Q: Are the pilots of commuter planes castaways from the big airlines, and not skilled enough to fly jets? Or are they simply building experience?
The pilots at the commuter (now called “regional”) level tend to be younger (though not always) and less experienced (though not always) than those at the majors, and many see their job as a stepping stone. But putting it that way leads one to believe a regional pilot lacks the skill to fly a big jet. And that’s simply not true. Everything depends on the hiring trends. Moving on depends less on a pilot’s aggregate experience than on the volume of jobs available at the bigger airlines.
In a lot of ways, flying at the regionals is much more demanding than at the majors. And the airplanes are, in many cases, no less sophisticated. Smaller, yes. Quaint, no. Schedules can be quite demanding, and the pay humiliating. I know because I flew regional turboprops for the better part of seven years. I entertained thoughts of spending a whole career in that realm, as many do, but the lure of a decent salary, an easier lifestyle, and more glamorous destinations was too enticing. All told it took me about 15 years from the day I received my private pilot’s license to the day I was hired by a large carrier. For some it comes much quicker, for others never at all.
Working conditions at the regionals are improving. Today, a six figure income is not unusual for a senior captain of at companies like American Eagle or Comair, and increasing numbers of pilots are staying put.
This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.