Debunking stereotypes: “Pilots are rich anyway, why do they need a charity?”

Amelia Powell

23 December 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic has left some pilots with debts reaching upwards of £100,000, with minimal governmental support for the aviation industry

Did you know that it can cost upwards of £100,000 to become a commercial airline pilot? And unlike university degrees there are no “easy” student loans available for those wishing for a career in the skies. Instead, prospective pilots need to fund their training themselves. Flying Time Aviation (FTA) suggests six options: (1) professional and career development loans; (2) secured loans; (3) flight training finance specialists; (4) savings; (5) the bank of mum and dad; or (6) to pay in instalments. All of these options have one thing in common: they require you to either have access to thousands of pounds off the bat or require you to take out a loan which you are then required to pay back. And unlike the traditional student loan, there are no options to only pay the money back if you are earning above a certain threshold; you are required to pay back your loan no matter what.

“But all pilots are rich anyway, they’ll pay it back quickly” I can already hear you say. It is a common stereotype that all pilots are well-off, and although this may have been the case once upon a time, it is no longer true. According to prospects.ac.uk, the starting salary of a newly qualified first officer (FO) is around £28,000 – and that’s in larger companies. Pilots know all of this going in, but up until recently it was deemed a relatively safe industry to go into if your dream was to fly planes commercially. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), recent estimates suggested that demand for air transport would increase by an average of 4.3% per year over the next 20 years. These figures have lead pilots and airlines alike to believe there would always be a job for them – but this was before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, even the UK’s pilots union Balpa is warning prospective pilots from starting any training courses, due to the huge debts and no prospect of employment.

Pilots from multiple large airlines have been made redundant due to COVID-19, but many still have these large debts of tens of thousands of pounds to pay off, and the demand for pilots just isn’t there. Where there are jobs, experienced pilots may be favoured by employers, leaving more severely indebted juniors at the bottom of the job market. These pilots have debts up to over £100,000 which need to be paid off, job or no job.

PilotsTogether member James featured on BBC News earlier this month, where he explained that due to the pandemic he had been made redundant after working as a pilot for three years, lost his home and was about to become a father – and still had monthly payments of £1,100 to cover his flight training costs on top of necessary living expenses. In fact, based on statistics of pilots registered on our site, 79% report having monthly outgoings that exceed their income, with 14% being more than £2,000 a month short.

The coronavirus pandemic has left pilots unemployed, struggling to meet training debt and mortgage payments, and still needing to pay to live. This is just one of the reasons why the PilotsTogether charity was created. PilotsTogether aims to provide financial support to pilots who have been made redundant due to COVID-19, but also provide career and wellbeing support to help them navigate through challenges faced. We feel strongly that it is important that the thousands of people in the aviation industry who have been affected don’t suffer on their own, and one of our missions is to help pilots retain the skills they have spent so much in gaining, and learn new ones for the future.

There are many ways you can get involved. Any donations help, but we are also looking for volunteers to help us help others. Our website is a hub for resources for the pilot community, from job opportunities to wellbeing and mental health guidance, career advice and guidance and CV development support for example. Any support is welcome and would be much appreciated.

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