then maybe you should come over to Delta. We need good people. If this sounds terrible to you, I recommend you fly boxes for a living.)

These little things all make this job engaging, and sometimes fun. I’m not constantly busy with this stuff, but there is enough of it to break up the monotony. If you’re worried about airline flying being boring, I think there’s enough of this to keep any classy aviator happy.

(Although I generally say that “people vs boxes” is a bullshit discussion, there is a lot less opportunity for this kind of engagement in cargo flying. I think I’d probably still enjoy flying freight for reasons we’ll discuss later, but I would miss these aspects of carrying passengers. It’s worth discussing this with friends at a variety of airlines, and considering your preferences when picking airlines to apply with.)

Fun vs Military

When fellow aviators ask me whether airline flying is “fun,” context is critical.

Many military pilots have a unique perspective on fun flying. They do aerobatics, formation, and low-level. They try to kill fighters that are simultaneously trying to kill them, they rain steel and fire from on high, they fly fast and low, they land very big aircraft on shockingly small and very dark landing zones, sometimes while taking fire. This kind of flying is fun and thrilling in ways that nothing else can ever be.

I miss it. Terribly.

A day in the life of a T-6A IP. And no, Colonel, I have no idea where this picture is from.

Airline flying will (hopefully) never be that exciting. If that’s your only definition of “fun” then you’re out of luck because you won’t get it anywhere outside the military or some unique types of contract aviation.

And yet, that kind of flying is definitely a young person’s game. No matter what, you will reach an age where military flying demands enough of your body, your time, and your attention that you simply must give it up. At that point, you’ll probably need to find a way to enjoy airline flying anyway.

Let’s be honest with each other though: how much of your time in the military is actually spent doing this awesome flying?

I once did the math and found that I spent at least seven hours on non-flying queep for every hour I flew in the Air Force, and that was as a crew dawg who ditched active duty the moment my ADSC was up. If you spend time rotting on the staff, go to school, or take a command job, your ratio is probably worse.

I flew the T-6A at Laughlin AFB, TX, at a time when we had a rash of issues with rudder binding. That aircraft has a powerful engine swinging a giant propeller, so the rudder is a critical flight control surface. This was a particularly vexing problem that Beechcraft couldn’t seem to figure out.

I experienced rudder binding with a student onboard. Then, a few days later, I overheard that same student declare an emergency because he’d just gotten the same thing in the practice area. (I escorted him back to base – a fun and rewarding IP moment for me.) Then, less than a week later, I got the same issue again while flying with a newly arrived instructor.

I’d had enough, so I called down to the operations desk and told them to get some FCF pilots and Beechcraft on the line. I had at least an hour of fuel to play with and we were going to try to figure out what was happening.

We isolated the problem, which was cool, but the point of this story is that my Squadron Commander spent that hour reporting on the situation to the Operations Group Commander (who was probably reporting to the Wing Commander.) I later happened to see part of that communication trail, and one of the first things my boss mentioned to the OG was that I was a very experienced pilot with more than 3,200 total (military) flight hours.

The all-civilian pilots reading this are probably laughing because 3,200 hours is nothing. Until recently, a civilian pilot needed at least twice that before a major airline would even sniff at their application. The sad truth is that military pilots don’t get to fly nearly as much as they’d like. I was lucky to get that many hours, in part because nearly 2000 of them were combat hours in high-demand aircraft.

In most cases, an F-22 pilot is lucky to get 100 hours per year. I’ve spoken to military pilots about to leave active duty after 10 years of flying without enough hours to hold an unrestricted ATP.

First off, this is a gross strategic weakness that our military should fix. However, it drives home the point that it’s not realistic or fair to your family to poo-poo airline flying due to lack of fun if you’re not actually getting that much fun flying in the military.

And for military pilots, I cannot emphasize enough the point that you can keep that fun flying for as long as you can stand it, while also being an airline pilot, by joining the Guard or Reserves!

Fun vs Civilian

Context is important for all-civilian pilots too. Granted, there are some extremely fun and exciting types of civilian aviation. If you fly aerobatics, dust crops, fly warbirds, race gliders, compete in STOL events (or actually go out and fly the bush), fly seaplanes in any capacity, or enjoy a lot of other parts of aviation, you may also concede that I’m right to say that airline flying tends toward boring.

However, most of the people who ask me whether airline flying is fun don’t do any of this stuff.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: what does the average hobby pilot do?

They rent a clapped-out C-172 or PA28 from the local FBO a few times a month at most. They’d love to fly more, but it’s so expensive that they can’t afford it. They probably bring a friend and spend some time doing lazy circles over said friend’s house to enable some iPhone photography. They might head to an EAA pancake breakfast or stop by a nearby airport restaurant for the quintessential “$100 hamburger.” If flying solo, or the passenger is game, the flight probably ends with a few patterns for proficiency. If they want to get really crazy, they might try a soft- or short-field landing, or a simulated power-out 180.

This is exactly the type of C-172 a hobby pilot is likely to take around the flagpole on the weekends. Is this flying fun and exciting? (If so, you could buy this particular 56-year-old airplane for a staggering $67,500 on Barnstormers.)

Is that kind of flying fun? Sure. It’s why we all do it as much as we can. Is it particularly thrilling though? If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is: “No.” Is this flying any more exciting than a nice, boring day at the airlines? Not really.

This is not to mention the more affluent hobbyists who go out and spend $1,000,000 on a new SR22 (barf!) or something similar. That airplane is designed to operate almost exclusively on autopilot while the pilot stares blankly at enormous computer screens. There’s no way that’s more exciting than airline flying. Worst case: my company is paying me $1,000,000 to do the same thing, but I’m not in charge of maintenance.

I think Hollywood and social media do us constant disservice. We’re taught to use starving models, airbrushed and photoshopped, as our standard of human beauty, that our vacations are failures because they don’t look as pristine as contrived social media posts, and that all fun flying will look like Maverick and Rooster weaving through canyons and killing 5th Gen MiGs in a Tomcat.

Hollywood is mostly fake and Social Media is 99% bullshit.

Chances are that airline flying is at least as much fun as what most hobby aviators do on the weekends.

What’s Your Day Job?

I frequently hear this “Is airline flying fun?” question from people who don’t fly at all for a living. I have to wonder: what’s your alternative?

I believe that most people don’t particularly love their jobs, and that many jobs are truly terrible. I can’t imagine sitting in a cubicle at Innitech all day writing TPS reports. I would hate to manage a bunch of brain-dead teenagers at a fast food joint. You couldn’t pay me enough to fill some kind of customer service role that primarily involves dealing with angry people.

Is this your alternative to professional aviation?
Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

My wife is a dentist who works for a friend, let’s call him Stu, who loves aviation. He owns a Baron and the walls of his office are completely covered in paintings of airplanes. His dad and brother (the latter also a dentist) also love aviation. Every time I see Stu, he wants to talk about flying. His office is in Lakeland, FL, and he’s reportedly much less productive during the week of Sun ‘n Fun every year because he’s always at the window trying to see the aircraft that everyone can hear flying nearby.

I feel bad for Stu. He makes amazing money, and I think he likes his job well enough. However, it’s obvious that his passion is for aviation, rather than dentistry. I think he’s eternally trapped by the golden handcuffs, but you don’t have to be.

Do you really love your job? If so, stay there! It’s rare for a human being to find fulfilling work that gets them out of bed in the morning.

However, unless you’re passionate about what you do for a living, there’s a good chance that you couldn’t do much worse in aviation.

This isn’t universally true. Some people will never be happy, no matter what they do. Others won’t enjoy the long hours or time away from home and family. If you think any of those might apply to you then stay away!

If you love flying so much that you spend many hours of your time and hundreds (or thousands) of your dollars renting airplanes to chase burgers and facilitate “there’s my house!” selfies for your friends, then a career as an airline pilot is worth considering.

Interesting Coworkers

Like we mentioned, Hollywood is guilty of making us think that the only fun part of flying is witty banter as we showcase our dogfighting skills with a GoPro jammed in our face. As much fun as the stick-and-rudder parts of flying can be, they’re far from the only fun part of aviation.

Good coworkers make flying great. When you go to work, or church, or your kid’s soccer game, you’re stuck with whatever random people you run into. Ideally, you’ll encounter some interesting human beings worth spending time around and make some friends. That hasn’t always been the case for me.

Our neighborhood threw a block party a few years ago, and I found myself sitting in a group of middle-aged men trying to find things to talk about. None of them have jobs interesting enough to chat about (see “What’s Your Day Job?” above.) However, between those jobs and having families, none of the other guys had anything else particularly interesting to discuss in any part of their lives. I finally had to walk away when the most riveting part of their discourse turned to the NFL schedule for the year. My neighbors are all nice people, but sometimes their interests get a little mundane for my tastes.

Contrast that with flying a crewed aircraft. At the very least, I know that the person in the other seat likes aviation enough to have invested at least a decade of their life to get where we are now. I’m disappointed at how few of the airline pilots I fly with enjoy General Aviation, but we still have common ground to start from.

Most of these aviators have enough drive that they enjoy other interests more compelling than sitting in front of a television. I love the discussions I get into on the flight deck and on layovers, and they’re always different. I’ll spend one trip discussing our various entrepreneurial pursuits, then the next discussing music from 90s Grunge to Viking Metal. I’ve learned about homeschooling and woodworking. I love flying with women and hearing their first-hand impressions of aviation culture. (I hope we can all do better.) I find that most airline pilots (and their families) enjoy travel, and discussing that topic has prompted several great trips for my family. I’ve even had fascinating discussions of religion and politics that were simultaneously contentious, friendly, unresolved, and mutually edifying.

If you’re not a pilot, you might waste some of your time at work chatting with your colleagues. Don’t let the boss catch you around the water cooler though. They might yell at you for being off-task.

As an airline pilot, you’re locked on the flight deck for hours at a time with your new best friend. You’re obligated to keep each other awake and alert, and the FAA doesn’t officially allow naps, books, or movies. When you reach your layover for the evening, you might as well get dinner together and continue your conversations over good food and drink. A big part of the fun of airline flying is getting to have interesting conversations with interesting people who live interesting lives.

(One of the reasons these people have such unique and provoking lives is that airlines give them the time and the means to pursue them. More on that shortly.)

Interesting Places

Speaking of layovers, that’s another very important part of what makes airline life fun.

If you hate travel, don’t be an airline pilot. For the rest of us, being an airline pilot is a dream come true, right? Every time you go to work, it’s an all-expenses paid trip to somewhere interesting. Better yet: they pay us absurd amounts of money to go to these places.

Understand here that I’m talking about major airlines. The regionals, and some of the ULCCs treat their people poorly. They stay in nasty hotels nowhere near good parts of town. That life would suck, and it’s part of the reason every pilot should aspire to move up to one of the Big 6 majors.

My company always puts us up in very nice places, in part because our union is a powerful watchdog in that process. We mostly stay at Hiltons, Marriotts, Hyatts, or nicer. For short layovers, we’re frequently closer to the airport in places with food options that aren’t stunning. However, for anything over 12 hours, we’re downtown.

I’ve found that just about every city in the country has a great local brewery and tons of great food. Even for cities that I’ve visited many times, there’s either something new to try or somewhere I liked enough that I’m excited to go back. There are only a couple cities in our entire system that I honestly don’t like. (Flint, MI, is useless.)

In the age of modern technology, I’m pretty happy as long as my layover location has some good food and drink, and I can get a workout. If nothing else, at that point I can watch, read, or listen to pretty much the entire creative work of the human race from anywhere.

That said, most layover locations also have interesting things to do or see. Many layovers allow a bite-sized opportunity to play tourist in a new spot. If you like it, you can always bring your family back later. I have more than once.

This kind of travel also brings opportunities to meet up with friends and family. I particularly love these kinds of layovers.

My FO and I enjoyed an excellent dinner at Vista Corona last night in Panama City, Panama. I highly recommend the Seafood Rice.

