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Saturday 23 June 2018

Michael O'Leary thinks it's an 'easy job' but this is what it really takes to become a pilot

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary came under fire recently for describing airline pilots as 'very well paid for a very easy job' working in a role where 'the computer does most of the flying' but autopilot can't land in the middle of a storm, writes Captain Ken McManus.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary came under fire recently for describing airline pilots as 'very well paid for a very easy job'
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary came under fire recently for describing airline pilots as 'very well paid for a very easy job'

There has been a significant focus on pilots in the media in recent weeks, particularly on our work and our pay but the flying public may not realise just what it takes to earn your wings.


The most common way is to do a course which brings you from zero hours and gives you a basic Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL).

It's a 14-18 month residential course and the cost is significant - about €100,000.

People do get into debt to cover the cost or you hear of parents re-mortgaging houses and that's literally just to get your basic licence to fly an airliner.

Captain Ken McManus has been a commercial pilot for more than a decade
Captain Ken McManus has been a commercial pilot for more than a decade

Then you need a 'Type Rating' to fly a specific aircraft - which can cost anything up to €30,000 which you pay to the airline

Some airlines do offer the option of sponsor pilots but the competition is intense with thousands of people applying for maybe 15 positions.


The training may not sound long but it is intense. It's 14 months of intensive training both on ground and in the air- I did a law degree myself and I think training to be a pilot was more intense and pressurised. It's like doing a three or four year degree in 14 months.

The training starts with small single engine piston aircraft and progresses in complexity to multi engine piston aircraft and multi-crew operating environments each time you pass exams in the ground or in the air.

You have exams after exams, you pass one hurdle and then you have to pass another - and that's just to get the basic airline pilot's licence.

Once qualified there are simulator tests every six months where you have to go through different emergencies and drills such as smoke drills or hydraulic failures, pilot incapacitation etc.

There is also an annual line check where a line standards captain will come out and assess your ability once a year.

There is also a very rigorous medical once a year.

There various different hurdles throughout the year where you could lose your job. Any one of those things could stop you from flying.


Like many other professions pilots are required to engage in ongoing professional development, on top of the regular tests we undergo.

Previously pilots were required to attend 'ground school' once a year to learn about updated procedures in the industry. However now we are largely expected to do this training on our own time via an online system.


There has been a lot of discussion about autopilot in particular and while it is true that aircraft are more automated it doesn't mean they are autonomous - you still have to fly the aircraft.

With airliners it is more about managing the operation - avoiding weather and dealing with increasingly complex technical problems we didn't have years ago.

An autopilot can't land an aircraft in a storm - a pilot can earn their entire year's wages in one landing during adverse weather conditons.


I wouldn't change my job for the world, it's a very enjoyable and rewarding career but it certainly isn't easy.

It can be quite stressful - usually when you have had a combination of issues like tech problems, bad weather, and delays after very early starts. 

We go to work earlier, we work later and the hours are unsociable.

If you are working on long haul flights you could leave on Monday and not be back until Thursday or Friday so there are long periods away from home. On short haul we could be posted away for three to four nights a week.


If I was advising somebody straight out of school I would probably advise them to get a degree or some sort of qualification first so they would have something to fall back on. I know people who have gone through the training, paid for their own licence and have never been able to secure a job.

However, the airline industry is on an upswing now and a number of airlines are hiring pilots in the next few years. There is a worldwide pilot shortage so things are on the up again but it s uncertain starting out.

Salaries starting out can be quite low and airlines have begun using what we call 'Atypical employment' where pilots are required to start a company with other pilots who then contract services to a recruitment agency who supply labour to the airline. What it means is there is no direct relationship with the airline and the employee. In these cases pilots are paid by the hour for time in the air.

You will not be paid if you are sick and cannot fly, how do you pay back your training costs or pay the rent in these circumstances? It is a particular problem in our industry and the Department of Social protection and the Department of Transport are well aware of it. Perhaps like the apple tax deal it is viewed as just the cost of doing business.

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