Is Pursuing an Aircraft Pilot Career Still Worthwhile in 2024?

The latest pilot shortage forecast suggests a resounding yes!

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Flight to Recovery: Triumphs and Challenges in 2021’s Aviation Resurgence

The criteria for considering flight training from an investment perspective must hinge upon a positive return on investment within a reasonable time frame as a basic fundamental. That is not to say that learning to fly cannot be pursued for the pure aesthetics of passion, enjoyment, and the thrill of ticking off a bucket list item. On the contrary, these fundamentals are essential on the long flight to acquiring a pilot certificate and help mitigate the risk of an investment going awry.

The fundamental rationale for pursuing aircraft piloting with a commercial focus hinges on core principles of financial investment: evaluating demand trends and weighing the potential salaries of commercial pilots against associated investments.

Navigating the Skies: Is the Demand Trend for Commercial Pilots Sustainable in 2024?

The latest indications suggest that this is indeed the case. (Previous article here). Given the existing global shortage of pilots and projections indicating an increase to 60,000 by 2029, it’s apparent that this trend will endure for the foreseeable future. The readily available reputable sources in the public domain also affirm that the world’s aircraft fleet, passenger numbers, and cargo traffic are experiencing a notable increase. This state of affairs could well continue until 2045. The projections on the global number of commercial flights daily are also increasing, despite the use of larger and longer-range capability aeroplanes by airlines.

The above considerations formed the basis of growth forecasts presented by advocates of this trend. Aircraft manufacturers and training providers align with this perspective.

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The above illustration strongly indicates a consensus for a demand of over 800,000 new commercial pilots by 2040. The ICAO endorses this trend, albeit just below that of Oliver Wyman. Factoring in the unfortunate Global COVID-19 event, the demand for pilots versus the available supply seems to be in balance until 2023. In our previous article, we made it evident, drawing from data sourced from Oliver Wyman. The anticipated pilot shortages from 2023 onwards have indeed occurred.

If not addressed, this shortage is on track to experience a significant increase to 150,000 pilots by 2040 in the Commercial Aviation Sector of Civil Aviation. Hence, the demand for pilots indicates sustainability, at least in the medium term.

The Financial Flightpath: Lucrative Prospects for Commercial Pilots in 2024

The financial remuneration for pilots is a crucial factor in determining if pursuing a career in flying is a sound business decision. To start, a commercial pilot in an airline already occupies the upper echelon of the professional cohort. According to the American  Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers was $197,100 in May 2022. The median annual salary for all occupations stood at $47,610, significantly lower than the earnings of an airline flight deck crew.

The BLS also projects that the employment of airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers will grow 13 per cent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is due to the projected increasing demand for air travel.

A pilot, therefore, attains a position in the top 10% of income bracket worldwide. Moreover, an experienced airline captain may enjoy an average annual income surpassing USD 350,000, along with various perks. An airline captain, on the other hand, is in the top 5% of earnings as a result.

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Charting Your Course: Embarking on the Journey to Becoming an “Airline Ready” Pilot

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The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) establishes the minimum guidelines for all contracting states (which include nearly all countries worldwide) regarding the training and flight experiences necessary to be deemed ‘airline ready.’ These guidelines outline the fundamental elements required to attain the necessary level of competence.

Based on these minimum requirements, the average cost of pilot training is approximately USD 113,000. This investment covers the essential prerequisites for achieving the status of a commercial pilot, including the ‘frozen’ state certification as an Airline Transport Pilot (ATPL). The ATPL certification becomes active after accumulating 1,500 flight hours in an aircraft suitably equipped for such qualifications.

For those who have undergone an airline-sponsored programme or have been fortunate enough to secure employment with an airline immediately after completing the curriculum, the transition is typically smooth. Nevertheless, mentors often encourage self-sponsored fresh CPL graduates to proactively refine their flying skills and accrue additional experience, thereby bolstering their prospects of securing direct hire opportunities in the future.

