Real Answers from Real Pilots

Industry trends and ATP logistics

I’ve been lurking on this site for a little while trying to soak up as much information as I can. I’m amazed by the responsiveness of the pilot mentors and appreciate both the time you take out of your schedules and your candid and thoughtful responses.

A little background: Since graduating from law school in 2012 I have been practicing law in NYC and internationally, and in March I finally paid off my (substantial) law school debt. Perhaps because of the combination of that psychological and financial weight lifting, coupled with the stress and hours of this job and rarely seeing my wife and kids, I’ve recently allowed my mind to really question whether the path I’m on makes sense in the long term since I’m not excited about the work and I feel you have to be to really survive–and certainly get to the top–where I am. I know there are other legal jobs that could provide better work/life balance, but when I really remove all constraints and think about what I want to do, I don’t want to take any opportunities in other fields off the table.

My posting on this forum tells you what I’ve realized I’d rather be doing. Once I realized I want to fly airplanes I’ve wanted nothing more than to quit my job tomorrow and start at ATP and be working at an airline as soon as possible. Pragmatically speaking, while having paid off $200k in law school debt is nice, I’ve essentially just broken even and I feel it only makes sense to work at least another year and a half (basically through 2018 year-end bonus) to have saved enough of a cushion to pay for flight school and supplement income to support my family through the lean times that would follow in the ensuing years while working up to a major. I would be remiss to not say I’m very grateful and appreciative of the job and opportunities that I have now. Being realistic, I recognize that (even if I wasn’t getting into aviation 15-20 years late) I wouldn’t make as much money even as a 777 captain at a major airline as I did last year as a lawyer. The pragmatist in me sees my law school and legal career as (at least) a fall back should things not work out—call it a temporary leave of absence while I chased a mid-life crisis. The emotional side doesn’t want to look back though—all in.

I’m 35 now, if I were to follow the above plan I’d start ATP beginning of 2019 (I’d basically just be turning 37), starting at a regional at 39 and hopefully working at a major by mid-40s with another 20 years or so of flying ahead of me. I realize there are many factors that would be outside my control. I see that it’s a good market to be hired by regionals right now and that generally bodes well, but here are my questions:

• How do you see this trend evolving in the next 2-4 years (and by extension, how do you see it impacting seniority/upgrade times and hiring at the majors over the coming decade)? Obviously factors at individual airlines vary greatly, and I appreciate that you’re not here to provide a full industry analysis, but I value your experience and perspective and any thoughts you have on a macro level are appreciated.

• I understand that a 4-year degree is needed for the majors, and I imagine being competitive on flight hours is really what matters, but I’m wondering if, beyond that, any advanced degree (e.g. an Ivy League law degree, hypothetically) or non-flying experience on the resume helps at the margins?

• Getting a bit ahead of myself here, and I realize I’m oversimplifying as there are other important factors to consider, but stripping those away for the sake of argument, is it fair to say that the quicker your path to captain at a regional, the quicker you could potentially accrue the necessary minimums to become a candidate for the majors? I realize that things change suddenly and upgrade times might look entirely different at a given airline at different points in time, but I just want to understand if my premise is accurate.

• Finally, I see on ATP’s website that the schedule mentions weekends being off. I’ve also seen commentary on the forum about flight instructors often working weekends. How does this work? Is there generally just flexibility between instructor and student to create a mutually workable schedule? Presumably as an instructor it would be nice to work as much as possible to get as many hours as possible quickly. I know ATP has to distribute instructors at the various locations as necessary to balance supply and demand, but how much control do you have as an individual flight instructor to try to get more hours?

Thanks again for your tireless help and support for those of us aspiring to do what you’ve done.

Robert

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Robert,

Before you do anything at all you need to take an introductory flight, maybe even two of them. It is one thing to ride in the back of an airplane, it is a completely different thing to fly them and only an introductory lesson can show you that. You can take one at just about any flight school, or at an ATP location.

Now, onto your questions:

  1. I see the trend continuing about as is. Of course I do not have a crystal ball, but there are still enough pilots in the pipeline that the better airlines will be able to meet their hiring requirements, albeit with increased incentives for new hires. Translation: it will continue to be a good time to get into the industry, but you will still need to spend several years at a regional

  2. Of course a J.D. will help and is great to put on a resume. But as you said, flight time and experience are what really matters and that will be what the airlines are looking at.

  3. Your premise is absolutely correct. Captain jet time is what the majors want to see and the faster you can be an RJ captain, the better.

