How the high-flying job of a pilot lost its glamour
Wages, length of training, cost of school among reasons the profession struggles to attract new recruits
As a child, Troy Stephens was fortunate enough to spend many hours soaring across the Atlantic between Canada and the U.K. to visit family. Those flights piqued his interest in aviation.
"I used to be able to go up to the cockpit and look at what was going on at 30-some thousand feet in the air," said Stephens, who started with Air Georgian 20 years ago as a pilot and joined the airline's executive team last year.
Back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, a pilot carried an aura of prestige with the crisp suit, striped cuffs and brimmed airline hat. Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, captures the position's esteem as he walks down a sidewalk and catches everyone's eye, including kids who beg for an autograph.
At 20, it's not a high-paying job. You have to work your way up.- Terri Super, Super T Aviation
Such respect and admiration for the person in the cockpit chair has since diminished, as have the desire for people to choose a career in aviation.
Stephens wonders if the fact kids these days can no longer have the same experience as he did, at the front of the plane mid-flight, is one reason why more people aren't aspiring to become pilots anymore.
"That's what got me hooked on flying. Now the door is locked," he said, referring to the post-9/11 rules requiring the cockpit door to be shut during flights.
The notion is shared by Bob Connors, who runs one of the largest flight schools in the country. He too recalls rubbing shoulders with pilots during a flight as a kid.
"For safety reasons, that's no longer," said Connors, general manager of Kitchener, Ont-based Wellington Waterloo Flight Centre. "There have not been as many opportunities for kids to experience aviation."
For a profession regarded as near-royalty decades ago, it now battles to find new blood.
"It doesn't seem to be the glamour job it used to be, which is part of the problem," said Terri Super, owner of Super T Aviation, a flight school based in Medicine Hat, Alta.
"A pilot's life is not easy. The scheduling is not easy," said Super, a pilot herself with more than 13,000 flying hours and nearly 40 years of experience.
"You are not home every night. You stay in hotels a lot. But you have to recognize it's a good career. At 20, it's not a high-paying job. You have to work your way up," she said.
Over the years, as pilots publicly complained about those issues — poor pay and long hours — Super says the job's proud reputation fell further.
Some new pilots earn close to minimum wage at their first jobs out of flight schools.
Pilots at Air Canada receive a starting wage of $50,000 and after four years reach $62,000, according to the collective bargaining contract. An Air Canada Boeing 777 captain with 12 years' experience can earn up to about $300,000 a year.
Aviation consultant Mike Doiron talks about the scope of the problem and what we can expect going forward:
For someone without any flying experience, it can take 18 months to obtain a commercial pilot's license and an additional 18 months of either instructing or flying for a regional carrier before working for one of the national carriers.
Flight school isn't cheap either. Obtaining a commercial license can cost between $55,000 and $75,000, while some schools in the United States charge upwards of $125,000. Airlines and aviation schools are increasing the number of scholarships to help alleviate some of the cost.
Several airlines are forming partnerships with flight schools to help find new pilots and recruitment efforts are now targeting high school and middle school students.
"There are a lot of misconceptions out there," said Jeslene Bryant, who works in human resources at Air Georgian. "A lot of people still think you need 10,000 flying hours to get a regional airline job or go fly in the bush for years."
While 9/11 resulted in the locking of cockpit doors during flights, the terror attacks also turned many people away from the profession. Air travel plunged because of passengers' reluctance to fly. Widespread layoffs in the industry convinced many young pilots to abandon the profession.
"Young, sharp men and women who might have aspired to a career in aviation might have went 'Geez, maybe I shouldn't do that right now because I read about layoffs and I read about salaries not being where they could be,'" said Rob Giguere, with Ornge, an Ontario air ambulance organization. He also held several executive positions with Air Canada, including Chief Pilot.
"We're certainly well past those days, there's no shortage of people looking to hire."