Three Options for Time-Building for the Airlines

By Kathryn Creedy


There has never been a better time to become an airline pilot. The industry is facing a critical pilot shortage, pay scales are better than ever, and the return on investment in an airline career is better than the investment required for many less satisfying careers!

Indeed, tapping into the career pilot market is a great way for flight schools to build student rosters.

But recruiting career-minded students requires flight school advisers to have a good answer to a tough question that students often ask:

“How will I log 1500 hours so I can work as an airline pilot?”

The Time-Building Conundrum – The Facts

Many student pilots, and would-be student pilots, were discouraged when the FAA announced a rule in 2013 that required first officers of U.S. passenger and cargo airplanes to hold an ATP certificate.

The rule requires first officers — also known as co-pilots — to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, requiring 1,500 hours total time as a pilot. Previously, first officers were required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 hours of flight time. (see FAA Press Release)

Prior to that rule, the career path was fairly simple – earn your private, instrument, multi-engine and commercial ratings, and then go to work almost immediately in the “right seat” of an airliner as a copilot.

Since that rule, many regional airlines are struggling to find qualified pilots who meet the requirements, and many would-be first officers found themselves in the “time building conundrum.”

Flight students fear that they will rack up debt acquiring their flight training, and then be unable to find work as a low-time pilot, and therefore not meet the eligibility requirements for the job they trained for – that of being an airline captain. Or, (horrors!) actually have to PAY for the privilege of renting an aircraft on their own time to log the required hours.

Many flight schools find themselves in the position of having to explain the circumstances, and options, to students.

The Time Building Opportunity – Three Excellent Options

There are three excellent options, (or, for simplicity, groups of options) that your students can exercise to acquire the coveted 1500 hours. And none of these options require reaching into the student’s own wallet to rent an airplane!

The opportunities have all been touched by the current economy, demographics, and regulations, and in ways that favor your students! In this article, we highlight three industries that hire low-time pilots: Part 135 and Cargo Carriers, Foreign Carriers, and Flight Instruction.

Option One – Part 135 and Cargo Carriers

One of the best methods for building time is to work for members of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers. The benefit of a Part 135 cargo operation is it provides candidates with the airline experience that is in such demand. Pilots fly to a schedule and in busy, hub-oriented airspace. Equally important is gaining experience in all weather conditions. The benefit to this is candidates are building time being paid as a professional pilot.

Many of these operations intentionally use “single pilot” aircraft, such as the Embraer Brasilia or the Short Brothers PLC (usually just called “the Shorts”) that do not (by FAA regulation) require a copilot. To work in these types of operations, all that is required is a commercial multi-engine rating.

In addition, some airlines, such as Cape Air, hire co-pilots for their Part 135 operations that do not otherwise require a copilot. Despite the added expense, the airline wants to help career candidates build time while being paid and then upgrade them through its ranks. Its flow-through program then passes them on to JetBlue when they are ready.

Corporate flight departments most often require an ATP rating to meet corporate insurance requirements; but things may be changing especially with the incentives offered by regional and major airlines, according to Corporate Pilots Association Board Member Brian Lee who indicated hour/experience qualification guidelines are somewhat looser than in past years.

“Some companies are allowing pilots to have only a commercial license,” he said. “For aircraft requiring two pilots a first officer only needs a commercial multi-engine rating. One of the benefits of corporate/charter flying is you get to know clients on a much closer basis than say, the airlines.”

Option Two – Foreign Airlines

Foreign airlines are subject to EASA or their own country’s requirements, which are more usually more lenient than the new FAA requirements. Many of these carriers, particularly in high-growth areas of Asia or the Middle East, often seek pilots with less than 300 hours. Many recently licensed pilots earn $6,000 a month or more, (tax free) flying in the right seat of an airliner for a foreign carrier. Many pilots upgrade at these foreign carriers upgrade to the left seat within a year or two, or begin applying to U.S. carriers as soon as they have logged the required 1500 hours.

