Trying to pick the best airline to work for as a pilot?
As someone who recently went through this process and has started working as an airline pilot I’ll share my advice for making the choice.
Many pilots set out on their careers with an airline in mind—their dream job, flying for their dream carrier. Maybe you want to fly the A380 for Emirates, or you’ve been dreaming of being part of the Southwest LUV culture since you were young.
But there are also a lot of aviators who just want to fly and don’t have an attachment to one brand over another.
How should you go about choosing the best airline to work for as a pilot?
Let’s look at this decision in practical terms, the way most pilots do as they train and start applying for jobs.
How to Choose the Best Airline to Work For
It’s important to realize that you don’t need to choose an airline to work for until you have a job offer.
In most cases, this means you’ve completed your training, logged the required hours in your book, and have already started applying to companies.
There’s one exception. If you want to start a pathway program while still in flight school, you’ll want to research these companies before starting such a program.
These programs, which are options for pilots at some universities and flight programs, make assurances that you will get an interview with the carrier upon completion of the training curriculum and work experience.
If pathway programs interest you, evaluate which makes the most sense for you. They are not all the same, and each has pros and cons. Here at Thrust Flight we work with the Envoy Cadet Program which flows to American Airlines.
Pathway programs aside, pilots are free to choose who to work for. Picking your dream job becomes an exercise not in looking at what fancy planes you’ll fly or where you’ll fly them but what day-to-day life looks like as an employee.
It’s not as glamorous as picking the coolest plane with the prettiest livery, but looking at it this way will probably be better for your long-term job satisfaction.
First, there are three must-have items—the airline must be safe, have strong finances, and have hiring policies that mean you can get the job.
All pilots should strive to work for companies that foster strong safety cultures.
On the airline side, this is less about their historic accident record and more about their internal safety management systems and culture.
Is maintenance done well and kept on top of? Are the planes newer and kept in top condition? Is the company cutting corners anywhere?
One place this might come up for pilots is in their dealings with scheduling. How are schedules handled, and are other pilots happy about it?
Does scheduling have unrealistic expectations of their pilots? Are they pushing the daily and monthly maximum times or expecting ridiculous layovers?
You want to work for successful companies, not fly-by-night operators. However, this can be hard to predict since the entire airline industry is cyclical and tied to the economy as a whole.
When things are good, and airline profits increase, they hire more pilots and pay better. When things are bleak, they cutback flights and furlough pilots to shrink their payroll expenses.
The state of the industry and an individual airline tells you a little about how they run their business.
Is downsizing an absolute last-ditch effort to return to profitability? Or is the ebb and flow of the pilot workforce just part of how they do business?
Is the airline ordering new planes and planning to grow? Or are they hunkered down and prepared to weather an economic storm?
The final must-have to work at an airline is the ability to get the job at all. There’s no point in picking the airline if there’s little chance of getting the job.
One example is FedEx, which has historically hired mostly ex-military pilots. While that might change as their demand for pilots increases, if you come from a civilian background, it likely means you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.
Similar situations may occur if your dream job is with an overseas carrier. The company will have employment policies based on its base location. For example, Emirates requires all flight crews to apply for residency visas to live in Dubai.
With those must-have items checked off, you can compare airlines on an even scale. A few of the most important factors to look at include:
- Pay and benefits
- Culture and reputation
- Union presence
- Base and domicile choices
- Personal growth potential
Pay and Benefits
It’s easy enough to find out how much one airline is paying new hires, and it’s probably the first thing you look at when deciding to fill out the application.
But pay is much more than a dollar amount.
The benefits package that these companies offer varies a lot. It’s important to think about the things that are important to you.
For example, most airlines give travel benefits—the ability to fly jump seat or standby on any flight in the airline’s system or with their partner carriers. But the number of people you can share them with varies, as does the number of airlines you can use and the number of destinations you can visit.
The ability to jump seat on any airline’s flight is different than traveling with your family of four on standby with any Star Alliance member.
Of course, there are other benefits to consider beyond travel perks. The cost of health and life insurance and what sort of retirement package are also important, and families may also look at education benefits.
Culture and Reputation with Workers
The company’s reputation is another thing to consider. Do other pilots like working there, and do they recommend it? Or is it just a job, and they’re looking for their next one?
This isn’t limited to pilots. A good company to work for is usually a good company for anyone to work for, from baggage handlers to senior management. It means the company will have lower turnover, and people will stay in their jobs longer.
This is one area where some airlines stand out. A few companies have worked hard to create a family-like culture that people want to work in long term. Southwest and Delta are two domestic examples of companies with loyal followings.
Forbes and other business publications often rank airlines (and other companies) as top places to work. If you see an airline on one of these lists, take note. Working for a company that respects its workers and wants to keep them around is worth seeking out.
Union vs. Non-Union Pilots
Most major carriers in the US are unionized, meaning their employees are members of trade unions for collective bargaining.
Over these decades, the unions have positively affected pilot pay, benefits, safety, and overall working conditions. ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) is the largest pilot union, but some airlines have their own.
Not everyone likes working in a union culture. Doing so means mandatory union dues and giving up some of your rights for negotiation. In other words, you are accountable to the contract the union negotiates for you, whether you join the union or not.
There’s no right or wrong answer, but working with a union differs from working without one. Do some research before you apply for the job.
Base and Domicile Choices
Many pilots decide the company they want to work for based on where they’re allowed to live and what kind of commute they want. This is especially important for pilots with families who need stability or younger pilots who can’t afford to move into their place yet.
This is an area where you’ll have to be flexible, however. Many times an airline has open hiring for multiple bases, and they cannot guarantee one domicile over another.
Many pilots wind up in the “wrong” city and have to commute for a while.
Once they have more seniority, they can relocate to another base that’s more convenient. How long that process takes depends on the airline and how “in-demand” the desired domicile is.
Finally, a major consideration for pilots is what sort of future they can anticipate. It’s always good to assume you’ll be with a company for the long term, not just until you get x-number of flight hours.
So research what the seniority system looks like at your airline and how long it typically takes to get upgrades and transitions.
How many years until you can upgrade to captain? How many years until you can transition to that A350neo? The choices you make along the way will change the numbers slightly, as will your choice of base.
It’s worth noting that these numbers will be higher if the company is good and people like sticking around.
Alternatively, if upgrade and transition times are quick, it might be a sign that the company has a problem retaining workers. So while it’s important to consider how long it might take to get the upgrades and transitions, it also needs to be weighed against other factors.
Working for five years before an upgrade at a great company with an outstanding culture is probably better than suffering through two and a half years at a terrible company with bad pay and grumpy coworkers, right?
Finding Your Right Airline
Picking the company you’d like to work for is never an easy task.
Sometimes, you take the job you’re offered. Other times, you get to pick and choose and find the best fit.
Always remember to do your own research. Talk to recruiters and actual pilots at the airline to find out the real deal. Don’t rely on hearsay and internet gossip, as it’s seldom complete or accurate.
So, what’s your opinion? What is the best airline to work for as a pilot?
- About the Author
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Brian is an experienced digital marketer who joined Thrust Flight in 2022 as the Chief Marketing Officer. He discovered a passion for aviation at 10 when he went for his first flight in a Piper Cherokee and enjoys helping others discover a career path as a professional pilot. He is an experienced marketing consultant helping brands with a variety of marketing initiatives. Brian received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Brigham Young University.