Why I Left an Airline Pilot Career Worth $8.2 Million
Updated: Apr 5, 2022
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Once someone finds out that I’m a pilot who left the airlines, the most common question I get is this: “Why did you leave?” I’ve thought of why this question exists, culturally. There are three good reasons we can consider, based on my discussions: 1. Pilots are highly compensated. 2. It’s an adventurous and exciting job. 3. You get to travel the world as part of your job. There is something deep inside many dreamers that wants to explore the world at the command of a ship. After all, this has been a part of humanity since long before adventurous types from Christopher Columbus to Neil Armstrong charted new courses to unknown worlds. Early in my childhood, I remember reading a biography of Chuck Yeager, the famous pilot who first broke the sound barrier, and as a result I was hooked on any flight game as a kid. Like many kids, it was more of a fascination than anything else. However, when I chose a university, a professional flight degree promised a lifetime of adventure and excitement, and I took the plunge and signed up. I’d like to respond to each one of the assumptions most people make about this industry.
1. Pilots are highly compensated
At the time I applied for college, I hadn’t considered the consequences of tuition and flight training loans, or even the ability of the job to pay them back. What I really needed was for somebody to break this down for me, but I didn’t know of any resources and the university itself was out to make as many recruits and student loans as necessary to meet their financial goals, not mine. This was a hard lesson. A student loan is debt on a parasitic level. It’s as easy to sign a contract with a so-called “Financial Aid Counselor”, send tens of thousands of dollars to a university and become a slave to The Collector for 20 years, as it is to sign a receipt for a two-dollar coffee. I didn’t comparison shop or talk to actual pilots to find out what they recommended and if I had, two key pieces of advice would have been discovered. First, a professional flight degree is useless in the real world. Therefore, if you lose your flight medical certificate, which can happen, a backup plan with a useful degree is essential. Second, universities are often the most expensive form of flight training, but to a potential employer, flight hours are flight hours. I could have gotten a useful real world degree (similar to my master’s in finance) with an in-state subsidized university and worked on flight training locally for a quarter of the total cost. In the real world, having a prestigious university on your resume means that you can negotiate a higher-paying job. However, in a trade job such as flying, a university is a checkbox which must be checked, nothing more. This research-type mindset is exactly what I should have used before I made 20-year debt commitments. This is a common, but recurring place I’ve arrived in life. Anyone will offer to say “we’ll take care of the details” to make it seem simpler for you, but your life is anything but simple after you’ve committed to a $400 monthly payment for 20 years with your cheerful Financial Aid Counselor. Multiply that out and it’s $96,000 of gut-wrenching, life-goal altering debt slavery during the time you should be saving the most to sow the seeds of financial freedom. It’s the difference between buying a house you like, and one you don’t. It’s the difference between traveling to those countries you’ve dreamed of visiting. It’s the difference between having one more child. It’s appropriately morbid that the only way out of student loans is death or dismemberment, because that’s how they made me feel. The only way to get the truth is to read the fine print, get out your calculator, pester the admissions salesperson to root out the hidden costs and fees and find out what a fair market price is for this thing. How do you keep this from happening? Golden Rule #2: If you don’t understand it, don’t sign it. Universities have the advantage of making their sales material all about you. In reality, it’s all about them. Here’s another bad idea. My application for all of this debt was based on my parents’ income, not my own. Not even my projected income. If your parents are well off, expect that you’ll shoulder the entire burden of their loans unless they pay for you. It’s like applying for a mortgage based on your parents while you’re in college, except there is no roof over your head in return. Meanwhile, my university continued on happily, proudly proclaiming that it is debt free. The irony here is that I paid huge sums to put a roof over everyone else’s head but our own.
