Two Pilot Training Paths – Professional Pilots and Pleasure and Business Pilots

In our first century of aviation, many professional pilots got their training at local airports. A few went away to “schools” that offered promise of jobs and career prospects, and during times of war, many were trained in the military, but overall most learned at local airports. I don’t think this will hold true in our second century of aviation. The paths to career and personal flying are diverging, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does have effects.

Pilots are a commodity airlines need to keep their aircraft moving and the necessary throughput is no longer met by local training providers that put out a couple students a year at each local airport. We have no major war effort requiring the mass training of pilots or even enough military pilots returning back to the civilian sector anymore. The largest capacity for pilot training now comes from university or collegiate programs and large scale training providers that provide onsite academy style training. While we may harbor nostalgia for how local instructors used to be able to provide training for the young kid that grew up looking over the airport fence and took his first ride after working off the cost by washing airplanes, this just isn’t how it happens much anymore.

Airlines still need pilots though. They need to fill seats with paying customers, those passengers need to get where they are going, and to do that they need pilots. To get pilots, they need to find pools of qualified pilots. If we think like human resources staff, the goal is to find a large pool of qualified candidates for a job that needs to be done at our company from which we can evaluate multiple candidates and pick the best one(s). In most professions, HR departments go to colleges or universities to recruit entry level professionals. This is now the same in aviation.

By developing hiring relationships with large scale providers, airlines are able to have input into training curriculums, develop regular relationships that help them source a consistent supply of pilots, and cut the recruitment costs that would be greater if they had to visit every local airport to find a supply of pilots. Airlines don’t always have the luxury of a surplus of candidates (although many will dispute this) and everything they can do to limit recruitment costs as they seek the best, most qualified, and capable candidates for airline careers helps their bottom line.

People seeking aviation careers aren’t blind to this change. That means that they seek their training from providers that are most likely to improve their chances of getting a job when they are done.

While the path to a professional pilot career doesn’t have to end up in the front seat of an airline, as there are other jobs that professional pilots can do (corporate pilots, ag pilots, instructors, etc.), the biggest number of jobs remain in airlines as professional pilots. The bulk of these pilots is now, and will continue to be, sourced from large capacity training providers.

Customers seeking training for professional careers are savvier than ever and more willing to travel to complete their training. Whether they are going to a 2- or 4-year academic program or a condensed academy style training environment, they are choosing focused training instead of ad hoc local training providers for once or twice a week lessons. This means that these customers that might have historically trained at local airports are no longer a part of the customer base that kept these training providers active. Local providers are left with fewer customers seeking aviation careers and remaining customers are typically pleasure or personal business pilots. This doesn’t mean that local training is dead, but it does mean that its focus is changing. As the change in sourcing of professional pilots has taken place and continues to evolve, two separate paths are developing. A path for professional pilot training and a path for training intended to serve personal and business pilots.

While it’s not impossible to become a pilot for an airline by learning at a local airport, it is unlikely that small training providers are going to provide the same infrastructure and support required to meet the level of training airlines seek and that that large scale providers can implement. As our requirements for training change to specifically address training for airline operations, (whether changed by the industry, the FAA, in response to NTSB training recommendations, or based on laws passed by Congress) the ability to provide this training becomes more specialized and directly focused on unique operational environments. This is best able to be addressed by providers who can do so on a larger scale. The cost of meeting these training requirements and developing the infrastructure to deliver it for a couple of students a year is not cost effective or possible for most local, smaller training providers. The generalized approach to training that our industry espoused historically is no longer effective or efficient.

By training pilots from their first days specifically for the operational environment that they are going to work within, we can cut the extraneous costs associated with learning knowledge and skills that do not directly relate to making them a more effective and safer pilot for those environments. One might even ask the question, if a pilot is going to fly a CRJ, ERJ, Boeing 737 or Airbus A319 as a first officer as their first professional pilot job, do they really need to know how to fly a Cessna 172, Cirrus SR20, or Piper Warrior? Okay, I know that we aren’t going to do initial pilot training in a CRJ, ERJ, Boeing 737 or Airbus A319, but we could do less time in smaller aircraft and more time in high-end simulators of these aircraft potentially.