Again, if none of this sounds fun to you, then airline pilot life may not be your bag, baby. There are some companies like Silver and Allegiant that try specifically to get almost every pilot home at night. I know some aviators who are happy with that arrangement, despite worse than average pay and work rules.

However, if you enjoy travel, I think you will find that aspect of this job to be very fun.

(Let’s add here that it’s critical to consider the Scope of your target airline’s operations when considering where to apply. If you’d like part of your career to include regular trips to Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, or Africa, then don’t bother with companies like Southwest. Most of America’s ULCCs do a little flying in the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii, but that’s about as good as you’ll get.

JetBlue is trying to break into the European market with A321neos. We’ll see whether that’s more successful than the overflowing graveyard of defunct airlines that have repeatedly failed to make money selling $99 transatlantic tickets.

If you want meaningful international travel, pick an airline that flies widebodies.)

Time To Be Interesting

One of the biggest reasons I write Pilot Math Treasure Bath content is because I think too many humans waste too much of their lives working in unfulfilling jobs. One of the reasons I have trouble relating to many neighbors is they spend 40-80 hours a week in jobs that nobody would love. Many of them will do this from their mid-twenties to age 65 or later. When do they have time to pursue interesting activities in life?

In my first year at my major airline, I worked an average of 12 days per month. Over the next few years that average dropped to 10, then 8 days per month. I’m probably closer to 12 or 14 right now, just because my company dumps such ridiculous piles of money into my bathtub every time I put on my hat and horse blanket. However, that’s at least 6-8 fewer days spent at work per month than the average human being.

When the average American gets home from work, they’re worn out and probably extremely unmotivated. It’s time to make dinner and take care of the kids or things around the house. Before they know what happened, it’s time to go to bed so they can start all over again the next day.

I go for days or weeks at a time without working. If I’m feeling overworked, I can drop work and just spend more time at home. Yes, I give up some pay, but major airline pay is so ridiculously generous that I can afford to give a little up. (Also, my Treasure Bath has already reached critical mass. At this point, the extra money is as unnecessary as it is nice.)

This gives me time to do things that a person with a full-time job can’t even fathom. My wife and I bought an income property, then spent nearly a year fixing it up. The results are gorgeous. We didn’t need to give up all that time (and literally blood, sweat, and tears). We could have hired out all the work. However, it was fun learning and doing all of the work. We can take far more pride in this house than someone who just hired contractors to do everything for them. 

(Shameless plug: want to visit Tampa Bay, Sun ‘n Fun, or Disney? Check out Sandhill House!)

We also recently bought a Pipistrel Sinus, a 2-place aircraft officially classified as an S-LSA Glider. It turns out that when the FAA thought up the Light Sport Aircraft category and made the Sport Pilot rating to go with it, they created a similar mechanic rating called Light Sport Repairman – Maintenance. An LSRM can legally do all of the work and inspections on an LSA, without needing to wait on an A&P or IA’s schedule, or pay exorbitant shop rates.

The LSRM course is 15 days long (plus two more for gliders), and I decided I really wanted to take it. I just completed the first 15 days at Rainbow Aviation Services near Kansas City. It was awesome – seriously one of the best things I’ve ever done in aviation. I don’t know how I’ve been involved in flying for more than 25 years, and especially how I managed to own and operate my own aircraft, without the knowledge I gained in this course.

Now, for the average person, taking 15-17 days off from work at one time is simply unrealistic. That’s more than half of a military aviator’s leave for the year. Few civilians get anything close to that many days or hours off. For me, it was no big deal.

Next month, my daughter and I are flying to Pennsylvania to catch a rock concert…over a couple school days. I don’t know many average Americans who could tear themselves away from deadlines and staff meetings for such a frivolous pursuit. For an airline pilot though, it’s standard ops.

I’ve used my scheduling flexibility to allow customers to pay me hundreds of dollars a day to fly Icon A5s all over the US. I’ve used my time to attend ground school to become a Stearman demo pilot for the CAF. If I can manage to log a few more Stearman hours this spring (I’ll pay your full hourly rate!), I’ll use more of my free time to give rides all over the country.

Being a major airline pilot gives you far more time and flexibility than you’ve ever had before. The non-pilots in your life will start asking you if you’re unemployed because it will seem like you’re never at work. This enables you to find and do interesting things that are simply inaccessible to most humans. For me, this part of airline flying is nothing but fun.

The Means to Enjoy It All

Free time is nice, but many of the activities I mentioned aren’t as accessible without disposable income to fuel them.

One of the reasons people waste most of their lives working is that they’re brainwashed into spending every dime they earn, and frequently more. They get trapped in a spending rat race that has them stressed out and looking at retirement savings of less than $25,000 on average.

It is truly a blessing that major airline pay is so high that only very foolish spenders can’t rapidly reach full Financial Independence (FI). To be fair, it helps for a pilot to know the Shockingly Simple (Pilot) Math behind FI, and feel nothing but disdain for the social media influencers who waste their money portraying fake lives. However, major airline pilots make so much money that even a clumsy attempt at saving has a good chance of success.

Tuition for my LSRM course was $4500. That doesn’t include lodging (free for me, thanks to 90K Chase points converted to Hyatt hotel points), travel (free for me, thanks to airline pilot jumpseat privileges), local travel ($600 covered a Turo for 2 weeks), and food. There’s also the opportunity cost of lost income. If I could have flown two 4-day trips during those 15 days, then I lost $16K in pay while taking the time to do this trip. (In truth, I had assigned vacation over parts of the course, so I probably didn’t lose quite that much.)

Like I said though: once your Treasure Bath is completely full and you know your family is taken care of forever, the incredibly high pay rates at a major airline pilot job allow opportunities that you could never have otherwise considered.

The Sum of the Parts

So, is airline flying fun?

Sometimes, I can say that: yes, it’s both fun and exciting. I believe that it’s generally at least as exciting as what the average hobby pilot is doing.

The rest of the time the stick-and-rudder part itself isn’t thrilling, but it’s still engaging and fulfilling.

Most of the time, hanging out with interesting people is fun.

I almost always find travel fun.

I only end up flying for 8-14 days per month. For the rest of my life, I’m at home or free to travel wherever I want. I get to spend that time with my family and friends. I get to pursue whatever the hell I want, and I choose things that I find fun.

Underlying all of that: I’m blessed to work for a great company that offers outstanding pay and benefits. Those resources help enable me to do more of the things that I find fun than I’d be able to enjoy on a lesser income. Many of these things would be simply out of reach for most people.

So yes, being an airline pilot is fun and engaging. It gives me the time and the means to have fun while not slaving away at the office.

I know it was a long answer, but you need all that context to understand what I mean when I answer that, “Yes, this is fun!”

Does it sound fun to you?

Pay & Quality of Life – Why Pick Just One?

So there I was, standing on the curb at the airport wondering where the crew van was. We were looking forward to a layover, but it turns out a crew of deadheading pilots on our jet had taken our crew van without bothering to ask us if we were also laying over. Strike one.

The van company made the same van come back to get us, and the Captain of that crew (yes, we’re going to call him Joe) was pissed that we hadn’t deigned to inform him that he needed to wait for us upon arrival at the airport. Strike two.

Skyhop Global, a common airline crew transportation provider

After he’d finished berating us for our breach of etiquette (I’m 83.7% sure he was serious) he immediately launched an interrogation with: “So what’s the minimum pay rate you’ll accept on our new contract?”

In and of itself, this wasn’t a completely outlandish question. We’d been in contract negotiations for over two years, and inflation was constantly eroding the value of our pay. We’d need some pretty significant pay increases just to keep up with inflation, before discussing any raises.

My response was, “My #1 contract priority is Scope, and #2 is Quality of Life (QOL). If we get those, I’d be happy with a pay raise that beats inflation.”

Captain Joe was not impressed. He countered with: “I don’t care about Scope or QOL. Pay rates are all that matter to me.” Strike three.

When planning this post, I promised I wouldn’t call Old Joe a stupid poopy head, so I won’t. However, I find it hard to believe that any pilot could be so obtuse.

I told him that I refuse to sell Scope or QOL for pay rates. My FO and I had already exchanged a few looks over Joe’s behavior. I happened to notice Joe’s poor FO rolling his eyes at his Captain’s ongoing rant and felt bad for him. Can you imagine being stuck on the road with a pilot like this for a 4-day trip?

Joe was way senior to me, but I was also a Captain and wanted to stand up to both his behavior and the absurdity of his position. I debated him all the way to the hotel where my FO and I were finally able to ditch him and enjoy our layover.

One of the many points that Old Joe refused to acknowledge is that there are many ways to increase income. Higher pay rates is one way, but not the only way. Another critical part of every airline pilot’s contract deals with the intricacies of how pay is calculated. These issues affect QOL, but when we quantify them we frequently refer to “soft pay.”

Since that day with Captain Joe my union has reached a Tentative Agreement (TA) on a new contract with our company.

Thankfully, our union negotiators nailed Scope, securing high-paying widebody jobs against previously serious threats. They also addressed lower-end scope (regional airline flying) in a way that pleases me.

Our TA also does a lot to improve QOL. It doesn’t hit everything I would have wanted, but it’s very good overall. We’ll discuss why that’s important in a moment. However, we should note that the provisions likely to improve QOL also have the potential to significantly increase our pay. I’ll show my numbers on this one, and those numbers will prove why Poor Old Joe’s stolid insistence on increasing pay rates alone would have been a very bad strategy.

Optimizing Away Quality

Airline pilots make incredible money. However, that money is worthless if our jobs take away all our time, and/or make us hate our lives. I write so much about Pilot Math to help aviators realize that we can accumulate more than enough wealth while still having enjoyable, balanced, fulfilling lives.

My airline is a truly fantastic place to work. However, the company has decreased our QOL by changing the way it builds trips over the last few years. We’re flying more hours and more legs per day, with shorter layovers.

Now, I feel like I’m one of the least picky pilots in the business. I enjoyed living in tents and plywood huts on military bases throughout the ecological disaster that is interior Afghanistan. The COVID pandemic helped me distil the basics of what I need to really enjoy any given airline layover. I won’t assert that I’m entitled to only 48-hour layovers with free spa treatments and Southwest’s contractual alcohol pricing so cheap that it must make HIMS administrators cringe. However, I do need a few basics for a layover to be reasonable. At a bare minimum, every layover should include:

  1. Time to call home.
  2. Time to get a workout.
  3. Time to get at least one hot meal, at a stationary table, that isn’t on a flight deck or in a hotel room.
  4. Time for basic hygiene and getting my uniform ready for the next day.
  5. At least a few minutes of rest that doesn’t include 1-4 above.
  6. My FAA-mandated 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep opportunity. (Note: in order to accomplish 2-5 above, I need at least 9-10 hours after arriving in my hotel room, as a bare logistical minimum. Adding a workout in there adds at least an hour.)

The sad truth is that my company has taken what used to be reasonable work schedules and whittled them down to the most cost-efficient trips possible (when viewed by an accountant or programmer with zero knowledge of real-world airline operations).

This has been made possible (no) thanks to software algorithms generally referred to as The Optimizer. This triumph of computer programming builds extremely efficient airline schedules using only the absolute limits of contract rules and regulations as its parameters. The Optimizer fails to consider a single Human Factor or the reality of real-world flight operations. As such, the trips it builds are terrible for crews and passengers. They leave us fatigued, and they leave the operation brittle in the face of any issues from labor, to maintenance, to weather, and more…leading to major meltdowns like this one, this one, this one, this one, and numerous others.

These kinds of trips are fatiguing for pilots in both the short- and long-term. Day to day, they constantly run us up against the legal and human limits for rest and fatigue. They involve earlier mornings and later nights, frequently wreaking havoc on circadian rhythms by shifting from between early and late flying on the same trip.

These trips also cause chronic fatigue. It takes longer to recover when a pilot gets home. We get less exercise, our eating habits get less healthy, and we enjoy work less. This model isn’t sustainable.

