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Pitfalls that make Proper Financial Planning Imperative for Pilots

Being a commercial pilot beats working an office any day of the week. Yes, every job has its paperwork and politics and flying is no different but I when my accounting teacher in high school told me I could never become successful staring out the window the whole day I made sure to prove her wrong. Being a commercial pilot is one of the biggest privileges I have been blessed to experience in my life. We all love flying! However, there are some aspects of a career as a commercial pilot that make it so unique, that pilots need to be vigilant in their approach to financial planning.

The average life expectancy of a retired airline pilot is about 83 years, according to a paper by Flight Safety International on Human Factors and Aviation Medicine. This was in 1980. Back when P.W banned Pink Floyd and the first fax machine was developed in Japan. What do you expect it is today? With progress in medical science as well as reduced stress and fatigue on pilots due to improved regulations and aviation technology it may be even higher. A lot can happen in 35 years…

My personal opinion on why pilots are such vasbyters is that this is partly due to the fact that we are forced to be healthy our whole working lives. Regular medical fitness tests ensure that problems are identified early and treated. The so called “Healthy Worker effect” also ensures that only healthy persons gain access to the occupation in the first place and we all try and keep healthy throughout our careers.

So, I think we are safe to say that most commercial airline pilots are set to live a mostly long and healthy life. Yay!

But here is where the tricky part comes in.

SACAA 61.01.11 The holder of a pilot licence shall not act as pilot of an aircraft engaged in international commercial air transport operations if such licence holder has attained his or her 60th birthday or, in the case of operations of a multi-pilot crew, their 65th birthday.”

So that means international flying for commercial air transport is over at 65. Koebaai New York. That leaves the domestic routes. Let’s face it, the domestic market is growing and healthy in sunny SA but far from huge. This presents a problem for most pilots if they have not made provision to retire at 60 or 65.

There is no age curtailment on lawyers and doctors that I am aware of. I know of many that practice way beyond the age of 65. Effectively commercial pilots do not have the same possible working lifespan as most other occupations and thus we have much less time to earn an income and save for retirement. It also means that we have to rely on retirement funding for much longer because we will effectively be retired for earlier.

Add to this the fact that a moment ago you felt relieved at hearing that retired pilots have, on average, a 5 year longer lifespan than the general population which effectively means that you may just outlive the lawyer or doctor but you may not be able to afford to live that long!

Pilots have less time to save and more time to live off their savings than most people due to the fact they we are effectively forced to retire earlier and we generally live longer.

But before you start panicking, remember that we are trained to plan ahead. From PPL it is drilled into our heads: Planning, planning, planning!

Gather the grey matter quickly for this scenario:

Greg and Tom are exactly the same age. Greg starts saving for retirement at age 21 and puts away a monthly amount every month until he turns 35 and then stops. Tom doesn’t start saving for retirement until age 35 and puts away the same monthly amount until retirement. Assuming constant interest, who would have the most money at age 60? Greg! Greg has almost 2 times the amount that Tom has saved up. Even though he stopped at age 35, compound interest worked its magic. Einstein called compound interest the 8th Wonder of the World. Saving just a little from as early as possible places you in a better position than waiting until you earn enough to put a lot away. Forfeit a couple of beers, buy the cheaper bike and be smart about it. Yes, yes - I know – you are in it for the passion for flying, not the money. Newsflash: Passion won’t pay the bills when you’re old.

Another problem we face is the fact that our (very expensive ) skills as professional pilots , are mostly non-transferrable. We build our lives around and on the foundation of being able to fly. We are highly qualified but only in one specific field – aviation. So if they day comes and we are forced to make a change of career, we can probably not even be great waiters at the local Spur.

Sure, there are other options like lecturing and ground or sim instruction but the income is not necessarily all that great and the opportunities not that many. We are taught about Cockpit Resource Management but we rarely have the privilege to undergo proper Business Management courses. We are trained in Emergencies and Survival but we are never taught Entrepreneurship. We can navigate and fly intricate instrument procedures like pro’s but many pilots cannot even do their own SARS e-filing... Most pilots will be like fish out of water if they can no longer fly. This increases our financial risk substantially because lawyers and plumbers and nurses can probably transfer the skills and experience they have built over the years and do something else if they can no longer to their jobs. Your ability to do a Beta approach like a boss means jack squat in the business world. This has to be taken into account when preparing your financial plan! This could mean that your ability to save for retirement could be in jeopardy if you were to be forced to make a career change, be it by losing your medical or any other reason. In Europe it has become the norm for Airline pilots to be required to have a university degree as a condition for employment but here in Africa this is not yet true. It is a testament to what I am saying about transferrable skills…

The long and the short of it all is that pilots need to start being more pro-active in the way they approach their financial planning. We are perfectionists that strive for ultimate precision in our flying, why aren’t we doing the same with our finances? This piece is not at all intended as financial advice but merely as a wake-up call to pilots to start taking control of their finances. Get some professional help. The same way as Google or WebMD cannot give you an Aviation medical, Google cannot give a you tailor made financial plan. See an advisor and get a plan in place.

Zone outbound.

Samantha is an ATPL helicopter pilot with a Bachelors degree in Financial Management. She is a team member at Skyfin Financial Services, an affiliate of the Liberty Group Ltd. None of the information provided should be construed as financial advice and is merely for informational purposes.


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