Air Transportation Industry

Jobs, Salary and Education Information

Significant Points

  • Although flight crews—pilots and flight attendants—are the most visible occupations, the vast majority of the industry's employees work in ground occupations.
  • A bachelor's degree is increasingly required or preferred for most pilot and flight attendant jobs.
  • Job prospects generally are better in regional and low-cost carriers than in major airlines, where competition for many jobs is keen; a unique benefit—free or reduced-fare transportation for airline employees and their immediate families—attracts many jobseekers.

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Nature of the Air Transportation Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. Air transportation plays an integral role in our way of life. Commercial airlines allow millions of Americans every year to attend business conventions, go home for the holidays, take vacations around the globe, or travel to other important events. Air transportation also represents the fastest way to ship most types of cargo over long distances. Passengers and cargo can be transported by air either over regularly scheduled routes or on "charters," which are routes specifically designed for a group of travelers or a particular cargo.

Industry organization. Several classes of airlines function in the United States. As of 2008, there were 19 mainline air carriers that use large passenger jets (more than 90 seats); 67 regional carriers that use smaller piston, turboprop, and regional aircraft (up to 90 seats); and 23 all-cargo carriers.

Seven of the mainline carriers are known as network carriers, which have a "hub" and also fly internationally. A hub is a centrally located airport designated by an airline to receive a large number of its flights from many locations, and where passengers can transfer to flights destined for points served by the airline's system. In this way, the airline serves the greatest number of passengers, from as many locations as possible, in the most efficient manner.

The mainline group also includes eleven low-cost carriers, which made up approximately 30 percent of mainline carrier capacity in 2008. These discount carriers generally don't have a hub and only offer flights between a limited numbers of cities. In the past, low-cost carriers focused primarily on transporting leisure passengers on routes less than 400 miles and had a reputation for "no frills" service, but at present low-cost carriers have been expanding their routes to include longer transcontinental and nonstop flights with in-flight service that parallels their network competition.

Another type of passenger airline carrier is the regional carrier. In 2008, there were approximately 67 of these carriers. Regional airlines operate short-haul and medium-haul scheduled airline service with an emphasis on connecting smaller communities with larger cities and hubs. Some of the largest regional carriers are subsidiaries of the major airlines, but most are independently owned, often contracting their services to the majors.

Air cargo is another segment of the airline industry. As of 2008, there were 23 air cargo carriers. Cargo can be carried in cargo holds of passenger airlines or on aircraft designed exclusively to carry freight. Cargo carriers in the air transportation industry do not provide door-to-door service. Instead, they provide only air transport from an airport near the cargo's origin to an airport near the cargo's destination. Companies that provide door-to-door delivery of parcels, either across town or across the continent, are classified in the couriers and messengers industry.

Recent developments. Since 2000, U.S. airlines have dealt with multiple issues, including the ramifications of 9/11, heightened concerns about pandemics, the bankruptcies of four network carriers, record high fuel prices, and recessions. In spite of these challenges, air travel remains one of the most popular modes of transportation in the United States, expanding from 172 million passengers in 1970 to 757 million passengers in 2008, an average growth of 4 percent per year.

Since 2000, mainline carriers have reduced domestic capacity by 5 percent. These cutbacks by network carriers more than offset the growth of low-cost carriers. However, over the past decade the business models of the network carriers and low-cost carriers have converged. Low-cost carriers have been expanding their routes to include longer transcontinental and nonstop flights with in-flight service that parallels their network competition. In response, network carriers have cut capacity and prices to compete with low-cost carriers.

Regional airlines have dramatically increased capacity by 157 percent since 2000. This increase makes up for the overall declines in mainline capacity, creating an overall increase in domestic capacity of 3 percent. During this time regional airlines have also discontinued the use of many of their smaller aircraft with fewer than 50 seats in favor of larger 70-seat to 90-seat aircraft.

Work Environment for the Air Transportation Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. Airlines operate flights at all hours of the day and night. As a result, many workers have irregular hours or variable work schedules. Flight and ground personnel, including mechanics and reservation and transportation ticket agents, may have to work at night or on weekends or holidays. Flight personnel may be away from their home bases frequently. When they are away from home, the airlines provide them with hotel accommodations, transportation between the hotel and airport, and an allowance for meals and expenses. Flight attendants typically fly from 65 to 85 hours a month. In addition to flight time, they have about 50 hours a month of duty time between flights. Most airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours a month and work an additional 140 hours a month performing non-flying duties, which includes waiting for delays to clear and their aircraft to arrive.