Until our recent TA, we didn’t have much recourse. Our existing contract only granted us minimal buffers above the regulatory minimums. We’ve tried to engage the company in discussions and negotiations for improvements, but found our managers unmotivated. We even went so far as conducting a system-wide informational picket advocating for fatigue mitigation. The event got great visibility, but only led the company to offer minimal and largely symbolic changes.

I needed this new TA to do something to fix our bad trip construction. The company could have offered me significantly higher pay rates, but I would have campaigned and voted against the contract without QOL improvements.

Thankfully, I got what I wanted.

Thank You, Golden Rule!

“He who has the gold makes the rules.”

We’ve all heard that one, right? Although we frequently wish it wasn’t that way, we’re basically stuck with it.

It’s tough to get people to do the right thing simply through advocacy. However, if you can find a way to effectively hit them in the pocket book, you can influence pretty much any behavior you want. Electric cars are my favorite recent example of this.

For years, environmentalists have wanted to increase automobile efficiency and decrease carbon emissions. Liberal politicans would advocate strict standards. Conservative politicians would water-downt those standards as much as possible, or outright repeal them. Ancient car making bohemoths in Detroit resisted all efficiency mandates because they’d be expensive to implement. Electric cars have been around for decades, but weren’t taken seriously until Elon Musk got a hold of Tesla.

Suddenly, Tesla’s cars were extremely efficient and capable. You could charge them at home using cheap renewable energy and drive all week. Better yet, his are some of the highest-performance cars on the planet. These stock, 4-door family sedans and crossovers stand up well against purpose-built muscle cars and supercars.

Tesla became a world leader and the first successful American car company in ages. Better yet, it’s sparked an electric vehicle revolution that has even the Detroit dinosaurs racing to build vehicles that can compete with Tesla’s performance and efficiency. (And no, electric cars are not worse for the environment than gas cars. That argument has been thoroughly disproved).

I love that Tesla has single-handedly done with economics and engineering what decades of legislators and special interest groups failed to accomplish through politics and advocacy. Golden Rule for the win!

Our new TA uses this principle to mandate better trip construction.

The FAA’s regulations allow narrowbody pilots to work Flight Duty Periods (FDPs) as long as 14 hours with only 10 hours off work before their next FDP begins. Both the FAA and our existing contract agreed that if a pilot’s day ends with a deadhead leg, it doesn’t count toward their FDP limit.

Our TA changed both of those rules to include deadheads as part of our FDP. It also sets a limit of 10 hours for a domestic FDP. Anything over those 10 hours gets paid extra, at our regular hourly rate, on top of any other pay due to us.

Our existing contract didn’t allow any type of ready/in-airport reserve duty. Common at some airlines, this type of reserve requires pilots to sit around all day to cover any short-notice flying with as little as 15-30 minutes notice. Instead, our company just built long airport sits into the schedules of regular pilots. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up early, fly a 4-hour leg to SLC, then be scheduled to sit in the airport for another 4 hours before finally flying a 4-hour leg to JFK.

This kind of day is excruciating, especially at the end of a trip when it means getting to NYC too late to commute home. We speculate that our company does this to make us de facto airport reserve in case it needed to reroute us. The problem is that it’s fatiguing, inefficient, and rarely increases our pay on a trip.

Our new TA fixes that too. Any airport sit over two hours (enough time to get some food and catch a breather) earns us one minute of pay for every two minutes of additional sit.

The new TA also implements a volunteer-only airport standby provision with some nice pay and benefits. It’ll be a big win for reserve pilots with tough commutes, pilots who live in base, and pilots who love money.

These are just a few examples of the rules in our new TA that will improve our QOL. Their true beauty lies in the fact that they use economics to force the company to do the right thing. Again, economics accomplishes what years of science-backed safety advocacy couldn’t.

Case in Point

I recently flew a trip that illustrates exactly how powerful these new contract rules will be. Here’s an overview of the trip:

Day One

Early show, single leg JFK-RSW, at the hotel by 1100 am for a 19-hr layover. Had to commute in the night before, losing half a day at home, and pay out of pocket for a hotel. Commute: yuck. Workday: not bad.

Day Two

Earlier show, three legs RSW-JFK-ATL-BNA. My stop in ATL included a 2.9 hour sit, making for a 10.8-hr FDP before a 13.5-hr layover. Meh.

Day Three

Earliest show yet, BNA-SLC at more than 4 block hours, scheduled 4-hr sit, SLC-JFK blocked at more than 4 hours, ends too late to get home so pay out of pocket for a hotel and lose another half day at home. Total FDP: 13.1 hours. Yuck.

While a day like this might look peachy at many airlines, trips at my company used to (and should continue to) look better. Day two was fine, but could have been mitigated with a longer layover. Day three was excruciating. There’s no excuse for sitting in SLC for four hours before a go-home leg to the base where even most “locals” have a 2-3 hour drive home.

I’ve done Day Three before. At least once, I had to call in fatigued in SLC because the music and constant EMS sirens on Broadway in Nashville led to poor sleep the night before. Despite volumes of feedback, the company hasn’t changed trip construction.

I made 18.3 hours of pay on this trip, or $5,033, not counting per diem or company 401k contribution. That includes 16.9 hours of “hard time” spent operating the aircraft, and another 1.9 hours of pay that falls under various rules associated with trip rigs. Our average daily guarantee is 5.25 hours of pay, meaning the average 3-day trip only pays 15.75 hours of pay. Making 18.3 hours was pretty efficient, though I paid for with two mediocre workdays out of three, and terrible commutes on both ends of the trip.

Under our TA, this trip would have paid far better!

First off, let’s note the “sit pay” included in the TA: one minute of pay for every two minutes of sit over two hours. (For the first year, this rule doesn’t kick in until after 3 hours of sitting, but we’re looking longer-term here).

Since Day Two included 2.9 hours of sit, I would have gotten 0.45 hours of extra pay. Day Three’s longer sit would have netted me just over a full hour of pay for my 4.1 hour sit. At my current pay rate that comes out to an extra $413, not counting the company’s 401k contribution. Not bad.

The FDP provisions make this even better though.

Day Two ended up as a 10.8-hr FDP. Since the new TA draws a line at 10 hours, I’d make an extra 0.8 hours. The best though is Day Three. At a painful 13.1 hours, I’d get an extra 3.1 hours of pay, more than $850 extra for that day alone.

Yes, that extra FDP pay stacks on top of the extra sit pay for that day. This means it will cost the company more than 4 hours of extra pay to schedule something as egregious as Day Three.

All told, this trip would have been worth 23.7 hours under the new TA, a 29% increase over the 18.3 hours it was worth under my existing contract. Based on my existing contract pay rate of $275/hr, a 23.7 hour trip would have paid $6,517. If you account for the 18% Date of Signing (DOS) pay raise that brings me to $324/hr, the company would have paid me $7,679 for this trip – a staggering 52.6% increase!

Let’s not stop there though. At three years after Date of Signing (DOS+3), Year 7 B737 Captain pay reaches $368/hr. At that rate, this same trip would pay $8,722 – a full 73.3% increase over our existing contract.

This is the power of soft pay. Even though my pay rates will only be 34% higher at DOS+3, I have the potential to make 73% more money.

Win-Win for Pilots

This is the point I probably failed to get through to Old Joe in the crew van. We don’t need astronomical pay rates to make a lot of money. By implementing QOL improvements with intelligent language, we got astronomical pay raises at reasonable-sounding pay rates. (More on “reasonable” in a moment).

I suppose we could have listened to Joe and ignored QOL to simply negotiate a 73% pay raise. However, that wouldn’t have influenced the company’s trip construction process at all. We would have made the same amount of money either way, but our lives would have sucked if we’d sold QOL for pay rates.

I worry about airline pilots’ long-term physical and mental health. There’s no point in working that hard for big money. Aleksander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, is famous for once saying, “The Belarusian people will live poorly, but not for long.” This slip, intended to inspire, spoke a dark underlying truth about conditions in his country. This is exactly how I feel about schemes I hear from pilots like Joe who won’t be bothered to put forth the conscious effort to look past straight pay rates.

Some short-sighted detractors (probably including Joe) will argue that this 73% pay increase isn’t guaranteed. We only get that if the company keeps building trips like it is. If they don’t, we may be limited to that 34% total pay raise.

Oh, the humanity.

Actually, that’s the whole point of this discussion.

We didn’t ask for these new rules hoping to make that much more money. If money was all we loved, then that’s what we’d receive…at the expense of our ongoing health and sanity. We negotiated these contract provisions hoping that they’d rarely (or never) apply because that would mean the company was building better trips.

There are numerous other ways to make extra money for those pilots who want to work more. This TA even adds several new opportunities. However, these new rules set a baseline that still guarantees a substantial pay increase with a better work-life balance.

If the company wants to shell out 73% instead of 34%, it’s welcome to do it. However, I’m hoping economics will do its thing. Either way, pilots win.

Back to “Reasonable”

There’s another important angle for considering the economics of this situation. In any contract negotiation, pilots have to make their asks (or demands) at least sound reasonable.

As an industry, we must realize that our pay is amazing. New hire FO pay rates at my airline put a pilot in the top 11% of all Americans for income. For us to get a 34% pay raise in this TA is wonderful.

What would my kids’ school teachers, or a plumber, or a fellow parent at my kids’ Scout meeting say if I told them how much I make, and then complained that a 34% pay raise wasn’t enough?

Along the same lines, what if our pilot group tried to negotiate for a 73% pay rate increase? Can you imagine the company’s reaction? Can you imagine how every other employee at our company would react? Can you imagine the news headlines?

Simply put: that kind of straight hourly pay rate increase would be ludicrous.

And yet, it’s essentially what we got. The trick is that nobody will ever know. (Unless they’re one of the three people who read this post.) (Hi Dad, love you!)

If (likely when) our pilot group approves this TA, the headlines will only mention the 34% pay raise, because that’s the only concrete guarantee. It will mention QOL improvements, but those are so complicated that it takes an entire article to illustrate the effects of just a few of them on one trip. We’ll get something we want, either lots of extra money or better QOL, without having to negotiate for or alienate others with pay rate increases more outlandish than the 34% everyone will hear about.

I feel like that kind of gamesmanship is important.

ALPA – The Handicapper General

For better or for worse, camouflaging pay increases as soft pay is important for another reason. The Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) believes that it has to keep pay rates relatively even across the airline industry.

Part of me hates this concept. It makes me wonder whether Kurt Vonnegut advised Dave Behnke on ALPA strategy.

If pilots at one ALPA carrier get a large but reasonable pay increase, ALPA can negotiate for a slightly larger raise for the next pilot group to get a contract. By continuing an endless cycle of this “pattern bargaining,” ALPA becomes the rising tide that lifts all of our boats.

However, if one pilot group were to get a truly outlandish pay increase, it’s likely that several of the other airlines would balk and refuse to match the increases. ALPA’s grand strategy of pattern bargaining would break down, and most airlines would be worse off.

Consider that if I’d earned $6,518 for my recent trip thanks to the new world rules in our TA, it would have been the equivalent of me having a pay rate of $356/hr in today’s money. Compare that to our senior A350 Captains only making $353/hr under our existing contract.

Maybe our pilot group could have negotiated that kind of pay rate for ourselves, but there’s no chance of other ALPA carriers like Alaska, Sun Country, or iAero paying $356/hr in today’s money for a mid-longevity 737 Captain.

If we carry this all the way through to DOS+3, that 73.3% pay increase would equate to a pay rate of $477/hr in today’s dollars. Compare that to the current industry leader, UPS, with a top-line pay rate of $401/hr for its most senior widebody Captains.

Even if ALPA could magically negotiate a pay rate of $477/hr for a mid-range 737 Captain at my airline, there’s no way it could ever negotiate that as an industry-wide 737 pay rate that beats UPS’s top-line widebody Captain’s pay by more than $75/hr.

That’s so far beyond ludicrous it’s gone plaid.

ALPA wouldn’t even bother trying for those kinds of pay rates because it would ruin their nationwide strategy. The Handicapper General simply couldn’t allow it.

Thanks to soft pay, they don’t have to. They were able to negotiate work rules for my pilot group that either give us all that crazy pay, or significantly improve our QOL.