  4. Yes, weekends are work free at ATP, but many, if not most, of the instructors and students chose to work weekends so that they can build their flight time as quickly as possible.

Take a look around this website, especially the schedules section. You will still have plenty of days on the road that you are unavailable to your family.

You also bring up a very good point that you are getting into the industry later than normal. While you still have a good amount of time ahead of you, you will likely never be a 777 Captain for a major airline. A more likely goal is a 737 or 320 Captain for a major. I am in no way trying to dissuade you, I just want you to have realistic expectations.

Thanks for the compliments, it is nice to know that our time is appreciated. Feel free to ask whatever else you can think of.

Chris

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Thank you very much for your response, @Chris. I will definitely be taking an introductory flight when I’m back in the States in the coming weeks. I became a lawyer in the first place probably because I’m risk averse, and especially with a wife and 3 kids, I certainly wouldn’t be making such a drastic move without knowing full well what I’d be getting into.

Your responses to my questions are very helpful. To the point about being away from family while on the road, this is actually one of the points that most stands out to me as I consider this move, but for counterintuitive reasons. Given my current schedule, where I’m home late many nights after the kids are in bed and working most weekends, even a reserve schedule sounds fantastic by comparison. I often don’t feel fully “present” even when I am at home now and the work never stops. The thought of having upwards of half (and potentially eventually more) of the month off (even if not weekends and holidays initially) sounds absolutely better, and the days spent flying may be long and isolated but are relatively concentrated and when it’s over it’s over.
For my personality, I also find that separation not a bad thing, both for myself but also to make me appreciate my family more when I can be with them 100%. While normally cited as a negative for the job, in contrast to my current situation and given my personality, this actually seems like a positive for me. I’d be curious if others relate (or if I seem to be naive and misguided)!

I do recognize that being a 777 captain is not likely at this point. I also know financially my contemplated move makes very little rational sense. These are things that I have to weigh. To understand the bidding process a little better, if one worked up to 737 captain but still wanted to fly a larger plane but seniority wouldn’t hold captain on a larger plane, could/would one bid for a FO seat on a larger plane after being captain on a smaller plane or is that not done?

Anyway, thanks again!

Robert,

Chris answered your questions directly so I won’t bother you with repetition. I too cannot stress the need for you to take an intro flight (if you haven’t already). Boggles my mind how many people entertain this MAJOR career change without trying it out first. All that aside I do have to ask you one question? While I understand better than most the desire for job and personal satisfaction over cash (I gave up a successful restaurant to fly), you do mention “rarely seeing your wife and kids” being a problem. While eventually you’ll build the seniority to manipulate your schedule that’s going to take a while. Your early years at a Regional, then again when you upgrade, then again when you move to a Major, then again when you upgrade at that Major can continually put you in that junior lousy schedule scenario which more times than not means days away from home.

Not trying to be negative just something to think about.

Adam

Thanks @Adam, I appreciate what you’re saying. I expressed my thoughts on this in my response to Chris, and would be curious about your thoughts as well. I realize that the schedule can be pretty lousy (probably worse at times than I realize, especially if commuting).

Sorry, that must’ve posted just as I posted mine. Listen, everybody need to do what’s best for themselves and their lives. I’m not here to debate or shoot holes but honestly it sounds like you are doing some rationalizing (which again is fine, your life). Again in your first post you speak of time away being a problem. As a newhire you’ll have 12 days off a month (better than the standard (8ish of the 9-5 world) but you will be away. There are also delays and reassignments and yes if you’re commuting those 12 days can easily turn to 6.

Absence does make the heart grow fonder and yes when you’re off you’re off. I’ve also been able to build some incredible memories with my children and have given (at least 2 of the 3) a sense of wanderlust. That all said I missed more than my share of little league games, dances and birthdays and those are things you never get back. While I told myself my decision to fly was best for all, in all honesty it was for me and me alone. It hasn’t been bad, my relationships are strong but I’d be lying if I said I had no regrets when it comes to my small children who no longer are. I missed ALOT.
Again, something to think about.

Adam

Robert,

Good points and good question.

Yes, you could absolutely use your seniority to bid FO on a larger airplane instead of Captain. In fact, this is done rather frequently by pilots that want to fly internationally.

Chris

Thank you both again for your responses.

@Adam I appreciate your candor and the reason I posted at all is to get another perspective to make sure I’m thoughtful and honest with myself through this process. There may indeed be some rationalization baked onto my thinking and I need to be aware of that if there is.