Work environment. Working conditions in air transportation vary widely, depending on the occupation. Most employees work in fairly comfortable surroundings, such as offices, terminals, or airplanes. However, mechanics and others who service aircraft are subject to excessive noise, dirt, and grease and sometimes work outside in bad weather.

Flight crews, especially those on international routes, often suffer jet lag—disorientation and fatigue caused by flying into different time zones. Because employees must report for duty well rested, they must allow ample time to rest during their layovers.

Employment in the Air Transportation Industry[About this section] [To Top]

The air transportation industry provided 492,600 wage and salary jobs in 2008. Most employment was found in larger establishments—64 percent of jobs were in establishments with 1,000 or more workers. However, 93 percent of all establishments in the industry employed fewer than 100 workers.

Most air transportation jobs are at large airports that are located close to cities and that serve as hubs for major airlines.

Occupations in the Air Transportation Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Office and administrative support occupations and installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. Although pilots and flight attendants are the most visible occupations in this industry, 44 percent of all employees in air transportation work in office and administrative support occupations and installation, maintenance, and repair occupations (table 1). The two largest occupations in these occupational groups are reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks and aircraft mechanics and service technicians.

A reservation and transportation ticket agent is most often the first employee that passengers meet after entering the airport. They make and confirm reservations, sell tickets, and issue boarding passes. They also assist customers who have trouble operating self-service ticketing machines or kiosks. Some work in call centers, answering phone inquiries about flight schedules and fares, verifying reservations, issuing tickets, and handling payments.

Other ticket agents, more commonly known as gate or station agents, work in airport terminals, assisting passengers boarding airplanes. These workers direct passengers to the correct boarding area, check tickets and seat assignments, make boarding announcements, and provide special assistance to young, elderly, or disabled passengers.

Aircraft mechanics and service technicians service, inspect, and repair planes. They may work on several different types of aircraft, such as jet transports, small propeller-driven airplanes, or helicopters. Many mechanics and technicians specialize their work based on their expertise, with some working solely on the airframe (the body of the aircraft) or the powerplant (the engines) or avionics (the parts of an aircraft that depend on electronics, such as navigation and communication equipment). In small, independent repair shops, they usually inspect and repair many different types of aircraft.

Transportation and material moving occupations and service occupations. Flight crewmembers make up 36 percent of air transportation employment, and include pilots and flight attendants. Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers are highly trained professionals who fly and navigate jet and turboprop airplanes. Generally, the most experienced pilot, or captain, is in command and supervises all other crewmembers. The pilot and copilot split flying and other duties, such as communicating with air traffic controllers and monitoring the instruments. Some aircraft have a third pilot in the cockpit—the flight engineer or second officer—who assists the other pilots by monitoring and operating many of the instruments and systems and watching for other aircraft. Most new aircraft are designed to be flown without a flight engineer. Small aircraft and helicopters that transport passengers and cargo and perform activities such as crop-dusting, monitoring traffic, firefighting, and rescue missions are flown and navigated by commercial pilots.

Airline flights must have one or more flight attendants on board, depending on the number of passengers. The most important function of flight attendants is to assist passengers in the event of an emergency. This may range from reassuring passengers during occasional encounters with strong turbulence to opening emergency exits and inflating escape chutes. More routinely, flight attendants instruct passengers in the use of safety and emergency equipment. Once in the air, they serve meals and snacks, answer questions about the flight, distribute magazines and pillows, and help care for small children and elderly and disabled persons. They also may administer first aid to passengers who become ill.

Baggage handlers are responsible for loading and unloading passengers' baggage. They stack baggage on specified carts or conveyors to see that it gets to the proper destination and also return baggage to passengers at airline terminals.

