Pilot Qualifications and Requirements

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Commuter pilots come from all areas of aviation and have a diversified flying background. Their flight experience ranges from 500 hours and a minimum of multi-engine time to over 19,000 hours, most of which is multi-engine time. Of the regional airline pilots hired in 1988, 58 percent had the ATP license, 82.3 percent had a general aviation background, and 59 percent had a four-year college degree; the average total flight time was 3,142 hours (277 hours in jets and 571 hours in turboprops). Ages ranged from 20 to 53, with the average age being 32.

Company pilot requirements are as different as the flight crew members themselves. Some commuters will hire copilots with fairly low time and upgrade them as they build their experience in company aircraft; other commuters have pilot qualifications that are more rigid. Usually, commuter airlines hire copilots who are sufficiently skilled to upgrade to captain in a short time. The reason for the rapid advancement is a combination of rapid company expansion and the drain on the pilot force from hiring by major and national airlines. The expansion and attrition rates for regional/commuter airlines are so high that these carriers do not have the luxury of letting their flight crews build time with them; yet, during the industry expansion of the late 1980s, they increasingly were faced with the costly necessity of training pilots to fly their equipment.

Insurance restrictions greatly influence hiring criteria, and minimum qualifications are usually determined by the guidelines set by the insurance carrier. Most commuter airlines are reluctant to hire pilots with qualifications below the insurance company's requirements because the company could end up having to pay increased insurance premiums. On the other hand, in order to attract and retain highly qualified pilots, the commuter airlines find that they must offer salaries that are competitive among all companies industry-wide and may be higher than they can afford to pay.

Most recently, there has been an exception to the insurance restrictions under which certain waivers are issued for hiring pilots with lower qualifications but who have a training background of known excellence. For example, FlightSafety International graduates receive lower insurance rates, and students graduating from an ab initio program also might get lower insurance rates. These waivers have a limited value for the airlines. Even though commuter airlines could reap some insurance benefits by hiring newly trained pilots who have graduated from well-known flight schools, these pilots could never comprise the majority hired. Because of their low flight time, chances are that when the opportunity came to upgrade, they would not meet the 1,500-hour flight time requirement for the ATP license. Therefore, the company would end up with pilots who could not fill its captains' seats. Companies that hire recent flight school graduates will probably do so in small numbers, and these pilots will be a part of the mix of low- and high-time line pilots.

To be qualified to fly for a commuter airline, you should get as much total flight time, pilot-in-command time and multi-engine time as possible.

The ATP certificate is a critical rating to have. Like the major carriers, many commuter airlines will hire pilots without it, but until you qualify for and receive your ATP, you will be unable to fly as a captain and build pilot-in-command time. If a company flies single-pilot flight operations, an ATP is mandatory. Also, some companies hire pilots as captains, not as first officers. Thus, an ATP could mean money in your pocket immediately.

Many commuters shy away from hiring pilots with a flight engineer rating or FE written exam because pilots with this license are qualified to fly for a major airline and are likely to leave the commuter soon for a job with a major carrier. When the cost of interviewing and training is considered, few commuters can afford such a loss. As a result, discussing such qualifications with prospective regional/commuter employers may not be in your best interests.

Another pilot qualification that is becoming increasingly important is a college education. At this time, a degree is not usually necessary, and most commuters will hire pilots without it. However, with many companies acquiring more sophisticated aircraft, the trend toward requiring higher education levels for pilot applicants is growing. As an executive with a commuter airline remarked, "We're looking for a person who's not afraid of work and study"; one gauge of the pilot's work and study habits, he noted, is educational track record.
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