Aviation careers provide a lifetime of excitement and fulfillment. The airport is a stimulating place to be. Even the most seasoned travelers are not entirely immune to the excitement and anticipation that accompanies departing passengers and their frenzied flurry of luggage, boarding passes, and last-minute phone calls. Arriving passengers seek and greet long-lost loved ones, with lots of hugs, kisses, and sometimes tears. These are daily events witnessed by those fortunate enough to pursue aviation careers.
Before boarding a plane, passengers will likely have to see a ticket counter agent, security personnel, and one or more boarding-gate attendants. Flight attendants and oftentimes the pilot, greet passengers when they board the plane, and through the windows they’ll look out on the tarmac to see their baggage being stored, as well at other airline personnel directing the movements of baggage carts, trucks, and other airplanes.
Unseen-somewhere high atop a nearby tower-a team of air traffic controllers monitors the larger picture. Similarly, passengers also do not see many of the aircraft mechanics who provide routine maintenance and repairs, the workers who prepare the food, or the employees who refuel the plane. Travelers are entirely unlikely to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the board room executives and office personnel who manage the business aspects of the operation.
A wide spectrum of aviation careers employs a significant number of specialized professionals, and many of these positions are entry level; that is, no special training or licensing is required. Most aviation careers offer good pay, excellent benefits, job sharing, flex-time arrangements, promotion potential and, best of all, deep discounts on your own or your family’s airfare. This could be your one and only ticket to see the nation or the world while still enjoying a comfortable home, job security, and a steady paycheck.
Advantages of an Aviation Career
Most people pursuing aviation careers are thrilled to be in close proximity to the excitement of flying, even if their specific positions are somewhere down on the ground. Airline personnel typically receive free or deeply discounted airfare, and if home is elsewhere that’s a true lifeline. If you enjoy traveling, the deep discount provides powerful motivation you won’t get from a typical office job.
Industry analysts say the negative impacts of the 9/11 terror attacks are now behind us, and airlines are back to operating at more than full capacity. Internet shopping has raised the demand for overnight air shipments, and the global economy is shuttling people and goods to domestic and international destinations at ever-increasing rates. The demand is up and the supply of trained workers seems to be lagging, which should significantly improve the prospects for job security in aviation careers.
Anyone with a predisposition toward law enforcement should enjoy the increased level of security work inspired by 9/11 – no longer a routine, ho-hum performance of meaningless duties. Instead of patrolling the streets in a squad car seeking out the criminal element, in airport security the criminals come to law enforcement. There is a great deal of job satisfaction in identifying and thwarting them using the latest heightened security measures.
Job satisfaction comes in various other forms as well, including assisting those in need of your help as a ticket agent or gate attendant, and identifying and addressing needs such as wheelchairs or gate passes. All larger airports employ a person in a golf cart who drives around the parking deck assisting people who can’t remember where they parked.
Once you get your foot in the door and work your way up through the ranks, you might soon discover that other airlines make a practice of hiring any qualified personnel who can be lured by the promise of an improved compensation and benefits package. This happens because, in some areas of specialization such as flight dispatchers, very few training schools exist that offer that particular focus. Airlines have to bring their future dispatchers up through the ranks, and many will protect their investments to the extent necessary.
In most cities the airport is located a distance from the congested downtown areas, making traffic and parking much easier for airline/airport personnel than for the typical urban commuter. In major cities the subway will deliver you directly to the door of your workplace, rather than dropping you off somewhere within a two- to three-block radius.
It is cheaper and easier to find and buy real estate convenient to your work if you work at an airport. Urban properties have parking and security problems, yet homebuyers pay top dollar for the privilege of battling those issues. Somehow they don’t think they’ll get a wink of sleep underneath a flight path – never mind how much noise they’re going to hear in the city – and they won’t compete with you to buy those properties deemed undesirable.
Some Aviation Career Disadvantages
Stress is the number one complaint heard among airline and airport personnel. It comes in the form of delayed flights, canceled flights, overbooked flights, flights diverted to other destinations due to inclement weather, mechanical failures, or flights that can’t seem to land or take off as scheduled for any number of reasons. Passengers with thwarted travel plans take it out on the bearer of bad news or anyone else in the general vicinity, and everyone on the airline’s team has to pull together to appease the hostile elements. In many aviation careers, a thick skin is necessary, as a person can wind up taking a bit of abuse.
