Written by Doug Taylor   

I can guarantee that this piece is going to earn me a few heated emails, but quite frankly I couldn't give a turd.

A couple definitions:

These aren't official, but just how I define them:

Pay-for-Job (PFJ): Loosely defined as a pilot paying a defined amount of money to an employer for the privilege to operate the aircraft for anywhere from nothing to a certain amount of money. We’ll refer to this as “PFJ” for brevity.

Pay-for-Training (PFT): More or less a pilot taking on the financial burden of training where traditionally the employer covers those costs.

Nothing gets the ire of a group of professional pilots like a discussion on “PFT/PFJ”. And as we’ve seen it’s come up time and time again in the forums so I decided to write an opinion piece on the issue.

It’s sad to say, but we’re really our worst enemy when it comes to compensation in the airline industry, especially on the “lower” level/timebuilding positions.

You capture a potential “PFT/PFJ” customer, fresh out of training at a flight school, FBO or academy. The leap from paying a few hundred dollars an hour for a Beech Duchess and instructor as a student trains for his multi-engine instrument rating to finding it perfectly reasonable to “invest” another $30,000-plus for 500 hours of Metroliner or Beechcraft 1900 time with the potential of being selected for a full-time position isn't all that difficult.

We’re always told that multi-engine time is worth more than gold so the allure of going just a little further in debt, deeper into the savings account or asking a well-heeled parent for another fistful of cash is a very attractive notion.

Let’s rewind the clock a bit and talk about why these programs exist.

They exist because of us.

Some of us sit around the airport café or hangar and talk about how we’d do this job for free, and how it’s not really like having a ‘real job’. Stories of working in a cubicle, in the leather tannery or down at the local "Gap" and how easy the decision was to drive down to the local flight school and inquire about becoming a professional pilot.

One day, an enterprising businessman probably overheard one of these conversations and determined that he could lease a Metroliner for a reasonable amount of capital, pick up an experienced captain and offer a program. A program created to separate the fresh multi-engine instrument certified pilot with the “Will Fly for Food” t-shirt from his cash as efficiently as possible.

The businessman will construct a business plan for a passenger or cargo airline, show his profit projections to interested investors and the money starts rolling in to finance the operation.

People that run these programs aren’t evil or manipulative.

They’re businessmen, first and foremost. You can't forget that. We live in America, not Communist Russia, we're great because we're a capitalist society.

They’re in this business to make a profit. And if they aren’t, they’re complete idiots.

Years ago, I'd say that these operators were scumbags, but considering the vast amount of information available on the internet, the fault lies squarely on our laps.

How does it hurt the industry?
This situation doesn’t exactly hurt the industry, let’s be honest about that, but you’ve got to cleanly separate the airline industry from the pilot profession.

On the industry: All financial analysts want to see is that an airline sells a seat which costs $X while selling the seat for $X+Y. The smaller the "X" and the bigger the "Y" means a positive analyst rating..

On the profession: The entry level job which would normally hire a young, neophyte pilot suddenly becomes a “PFT/PFJ” operation. Or as any good businessmen would do, look at the cost structure of his non "PFT/PJF" operation and adjust the starting pay wages to reflect the market. You certainly can't pay your brand new Metroliner FO $40,000 per year while an airline across the airport has people lined up to spend $25,000 just to get an $18,000/year job.

Why in the world would a businessman, whose only motivation is creating and sustaining a profitability pay a new Metroliner first officer a reasonable wage, while just across the taxiway, there are a few airlines that are charging first officers for the right to work there? It doesn’t make good business sense to do anything other than adjust the pay rates downward.

In aviation, crap rolls uphill. Yesterday, there were commuter airlines and a few cargo carriers involved in the “PFT/PFJ” scheme. Today, there are operations selling blocks of A-320, B-737 and B-727 time at "third-tier" carriers. If you don’t foresee that one day, without pilots learning to stand up for themselves that there won't be a global, major, national, or LCC carrier offering the opportunity to cut a check for $50,000 for a defined amount of flight time or to just get on the seniority list, you’re absolutely kidding yourself.

Then the job that you invested time, an incredible amount of money and perhaps, years of your life and even a spouse for is going to be to the level of a newspaper boy.

Just wait.

How does it hurt the pilot?
Depressed wages: Other similar airlines have to compete with the “PFT/PFJ”’s cost structure in order to keep the admiration of people with a financial interest in the airline's operation

It’s an incredible waste of resources that you could use as a ‘nest egg’. Despite what the neophytes think, a massive amount of debt is harder to pay down than you may realize and will certainly affect your career flexibility and your financial well-being.

It doesn’t help your career: While recommending a competitively qualified pilot when I was at the regionals, whenever I’d present a resume to the chief pilot, the first question out of his mouth was “…he didn’t buy any of this time, did he?” Could you imagine what would have happened to the resume if I said, "Oh yeah, Joe went down to 'Airline's R Us' in Miami and purchased 500 hours of Beech 1900 time and flew cargo for free"?

Next, airlines don’t want to be the first person that’s trusted you to operate an expensive hunk of machinery. They’re looking for someone who another employer has taken the chance to hire you, where you’ve completed training on-time and on-budget and have successfully disappeared into the seniority list. Don’t think for a moment that a "PFT/PFJ" operation, if you’re not performing well in Metroliner school, doesn’t have a profit motive in offering extra training, on your dime, to make sure you complete training.

Human resource directors know all about this.

A few ‘quick hits’ from previous forum posts:

“You’re jealous because you had to be a CFI…”

Now, in your best "Valley Girl" impression, raise a hand to the monitor and say "What everrrr" and make sure you extend the 'r' sound. Not at all. Being a certified flight instructor was literally the most rewarding flying I’ve ever done, even compared to today.

“…(you’re) not aware of how hard it is to build experience”

Au contraire. I wasn’t born an MD-80 FO, the logbook fairy didn't make me a 1900 pilot overnight and I certainly didn't wake up with a schedule full of students that automagically appeared when I earned my CFI

“I hear about all of the negatives, but what are the positives?”

Besides fostering a lucrative market where neophytes are quickly separated from their loot in promises of having the edge over any other applicant, nothing. And I’m being serious. 500 hours of operational experience, in all truthfulness, isn’t a lot of flight time in an active part 121/135 operation.

A few years ago, 121 and 135 operators that offer these programs, in my opinion, were the lowest of the low, but considering the wide amount of information feely available on the internet today, the fault lies solely in our own hands.

In closing

Don't be in such a big rush. Sure, earlier in the history of Jetcareers, I'd always preach about seniority numbers and doing things quickly in order to procure one. However, in retrospect, with a few more years of experience under my belt, the best times in my career aren't the possibilities in my future career, it was the things in my past that helped get me to where I am today.

Almost more rewarding than flying airplanes are the relationships that I've built with people that I've met along the way. If you cut through the career at mach speed, acquiring unnecessary debt, "get hired quick" schemes like PFT/PFJ, etc, you're not going to have the opportunity to pause, look around a little and enjoy yourself.

Additional reading: propilot.com - A Letter to the Industry