Our TA’s top-line 737 Captain pay rate of $382.60 still feels very high, without exceeding ALPA’s tolerances above Alaska’s top-line pay of $330.97.

Work Rules Matter

I hope this shows you the importance of work rules in our career field. Don’t be the fool who goes to a specific airline based entirely, or even primarily, on the money. Is the money worth it if you end up as unhappy as Poor Old Joe?

How much money do you actually need to be happy? I recently had dinner with a friend who was in training at my airline, but undecided on whether to take a job offer from UPS. I tried prompting him to explain what appealed to him more about Brown over our company. The biggest reason he could give was that he believed he’d make $3M more over the course of his career there, compared to here.

I believe that’s possible. UPS pays very well. However, we already make amazing money. When I calculated things out for my book in 2016, career total pay at my company ranged from $8-11M, without picking up a lot of premium trips.

Would it be nice if that number were $11-14M at UPS? Definitely. However, this takes us back to a critical pilot that every pilot must consider: How much is enough?

I don’t know enough about the specifics of UPS’s work rules to know whether I’d have better QOL there than I do at my current employer. However, from what I do know, I think I’m better off here. If I was thinking about going to UPS though, I’d want to know a lot more about work rules there before I made my decision.

And that’s the point. If you’re thinking about joining a given company, call up some pilots who work there. Meet them in person for a meal or some cold beverages, if possible. Try to ask intelligent questions about QOL, but ask them to tell you about things you don’t even know to ask about.

  • How do bidding and day-to-day scheduling work?
  • What are the reserve rules?
  • How long are your work days?
  • What about your layovers?
  • What soft-pay provisions do you really love and use to your advantage?

Then, when you get to your company and start negotiating for a new contract, make sure your union reps and fellow pilots know that soft pay matters in many ways. Don’t blindly chase higher pay rates. Your contract can exert economic pressure on your company, forcing them to pay a lot extra or do the right thing. Build those protections into your work rules so you can enjoy a long, healthy career.

Thanks for reading. Good luck with your applications. Good luck with your negotiations.

High Tax Bill? It’s Your Own Fault!

We recently discussed one of the situations that gets Poor Old Joe complaining about taxes, but it’s not the only one. I constantly hear high-earning pilots complain about their overall tax burden.

At my airline, those pilots constantly advocate for a variety of programs aimed at reducing that burden. Many want to return to an old style pension. (Thank goodness that’s not going to happen!) Others want a delayed compensation plan. Somewhat common in corporate America, this type of plan allows an employee to elect to receive current-year earnings a few years in the future…after they have retired and have no other active income. Others want annuities (yuck!) or a variety of other deals.

The problem with all of these ideas is that they depend on: 1) someone else setting up the plan for you, and 2) the US government approving that plan. If you are a fan of Pilot Math, I hope you’ve realized that neither of these strategies offers a recipe for success. If you want to reduce your tax bill, it’s up to you to take appropriate action. Thankfully, there are many ways to do it.

We won’t even attempt to cover all the ways to reduce your taxable income. Instead, we’ll focus on one specific type of investment. Thankfully, you can access these investments all on your own, without having to wait for Uncle Sam or your union to hook you up.

Once you realize how accessible these investments are, and how powerfully they can reduce your taxable income, you will never have any reason to complain about your taxable income again.

Pork Barrel Politics and the US Tax Code

News flash: the United States’ tax system is extremely unfair.

Many years ago, the US government had to be a lot more deliberate about taxes. When Uncle Sam finally sold Americans on an income tax, the idea was that it would only take from the rich to feed the poor. Robin Hood is always an easy sell.

Sadly, it didn’t stay that way for long. Over time, the tax code gradually expanded to the point where it would fill volumes of 3-ring binders. The tax burden spread to middle and even lower-class earners.

In the meantime, the rich were the only people with the money to hire lobbyists and connections to advocate for exemptions…loopholes in the tax code. Today, the richest people in our country pay the smallest percentage of their income in taxes.

Leave it to pork barrel politics to alleviate the tax burden for the rich while hanging the rest of the country out to dry. Although major airline pilots enjoy fantastic salaries, most of us have incomes that put us at the tippy-top of the highly-taxed middle class. Many of us pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in taxes, and it hurts!


While some people complain about pork barrel politics, the advocates for these loopholes do a great job justifying their exemptions. The tax breaks they enjoy allow them to build the business and infrastructure that you and I use every day.

Like it or not, tax breaks are a critical part of the US economy.

If you think that taxes exist to get money for the government, you’re (partially…maybe mostly) wrong. Taxes exist to incentivize specific behaviors.

The US government gives tax breaks to rich real estate investors so that they’ll tie up millions of dollars of their money in building houses for people like us to rent and buy. The government gives tax breaks to small business owners, knowing that 80% or more will fail, so that people like us can have restaurants to eat at, tradespeople to build and fix our houses, and entertainment venues to visit. Uncle Sam offers a $7,500 electric car tax credit so that American automakers will thrive, so that we’ll reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and to reduce pollution and the costly health problems that come with it.

I wrote that last paragraph as though pilots were nothing more than consumers. For poor schmucks like Poor Old Joe, this is absolutely the case. However, if you’re willing to put a little effort into education and networking, you can get on the other side of that equation. You can invest in the businesses getting all those sweet tax breaks, and profit from Poor Old Joe’s outrageous spending habits.

What? You haven’t heard about any investment opportunities with amazing tax benefits? Don’t be surprised; remember that many small business ventures fail. Uncle Sam tries to protect the average American from losing their life savings in risky investments. One way he does this is by limiting access to certain types of investments to people who are wealthy enough to lose. The Department of the Treasury refers to these people as Accredited Investors.

Are You an Accredited Investor?

Simply put, an accredited investor is a person (or couple) who meets either of these criteria:

  1. An individual or couple who has a net worth over $1,000,000…or
  2. An income of at least $200,000 per year (single) or $300,000 per year (married)

Most major airline pilots hit #2 pretty quickly. Heck, regional airline pay rates are so high right now that regional captains could realistically hit #2. If you apply the principles I outline in Pilot Math Treasure Bath an airline pilot can’t help but hit #1 in just a few years.

If you meet one (or both) of these criteria, the US government figures you can afford to invest in a slightly more risky venture. If you lose money, you’ll recover. If you make money, you’re just helping our economy run.

Since these investments are so restricted, they aren’t advertised nearly as well as regular stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. In fact, some of them fall under very strict rules that only allow you to find out about them by word of mouth.

The advantage is that if you can get into these investments, they can give you both a great overall return, and enormous tax deductions.

The Power Of Tax-Advantaged Investments

If you read the last post in this series, you saw how much effect tax deductions can have. Let’s consider an example here.

Let’s say you invest $100,000 with a company building low income housing. The US government can’t get enough of this housing, and a few years ago Congress passed a bill allowing builders to accelerate the depreciation of any houses they build.

Normally, the IRS assumes a house will last for about 39 years. So, if a builder puts up a bunch of houses, he or she could deduct 1/39th of the value of those houses from their taxable income each year. That’s not a terrible deal, but it’s a long time to recoup that part of your investment. Frequently, the government uses accelerated depreciation to incentivize pet projects. This means a builder might be able to take several (or even all 39) years of that depreciation as a single deduction in the first year after the home is built.

What a great deal, right? If the investor puts $15M into the project, they might be able to deduct that same $15M from their taxable income. For this example, $100K of that $15M is money you invested. If your effective tax bracket is 15%, being able to deduct $100K this year saves you $15K in taxes! That’s like getting a 15% investment return in the first year of your investment, plus any payments you get from rent paid by your tenants. Good luck getting that kind of return in the stock market this year!

The higher your marginal tax rate, the more money you save on each dollar invested. Most of these investments pay you rent, dividends, or royalties over time, plus return all of your original capital to you at the end of a specific term.

I know, this sounds too good to be true, but they aren’t. I don’t love pork barrel politics, but it’s hard to argue when it benefits me. Here are a couple investments I’ve been involved with myself:

Two Example Investments from My Life


Example #1 was presented to me by a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) who manages some of our family’s investments. We had plenty of stocks and bonds, and we had a high family income with an accordingly high tax bill. We asked our CFP to find us some alternative investments to continue making us money while reducing our tax burden.

Our guy, Tom, brought us an offer from the US Energy Corp, a company that mines for oil and gas in the US. Our country has an insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Setting up the equipment to mine a gas field in outrageously expensive. The only way a company can fund those startup costs is with the help of investors, like me.

USNRG offers investors a cut of the proceeds from every cubic meter of gas mined from an oil field when they invest. They hire very skilled geologists to identify those fields that will produce more than enough gas over their lifetime to offer investors (and the company) an excellent return on their investment. On it’s own, investing with USNRG was a good deal, but it got even better.

Since oil has national importance and USNRG is a big, powerful company, they hired lots of fancy lobbyists to get Congress to approve a tax loophole for their investors. For the deal Tom brought me, I would have been able to deduct 69-92% of the money I invested in the first year of my investment, and upwards of 15% per year every year after that. Over the course of the investment, I would have been able to deduct more than 100% of the amount of money I invested in the venture.

In the first year alone, this would have been worth $15-25K in tax savings thanks to these deductions. I’d also expect a significant percentage in royalties on gas sold per year. Over the course of the investment, I’d expect to more than double my capital investment, not even counting the tax advantages.

We ended up passing on this opportunity because we’re not thrilled with the environmental costs of this type of operation. We were finishing up military assignments in West Texas and knew too many private land owners who’d been screwed over by fracking companies who ruined their land and never paid as much as they promised.

If you’re bullish on petroleum production though, this type of opportunity is ripe for your investing.

Real Estate Syndication

I did recently invest in a real estate deal. Some Air Force friends knew that I’m interested in investing and approached me about a deal run by a friend of theirs.

Their friend had just left a big real estate firm to branch out on his own. He found an off-market deal for 3 different apartment complexes all owned by the same person. The owner had enjoyed many years of collecting rent from these apartments before passing away. The owner’s heirs didn’t want to deal with the business and chose to sell all three complexes in one package.

The heirs netted several million dollars, and the investors (including me) got a sweet deal. The main investor has a plan to refurbish all three complexes and group them under a single brand. Eventually, rents will rise (they’ve been well below market for years) and they’ll become more profitable than ever.

Thanks to the unique situation of this purchase, the property will be worth far more than its purchase price the moment it’s improved. We’ll collect a few years of rent before selling it off to a bigger institutional investor like BlackRock.

The deal gets even better though!

Although the investor could have chosen the long road of depreciation, which would have been passed on to us individual investors over the course of many years, they got to use some tax loopholes to accelerate depreciation.

It turns out that IRS rules allow certain parts of building improvements to be depreciated faster than others. A new roof might only last for 15 years. New tile might be good for 10 years, but new carpet is only good for a few years at most. There is a whole litany of depreciation schedules for individual parts of a piece of real estate.

By doing what’s called a “cost segregation study” the main investor will be able to deduct the value of most of the improvements they do right away. In fact, we expect to be able to deduct more than our initial investment in just the first year. Then we’ll get a nice dividend every year from rents collected. Then, when the main investor sells the company to BlackRock, we’ll get a share of the profits proportional to our initial investment. It’s likely to be quite a bit more money than we initially put in.

Big Picture Math

So, let’s say I’m trying to reduce my taxable income by $100,000 this year and I invest it in a similarly tax-advantaged bean farm.

Thanks to government incentives, I’ll be able to deduct more money than I invested ($107,000) from my taxable income in this year alone. That’ll reduce my tax bill by upwards of $25,000, and I still own a share in the bean farm worth $107,000.

Then, every year for the next five years, the farm owners will give me part of the profits they make from selling beans. Their goal is 8% per year, though it could be more or less. At that percentage, I’ll get $8,560 per year, for a total of $42,800 over five years.

Then, expecting the value of the farm to have increased by 20% over that time, the farmer will sell her fields to a big corporate farm. All of us investors will get our initial investment back, plus that 20% for a total of $128,400.