Extreme stress comes in the form of crashes, emergency landings, and hijackings. An airline is likely to react to such an emergency by putting everyone on the payroll through some sort of specialized training that anticipates every possible hideous outcome.
The work hours tend to be another major issue. Airports are 24/7 facilities and, as such, they require a significant portion of their personnel to be on duty nights, weekends, and holidays. Some employees think that free or discounted airfare deal will come in handy when it comes time to go home for the holidays, only to discover they can’t get the time off and will be working the skycap, ticket counter, security area or boarding gates while their families gather without them.
Those are the major problems for non-flying personnel, and they also apply to flying personnel. Add to this list of headaches one additional problem for those workers, mainly pilots and flight attendants, who fly all the time. They are almost never at home spending time with their families if, in fact, they make any attempt at all to have families and home lives. Under these conditions, it’s tough to even keep a pet.
Much of their time is spent in one hotel room after another, living out of a suitcase, and the novelty of that wears pretty thin early in one’s employment. Flight attendants often pack along miniature hot plates and plug-in stew pots because they grow tired of the usual fast food and would prefer to heat up soup from a nearby supermarket. When two or more employees split a hotel room in order to save money, all hopes of privacy are gone along with sole control of the bathroom or the remote control.
As with any job, an aviation career can become repetitive, routine, and boring. This is particularly true when you get stuck somewhere on the career ladder, no longer progressing into new and more challenging roles.
If you are prone to air sickness this might not be the career path for you. Many people also experience an adverse reaction to high altitudes and the pressurized air inside an airplane. It does not circulate with the outside air as in a car, so you’ll be breathing the same air as dozens or hundreds of passengers, any of whom could be carrying contagious diseases.
Air turbulence is not uncommon and you may not always be safely fastened into your seatbelt when your plane hits an air bump. And while air travel is considered safe-generally deemed less prone to accidents than highway travel-you are always at risk when you are 30,000 feet off the ground in a metal tank with countless moving parts. And that’s to say nothing of the risk factors posed by terrorists, hijackers, crying babies, and drunkards. Also, you’ve probably heard that the food is not great. Well, that was back in the old days. These days, airplane food is little more than a memory, except on long international flights.
A Brief History of Aviation Careers
In 1903, the Wright Brothers claimed credit for being the first humans to get a heavier-than-air craft off the ground, while other teams working toward the same goal disputed their claim. That widespread global interest helped the aviation industry to take off, as it were, and in very short order the first U.S. airline began operating in 1914.
That first scheduled air service ran from Tampa to St. Petersburg, Florida, aboard a seaplane that was designed to take off from and land on water, thus eliminating the need for the heavy undercarriage and landing gear. This did little to inspire confidence among the general public or dispel the notion that these flying machines were experimental and dangerous.
World War I brought about more powerful airplane engines and faster speeds, but further compounded the perceived danger factor, now associating aviation with bombing runs and aerial dogfights. Railroads were prominent in every major city and remained more safe, comfortable, and familiar, while government continued to tinker with the airplane.
Airmail was introduced in 1918, initially running the Washington – Philadelphia – New York corridor. The United States Postal Service used war surplus planes but still could not fly by night, thus necessitating a hand-off to a train at the end of the day. Still the air service shaved many hours off the usual runs, particularly the coast-to-coast routes. In 1921, the Army introduced rotating beacons visible to pilots at ten-second intervals which made night flight possible.
The Contract Air Mail Act of 1925 sought to put the air transport of mail into private hands, and it found some takers. That same year the Morrow Board, headed by Dwight Morrow who would later become Charles Lindbergh’s father-in-law, convened to establish a national aviation policy. The Board’s recommendations became legislation known as the Air Commerce Act of 1926, designating air routes and navigation systems, establishing licensing procedures for pilots and planes, and authorizing accident investigations.