Next, we need to actually figure out if this career will pay itself back. Let’s take a look at the financial difference between Path 1: Expensive Private University, and Path 2: Insider Recommendations. I’m assuming that we’re enrolling today, so the cost of all the flight training (zero to hero) at the Expensive Private University is $60,000 and tuition for 4 years adds another $140,000, for a whopping grand total of $200,000. Still want to be an airline pilot? Using the insider recommendations, the total ends up being $30,000 for flight training using a freelance flight instructor and cheap rentals, and $40,000 for tuition (remember, a real world degree – don’t ever get a flight degree), for a grand total of $70,000. That’s roughly a third of the cost of going the expensive route. There’s also the military option, but has the tradeoff of signing away your life for a number of years and the uncertainty of getting an actual flight slot, because you may end up in a non-pilot or drone position. For the grand overview, I’ll use my career and substitute my college friend’s earnings for the point where I left the industry at Year 9. He and I had careers running in lockstep with each other up until that point. Airline pilot salaries are easy to estimate in the future because they are publicly available in their union contracts.
As you can see, the occupation pays out very well eventually, but it starts out below poverty level even as a university flight instructor, a job where it was impossible to pay off student loans while working for the very school that created your student loans in the first place. I was unable to pay any student loans until Year 4 of my career, when I finally made more than $20,000 per year. I started at the very bottom of the seniority list with a miserable schedule as a regional airline first officer. I was fortunate to upgrade to captain, roughly halfway up the list, in only two years, while some people took seven or more, causing my friends much grief as they tried to pay loans while earning $40K per year. The first peak on the chart is making regional airline captain at age 27, early by most accounts. But now I was back at the bottom of the captain seniority list with a miserable schedule again. I didn’t emerge from this seniority rut until I left the industry. Then you march along at regional captain pay until getting on with a new job – a major airline at the second big bump on the chart near the age of 36. You’re back at the bottom of the first officer seniority list with a miserable schedule again. If you’re fortunate, you’ll again only be first officer for three or four years, but it might be ten or more at this mid-career level. Only after making captain do you reach the upper tier of pay sometime in your 40s. Then back at the bottom of the seniority list with a miserable schedule again for the fourth time your career. Even after getting away from flight instructing, the career takes some time to get anywhere close to being able to pay off your loans and support yourself at the same time. I was ten years into the profession, making $71,000 per year, and was only finally making a middle-class wage by the time I left, with much of my income going into the loans rather than savings. However, there is one hugely flawed assumption to this career estimate. We are assuming that everyone who signs up for $200K in loans is a successful major airline pilot. In reality, many aspiring pilots struggle to get started with their first flight job, lose their medical certificate, become disenchanted with the lifestyle, get stuck in lower paying flight jobs, fail out of training, or otherwise don’t make it to the highest-paying echelon. Sometimes pay disruptions are caused by the seniority system. Even if I was over 50 years old and making over $250,000 per year, I’d start over again at the age 34 pay of $74,000 if I changed airlines, because I’d have to start over with a new major airline seniority list. And that’s assuming a major airline position is available. They typically are not during economic downturns, because pilots at the bottom of the seniority lists are furloughed until recall. To find the real-world results from a sample, I chose my freshman flight class. The total for my freshman class is 20 people, including me, with 17 men and 3 women. We graduated from the same college almost 15 years ago. Here’s how many turned out to be a major airline pilot: One. Remember my friend whose career I paralleled? Out of my entire class, he’s the only one who made it that far. Okay, so how many are active professional pilots with flying jobs? Nine out of 20, plus one drone pilot. These vary from charters, to corporate, to regional airlines. Our average earnings for my freshman flight class has now dropped dramatically, because only my major airline pilot friend is making the wages promised to his peers by recruiters 15 years ago as we decided to join the freshman class. Even though this is a limited sample, this is confirmation of what I’ve heard anecdotally from other pilots in the industry. Only the top 5% of people who wanted to be pilots and pay for the training actually end up earning what the college recruiters advertised. Fascinating, because that 5% holds true to any group of people you pick for any profession. In this case the high earners eventually rise to the top and the students who struggle take more training hours and sink into even deeper inescapable flight and tuition debt. Still have money to spend? The university will keep training you because they are in business to make money. For the pilots, the annual pay for my freshman class is somewhere between $40,000 (regional airline first officer) and $110,000 (major airline pilot). Half of my freshman class chose to pursue other careers entirely, due to financial issues, changing goals, health, or personal reasons. Everyone in my list finished the majority of their training and graduated, indicating that they all suffered under a similar student debt load of more than $100K. This means that there are some poor souls out there who are still paying off debt for a profession they left a long time ago. Just over a year ago, I was one of them, paying off student loans for a job I had left 6 years prior, and a university I had left nearly 15 years ago. The only way I escaped the clutches of the student loans is that I sold my house and moved into a one-bedroom apartment until I paid them off. That was less than three years ago. A drastic lifestyle change or sacrifice is the only way out, but once you’re out, you’re free.