“Aspiring pilots with a sense of adventure and a willingness to travel have a lot more opportunities, especially at the beginning of their career.” said Captain David Santo, Airline Pilot Gateway mentor. “Many foreign carriers are offering really attractive salaries while their First Officers are building time and a great résumé. Many first officer career opportunities are listed by country on this page of the Airline Pilot Gateway website.

Worldwide total demand for new pilots is estimated at 617,000! (See 2016 Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook)

Option Three – Flight Instruction

“Virtually nobody buys that time,” said Airline Pilot Consultant Kit Darby. “They typically work as a flight instructor, traffic reporter, crop dusting, fire spotting, fish spotting or towing banners.”

Flight instruction has a bad rap as a low-pay profession, but that is changing as well, as a result of the pilot shortage. Pay, schedule and other working conditions are improving, as it becomes a “seller’s market” for flight instructors as well as professional pilots. Aviation Academy of America pays flight instructors $40,000+ annually.

Since all of these professions “pull” from the same group of people, the same competitive forces are at work.

Conundrum Conquered!

You can assure your anxious students – because of the demographics and timing of pilot jobs around the world, they are in a good place at a great time. Their biggest problem is most likely to be that of choosing the best of several attractive options!


Download our guide to learn how your flight school can attract students without a big budget.

  • BIll Donaldson
    Posted at 11:30h, 08 November Reply

    This new 1,500 requirement is hurting the industry. It’s also difficult to retain instructors once they get there!!

    • Paula Williams
      Posted at 10:42h, 17 November Reply

      Agree, Donald = but there’s no sign that it’s going away any time soon. . . .

      • Paula Williams
        Posted at 10:43h, 17 November Reply

        Sorry, Bill! (Not Donald!) Need more coffee. (!)

  • Clarence G. Clayton, Iii
    Posted at 05:33h, 03 December Reply

    Thank you for this post. Kit Darby is a very well-respected voice in the realm of pilots seeking admission into being a career pilot. I have heard him speak to large crowds at the EAA Oshkosh Fly-in numerous times.. He, his wife and son have been or currently are airline pilots. I believe he has a website that goes by his name as well.

  • Mike Busalacchi
    Posted at 20:49h, 27 October Reply

    I am 57, retired and am instrument rated, I own and fly my A36 TC, I am not looking for a job but have heard that airline companies are looking for right seat safety pilots.

    I love to fly and love to learn and have plenty of free time, moving up in ratings would be fun.

    Any suggestions?

    • Sam Howard
      Posted at 15:41h, 31 January Reply

      I am 55, I do not own an aeroplane .

      I am not looking for a job but have heard that airline companies are looking for right seat safety pilots.
      I love to fly and love to learn and have plenty of free time, moving up in ratings would be fun.

      Pl let me know what suggestions have you received.

  • Carlos Romero
    Posted at 19:55h, 05 December Reply

    Is 28 too late to change careers?

    • D Robert
      Posted at 06:52h, 10 January Reply

      Carlos, I’m 43 and I’ve had three successful careers already, all paying more than $100k a year. Art dealer, import/export guru, and RN. I’m going back now to finally get my pilot ratings. If you want to be a pilot, DO IT! 28 is young.

      • Joe B
        Posted at 20:28h, 04 March Reply

        very inspiring. thank you.

    • Nicholas Hardy
      Posted at 14:21h, 21 August Reply

      NO….its not. I just turned 30 but I started in aviation at 10 years old. It took me over 2 decades to become a commercial pilot. However, 28 is not old by any means. Just make sure this is what you want to do before you make this move. It takes alot of sacrifice and dedication to become a professional airline pilot/airmen.

  • Jerome salmon
    Posted at 08:22h, 12 December Reply

    I just got my CPL and looking for my 1st job as a pilot. Anyone looking for someone who is hard working and have the pride and desire to fly?

  • J Allen B
    Posted at 16:25h, 22 April Reply

    I have a soon to be 57 year old friend, with 300 total hours (200 multi). He has no responsibility, except a dog! He’s always dreamed of being a Pilot, is it too late? What options does he have?


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