I spoke in my post of time being away from family currrently as a problem. I would love enough passive income to be able to spend every day at home with my family (In theory–as I mentioned, I think some degree of separation or “alone time” is beneficial and healthy), but being realistic I can’t do that. I don’t have anything close to a 9-5 job now, so the relative draws of a pilot schedule are appealing for these reasons, despite the risk of missing a lot while being away. As you said, I think I need to go in with eyes open to the reality of it and be honest with myself. I’m still working through that, and I appreciate your help. I also appreciate you sharing your personal experiences with your family. Doing it for yourself vs. for the family’s benefit (to the extent those things don’t overlap) isn’t something to be taken lightly.

@robert.stratford, I thought I would share my experience with you since I was in exactly your position not long ago. I’m a 2012 law school graduate and a recovering corporate lawyer from a Vault 10 firm. I started ATP in April at 33 years old with a wife and a baby (and another somewhere on the horizon), so I’m very familiar with the mental gymnastics you are contemplating with this career change. I earned my private pilot’s license and instrument rating in my early 20s and then went to law school because it was a safer bet than becoming a fighter pilot. Fast forward a decade and I was a miserable burnt-out lawyer being crushed by the client-service demands of the profession. Especially given the current hiring trends, flying airplanes for a living didn’t seem so crazy anymore.

As was the case for me, I’m sure the financial implications of this move are something you are seriously evaluating, especially given the drastic pay cut (especially over the short term) that is involved. In my situation, there was frankly no way I could support my family on a flight instructor or regional first officer’s salary alone, so before starting ATP, I wanted to have enough in savings to cover the deficit between my projected flying salary and my monthly expenses from the time I started ATP until the time I make captain at a regional (I used 60 months as my estimate). So for that reason, even though I decided to change careers in late 2015, I didn’t start ATP until this past April as that’s how long it took me to hit my savings target (plus a little extra). During that period, I got all of the FAA written exams out of the way (the results are valid for 2 years). Also, don’t discount the future earning potential of your law license–my plan is to start practicing law again part-time once I build some seniority at the airlines. Starting a solo practice is an option, and there are also various agencies out there that hire lawyers (even transactional lawyers) on a project-specific basis. Lots of pro pilots have second careers that are completely independent from their aviation lives, so this isn’t a novel idea.

Since I’m getting started a little later than most, I also realize that being a 777 captain probably isn’t in the cards for me, and I am totally okay with that. My thinking is that by the time I’m in the later stages of my career, the novelty of flying a jet may have subsided somewhat, and I’ll be more than happy to be an FO with relatively high seniority (and consequently, high quality of life). Putting aside exorbitant lawyer salaries, the pay at that level of the profession is still excellent.

There are obviously other factors to consider besides money. In addition to this site, online forums like those on jetcareers and airline pilot central can be a great resource to learn about them.

To echo what the mentors have said, the first thing you should do is take a discovery flight at ATP. If that goes well, then I’d suggest linking up with an instructor at a local flight school and asking him/her to take you on a cross-country flight or two so you can really get a taste for what being a pilot entails. Due to its brevity, a discovery flight is pretty superficial and really only answers the question of whether you like being in a small plane.

Happy to speak to you if you have any other questions about how I got to this point on my journey.

-Kevin

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@Fly4Lyfe
Kevin, thanks for sharing your experience–it really is remarkably similar. You came to your senses/went crazy a little earlier than I have, so you can act as my guinea pig now :wink: I started law school a little later than normal and had 2 kids by the time I graduated (3 now, but no more on the horizon), so I definitely am weighing the financial implications. I’ve taken the same approach you have in wanting to save enough in the next 1-2 years before starting to get us through the lean times. It certainly would be asking a lot of my wife/family–especially since I’m only now feeling like we’re finally in a position where we’ve arrived and can be comfortable, only to start again from scratch in a sense. How has your family handled your transition, if you don’t mind me asking?

I hope your 60-month estimate to RJ captain works out–do you know at this point who you would be aiming to work for?

Congratulations on starting ATP and I wish you best of luck through the program and your continued journey.

My wife has been suppprtive of it, but it honestly took (what felt like) days of talking with her about it and socializing her to the new lifestyle. The fact that I’ll be gone on holidays and will miss important events is still something she struggles with. On the flip side, she also witnessed how much my legal job could consume my life and how even when I was home, I could never really get away from work. So she understands the trade off that we’ll get from a flying career–even though I may be gone half the month, when I’m home, I can be 100% present. Not to mention I’ll be a much happier person than if I had stayed in my legal career.