2. It’s an adventurous and exciting job
Flying is a job that carries with it a lot of respect and prestige. After going through the grueling training process, I can say that the respect is well earned. Each level of training is a shock that forces you to adapt to a merciless environment, particularly when it comes to memorizing procedures, executing them within a time limit, and exercising good judgment. We had two individuals in our airline training class, out of 18 people, that struggled with the increased difficulties of flying a jet. One of them didn’t make it. The instructor told us that in the previous class, 5 people didn’t make it through training. Imagine paying for the amount of training required and amassing flight hours for nearly six years before being eligible to apply, only to fail out airline training.
Once you’ve survived training on the ground and in the simulator and made it to the actual airplane, then you have more training in the airplane, with a training captain. Much of the time, your sleep schedule is severely disrupted because you often have to wake up at 3 or 4 am to get dressed in your uniform, pack your bag, commute to the airport, and go through security. You get to prepare the aircraft for its next flight within 20 minutes of parking to the gate. Everything from inspecting the plane to checking the weather, the flight plan, the paperwork, or dealing with disruptions like flight plan changes or weight limit issues. If the plane is one minute late, expect to get a call from the Chief Pilot, asking why you can’t get your act together. The company was obsessed with gaming its on-time numbers because it contracted with major airlines who used those performance numbers to award more flying. After getting the plane away from the gate, you have to navigate the airport without making any wrong turns or missed instructions, or else you might get a mark on your record, or lose your license. One of the pilots I flew with told me the story of how he accidentally crossed a runway by going straight instead of turning left (most pilots don’t discuss their mistakes). It became a permanent mark on his FAA records, and while he was able to keep his current job, he was dismayed that he had no chance of applying successfully at any other company because of having “skeletons in the closet.” For every takeoff, be on high alert in the event something unexpected happens. After takeoff and climbout, flying finally goes from being very stressful, to incredibly boring. For the most part, you’re following a preprogrammed flight path using the GPS, unless there are thunderstorms or ice to deal with, which is the wrong kind of excitement. If your flight is more than 3 hours, prepare to test your bladder unless you find a good moment to duck out of the cockpit. A flight attendant has to sit in the cockpit while the remaining pilot awkwardly wears an oxygen mask. You’re also subjected to a high amount of cosmic radiation, eye-damaging UV rays, cabin pressurization, deafening wind noise, and dehydration from zero humidity at altitude. All of this, plus sleep deprivation, takes its toll on you over time. All of this happens in a space the size of a small closet with another person, chosen at random. Sometimes, you’ll fly with fantastically smart and interesting people. Just as often, you’ll fly with people with all the personality of a wet towel, control freaks, or an obnoxious person who eats an oversized canister of slim jims while bragging about his fraternity conquests.
Other than the thick binders you memorize for systems, operations, and regulations, another order emerges which dominates your life: seniority, and a union contract. The absolute opposite of a meritocracy is seniority; therefore, if you unfortunately lie at the bottom of a seniority list as an airline pilot, your schedule is entirely made up as you go by the company. Planning on getting home by 5 pm so you can have dinner with the family? Instead, you’re notified on your last flight to contact crew scheduling, who needs you to fly another round trip that lands at 11:55 pm, or 5 minutes before your day off, which is allowed per your contract. Every six months, you’re thrown into a simulator to face fires, mechanical failure, instrument failure, disastrous weather, or anything else that you’re required to keep memorized. These are pass or fail events and I’ve seen at least one co-pilot during one of these checks nearly fail an event, in his case because he had a baby at home that was keeping him awake at night. Flying is a difficult, stressful job, interspersed with untold lost hours waiting for airplanes, crews, flights, delays, hotel shuttles. There were many days where I arrived back home, only to sleep until noon on my first day off because I was completely exhausted. On my first day off, I rarely wanted to do anything but recover from the exhaustion, but your family and home life is compressed into your days off and everyone wants your time, which might only be one or two days in a week, especially if you’re commuting. This leads me to my final description.