Henry Ford won one of those mail carrier contracts and ran the mail from Chicago to Detroit to Cleveland aboard the Ford Trimotor, better known as the Tin Goose. It was made of duralumin, as light as aluminum but stronger, and was the first aircraft designed to carry passengers. The first flight attendants were nurses who served meals and assisted those suffering with air sickness.
Charles Lindbergh flew the first transatlantic flight in 1927 and removed all doubt as to the limitless possibilities of flight. Rapid improvements in the 1930s included the introduction of radio communications, and radio beacons came into use in 1932. The first air traffic control tower was constructed at Newark International Airport in 1935. World War II introduced radar and jet engines, and the ensuing Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union inspired both sides to make design improvements that ushered in the Jet Age.
Deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 was triggered by a number of factors, including the introduction of the wide-body commercial airliner, the Middle Eastern oil embargo, and an economic crisis. The government agreed to loosen its grip on airfares, routes, schedules and air cargo, let the free market make the rules, and, in essence, dissolved the Civil Aeronautics Board.
With these new freedoms, airlines developed their present hub-and-spoke routing strategies which centralize all operations at strategically located airports. Monopolies were dissolved and newcomers were now allowed to compete and introduce low-cost, no-frills service along with discount fares. These factors have allowed the airline industry to compete with bus and rail service. What the airlines lost in individual fares (an estimated 35 percent) they made up in the increased number of flyers which rose from an estimated 240 million passengers in 1977 to 640 million in 1999.
Today more than two million people are employed in aviation careers, either as airline employees or in the aerospace and transportation industries.
Aviation Associations and Journals
Airline pilots swear by the Future Aviation Professionals Association (FAPA), “creating the future of aviation” with a wealth of information about jobs, careers, schools, and pay scales, as well as its Universal Pilot Application Service, a database of pilots and pilot jobs. The association also publishes Piloting Careers magazine, a valuable resource of who’s hiring and what criteria is considered.
Approximately 50,000 flight attendants belong to the Association of Flight Attendants. It is essentially a labor union representing flight attendants’ interests with airlines, the media, and in Washington, D.C. It sometimes operates in tandem with the International Transport Workers Federation.
Founded in 1947 in Washington, D.C., the National Business Aviation Administration (NBAA) is an organization of businesses that rely on aviation to operate efficiently. It offers networking opportunities, access to detailed best-practices guides, and essential information for regulatory compliance. It holds conventions, conducts lobbying activities in Washington, publishes Business Aviation Insider and other resources, and offers educational and career development seminars.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) “protects your right to fly” and publishes Flight Training magazine. While it has relevance to professional pilots it is slanted toward the recreational hobbyist, as is the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). The Classic Jet Aircraft Association also falls into the category of recreational hobbyist.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is headquartered in Montreal and the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA) is in Ottawa, Ontario.
The University Aviation Association (UAA) calls itself “the voice of collegiate aviation since 1947”, a non-profit association formed to promote the advancement of degree-granting aviation programs. The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) calls itself “the voice of the aerial application industry.” Military associations include the Army Aviation Association of America (AAAA) and the Marine Corps Aviation Association (MCAA). The Coast Guard Aviation Association has the very interesting title of “The Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl.”
Many states also have their own aviation associations: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Some local and regional areas have aviation associations: Chicago, IL; Westchester, NY; Greater Miami, FL; Pine Mountain Lake, CA; Oshkosh, WI; Savannah, GA; Readington, NJ; Long Island, NY; Auburn, CA; Clark County, NV; St. Louis, MO; North Florida and South Florida; and Aurora, OR.
Pilot associations are also various and far-flung: Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), United States Pilots Association (USPA), Allied Pilots Association (APA), Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA), and Independent Pilots Association (IPA), to name only a few. Most airlines have trade unions that they call pilots associations and, again, many states have pilots associations-California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, Washington-and some regional organizations exist as well. Some of these are nonprofit organizations that produce publications and hold regular meetings, while many are collective bargaining entities if not openly trade unions.
Membership in national, state, and local associations is an excellent path to staying in touch with industry trends, networking with other professionals, and learning of new aviation career opportunities in your state and in the nation.
The FAA Academy publishes the International Journal of Applied Aviation Studies, the leading publication in its field. Another excellent subscription to have is Aviation Weekly.