Our current system effectively builds pilots from small aircraft, expects full proficiency to operate in the national airspace system in IFR conditions down to minimumsand then asks them to convert those skills to larger aircraft in airline jobs. Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way and a little more attention to the ultimate goal instead of the steps along the way can help us continue to focus a career based path of training.
Going back just for a bit, we need to think about our other path, where pilots seeking to fly for personal and business needs are going to effectively train. This is where an opportunity for local training exists. If local training providers are not going to see significant quantities of airline bound trainees at their airports, perhaps they can focus more effectively on customers whose needs are for personal and business travel.

These pilots are different and their operational environment is different than airline (or large corporate) operations. In many cases, these pilots are operating aircraft that are less capable of all weather flight operations, they are operating in single-pilot conditions, have no dispatching and weather services other than themselves and their abilities to find resources, and they have no support crew preparing their aircraft for them.
For many personal and business flight focused pilots, the training they receive could be tailored to help them build skills that will make them more effective in their operations than if they sought training from a professional career focused training program. This is where a local FBO that provides training can shine. They can help develop the other training path in our industry, one that provides quality training focused on operational considerations that will make a personal pilot effective, efficient, and safe.

This training path may need to consider operational environments, specific certificates, ratings, or endorsements, or different aircraft make and model specialization to create a market on which to focus. Building quality training that focuses on a specific aircraft make and model or specific training that will allow an owner or operator to get training that is more focused than is available at most local training providers is also a way to get customers to travel to the provider instead of just providing broad based generalized training to all. Sure, this is a change from the market that local FBOs traditionally focused on in their services, but as the market changes, so must their approach to finding customers.

I could elaborate on this much further, but I think by now we all get the point. Much of the traditional business that local training providers counted on in the past is more likely to take a different path to meet their training needs that in the past. As this happens, they will have to focus on those customers that are pursuing a different path of training. This split in training paths is going to change our aviation community.

With two separate training paths, we see our community itself splitting. Those that seek their training from large scale training providers have much less contact with the local aviation community that many of us grew up with at local airports. It is less likely that when these pilots get days off from their “day job” of flying professionally, that they will have a feeling of connection with General Aviation that brings them out to their local airports on the weekends. This is a challenge of the splitting of training paths. These pilots are less likely to have been a part of a local fly-in, a pancake breakfast, or just the Saturday morning hangar chat sessions from which many of us have built an affinity for GA airports and personal flying. These pilots are more likely to look at flying, well, as just a job (even though the view from their front office still beats most professions). A challenge that we face as a community is to how engage these pilots with GA.

In a similar manner, pilots who are trained locally for personal and business flight are less likely to interact with pilots seeking training for a professional career. As the two training paths split and develop, the interaction between their participants is decreased. Without this interaction they are less likely to build long term friendships with pilots that will end up flying the next generation of airlines. Without this connection, they don’t learn from these pilots and the transference of knowledge from the professional pilot sector to the personal and business pilot ranks is slowed.

Another side effect of where training is provided is on airport traffic. As the bulk of training migrates to airports that have large capacity training providers, it means that overall traffic at those airports goes up, and at other airports goes down. For many airports, training activity from local FBOs training operations made up a large percentage of historic airport operations. As these operations decrease, the potential that support for these airports may be in jeopardy exists (the support structure for local airports is probably another very long discussion, but one we won’t begin here). As traffic at local airports decreases, it becomes more difficult for municipalities, airport authorities, or private airport operators to justify the infrastructure and the costs to maintain or expand infrastructure. As we consolidate training traffic, decreased GA traffic at other airports may actually jeopardize their very existence.

The gap between pilot training focuses is likely to continue to grow over time. But this separation allows for specialization that may make both areas more effective at their particular purposes than our traditional more generalist approach to training. If we work to focus the type of training on the operational environment that a pilot will act within when they are done training, the training can become more efficient, more cost effective for airlines and for the pilots seeking airline employment, and more directly able to address specific safety concerns relating to the type of flying they will conduct. The downside is that pilots may not be as versatile as we might perceive they were in the past.

The path of training is splitting between personal and business individual flyers and those who are seeking professional pilotage aviation careers. In fact, the majority of this split has already been completed; we just need to recognize the changes and their effects. As training paths split and we break away from a generalist approach to training toward specific operational environments, our entire aviation community changes. We may long for “the old ways” but we can’t hang on to the past forever. If we are going to evolve, we must look to the future and not be stuck in the past. Splitting pilot training into segments that are more focused on specific operational environmental needs instead of a broad generalist approach may be the best approach for the future needs of our aviation industry. We don’t need to train every pilot to fly every kind of plane “ok”, we need to train pilots to fly what they will actually operate exceptionally.


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