Over the course of the five years, I’ll have received:

$25,000 in tax savings
+ $42,800 in bean royalties
+ $128,400 from selling the appreciated farm, for a total of:

$196,200 on $100,000 invested. That’s a stellar 96% Return on Investment.

This investment accomplished at least three goals. It:

  1. Reduced my taxable income this year, and
  2. Provided an excellent investment return, and
  3. Provided me with a way to delay receiving some of my income, and space income out over time.

Item #3 there is especially attractive for senior airline pilots. As senior widebody captains, they make all kinds of money. However, when they hit age 65, their income will drop to zero. Poor Old Joe has to pay extremely high taxes on his income this year, then will have to immediately start drawing from retirements to fund his living expenses on the day he retires.

A more savvy pilot with this type of investment will have reduced their tax burden this year, and will have set up an income stream that kicks in when they retire, starting 5 years from now.

Yes, ideally a savvy investor will end up with a large chunk of money when this investment returns their capital, with appreciation, a few years from now. However, since you’re already a savvy investor you’ve no doubt identified a new bean field, or mineral deposit, or apartment complex with similar tax advantages to sink your money right back into. You’ll only have to pay taxes on any portion of that money you use to pay for your everyday living expenses (or do important things with like buy airplanes). However, you get 100% control over how much money you want to use for those purposes.

There is no need to wait on your company, your union, or the government to set up a delayed compensation plan, pension, or annuity for you. Investments like this are readily available. You can make them happen for yourself and fill up your own Treasure Bath without relying on anyone else.


Now, before you rush off looking for bean farmers let’s curb our enthusiasm a little bit. Remember, Uncle Sam restricts these types of opportunities to accredited investors because they’re more risky than boring old stocks and bonds.

It’s possible that a swarm of genetically-modified locusts could appear out of nowhere and eat all of my farm’s beans, eliminating my 8% targeted annual return for a year or more. Or, it could be flooding, war, or just Americans loosing their taste for taste for legumes. If any of these happens, it could reduce the overall value of my land in the long run, while eliminating my annual returns. I might get my tax deductions this year, but still lose money overall!

This leads us to a very important point:

This Investment Comes Last!

Despite my overwhelming optimism, I believe that most pilots should max-out their other tax-advantaged investing opportunities before pursuing riskier investments. (As always, this is only my opinion, NOT tax or investing advice. If you want advice, go pay a pro for it.)

This means that any given pilot should be maximizing contributions to their HSA, IRA, TSP, 401K, MBCBP, emergency savings, and any other tax-advantaged plan every year. You should only pursue fancier investments if you’ve hit the limits on all of those things and still have money left over.

Don’t worry, if you spend far less than you earn while investing the rest, as a major airline pilot you’ll be able to dive into the world of accredited investments before you know it. Be patient. Take care of the basics. You won’t be sorry.

Finding Tax Advantaged Investing Opportunities

If you’re like me, you’re probably still chomping at the bit to get into some of these fancy investments. I have no doubt that some of you already max out all of your other investments and meet my criteria for pursuing this new money making avenue. If so, you may find yourself frustrated at first that the opportunities aren’t just knocking on your door.

Sorry, but you’re going to have to put in at least a little effort.

Don’t worry, it’s not that much effort.

I got into my apartment complex deal through Networking. I’d flown combat missions with the guy who brought me in. I went to school with his wife, and she helped deliver one of our kids. We got access to that deal because of our pre-existing, long-standing relationship.

The most fundamental way to get into deals like this is to start mentioning your interest to people you already know. You’d be surprised at who already has something available. If they don’t, they may know someone who does. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends.

Are all your friends on the path to becoming clones of Old Joe? I guess it’s time to start adding new friends. You probably fly with a different airline pilot every trip. Bringing up personal finances can be a minefield, but you might be able to find ways to broach the subject safely.

If not that, start asking around at your kids’ school, at church, your gym, or at other organizations in town. Most cities have meetups for real estate investors. If you can’t find a meetup, hop on the BiggerPockets forums and ask around. I suspect you can find some venue frequented by like-minded investors.

Worst case, if you suck at networking so much that you can’t find anything, you could always do the rich airline pilot thing and buy a friend…in the form of a CFP. These people specialize in networking to find these types of deals, and since they get a cut of anything you invest, they’ll be happy to do some digging on your behalf.

No Excuses

The bottom line is that if you can’t find access to the types of investments that offer good returns while also reducing your tax burden, it’s your own damn fault.

I firmly believe that with most things in life it’s up to each of us to make our own stars align.

You do not need a union, an airline, or a government to coddle you into financial wellbeing. In fact, I assert that most of those organizations are so terrible with money that relying on them for your financial welfare would be ludicrous.

Next time Poor Old Joe starts whining about his tax burden you need to ask him if he’s pursued any accredited investing opportunities that allow large current-year tax deductions with the potential of good future returns. Ten bucks says he either gives you a blank stare, or starts whining about how that kind of thing has never fallen in his lap. (And that’s so unfair, just like the time the company stole his pension! But I digress….)

When this happens, text him a link to this article. It’s easy to rag on Old Joe, but the whole reason I write about this stuff is to help him rise above his issues, and prevent the rest of us from turning into him in the first place. If this short novel isn’t enough to get Old Joe started, I’d be glad to help point him in the right direction.

Taxes suck. We can convince ourselves we’re helping our country while reducing our tax bills and getting closer to financial independence…all at the same time. We have an amazing career, and it’s a wonderful time to be alive. Put your resources to good use, and enjoy flying while you do.

Thanks for reading.


(Feature image by Henry Becerra on Unsplash)

Profit Sharing Tax Withholding (Or: How to Identify the Uneducated)

COVID aside, my airline’s profit sharing (PS) has been nothing short of stellar. In fact, my company has paid more profit sharing over the last decade than any airline in human history.

PS day is always February 14th, and being able to say, “I forgot to get you flowers, so I brought home this check instead,” plays very well with most pilot spouses.

Every year though, we’re subjected to at least a few emotion-laden rants from uninformed pilos like Poor Old Joe who are angry that they have to pay so much more tax on their PS money than on any other part of their pay. They rant and rave, advocating for the abolition of our PS plan altogether, or all kinds of other crazy schemes to address the unfavorable tax situation.

As it turns out, all this drama is based on a simple lack of education, or potentially on a few pilots just failing to comprehend what they read.

Yes, the IRS does require big companies to withhold taxes for some large bonus payments like PS at a 22% rate. That’s a lot. Basically: whatever number the company tells you you’re getting for PS on Valentine’s day, Uncle Sam and his spiked baseball bat are going to snag a quarter of your money without you ever touching it.

If that were the sum total of the situation, it’d certainly be frustrating. Thankfully, it’s not. Most pilots will get a large chunk of that money back in their tax return. Yes, this means each of us unwillingly provides our government with an interest-free loan for more than a year. However, it could be a lot worse.

So, why isn’t this a problem? The key, it turns out, is all in the world “withholding.”

Understanding US Taxes

As an aviator who will likely pay taxes for your entire life, it’s critical that you know some basics about how your taxes work. This is fundamental like knowing the difference between Indicated Airspeed (IAS) and Groundspeed (GS).

The first thing we need to understand is that the USA’s federal income tax brackets are progressive.

Our laws specify several income tax brackets ranging from 10% all the way up to 37%. For 2023, the 10% bracket applies to individuals who have less than $11,000 in taxable income for the year. (For married couples filing jointly, the 10% bracket tops out at $22,000.)

So, any single American with at least $11,000 in taxable income will pay exactly $1,100 in taxes on that income because:

$11,000 x 0.10 = $1,100

Easy enough, right?

What if you made $11,001 though? When talking about this person we say, “Joe falls into the 12% tax bracket.” A shocking number of Americans are somehow left thinking that this means Joe will pay 12% tax on all his money like this:

$11,001 x 0.12 = $1,320.12

Thankfully, these poor, tax-knowledge-challenged souls are wrong!

No matter what “top tax bracket” a taxpayer “falls into,” they only pay 10% on the income in the 10% tax bracket. The only income taxed at 12% is that which lies in the 12% bracket. So, this pilot’s taxes would look like this:

$11,000 x 0.10 = $1,100

$1.00 x 0.12 = $0.12

Total Tax Bill:

$1,100 + $0.12 = $1,100.12

That’s a much better deal, right? (Or maybe a less bad deal, but I digress….)

Let’s look at a slightly more complicated example. Let’s say a pilot has $50,000 in taxable income. What is their tax bill? Remember, we have to account for the bracketed regions of this money individually. We’ll end up doing three separate multiplication problems before adding their answers together. The next key dividing line between the 12% and 22% tax brackets is at the taxable income of $44,725.

$11,000 x 0.10 = $1,100

$44,725 – $11,000 = $33,725 x 0.12 = $4,047

$50,000 – $44,725 = $5,275 x 0.22 = $1,055

Adding those three values together we get a total tax bill of $6,202.

At this point we can calculate what’s called an “effective tax rate” by dividing this tax bill by the pilot’s taxable income:

$6,202 / $50,000 = 0.12404

This means that although our pilot “falls into” the 22% tax bracket, they government only takes 12.4% of this money in taxes.

This idea of effective tax rate is critical to our discussion. You may already see where this is going; however, we have to take a quick detour.

Why We Have Withholding

In lots of old literature, from classic novels to the Bible, the tax collector is frequently the most hated person in town. This traitor sells out his neighbors for a cushy government job and spends his days knocking on doors and demanding people pay the King his due.

While this process probably went smoothly a lot of the time, most of the stories that made it into literature focused on times when citizens didn’t have enough cash on hand to cover their bills and ended up in big trouble.

Sadly, these stories reflect a widespread aspect of human nature. We tend to spend every dime we earn the moment we get it. In fact, modern society even encourages us to spend our money before we’ve earned it.

If Uncle Sam waited until the end of the year to hit up the average American for their taxes, there’s a good chance that American simply wouldn’t have any money to give. It would have all been spent, or spoken-for by creditors, weeks or months ago.

Our government (and others) invented the concept of “withholding” to avoid all this. Instead of trusting dumb citizens to set aside money to pay their taxes, the government simply requires our employers to take taxes out of our paycheck and send it to the Treasury without us ever touching it.

This is a very effective strategy overall. Now the question isn’t whether to pay taxes throughout the year, but how much tax to pay throughout the year.

Although most jobs try to keep pay stable, it’s tough for us to project precisely how much money we’ll have earned at the end of the year. When you add in the United States’ convoluted (and frequently ridiculous) system of tax deductions and credits, it becomes even more difficult to predict an individual citizen’s taxable income.

Enter: Withholding Rates

Remember our last tax example above? Our pilot had $50,000 in taxable income, putting him into the 22% tax bracket, but his overall effective tax rate was just 12.4%.

Knowing this, how much of the pilot’s paycheck should the government withhold in taxes each month? If it looks like that pilot is going to fall into the 22% tax bracket, Uncle Sam could just withhold 22% of each paycheck. However, that’s 10% more than our pilot is obligated to pay.

That’s a lot of money tied up in the US Treasury until tax refunds show up sometime after April 15th. It’s not an effective use of our pilot’s money to let that money sit there losing value to inflation. This amounts to giving the government an interest-free loan for a year or more, and it wouldn’t be fair to our pilot.

On the flip side, if the government doesn’t withhold enough, maybe they only take 5% from each paycheck, we get back to the problem that our pilot will have spent all the rest of his money by the end of the year and won’t have any cash to pay the 7.4% he still owed in taxes.

And so, the modern equivalents of tax collectors, the shoe-clerks who sit in dark closets at the IRS, have done lots of math and come up with some standard tax withholding rates. You probably don’t even remember it, but when you started your job you probably filled out an IRS Form W-4.

This confusing and complicated document tries to figure out how much you think you’ll earn per year, whether you know you’ll have any big tax deductions, if you’ll be filing single or married, and several other parts of your tax picture. It also has a block offering each of us the opportunity to withhold extra money from our paychecks to make sure there’s no shortfall. (What a generous offer from Uncle Sam, huh?)