Financially, it was important to me that making this switch wouldn’t impact my family (at least in the short term). So that meant using bonus cash to pay atp’s tuition (I.e, no loan) and having enough stocked in savings to cover my portion of the family bills during the lean times.

Skywest is the regional I’m hoping for (though I’ll go wherever I get hired). I’m on the west coast, and they have a bunch of west coast bases, and on top of that, I really like the company. If for some reason the music stops and the majors stop hiring, I can make a nice career there.

Thanks again for sharing your experience, Kevin. I can’t help but feel that on balance the work/life balance at an airline (even at it’s worst) is a better situation overall (for the factors we’ve discussed) than biglaw. Obviously there are less drastic life changes to address that, like going in-house, but as I’ve started to think about a change from what I’m currently doing and the possibilities outside of law I realize I don’t want to be constrained by my path thus far if it’s not something I’m excited enough about to be happy long term. It’s certainly not something to be taken lightly though. I’m trying to think through the logistics of housing / moving around during the initial stages of flight training/instructing/regional domiciles, etc. with a family of five in a way that is cost effective and not detrimental to the family.

Hi Robert. I too was in a similar position to you where I was looking for a career change to meet my personal dreams/objectives vs a family lifestyle. I am currently a Student at ATP and I pondered long and hard at making this decision. I am in my third career, from the army to a high level role in college education. I am 44 and have reserved to the probability that I will not make captain at the majors due to the time/seniority aspect, but it’s still possible. Once I made the decision, I have found that I am studying with everyone younger than myself and it’s regenerating. I feel more alive now than ever, I am happier than ever and it makes such a positive impact on my family. I echo all the comments about taking intro flights and talking to the instructors at the center you desire as you can get a better idea on flexibility, my instructor flys weekends so I should be ahead of schedule, and it really gave me a real perspective on what my future career will feel like. I went to five schools in my area to explore and sat with two captains to get their honest input. This is not for everyone, is a major investment and comes with as many pitfalls as other career pathways, but I know what I am facing and open to change. Don’t get caught up with ideals and stories about the dream, face the reality that it’s hard work, dedication and many sacrifices on the way.

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Thank you Rick, very well said.

With that attitude you’ll be fine.

Adam

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@Fly4Lyfe
Kevin, I was revisiting old threads and came across this one with my first post and your (and the mentors’) helpful responses. Given the similarity of my situation to your experience, I thought I’d check in to see how thing are going with you in the program. I recall you started in April of last year?

@robert.stratford

Hey Robert, you are correct, I started at the end of April '17 and finished the program mid-September '17. I started working as a CFI for ATP at the beginning of October '17 at one of the southern California locations and am still here plugging away to 1500. It has been a great ride so far, and I don’t have any regrets about leaving my old gig. I had a good experience as a student in the program (it worked exactly as advertised for me), and I am currently averaging about 80 hours a month as an instructor. If I keep going at this pace, I should be at the airlines by the beginning of 2019.

I’m happy to answer any specific questions you have. But generally, my experience with ATP has been positive.

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Thanks for the update, and sounds like you’re progressing well. Good luck!

Hey Kevin -

Curious which ATP location you are currently at in Southern California? I am looking at Carlsbad and am curious about any details about that particular location - i.e. which planes are there and availability of CFI jobs after training is complete. Thanks!

Hey @Edittmann, I’m not at Carlsbad, but all training centers in Southern California use the Cessna 172 for single engine training and piper seminoles for multi (and airplanes rotate among the various locations). The Cessnas are generally all fuel injected R models or S models (the R models generally all have a special engine modification to increase the engine’s horsepower to 180hp), although you do occasionally see a carbureted M model. All of the Seminoles are 2000 models or newer. All of the airplanes have six-pack style instruments (i.e., no glass cockpits), which is the setup I actually prefer for my students to learn. Cessna’s have a single Garmin 430 (with WAAS), while the Seminoles have dual Garmin 430s (no WAAS). At a minimum, all airplanes have a TIS-B traffic display while a handful of aircraft have an ADS-B transponder (the Lynx NGT-9000) that obviously gives you ADS-B traffic and weather.

As for availability of CFI jobs, @Chris recently posted on this forum that new instructors can now choose whatever location they want. It’s a change from the old policy where ATP would give you a list of available locations that you had to choose from.

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@robert.stratford, no problem. Are you getting any closer to pulling the trigger?