Real Answers from Real Pilots

Questions on Path from ATP to Regional Pilot to Captain at Major Airline

Hello so I’m rather new to the flight world and have been doing a great deal of research but I’m struggling to fill in several blanks that I’m hoping I can get some assistance with.

To start with a bit of background, I’ve completed 60 hours of undergraduate coursework but had some issues completing my degree due to making mistakes and failing to commit yet I’ve corrected my previous mindset and won’t be making the same mistake again (I don’t have the money to make anymore mistakes anyway). At this point I was intending to enter ATP’s flight school, cosigning with my parents to pay the cost because I don’t have cash to pay out of pocket and want to begin my career as quickly as possible (please give input on pros/cons of this plan).

Now, as I understand it, I can complete the Fast Track Program in 9 months, at which point I can, and most tend to, become a Flight Instructor with ATP and accrue flight hours throughout that period of time. My questions here are how much flight time can I reasonably expect to gain each month with ground school in the mix and will I have to pay for fuel? Will these hours be limited by the number of students available or are there typically a surplus available simply depending on the work I’m willing to put in?

Also in regards to my time as a CFI are my financial questions namely: How do quarterly 1099 taxes work (or should I be speaking with a tax advisor on this)? What other fees and expenses outside of regular living expenses can I expect to incur as a CFI in regards to certificate management and health certificates and how much can this cost annually? Lastly, after flight school I’ll have ~150k in debt… (yes, I know) so is the worst case pay as a CFI (Maybe ~20k?) and eventually a Regional First Officer (Around ~24k on low end?) possible to manage loans of that volume or will I have to supplement with some other method of income or find a way to lower payments for the first 5-10 years?

Finally, in regard to pursuing a career as a pilot for a major airline, what is the process truly like for someone going from a ATP to a regional airline with aspirations of reaching Captain at a major airline because some people scoffed that that transition was even a possibility, much less a likelihood which had me confused on if I’m missing something? I’ll be completing my bachelors during my time as a regional pilot (already completed 60 hours and told I can transfer up to 35 from completion of flight school) so there shouldn’t be anything else holding me back outside of experience, correct?

Thank you so much for any information you can provide. I know my questions are numerous and a bit scattered but if you can answer even a portion of one I’d greatly appreciate it. If you could simply point me in the direction of a good place to research that would even be enough as I’m certainly not opposed to research, just need a bit of guidance if possible. Thanks again!

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Hi Blair,

It’s good you’ve done some homework and I think you have a solid idea of how this works but there are some misconceptions or mistakes in there we need to remedy (or at least clarify) so let’s go:

As a CFI for ATP, despite working as an “Independent Contractor” ATP takes care of everything else (fuel, aircraft maintenance, Training materials etc). The only thing you’re responsible for is maintaining your FAA Medical and of course living expenses. That can range from $100 to $200 a year depending on your area. Of course the time you build is based on available students (you can’t very well build time instructing if there’s no one to instruct). ATP however does an excellent job of spreading the wealth which is one of the main reasons you may or may not get the location you wish to instruct at. ATP “levels” the number of instructors at each location based on the number of students. The average ATP instructor flies approx. 70hrs a month. You’ll complete the program with about 225, you need 1500 to get hired at a Regional leaving a balance of about 1300. 1300/70 = 18 mos which is approx. how long it will take to get hired. Many instructors chose to also fly on weekends which can shorten that time.

Any tax questions should be taken to your accountant. We’re pilots not CPAs :slight_smile:

As for managing your debt your numbers are off considerably. Most ATP instructors make in the mid $20 but since ATP has agreements with many Regionals that offer Tuition Reimbursement, at 500hrs instructing you can begin to receive an extra $500 month in reimbursement to help. Also starting pay at most Regionals is approx. $38k (double what it was when I started). Well they’re not living the high life, most pilots find it doable. That said most ATP grads don’t have $150k in debt and since you’re planning on earning your degree while flying I really don’t see how you could be a Regional pilot, a college student AND have some other job. BUT where there’s a will there’s a way and perhaps you could defer some of your loans until you’re in a better position financially.

Not sure who “scoffed” at your transitioning from Regional to a Major but where do they think MOST Major airline pilots come from? It’s true DECADES ago most pilots came from the military but that number has dwindled and the vast majority do in fact begin their careers at the Regionals. It’s really not a difficult process. Fly for a Regional, upgrade to Capt build time and relationships and apply. Most people are able to make the transition without much issue. Those that have problems usually have some background issues (DUI, DWI, criminal record, failed checkrides) or simply have bad attitudes and have gotten themselves a bad name in a very small industry. If your record is clean and you’re not a jerk you should be fine.

Adam

Hello Adam, thank you so much for your thorough reply. Your answers have really been a weight off my shoulder as I’ve become nervous more and more at the varied answers I’ve seen, especially about the low wages at Regional. I do intend to defer for some time or at least apply for income based payments to lower the amounts but being rather new to being financially independent in many ways I’ve worried about some of my figures so I’ll definitely speak to a professional on that.

Would you also happen to know how much it would cost to fly on weekends to speed up my hours? Is it just the standard rental rates I’m seeing online or does ATP allow for discounted renting of some sort? And my final question is if you know a timeline on average experience to pay throughout the transition? What I’ve seen leads me to think it goes a bit like this:
1 - ATP student $0
2 - ATP CFI $24-$26k
3 - Regional year 0-2 $35-$40k (averaging your $38k avg)
4 - Regional Year 2-5 $45k (assumption, haven’t seen a good answer)
5 - Major Airline Year 0-3 Unknown (Seeing hourly rates of 70-122 but can’t seem to tell the actual hours and yearly income pull)
6 - Major airline Year 3-5 $120k
7 - Major airline 5+ Years $135k+^

Thanks again so much for the help!

Blair,

Flying on weekends is sometimes and option but most students need (like) a couple of days to study and stay ahead. ATP does not rent airplanes and flying on weekends will not speed up the process. The program was 6mos but ATP needed to extend the timeline due to the shortage of examiners. So even if you were to fly more and prepare early you would not be able to advance as you’d still have to wait for a checkride. Some ATP instructors will work weekends to build the time faster.

As for your pay timeline that’s a pretty fair overview. The only problem there is when it comes to the Majors. While the Regionals have all pretty much kept their salaries comparable the Majors range considerably depending on the airline and the equipment you’re flying. That Major 3-5 could be considerably higher. The other thing to keep in mind is while your 2-5 years at a Regional before you go to a Major is possible it’s not guaranteed. I know MANY pilots who’ve been at their Regional for 10-15 yrs or even longer. While not likely it’s definitely a possibility.

Adam

Blair,

Check out this article that I wrote about pilot compensation:

https://www.airlinepilot.life/t/what-do-pilots-really-earn/?source_topic_id=6926