Most of us know so little about taxes that we put the bare minimum on here. We worry for a moment that we’ve screwed up something and will get arrested. Then, we forget about it and start flipping burgers or slinging gear handles.

Our employers and the IRS use this form to calculate how much of each paycheck to withhold as taxes.

We must realize that this is still only a guess. It’s almost certain that your actual tax bill for the year won’t perfectly match the expectations set forth by your W-4, and that you’ll either get a tax refund or owe the IRS a check on April 15th. This is okay (ish). It’s how the US tax system has worked for years.

Updating a W-4?

In theory, a pilot could submit an updated W-4 if things change in their life. Maybe an airline pilot upgrades to Captain or a military pilot gets promoted, meaning they get a big pay bump that also bumps them into a higher tax bracket. Maybe a family has a new kid, making them eligible for extra child tax credits. Maybe you start a side-hustle that brings in extra pay and/or deductions.

In any of these situations, it might be wise to submit an updated W-4 to ensure your monthly tax withholding more closely reflects your actual tax situation. This should help protect you from having to write a big check at the end of the year, or from wasting Time Value of Money by paying too much in taxes during the year and only getting the excess back as a refund.

Most of us won’t do this, but we could. In a moment, we’ll look at a graduate-level example of why we might want to.

Back to Profit Sharing

Now that we’ve covered a frustrating amount of tax background, we can finally get back to the Profit Sharing tax withholding rates that Poor Old Joe keeps complaining about.

Since big bonuses or PS payments are usually one-time events sent to a large number of employees, they don’t fit well into W-4-based paradigm of monthly tax withholding the IRS likes to use. Instead of trying to get tens of millions of working Americans to put effort into yet another convoluted form (maybe it’d be the IRS Form W-4PS) the IRS just made a rule that all of these bonus payments will be subject to the same tax withholding rate. In the case of pilots at my airline, this rate is 22%.

Is this sloppy and lazy? Absolutely! We’re talking about the US government that allowed Southwest to demand and Boeing to build the B737MAX. Sloppy and lazy shouldn’t surprise us at all.

I believe that most pilots will have an effective tax rate well below 22%. (Many airline pilots can use the MBCBP Calculator that I recently posted to quickly find a decent estimate for their effective tax rate.)

This means pilots at my airline are all but guaranteed to waste a large portion of their PS payment giving the government an interest-free loan. Maybe Poor Old Joe is on to something when he complains about this situation. (Although, when I pay attention to the language he uses in his rants, I frequently conclude that he doesn’t know the difference between withholding and an effective tax rate. Please send him the link to this article, and encourage him to hire a tax pro to convince him to step his New Balance sneakers off his soapbox before he hurts himself.)

Yes, it sucks that the IRS requires our company to withhold 22% of our PS checks for taxes. However, most of us will get that money back at the end of the year. There are more important things in life to think about than this…especially for airline pilots with incomes around or above the top 11% of all people in America.

That said, if you’re bothered by giving the government interest-free loans, and you’re willing to put a little extra effort into educating yourself, there’s a graduate-level option to mitigate the effect of this unfortunate taxation situation.

W-4 as a Strategic Weapon

What we’re about to discuss is 100% legal. However, it’s also advanced-level shit that will cause you problems if you screw it up. Do not take any action based solely on reading this article. Use this information to start a conversation with a tax professional before you make any changes to your W-4.

This entire situation, and indeed the entire US tax system are based on one domineering assumption: that you and I are all idiots.

Contrary to whining you’ll hear from every walk of life and side of the political aisle, it’s no secret that we all have to pay taxes or go to jail. Only an absolute moron would knowingly spend money due as taxes during the year without having a plan to cover their tax bill at the end of the year. The Form W-4 and entire concept of tax withholding exists because the vast majority of us have demonstrated that we are, in fact, great fools.

However, what if you could be the exception to the rule? What if you had the wherewithal, education, and integrity necessary to take responsibility for your own existence? You might be capable of collecting your entire paycheck every month, and setting aside enough money for your future tax bill.

You could sink that money into a savings account and earn a few pennies on the dollar during the year. If you’d built up enough wealth to cover even bigger contingencies, you might even be able to invest your tax savings in more lucrative investments.

Yes, you’d have to write a big check to the government every year on April 15th, but you’d happily do it knowing that it was Uncle Sam who gave you the interest-free loan. In fact, you might be very pleased at all the interest you’d earned on that money throughout the year.

It turns out that you likely have the option to implement this strategy. You absolutely need to consult a tax pro to help you figure out how to implement it, but the basic steps are simple.

  1. You’ll go to your employer and fill out a new W-4. You could use a variety of ways (like having a large quantity of tax deductions) to prompt your employer to only withhold a very small amount of each paycheck for taxes.
  2. Then, you’ll set up some type of savings or investment account for the specific purpose of holding tax dollars that you transfer in yourself every month.

And that’s it.

Yes, the government will still withhold 22% of your profit sharing check (remember: sloppy and lazy), but you’ll have been investing so many of your future tax dollars throughout the rest of the year that you’ll be far better off than Poor Old Joe.


Now, as I hope you’ve already caught on, there are some very important considerations here that you must address with a professional tax advisor if you want to do this. If not, you can get yourself into all kinds of trouble.

First, you need to make sure that the way you fill out your W-4 doesn’t violate any IRS rules. You could, theoretically, fill our a W-4 saying that you expect to get 10 child tax credits at the end of the year. However, if you then only claim a couple (or zero) child tax credits on your return in April, it might raise some red flags.

There are also a lot of convoluted laws about how low you’re allowed to set your withholding rate. Small businesses aren’t allowed to do this at all – they have to pay taxes every quarter based on a percentage of past or expected earnings. If they guess wrong, they pay big penalties.

If you’re subject to state income tax, you should probably move somewhere else. However, until you can make that happen, you’ll need an advisor who knows your state tax laws and can help make sure you aren’t violating any rules there as well.

If you have a family, you also have to ensure that your spouse understands all of this and is onboard with the plan. If your spouse happens to notice a savings account with tens of thousands of dollars just sitting around and decides to spend it all, you might be in trouble.

Also, if your spouse is the kind of person who would stress about managing your own tax savings account and having to get the check to the right place on time at the end of the year, the strain on your marriage might not be worth the relatively small financial gains. (This is why my family does not implement this strategy.)

If you’re really stressed out about the size of your tax bill, check out an upcoming post on how you can easily reduce your tax bill as much as you want, while earning big investment returns.

In the meantime, please stop complaining about how much money gets withheld from your profit sharing check. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the year that money is subject to the same effective tax rate as everything else you earn.

Instead, go enjoy flying and spend some time with people you care about. Spend lots less than you earn, wisely invest the rest, and your money will take care of itself.

MBCPB Calculator for Widget Pilots

As usual, Delta Air Lines is leading the airline industry with an improvement to their pilots’ contract. It’s called a Market Based Cash Balance Plan (MBCBP).

I built a calculator to help a Widget pilot decide when (probably not “if”) they should participate in this plan. I’ve embedded a video explaining the basics of the plan and how to use the calculator here:

Here’s the background:

Years ago, airline pilots could rely on a fat pension that paid 60% FAE (Final Average Earnings) for the rest of their lives. For better or for worse, those are all but gone. And they’re not coming back.

In the wave of airline bankruptcies in the late 2000s, airlines replaced their Defined Benefit (DB) pension plans with Defined Contribution (DC) 401k plans. Instead of contributing funds to fund a DB plan, companies now provide that DC, extra money in addition to a pilot’s regular pay, expressed as a percentage. At lesser companies, this percentage is only a “match” where the company only contributes as much money as the pilot themself contributes, up to a maximum percentage. At the major airlines, the DC is a fixed percentage, regardless of what the pilot themself contributes.

Personally, I believe a 401k has significant advantages. One problem, though, is that the IRS limits how much can be contributed to an individual pilot’s 401k account in a given year. For 2023, this limit is $66,000 for most pilots, or $73,500 for pilots over age 50.

While that seems like a lot of money, it’s actually very common for pilots at the major airlines to hit this limit each year. When that limit is reached the company’s DC can go a few different ways. At some airlines, like United, those funds go into an account called a VEBA. It’s essentially a suped-up HSA. At Delta, the pilots get those extra funds as regular old, taxable cash.

While that excess cash is nice, it also means more taxes. The MBCBP is a way to protect more money from the IRS, after reaching the annual 401k contribution limits.

MBCBPs aren’t new. They’re fairly common, but most people don’t hear about them because it takes a pretty high income to make one useful. The IRS must approve each plan on an individual basis, but as long as you’re willing to hire someone to help you do it, IRS approval can be expected.

For Widget pilots who participate in their MBCBP, all of the company’s excess 401k DC above the annual limit ($66,000-$73,500) will go into the MBCBP. For younger pilots, this wouldn’t be much. For more senior pilots, it’s possible to more than double the funds you can protect from the IRS each year.

There are some disadvantages to the MBCBP. While it will make sense for most pilots to participate in the MBCBP during the last several years of their careers, younger pilots will definitely want to opt-out until the right point in their careers. Rather than spelling out all the details, I’ll just refer you to the instruction video and the calculator itself.

Not a Widget Pilot?

If you’re not a Widget pilot, you probably don’t have a MBCBP. I think it’s still worthwhile for you to watch this video and run some scenarios in the calculator.

This type of plan is a significant benefit for most pilots. You may decide it’s worth asking your own union to pursue negotiating for one at your company. If you’re considering which airlines to apply for, picking the one leading the industry by setting up a MBCBP might be a big advantage for you.

Is Mesa Airlines RTP or E2A Right for Me?

We’ve experienced a wave of recent good news on the regional side of the airline industry. Depending on the sources you listen to, you’re probably noticing a concerted effort to promote some new programs at Mesa Airlines.

While these programs are being spun to sound like a dream come true, you should look a little deeper before you sign up. This post is here to help you make that decision.

The Deal

In the video below, Mesa CEO, Jonathan Ornstein, announced:

  • A Rotary Transition Program (RTP) that gives military helicopter pilots $40,000 to get their fixed-wing ratings and hours, in exchange for 3 years of future service, and
  • An Enlisted to Airlines (E2A) program that gives non-aviator military service members $30,000 toward pilot ratings, in exchange for 2 years of future work at Mesa

Before I start splitting hairs, I’ll say that I think these programs are absolutely good deals for the right pilot. The fact that Mesa has committed to these programs is good overall for our industry. However, before you chomp down on that big, juicy worm, you need to take a moment to consider the hook, line, and sinker to which it’s attached.


I posted this on a blog owned entirely by my business entity. I’ve done a lot of online writing in a lot of other places, but this is not associated with any of those organizations or businesses. This is my personal opinion only. You should not ascribe my opinions to any business, organization, or brand other than mine.

Fair Deal

Some parts of the aviation industry hate the idea of a “training contract.” They feel employers should fund training without protecting themselves from a pilot jumping ship as soon as they get their new rating. I’m not in that camp. I say it’s fair for an employer to ask for a reasonable return on investment.

Yes, it needs to be a voluntary, uncoerced contract. And yes, the terms of repayment really do need to be reasonable. The pilot market, perhaps with the help of organized labor unions, should determine what “reasonable” means. The signal to the company should be the number of people signing up (or not) for a given program. In the absence of other evidence, I think Mesa’s offer is pretty fair.

And yet, it’s important to realize the financial tradeoffs associated with taking one of Mesa’s deals.

Pay Comparison

During the two or three years you spend at Mesa, you won’t make much money. Pay for Mesa’s first officers starts at $36 per hour and only ever climbs to $57 per hour…even with 20+ years of service! (Their B737 category pays higher, but they only have 3 jets. We’ll address that later.) Compared to the rest of our industry, these pay rates are mediocre.

For comparison: Year 2 FO pay at Delta’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Endeavor, is higher than Mesa’s top line FO pay. ($60-62 at Endeavor, vs $57 at Mesa). Even independent airline Skywest hits that Year 20+, $57 per hour mark at Year 3 FO pay.