Hence, aspiring pilots often seek to accumulate 500 flight hours, a standard believed to be attractive for direct hire by most airlines. Many aspiring commercial airline pilots opt to join a General Aviation outfit as a pathway towards achieving this goal. In addition to gaining invaluable experiences and honing their skills, aspirants also secure a sustainable quality of life through employment in this sector.

Alternatively, individuals who may not need an income and possess sufficient funds can amass these hours by renting General Aviation aircraft for private flights, ultimately achieving at least 300 flying hours, in addition to the basic CPL flight hours they already hold. At current rates, this approach may incur an expenditure of approximately USD 63,000 in the US.

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Moreover, obtaining certification for an airliner-type aircraft, which encompasses flight simulator endorsement, significantly heightens the likelihood of securing direct hire by an airline. For instance, enrolling in an A320 aircraft-type course and obtaining the associated certification might entail an extra cost of around USD 10,500 in the US.

In the worst-case scenario where total expenses can reach approximately USD 188,000 (without the cost of borrowings/loans), the pivotal question arises: does the return on investment for becoming a commercial pilot justify the initial outlay?

Plotting Progress: The Trajectory of a Newly Minted Commercial Pilot’s Career

It is crucial to understand how a freshly qualified CPL pilot will progress moving forward. The average annual salary progression (in the USA) for each level shown below increases at different rates over time.

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The illustrated income progression above offers a reliable roadmap to embarking on a career as a pilot with major airlines, especially in nations boasting a thriving General Aviation sector. Getting involved in General Aviation endeavours empowers freshly certified Commercial Pilot License (CPL) holders to not only pursue their passion but also financially support their training en route to a co-pilot of an airline.

This scenario isn’t confined to the US alone. Pilots in countries with a well-established General Aviation framework share this reality. It’s more than just a career path; it’s an odyssey towards fulfilling a lifelong dream. General Aviation becomes a launchpad where aspirations take flight, and earnings become a tangible outcome.

Reaching for the Skies: How Long Does it Take to Break Even in a Pilot Career?

The break-even point is between 3 to 5 years, as evidenced by the insightful data and reasoning outlined in the chart above. In this financial journey, aspiring pilots should factor in additional expenses that don’t directly tie to the core training costs.The costs encompasses aspects like living expenses and other miscellaneous outlays. These supplementary costs, when factored in, will naturally elevate the expense curve on the chart, consequently leading to a proportionate extension of the break-even point.

For any aspiring pilot, it would be a wise move to carefully plan out these expenses, especially when undergoing training in foreign territories.. This thoughtful approach aids in precisely quantifying these additional outlays and subsequently gauging the corresponding payback period. It’s an exercise in financial prudence that aligns perfectly with the strategic mindset of a budding aviator.

Exploring Viable Paths: Is Learning to Fly Still a Worthy Investment in 2024?

Yes, it is!

Embracing the unconventional route to becoming a commercial airline pilot is a testament to your unwavering determination. Picture this: You, in the cockpit, navigating the skies, your career ascending just like those planes you’ll command. In those inaugural years, you’ll soar through General Aviation missions, setting the stage for your remarkable odyssey. And while this tale unfolds against the backdrop of the US, it resonates universally for any enthusiast in a realm blessed with a thriving General Aviation community.

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Equally significant is the alternative path to accumulating valuable flight experiences. Many pilots opt for sport and recreational flying, which proves to be more cost-effective. These experiences not only sharpen your skills but also contribute significantly towards amassing the essential 500 flight hours.

Stepping into 2024, let’s be unequivocal – taking flight this year appears undeniably worthwhile. This perspective holds over the long haul, validated time and again. The skies beckon, and you stand poised to answer. Let this be the year your aspirations take flight.

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How do you envision igniting your passionate affair with aviation as a pilot?

We welcome your valuable comments, perspectives, and discussions. Feel free to reach out to us at info@esbaviation.com.

Mohd Raffick Bin Mohd Nor

An extremely passionate veteran aviator and Aircraft Engineer. He has been involved with youth development in aviation for more than 50 years. Currently the principal contributor and founder of the The Budding Aviator’s Hub

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