3. You get to travel the world as part of your job
Most people imagine that pilots fly one flight to Miami, where they sun themselves at a resort, drinking Mai Tais and enjoy the nightlife. In reality, we were more likely to get sleep deprived and wake up to no breakfast because your hotel doesn’t have a kitchen, or you’re up before the kitchen even opens. In my case, 8 hours of “rest” was from pulling the parking brake to arriving at the airport the next day, usually resulting in 5.5 hours of actual sleep due to getting in and out of the airport, waiting around for hotel shuttles, transport, plus a speedy night and morning routine. I kept packets of oatmeal in my bag and mixed them in a coffee cup with hot water for the worst overnights, which didn’t have dinner or breakfast. Then you just fasted until you arrived at the airport the next day and had the pleasure of eating airport food. Airport food is better called terminal food, because you might be risking food poisoning due to an ex-felon dropping your food on the floor and then throwing it on a plate, as I witnessed while waiting for carry-out. The hotel quality ranged wildly, often dredging up long overnights in 2-star hotels isolated from civilization with no food but Subway sandwiches at the nearby gas station. When you were lucky enough to stay in a nicer hotel in the hipster cities you actually wanted to explore, you’d find out that you had a sleep-deprived short overnight with no time for anything but salvaging sleep. Sometimes our first flight landed before sunrise, followed by 4.5 hours of layover in airports with no crew lounge. We’d make a bed out of the seats on the airplane and sleep again, unless was boiling hot or freezing cold, because airplanes are frequently at extreme temperatures while passengers aren’t sitting in them.
The reason for all this terrible ‘luck’ with the worst pilots, the worst schedules, and the worst overnights, are all due to the seniority system. Even though I was a Captain for most of my career, I spent more than 5 years of a 6-year airline career as a low-seniority reserve (on-call) pilot, who are assigned the undesirable leftovers of the remainder of the schedule holders on the seniority list for your assigned base. You have no control of your schedule as a bottom feeder. If you’re low-seniority, you’ll probably be sent to the worst base to work from, instead of your preferred home city. Both your days off each week are used for a 2-leg commute from Grand Rapids to your home. The worst bases were those that took an entire day of commuting to get there. This takes you away from home even more. After flying for a while, you realize that nothing matters as much as getting back home. Among all of the pilots you work with, everyone will eat each other alive if it means getting home sooner, including dumping flights on reserve pilots by faking a sick call and bolting for home, or constantly calling crew schedulers to trade the worst schedule to you, or sticking you with notorious “3 am reserve”, which usually resulted in being called at 3 am. There is no honor in a pilot seniority system, only low-seniority abuse by high-seniority pilots. When the base in my home city of Saint Louis was closed and I was sent to Chicago, I was unable to relocate because the housing market was falling into a deep hole and my soon-to-be-ex-fiancée was attending a university there. Not only that, but most of my family lived there and were our support network, as it’s hard to make friends if you’re rarely at home. When I began commuting, I commuted for 4-8 hours while trying to fly using any open seat on an airline that constantly bumped our pilots from flights for their own passengers and pilots. This resulted in frantic mornings running to different terminals, often only to be turned away by a full flight, then constantly worrying about missing the flight you’re responsible to fly yourself, as the hours ticked closer. The commute is far from relaxing as you’re constantly checking the weather, flight delays, scrambling to new gates, and calling automated phone lines to list yourself as a lowly freeloader at the bottom of the airline’s priority list. As a result, I spent less than 10 days per month at home. The effects of constantly living out of a suitcase and living a dreadfully unhealthy lifestyle of stress and uncertainty makes you want to see something familiar and stable that much more. If you’re fortunate to find a significant other who is willing to put up with hardly ever seeing you, your relationship as a result feels like a long-distance one, even when it’s not supposed to be that way. You miss all of your friends’ weddings, all of the birthdays, celebrations, and gatherings. Weekends are like a mirage that you can see, but never can touch. Everyone