Captain’s pay at Mesa tops-out at $124 per hour, about on par with the rest of the industry.

Nobody, not even Ornstein at Mesa, expects most pilots to be there long enough to reach that pay rate though. In his video announcement, he highlighted the fact that some of his pilots in United’s flow-through program have spent as little as three years at Mesa. That’s the longest commitment he’s asking in exchange for one of these programs.

The point here is that if you take Mesa’s money for training, you’re committing to spend two or three years as one of the lowest paid Part 121 airline pilots in the country.

Far Bigger News

Despite the hype surrounding Mesa’s announcement, those pay rates aren’t much to write home about. Much more significant is the recent regional airline news that American Airlines’ three wholly-owned subsidiary regionals just raised their pay rates to amazing heights.

PSA Airlines FO pay now starts at $90 per hour and climbs to $108. Captain’s pay starts at $146 per hour and reaches as high as $210. This is unheard of. For comparison, new hires at major airline United only start $91…only a buck higher than new-hire FOs at PSA.

PSA’s top Captain pay rate is a full $50 lower than the most junior United Captain; however, it’s an unbelievable pay rate for pilots flying 76-seat regional jets. It gets better from there too.

Airlines need senior, experienced pilots to train new FOs and new Captains. These Line Check Aviators (LCAs) normally get paid a little extra because their job is a lot of extra work. However, since these are the most experienced pilots at the company, their resumes look the best, and major airlines tend to rapidly snatch them up. I once flew with an FO from a regional that knew LCA was only a 6-month position. The organization realized it was a virtual certainty that any given LCA would get scooped up by a major airline that quickly.

In hopes of leading the current hiring wave, and wanting to maintain their ability to train new pilots, PSA set LCA pay at $425 per hour. For comparison, a 12+ Year A350 Captain at Delta only makes $354 per hour.

American subsidiary regionals Envoy and Piedmont are offering similarly shocking pay rates.

Yes, LCAs at PSA, Piedmont, and Envoy are the highest-paid airline pilots on the planet, at least for the next few years.

If your jaw hasn’t already dropped to the floor, note that PSA has also set premium pay at 200% of your regular pay rate. At that level, even a non-LCA PSA Captain makes more than a Delta A350 Captain on regular pay.

We should also mention that these companies have flow-through programs to American. If you stick it out through their entire pipeline, they’re offering bonuses that total as much as $150,000 for some pilots.

This sets the bar for regional airline pay at more than three times what Mesa is offering. Other regionals will have to start offering higher pay rates if they want any hope of staffing their operations. If you’re competitive for a job at Mesa, you’re competitive for a job at PSA, Piedmont, or Envoy.

First-Glance Questions

Before we really delve into the specifics, let’s note that the differences in these pay rates should astound you. Using the rule of thumb that annual airline pilot compensation is roughly equal to 1000 times their hourly pay rate, pilots at PSA will earn $42,000 more in their first year of employment than peers at Mesa. The total pay difference over the duration of a two- or three-year training contract is over six figures.

Is $30-40K toward pilot ratings now worth giving up that much future compensation?

As with all aviation questions, the answer is a solid: it depends.

Feeling the Need

Prevailing sentiment says the most important goal for your overall airline career is getting on a seniority list at a major airline as quickly as possible because Seniority is Everything.

For an aspiring pilot who delayed their airline career progression with some patriotic military service, the need to hurry feels even more acute. If a quick bundle of cash is all it takes to finish up fixed-wing ratings, get on with a regional, and become competitive for a major, then this could be the right answer. Does it really matter which regional you fly for if you’re only there a few years?

And yet, I think it would be unwise to blindly accept advice from anyone insisting that this is your only (or perhaps even best) option.

Other Sources of Money

Although flight training is expensive, thousands of civilian aviators complete their ratings every year without any assistance from an RTP or E2A program. It’s a big upfront cost, but the overall career earnings more than justify it. (I wrote an entire book detailing those earnings, and they’re impressive.)

So, how do these thousands of civilian aviators get it done? Could one of those other funding models pay for your flight training?


The most basic and common way to pay for flight training is the modern tradition of debt.

Most intelligent Americans have mixed feelings about debt. However, airline pilot income is high enough and sufficiently predictable that I believe it’s reasonable and moral to take out loans to pay for flight training. Plenty of investors agree with my sentiment and feel secure loaning money to aspiring pilots.

Those investors could include your friends or family. If your parents have enough financial stability, they may be able to get a simple signature loan from their bank to provide even more cash than the $30-40K Mesa is offering. They might also have access to something like a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) to get the cash you need to get started.

Hell, if you served in the military for a few years and had good money habits, USAA or NFCU might even give you a signature loan. If you bought a home at one of your assignments more than a few years ago, you probably have enough equity due to rising home prices that you could do a cash-out refinance and get more than enough money to fund your flying.

As a responsible human being, you should work a real job in the hours you aren’t busy with flight training, and start making payments to your parents or other lenders immediately. However, you should have no trouble showing them how high your earnings will be as an airline pilot and helping them understand that you’ll be able to pay them back quickly. If you go to PSA, Piedmont, or Envoy, you’ll make so much more than a Mesa pilot that you’ll be able to repay any loan, in full, in a year or two.

If you happen to go to a big-name flight school, you’ll find they have their own financing departments. They train hundreds of pilots like you every year. They know exactly what your future earnings will be, and they’ll be happy to loan you whatever you need as well. Again, if you go to a high-paying regional you could potentially use your excess pay to eradicate all those loans in just a couple years.

Loan Yourself Money

For the veterans considering Mesa’s E2A or RTP programs, I hope you had some half-decent mentors in the military who convinced you to contribute as much as possible to your TSP. Did you know you can give yourself a loan from your TSP, up to half the value of your account balance, up to $50,000? The best part of that loan is you pay (very low 3%) interest to yourself as you pay off your loan.

You need to be on some sort of a pay status because they have to at least set up repayment from your military pay account. (There are no early pre-payment penalties. You can just send them a check). However, if you’re finishing active duty or still making money in the reserves, this should be no problem.

I don’t generally think TSP loans are a great idea. However, if you can’t get any of the other types of loans we just mentioned, you may be able to get this one. Like we said, since the top regionals pay much more than Mesa right now, you should be able to pay yourself back very quickly.


Even better than loans are aviation-specific scholarships. There are millions of dollars available to aspiring aviators every year. Many of these opportunities are so poorly publicized that they don’t get many applicants. A combat veteran bootstrapping their way into the aviation industry should be pretty competitive for most of those programs.

BlondsinAviation.com has my favorite list of flying scholarships. It’s structured as a calendar, sorted by due date, so you always know the next deadline you need to meet.

PilotPipeline.com also has a great list of scholarships. Their list sits behind a paywall, but they offer cheap or free subscriptions to veterans.

Government Money

Military veterans, the very aviators targeted by Mesa’s program, have unique access to government money even more accessible than scholarships. Programs like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Vocational Readiness & Employment (VR&E), The Air Force’s Credentialing Opportunities Online (COOL), and many others can more than cover the costs of flight training for many veterans.

Not all of these programs specifically pay for time-building the way Mesa’s pile of cash might, but combining the benefits of a few different programs has done the trick for many aspiring aviators.

In a moment we’ll discuss a group that has cracked the code on getting access to all this money. They have an article here summarizing their strategies.

Earning Your Way

I recommend you try for whatever scholarships you can get. As I already mentioned, I would not hesitate to take out a loan if necessary.

In the meantime, there are a wealth of strategies you can use to reduce your training costs and/or earn money to fly. These strategies can accelerate your timeline and/or stretch limited funds further. I wrote a series of six articles detailing some options here:

If you use some (or all) of these strategies, you can start getting paid to fly far sooner than your peers. You’ll be able to maximize your non-flying time to earn income for more flight hours. You could potentially accumulate the full 1,500 hours needed for an ATP, in just a couple years, without incurring as much debt as other pilots.

If you honestly consider the benefits of all these options, you’ll find Mesa’s offer of $30-40K to be far less compelling.

Honest Comparison

Although a senior pilot eligible for an RTP program may benefit more from speed than anything else, I’m not convinced either of Mesa’s programs offer major advantages in speed or financing.

Once an RTP pilot gets the fixed-wing hours necessary to meet airline hiring requirements, they will be competitive at every regional airline. Whether your cash comes from Mesa or from loans, scholarships, government programs, and work, the time required to get your ratings and hours is the same.

Entry-level E2A pilots need several months to a year to get their ratings through Commercial (and probably CFI). Then, most need to spend at least a couple years in lower-paying jobs to reach ATP minimums and compete for a regional airline job at Mesa, PSA, or elsewhere.

Taking $30,000 from Mesa before you start that process won’t get you through those first few years any quicker than taking out a loan or winning a scholarship. Taking Mesa’s money will lock you in for two years of low-paying flying with them at some point later in your career. That point could be very inconvenient.

Every regional is hiring right now, and the staggering pay raises at American’s subsidiaries is just the latest development in a bidding war.

Don’t forget that several established and startup Ultra Low Cost Carriers (ULCCs) also need thousands of pilots. A friend of mine recently started at Envoy. Before she’d even finished training, Frontier offered her a job. A ULCC isn’t a forever airline for everyone, but the pay and quality of life are almost always better than flying for a regional. It would have been a shame if my friend had been forced to turn down that job because she still owed time elsewhere.

Show Me the Money

From a financial standpoint, Mesa’s offers are particularly troublesome. Let’s see how.

Based on starting at an hourly rate of $36, getting a guarantee of 76 hours per month, and accounting for the value of your RTP or E2A money here’s what your total compensation at Mesa will look like:

Five years of Mesa FO pay

That’s not too shabby, right? Let’s consider PSA pay though:

Five years of PSA FO pay

Personally, I’m not sure the high pay rates will last a full five years at PSA. The agreement granting these raises purportedly confirms that they’ll reduce somewhat after 2025. However, there’s essentially zero chance they’ll drop as far as Mesa’s abysmal $36 per hour.

Does it really matter though? Mesa would only hold you for 2 or 3 years anway. In the next few years of pilot hiring, if you don’t get on with a bigger airline after just 2-3 years at a regional, it’s because you’re guilty of self-sabotage.

Plus, look at how much more you could make in just 2 or 3 years at PSA. In your first year alone, you make so much more money than you would at Mesa that you could completely pay back a $40,000 loan (in place of Mesa’s RTP allowance) and still take home $8,168 more than you would at Mesa. (An E2A pilot could pay back their $30,000 and take home $18,168 more!)

An E2A pilot who spends two full years at PSA instead of Mesa will take home more than $73,000 extra, even after paying back a $30,000 E2A-equivalent loan.

An RTP pilot who owes Mesa three years would be passing up more than $128,000 in total compensation.

Yes, taking Mesa’s money might be easier in some ways. Applying for loans and scholarships will feel like work. However, that “work” would pay you more than $8,000 extra during your first year, and tens of thousands of dollars extra over 2 or 3 years. That’s a damn good pay rate for a few hours filling out applications.

At this point, you need to ask yourself: will Mesa’s RTP or E2A program really benefit me in the long run?

Even if speed is your primary concern, is the paperwork for Mesa’s RTP program really any faster than a loan application?


One potential counter to my assertions here is that Mesa has B737s while none of the other regionals do.

While this is true, it’s important to look at that overall picture. Mesa is flying a grand total of three B737 classic models. They can’t assign very many pilots to those aircraft. The vast majority of Mesa pilots will continue to fly regional jets.

Plus, these B737s are ancient. I fly relatively newer B737NGs and the APUs frequently can’t even cool down the flight deck on a hot summer day. Flying Mesa’s Boeing dinosaurs means you’ll sweat through your shirt…on every leg you fly…on every day…of every trip. You can do better.

Will Mesa get more airplanes? Might they even get some (marginally) nicer B737-800s? Probably. However, in aviation it’s always unwise to plan your life based on the possibility of management’s promises about the future. Don’t count on anything other than what you can see with your own eyes right now.

