- Dennis Tajer, 58, says there aren’t enough pilots being trained because instructors are resigning.
- Airlines are competing for pilots, and United is winning by offering better pay and overtime.
- The cost of cadet programs is also high. This is Tajer’s story, as told to writer Elle Hardy.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Dennis Tajer, a 58-year-old American Airlines pilot and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents American Airlines pilots, from Chicago. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve been flying with American Airlines for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The surreal has become real.
We’ve gone from the problems that hit the airline industry during the pandemic to not enough employees, high demand, and not enough seats for passengers.
The hiring is unlike anything we’ve ever seen at American
They’re trying to hire more than 2,500 pilots next year — 50 per week. That’s more than double what they initially announced in July this year.
Our instructor pilots, called check airmen, are resigning in droves
It’s a coveted position, where you’re selected for talent and high dedication. They’re returning to the line — that’s what we call regular flying — for two reasons: They have a better quality of life flying the line because of the amount they’re forced to work as check airmen, and frankly, they can make a great deal more money through overtime flying the line.
Our instructor pilots are paid dramatically less than others in the industry. Delta and United, for example, give their check airmen a base pay override of about 20%.
There’s competition in the market for experienced pilots
We’re seeing pilots leave for other airlines in the middle of training with American because other airlines are offering better pay. The market for pilots was a buyer’s market during the pandemic. Now, it’s a seller’s market.
American Airlines pilots earn about $23,750 for 85 hours of flight time each month, and they have a maximum of about 30 hours of flight time in a seven-day period. With overtime at 1.5 times, they can earn up to $33,330 per month.
The base pay is comparable to what’s offered at other airlines. But at other airlines, pilots earn overtime at two times their pay and between 14% and 20% of their pay in an annual bonus if the airline makes a profit. At American, our bonus is 5%.
Airlines are panicked by the need for pilots and their plans for the future, which may ultimately support the economic plans for global recovery
In June, American had to cancel hundreds of flights over Father’s Day weekend because it didn’t have enough pilots trained to keep up with demand. The pilots we had available were still in school. At the union, we knew that because they’re our members, but American wasn’t prepared.
That’s a micro-example of what could happen in the industry for those who don’t get the pipeline for hiring pilots figured out. Right now, United is winning because it has a competitive advantage, and Delta is, too, but to a lesser degree.
Not having enough qualified pilots is a problem because it doesn’t allow for scheduling flexibility, meaning American can’t move our schedules to fly when it needs us or for people to take overtime.
When it comes to overtime, all pilots are bound by Federal Aviation Administration requirements for maximum hours — that is, in any consecutive 28-day period, a pilot can’t exceed 290 hours, of which no more than 100 can be flight time. Provided we work within those, we can take overtime. At American, we get time and a half, but other airlines offer double. At the union, we’re hoping to fix that.
The education pipeline is a real problem
Issues with hiring pilots haven’t been properly addressed, not only by the airlines but also by regulators. Everyone is facing the issue of how to get pilots properly experienced and into the cockpit.
Before the pandemic, most airlines established cadet programs. These programs help young people interested in becoming pilots get a bank loan and secure it so they can get into a flight school. United opened its own flight school, while other airlines tend to outsource.
The cost varies, but the cadet program with American is about $90,000. You don’t have to have a college degree to get into the program.
Kudos to American because it’s trying to find people who are capable but never saw themselves as having the option to become an airline pilot. It went to underrepresented groups and is keen to focus on pilots of color, as well as women and people from low socioeconomic areas.
It’s difficult for cadet pilots to get their hours
Going out and getting your hours is stressful because it doesn’t pay much. You might get $30 an hour for your flight instruction. It’s a low-wage job.
To fly for a regional affiliate, which is where you would start, you need 1,500 hours of flight time. Generally, you come out of flight school with 300 hours of flight time — the requirement for a commercial pilot license — but then you have to obtain 1,200 hours out in the open for your Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.
Many of the cadets at American who are trying to gather their flight time can’t afford to sit around a flight school hoping to get a couple hours here and there, so they’ve had to leave aviation because of a mountain of debt.
The pilot-supply pipeline is long. The failure of the industry and our government to bridge that gap between getting your ratings and getting your hours is coming back to bite them. That’s because there’s no place for pilots to go to easily get their hours after flight school. The government views airlines as a utility, but it doesn’t want to step in and help fix the pipeline.
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