moves on with their lives because you’re unreliable, and they finally tell you that rather than try to set up a time with you, why don’t you contact them when you’re available, because they tire of trying to get together with a ghost. You see pictures of everyone spending time together on social media and despair. On vacation, I tried to use my travel benefits, but the tickets fall into the same lowly freeloader priorities as commuting pilots, even though now you’re paying a quarter or sometimes half the cost of an actual ticket. I had a cruise planned once from San Juan, Puerto Rico, that made a stop in a different island every night. This seemed like a welcome break. Once we showed up at the airport, even though we connected through Houston and the weather was beautiful in most of the U.S., the weather in the airline’s other main base in Newark was creating massive disruptions and delays, causing re-bookings through all of the other hubs – including Houston. Our dozens of open seats vanished and we waited all day for a flight, only to have to cancel the cruise last minute. I was extremely lucky that Royal Caribbean took pity on us and allowed a refund, when they clearly had the upper hand. Our vacation became a staycation after one frustrating day. I never again depended on airline benefits to travel and bought my tickets instead. If you give buddy passes away, expect your friends to be flustered by the same scenarios. After going through the 3 main reasons, how do you feel about the airline industry? Employers outside the airline industry offer benefits and perks that I’d never have dreamed of after leaving. My life was transformed within the first week of my last flight and I never considered going back, not even for a second. Not after the sheer joy of being at home, of leaving all the stress behind, of recovering from chronic fatigue, and finding a thousand reasons to be happier.
After 6 years and 5000 hours of flight time, I calculated all of my ‘life hours’ that were used up in one of the worst months and estimated that 85% of my life was consumed by the airline lifestyle as time away from home, and only 15% was actually doing things with my own freedom. After speaking with many older pilots about my plan to change careers to finance, nearly all of them counseled me in favor of taking an opportunity for another career, if I could, because they said after 20 years, you’ll be completely numb to the airline lifestyle. When I looked far into my potential future 20 years ahead, what I saw was regret. The problem with many pilot careers is that it demands everything that is precious in time and relationships, and it doesn’t start paying back in seniority until you’re old and unhappy and wish you had your youth back. Everyone in the industry was constantly chasing the dream schedule, and I never found it until I left for a corporate job. I consider myself fortunate that I was flying for a miserable regional airline that drove away its pilots, because it took something drastic to force me to redirect my determination. I knew pilots that had that realization when they started a family and the birth of their first child woke them up to the reality of the life they were living. Even if you work 9-hour days in a corporate job for five days a week, you’re nearly flipping the airline lifestyle around – now you’re spending only 25% of your life away from home and 75% of your time where and how you choose. This could be with your family, spending time with your friends, fitness and sports leagues, community events, enjoying life, sleeping and waking in your own bed, and having the weekends off.
After having undergone the transformation myself, it’s incomparable to the airline lifestyle and much healthier. It took me six months to recover from chronic fatigue and regulate my sleep schedule again, which was a huge relief after massive sleep disruptions over 6 years. I set a New Years’ Resolution soon after leaving the airlines to eat healthier and play sports, and was back to my college fitness level within 3 months, played in recreational leagues like softball and volleyball, took up rock climbing, skied and snowboarded, took on challenges in the corporate world, and every aspect of my life improved. If you’re stuck in an all-consuming job and want to seek happiness and freedom in a new job or even a new industry, my next article (link below) shows you how I changed careers from the airline industry to the corporate world.
If I hadn't changed careers, I'd never have met my wife in England and moved to the UK. Now, not only have I changed careers, but I've changed countries and you read about it here:
Ever Wanted to Live Abroad? Moving to the UK - The Complete Survival Guide
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