At Mesa, it’s not realistic to base any assumptions on you getting B737 pay rates, even if you want to sweat it out in those things for two or three years.

It’s also worth noting that just about every other B737 operator in the country has higher hourly rates. If you can get hired at Mesa, there’s a decent chance you can get hired by Avelo, iAero, Sun Country, or a similar carrier operating Airbus narrowbodies. You’ll get paid more money to fly nicer versions of the same jets, and since those companies don’t own any RJs you’re guaranteed to fly the B737, or larger aircraft.

But…Raises at Mesa

If you pursue the airline forums and groups on the internet, you’ll get mixed reviews about Mesa. Many aviators love it there and can’t stop singing the company’s praises. Others aren’t as complimentary.

One common criticism is that Mesa still isn’t paying their pilots a “living wage.” Our definitions of that concept may vary, but there’s no denying the fact that Mesa’s pay rates are at the bottom of our industry.

The Mesa optimists note that their pilot group is in negotiations with the company for a better contract that will include higher pay rates. Ornstein even teased this in his video interview. Do I think Mesa will offer higher pay rates? Absolutely. Do I think they’ll be on par with PSA, Piedmont, and Envoy? Not really.

Do I think it likely those negotiations will conclude quickly? Umm….

United is experiencing untold drama over their contract negotiations. The pilots at Alaska approved a strike vote over delays in their negotiations. All of the majors have been negotiating for years. A three-way fight among ULCCs has dragged on for months. I see no reason to expect negotiations at Mesa, or any other company, to move quickly.

If Mesa surprises us all and agrees to realistically competitive pay rates, you may need to re-run the numbers I posted above. However, unless those rates are so much higher that they represent an extra $73K-$128K in total compensation in your first two or three years, it’s doubtful they’ll do much to improve the case for Mesa’s RTP or E2A programs.

So, Why is Mesa News?

I hope at this point you’re wondering why some people are pushing Mesa’s RTP and E2A programs so hard.

Using these programs could cost you and your family tens of thousands of dollars in overall compensation. This is a tough choice knowing you have so many other ways to get the funding you need to cover your flight training.

I worry that a wave of excited promotion will push the wrong people into Mesa’s programs. To understand why that might happen, we have to take a step back and consider who benefits.

(One way to frame the situation we’re about to consider comes from a Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. This fascinating film makes a great point that if you don’t know what a company’s product is, the product may be you.)

Ornstein announced his RTP and E2A programs on the RTAG Nation YouTube channel. RTAG started as the Rotary to Airline Group, but is now just “RTAG, the Veterans Charity.”

RTAG does a lot of good in our world. They provide crucial education, award tens of thousands of dollars in annual scholarships, motivate and inspire future aviators, and they’re even trying to exert pressure on corporate and legislative powers in our industry.

RTAG has absolutely broken the code on a wide variety of government programs offering low- or no-obligation money that veterans can use for flight training. They’ve helped many great people move up in life to better careers after valiantly serving our country. If you haven’t already, you should read their dissertation on these programs here.

Although RTAG focuses their efforts on helping veterans, though they’re happy to let their rising tide lift civilian pilots too. I applaud their good efforts.

RTAG’s frontrunners have made a big deal about the fact that Mesa’s announcement only happened because RTAG suggested and was deeply involved in designing it. I believe they had their hearts in the right place when they did this. If even one person can make these programs into a win I believe they’re worthwhile.

If nothing else, RTAG is right to be proud of their ability to help create such an innovative program in a frustratingly stale airline industry. But knowing the financial realities at play, why are they suddenly pushing these programs so much harder than anything else?

Follow the Money

The next step in answering this questions requires paying attention to the flow of the money Mesa is offering.

You may have missed it in the video, but Ornstein mentioned that the pilots receiving his E2A dollars will train at a flight school called Pray Aviation. If you look at Pray’s own announcement you’ll discover that they’re the exclusive training provider for these programs.

Pray Aviation’s Facebook post highlighting their part in Mesa’s new programs

So, if a pilot uses Mesa’s E2A program, that pilot loses $73,000 of income over two years…but Pray Aviation gets an extra $30,000 in revenue. Remember how sometimes when you think you’re getting something for free it really means that you’re the product being sold?

Now ask yourself: What incentive does Pray Aviation have to point out the financial disadvantages of these programs, or temper their promotion of these new deals?

Further Along the Money Trail

You’d be forgiven for not recognizing the name of any given small flight school in the US. I’ve met Matthew Pray. He seems like a good person, and everything I’ve heard leads me to believe he runs a high-quality flight school. That’s a rarity in this world. There are too many shady operations that skimp on maintenance, treat instructors and students poorly, or run try to make flight training into a mindless assembly line.

Pray seems far better than average. They’re also quite innovative. One of their strongest offerings is that they’ll send aircraft and instructors to train you where you live. This is critical for military members who can’t just take time off to travel somewhere for accelerated flight training. The idea of in-place accelerated flight training isn’t new, but Pray’s professional coordination and focus on providing this service at military bases is.

If our aviation industry is going to survive the current hiring wave and growth demand, we’ll need innovative flight schools like Pray to make it all work.

And yet, if you read Pray’s About Us page, you’ll see that Matthew Pray is a former Army helicopter pilot. It turns out, he’s directly associated with the group of Army aviators who make RTAG go.

Pray Aviation was the Diamond Sponsor at last year’s big RTAG convention, a distinction available for a $50,000 donation. By donating that money to a 501(c)(3) charity, Pray was able to decrease their taxable income. In exchange, they got their name repeatedly highlighted to an audience of thousands for months on end. They got great exposure at the convention itself. No wonder Mesa chose Pray as their exclusive training partner for the RTP and E2A programs RTAG helped set up.

It’s tough to imagine a more effective way to spend $50K on advertising.

RTAG notes that it’s an entirely volunteer-run company. Every dollar they bring in goes to operations or to scholarships. That’s good! You have to wonder, though, how many of those recipients will take their tax-free scholarship money to the flight school they heard about through RTAG. So, a tax-free donation ends up coming right back to the same flight school as a sort of tax-deferred income.

I expect this is all kosher with Uncle Sam, but it’s interesting to see how tightly the interests of companies like this commercial flight school and this tax-exempt charity are intertwined.

Overall, these relationships present strong incentives for these organizations to push you toward Mesa’s RTP and E2A programs, despite significant financial trade-offs.

Why Mention This, Emet?

No doubt at least one person will read this and confront me, asking why I even bothered to discuss any of it. Aren’t pilots getting tens of thousands of dollars? Couldn’t this help financially disadvantaged troops who can’t otherwise afford flight training? Sure. (Though, they can otherwise afford the training through a variety of options I’ve mentioned here.)

On one hand, I lean pretty Libertarian. If a group of friends can set up a network of businesses and convince airlines or other businesses to pay them for providing valuable products and services, why not? If part of that network includes a non-profit corporation that can operate without the burden of taxes, again, why not? Congress is welcome to rewrite tax law if they don’t like it.

These types of partnerships operate throughout the aviation industry from hotels, to crew vans, to catering services, and more. It gets far more convoluted in Hollywood, college and pro sports, defense contractors, and other industries.

And yet, I’m not the guy who can let debatable financial advice slide without suggesting you explore all sides of the equation. It feel responsible for promoting the best Pilot Math practices.


Thankfully, the people fighting America’s recent wars have enjoyed almost universal support from our fellow citizens. It wasn’t always that way. One of my high school JROTC instructors was a highly-decorated Green Beret during the Vietnam War. He endured unbelievable hatred and derision every time he returned from combat deployments. I’m so glad that America shaped up and chose to support our veterans in my lifetime!

And yet, it frustrates me to see how some agencies use sentiment toward veterans as a tool for other purposes.

I’m no longer particularly impressed when a pro sports franchise, or a musician, or a politician trots out a veteran and their family right before an event. With some popular music in the background an influencer recites some heartfelt buzzwords, and maybe even presents a gift. In 2001 and 2002 it felt special. The more I see this though, the less it seems about veterans.

For me, their message is very transparent: “You should give us your money, votes, or social support because we support veterans. If you don’t support us, you must be anti-veteran.”

I worry about this happening here. I believe Mesa is honestly trying to be pro-veteran by offering their RTP and E2A programs. They will be a great answer for some people! However, if someone like me suggests that you may be better off taking a different path, there’s a danger that we’ll be attacked for being “anti-veteran.”

Asserting a pro-veteran stance, incorporating as a non-profit corporation under 501(c)(3), or calling an organization a charity does make that organization sacred. None of those characteristics make that organization correct just because it says it is. None of them makes that organization the exclusive champion of the cause it supports. It’s still possible that such an organization might be incentivized to recommend a course of action that benefits itself more than it helps you and your family.

Do I believe that’s the intent behind these RTP and E2A programs? No. However, you need to at least consider all the facts before you sign up.

What is Pro-Veteran?

Just in case anyone plans to attack my position on these programs as anti-veteran, let’s look at some facts.

First off: I’m a veteran. I’ve served in the US Air Force for more than 21 years so far. I’ve deployed 8 times and flown more than 300 combat missions. Much of that flying was real-time, tactical ISR for Special Operations Forces. I’m one of those few Air Force pilots who realizes and takes pride in the fact that we exist largely to take care of people with boots on the ground.

I’ve continued supporting my fellow veterans off-duty. In the past, I’ve published several hundred thousand words (enough to fill a few books) of free advice helping veterans obtain and excel in civilian flying careers. I also published an entire book trying to help veterans (and others) attain financial independence. In the past, I’ve spent hundreds of unpaid hours helping veterans polish their resumes and applications.

There is nothing anti-veteran in me saying that it’s disadvantageous to give up $128,000 over three years in total compensation. Even at a conservative (5%) rate of return, if you invested that money and let it sit for 20 years, it would grow to $339,000. If you let it sit for a full 40 years it could become a staggering $901,000!

The value of Mesa’s E2A program over 40 years, compared to investing the higher income you’d earn at PSA during your two-year commitment.

Do you really want to give up almost a million dollars in exchange for $30-40K worth of flight training when there are so many other ways to fund your training without incurring a commitment to a specific regional airline?

Effective Alternatives

It’s good of Mesa to offer these RTP and E2A programs. It’s good that a charity used their influence to help facilitate those programs. For the right veteran, these programs could be beneficial. And yet, we’ve shown that many aspiring aviators will get greater financial benefits using other options to fund their training.

Knowing this, an organization hoping to do good in our world could potentially use its influence to more effectively help the people it serves. This kind of organization could:

  • Continue to educate aspiring pilots on all the ways they can pay for flight training
    • Provide an honest and upfront cost/benefit analysis of each option
    • Be open and transparent in disclosing personal and organizational affiliations that might incentivize promoting one option over another
    • Be more transparent in ranking these funding sources in terms of time/effort required, military or corporate service obligations, debt, etc.
  • Educate aspiring pilots on how and why to save, invest, and pay off loans so these options don’t turn into crippling debt
  • Work with lenders on behalf of veterans to secure better terms on loans for flight training
  • Focus on matchmaking for low-time pilots and employers with entry-level flying jobs
    • Use their influence to improve pay, work rules, and general conditions at those entry-level flying jobs
  • Use their influence to evaluate a variety of flight schools and promote every school offering safe, cost-effective training

If Mesa wants to more effectively help veterans, their solution is simple. Mr. Ornstein needs to raise pilot pay and benefits to industry-competitive levels. The higher Mesa raises total compensation, the closer they’ll get to invalidating my entire analysis. I hope they do exactly that!

If Mesa’s RTP or E2A programs are right for you, I’d apply right away. If they aren’t, we’ve reviewed a variety of other options here, and we didn’t even scratch the surface.

Life as a major airline pilot is great. It’s worth the investment of time, money, and effort. Whatever you choose, take action today to advance your career.

Fly safe; I hope to see you on my flight deck or at a layover bar soon!

– Emet

Cover photo by Dan Lohmar on Unsplash

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