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The other upside is that when I paid for each training session, I fully understood the reality of spending hard-earned cash, and it encouraged me to develop habits that ensured my time in training was efficient. Money means something when you know where it came from. Accepting that loans weren’t an option forced my parents and me to think about additional ways to generate income, and after I completed my training, those streams of revenue remained. What would happen if you didn’t jump right into training but considered that, too?
When I finally graduated college, I realized that these two consequences may have had the most enduring positive effects on my career. Understanding the volatility of my career and being debt-free is a long runway to almost anywhere.
Later on, when I began working as CFI, I found myself in another quandary. My paycheck would fluctuate based on things beyond my control, such as weather, mechanical delays, ATC delays, and others. Being pushed to my own financial limits with very little wiggle room, I wondered how my counterparts handled all this with their student loans.
How Pilots Typically Approach Loans
On different occasions, I encountered pilots with fully financed loans of more than $200,000. They explained that they’d have 20 years to pay it off, and their monthly payments varied between $1,000 to $2,000. There was no room for disruption. Sure, some would be able to refinance these loans as they went along, moving on to airlines and climbing the seniority ladder, but when we zoom out, working nearly two decades to become whole again financially seems expensive. I say expensive because conventional wisdom holds that time, over money, is the most important commodity.
According to Data USA, a database by Deloitte and MIT that tracks public U.S. data, the average age of major airline pilots is 44.4 years. Elsewhere, the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also shows that the median pay will work out to be $160,970. Another way to look at this is that even with the industry’s pilot shortages-and the current financial incentives offered by many airlines-it takes years to get to the point where you get to start reaping the rewards of the investment made in training. In fact, a common sentiment among pilots has been to embrace sticking to a tight budget while repaying their loans in the early parts of their earning career, and to be as close-fisted as possible in the early years, as there are rewards on the backend.
Is there another way?
While incoming pilots are promised a lucrative career, I wonder if there is another way to unburden students for the future? Furthermore, when we look at the scale and pace of the projected return-on-investment for those who study in fields such as software or computer engineering-especially with low barriers to entry-could pilots set themselves up better by pursuing a degree in these fields? And have a more enjoyable lifestyle upfront and still relish the benefits of flight by being able to actually afford it?
There are many options here that I think students should consider. For one, as I have argued before, pay attention to the trends in the industry. When I wrote about the threat and promise of advanced air mobility, apart from the disruption that is predicted to come to the industry, there’s actually an opportunity to pair your desire for flight with a burgeoning field of students. This might not please many departments with dedicated pilot programs, but at the end of the day, your future is ultimately in your hands.