Table 1. Employment of wage and salary workers in air transportation, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
Number Percent
All occupations 492.6 100.0 7.5
Management, business, and financial occupations 26.5 5.4 11.4
  Management occupations 10.5 2.1 5.2
  Business and financial operations occupations 16.0 3.3 15.5
Professional and related occupations 9.3 1.9 10.4
  Computer specialists 4.8 1.0 7.7
Service occupations 111.7 22.7 8.0
  Baggage porters and bellhops 7.5 1.5 7.1
  Flight attendants 98.3 20.0 8.1
Office and administrative support occupations 172.3 35.0 8.7
  First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers 13.3 2.7 7.2
  Customer service representatives 11.1 2.3 18.3
  Reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks 104.6 21.2 6.8
  Cargo and freight agents 16.6 3.4 27.3
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations 44.7 9.1 0.3
  Avionics technicians 1.9 0.4 -1.8
  Aircraft mechanics and service technicians 32.5 6.6 -2.7
  Maintenance and repair workers, general 5.0 1.0 11.1
Transportation and material moving occupations 122.0 24.8 6.8
  Aircraft cargo handling supervisors 1.3 0.3 -12.2
  Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers 67.0 13.6 7.6
  Commercial pilots 12.5 2.5 17.0
  Air traffic controllers 0.6 0.1 18.2
  Airfield operations specialists 2.2 0.5 10.2
  Cleaners of vehicles and equipment 1.4 0.3 9.4
  Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 13.7 2.8 -3.4
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement in the Air Transportation Industry[About this section] [To Top]

The skills and experience needed by workers in the air transportation industry differ by occupation. Some jobs may be entered directly from high school and others require specialized training. Most positions in the airline industry involve extensive customer service contact, requiring strong interpersonal and communication skills. Mechanics and pilots require specialized formal training and must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A bachelor's degree is increasingly required or preferred for most pilot and flight attendant jobs. Skills for many other air transportation occupations can be learned on the job or through company-sponsored training.

Office and administrative support occupations and installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. When hiring aircraft mechanics, employers prefer graduates of aircraft mechanic trade schools, particularly those who gained experience in the military and are certified. Additionally, employers prefer mechanics who are in good physical condition and able to perform a variety of tasks. After being hired, aircraft mechanics must keep up to date on the latest technical changes and improvements in aircraft and associated systems. Most mechanics remain in the maintenance field, but they may advance to lead mechanic and, sometimes, to crew chief or shop supervisor.

A good speaking voice and a pleasant personality are essential for reservation and transportation ticket agents and customer service representatives. Airlines prefer applicants with experience in sales or in dealing with the public, and most require a high school education, although some college is preferred. Formal company training is required to learn how to operate airline computer systems, issue tickets, and plan trips. Agents and service representatives usually are promoted through the ranks. For example, an experienced ticket agent may advance to lead worker on the shift. Agents who obtain additional skills, experience, and training improve their chances for advancement, although a college degree may be required for some administrative positions.

Some entry-level jobs in this industry, such as baggage handler and aircraft cleaner, require little or no previous training. The basic tasks associated with many of these jobs are learned in less than a week, and most newly hired workers are trained on the job under the guidance of an experienced employee or a manager. However, advancement opportunities for many ground occupations are limited because of the narrow scope of duties and specialized skills necessary for other occupations. Some may advance to supervisor or to another administrative position.

Transportation and material moving occupations and service occupations. Pilots must have a commercial pilot's license with an instrument rating, a medical certificate, and certification to fly the types of aircraft that their employer operates. For example, helicopter pilots must hold a commercial pilot's certificate with a helicopter rating. Pilots receive their flight training from the military or from civilian flying schools. Physical requirements are strict. A medical exam, from an FAA-designated physician, must be taken to get a medical certificate. With or without glasses, pilots must have 20/20 vision and good hearing and be in excellent health. In addition, airlines generally require 2 years of college and increasingly prefer or require a college degree. Pilots who work for smaller airlines may advance to flying for larger companies. They also can advance from flight engineer to copilot to captain and, if they get the proper certification, to flying larger planes.

Applicants for flight attendant jobs must be in excellent health. Employers increasingly prefer applicants who have a college degree and experience in dealing with the public. Speaking a foreign language also is an asset. Airlines operate flight attendant training programs on a continuing basis. Training usually lasts from 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the size and the type of carrier, and may include crew resource management, which emphasizes teamwork and safety. Courses also are provided in personal grooming and weight control. After completing initial training, flight attendants must go through additional training, where they obtain certification, and they must pass an FAA safety exam each year to continue flying. Advancement opportunities are limited, although some attendants become customer service directors, instructors, or recruiting representatives.

Job Outlook for the Air Transportation Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Job prospects generally are better in regional and low-cost carriers than in major airlines, where competition for many jobs is keen; a unique benefit—free or reduced-fare transportation for airline employees and their immediate families—attracts many jobseekers.

