Some arrived in Chicago by plane Tuesday, while others rode aboard Greyhound buses. But they all had the same goal: landing jobs as pilots.
For the less experienced who attended a pilot job fair, the timing could hardly have been worse. Thousands of pilots are on furlough as the airline industry continues to downsize. Mirroring the troubles of the U.S. economy, the aviation business may not have hit bottom yet.
But the prospects were much brighter for others who attended the job fair and aviation conference at a hotel near O’Hare International Airport.
Officials from a recruiting firm representing Air India were kept busy talking to veteran American pilots looking for stability and high wages, both currently lacking in the U.S. market.
Captains up to age 62 were told they could earn up to $185,000 in their first year.
“The foreign carriers are here to hire as many people as they can,” said Louis Smith, president of FLTops.com, which conducted the job fair and conference. “They are on a harvesting mission.”
At the other end of the spectrum were regional airlines. Most were not actively recruiting but rather collecting résumés in the hope that pilot hiring freezes are lifted sometime next year.
A first officer lucky enough to be hired by American Eagle, the commuter carrier owned by American Airlines, can expect to earn only $23,000 to $25,000 in the first year, said Claudette Carroll, a pilot recruiter with the company since 1991.
“The airlines were sucking up all the commercial pilots available, including kids right out of flight school” in the boom years a decade ago, Carroll said.
A pilot surplus means that the airlines can now be choosier. One pilot who stopped by the American Eagle table at the job fair was a veteran with 10,000 hours of flying who had been furloughed by ATA Airlines before the low-cost carrier filed for bankruptcy and stopped operating this year.
About 4,000 pilots were on furlough at U.S. airlines as of September, and about 1,900 have been permanently let go, according to Aviation Information Resources Inc., which tracks industry hiring trends.
Although American Eagle hasn’t hired any pilots since May, Mesaba Airlines, a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, is actively hiring pilots with as little as 600 hours, said Mesaba recruiter Molly Skerjance.
The regional airline, which has about 1,200 pilots, is hiring more to fill the cockpits of new aircraft being acquired, she said.
Starting pay for a Mesaba first officer, or co-pilot, is $23.38 per flight hour, plus a $1.55 per hour per diem.
It’s not much more money than some unskilled laborers earn working in warehouses, while a flight education can cost $100,000.
Flight schools were also represented at the fair, and most reported a steady enrollment of students despite the tough times.
Most job-seekers were unabashedly optimistic that the airlines will rebound soon, and they want to be on the leading edge of the recovery.
“I’m here because I love to fly, and I will keep competing to do it,” said Tom Gallagher, 31, a Navy pilot for the last 81/2 years who wants to transition to civilian life.