Employment change. Wage and salary jobs in the air transportation industry are projected to increase by 7 percent over the 2008–18 period, compared with 11 percent for all industries combined. Population growth and growth in the overall economy should increase the demand for air transportation services in the long run. In particular, growth in international travel is expected to be strong. International travel will be spurred by the emerging economies in and around Asia, and by liberal regulations that allow U.S. carriers to fly to more foreign destinations. Also, growth in business travel is expected as the U.S. economy and world trade expands, companies continue to go global, and the economies in many foreign countries become more robust. However, the number of job openings may vary from year to year, because the demand for air travel, particularly business travel, fluctuates along with the economy.

International cargo traffic is expected to continue to increase with the economy and growing world trade. It also should be stimulated by the development of global electronic commerce and manufacturing trends such as just-in-time delivery, which requires materials to be shipped rapidly. Growth of domestic air cargo traffic is not expected to increase as much as international cargo, primarily because of the decreased use of mail, increased security screening of cargo shipped on passenger planes, and the rise of time-definite trucking. In the coming years, more shipments will be sent via trucks, as opposed to aircraft, because trucks are reliable, can be monitored through Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, and are more cost-effective.

Employment growth will differ among the various occupations in the air transportation industry. Employment of flight attendants, aircraft pilots, and flight engineers will continue to grow as a growing economy and larger population boost the number of airline passengers, and as airlines expand their capacity to meet rising demand by increasing the number and size of planes in operation.

Employment of aircraft mechanics and service technicians is expected to decline as more airlines outsource the maintenance and repair of their airplanes to third-party contractors. Additionally, the airlines are expected to retire many of the their older, less reliable, aircraft, which will lessen the demand for mechanics and technicians.

Job prospects. Job opportunities in the air transportation industry are expected to vary depending on the occupation. Opportunities for aircraft pilots and flight engineers are expected to be best with the faster growing regional and low-cost carriers. College graduates and former military pilots can expect to have the best job prospects. Opportunities will continue to exist for those pilots who choose to work for air-cargo carriers because of the increase in global freight demand.

Job opportunities for flight attendants will vary by setting. Competition for job opportunities at major airlines is expected to be keen because of the few jobs that are available. Opportunities are expected to be best with the faster growing regional and commuter, low-cost, and charter airlines. Finally, turnover among flight attendants will produce additional job opportunities as many workers leave for occupations that offer more stable work schedules or better salaries.

Despite employment declines, opportunities should be favorable for aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians, reflecting the likelihood of fewer entrants from the military and a large number of retirements. However, mechanics and technicians will face more competition for jobs with large airlines because the high wages and travel benefits that these jobs offer generally attract more qualified applicants than there are openings. Applicants who have experience and who keep abreast of the latest technological advances should have the best opportunities.

Competition for reservation and transportation ticket agent jobs will continue to be keen as the number of applicants continues to exceed the number of job openings. Entry requirements are few, and many people seeking to enter the travel business start in these types of jobs. Also, people are attracted to this occupation because it provides excellent travel benefits. Some job opportunities will occur as agents transfer to other occupations or retire.

Opportunities also are expected to be good for those seeking lesser skilled, entry-level positions, such as baggage handler and aircraft cleaner, because many workers leave these jobs and need to be replaced.

Air Transportation Industry Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Senior pilots for major airlines are among the highest paid workers in the Nation. Earnings in selected occupations in air transportation appear in table 2.

Table 2. Median annual earnings of the largest occupations in air transportation, May 2008
Occupation Air transportation All industries
Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers $114,400 $111,680
Commercial pilots 66,710 65,340
Aircraft mechanics and service technicians 57,470 51,390
First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers 49,390 45,790
Transportation workers, all other 44,130 33,000
Cargo and freight agents 38,080 37,270
Flight attendants 35,850 35,930
Reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks 34,760 31,070
Customer service representatives 28,600 29,860
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 25,380 22,660

Benefits and union membership. Most employees in the air transportation industry receive standard benefits, such as paid vacation and sick leave; life and health insurance; and often profit-sharing and retirement plans. Some airlines provide allowances to employees for purchasing and cleaning their company uniforms. A unique benefit—free or reduced-fare transportation for airline employees and their immediate families—attracts many jobseekers.

In 2008, 46 percent of all workers in the air transportation industry were union members or were covered by union contracts, compared with 14 percent of workers throughout the economy.

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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