James McBride is a Boeing 737 type rating examiner for the UK charter airline Astraeus. He joined EasyJet as a captain in 1997 and left earlier this year.

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How did you get involved in aviation in general and low-cost carriers in particular?

When I was 15, my careers master told me to forget about flying, but later in life I realised that you can do anything you want as long as you put your mind to it. So I became a Royal Navy pilot.

I joined EasyJet in 1997 – I was working for Royal Brunei Airlines at the time. There was little expansion happening in the Far East and I could see there was going to be a battle royal in Europe between low-cost carriers and the majors. I quite fancied a ringside seat.

How different was it working for a low-cost carrier?

When I joined, EasyJet had only four aircraft. Going from a traditional carrier to a start-up low-cost was an absolutely incredible culture shock. You have to do a lot of self-help. In a start-up especially, there may not even be anyone to do the rostering properly.

We had a feeling that the airline was growing at an incredible rate but at the same time teetering on the brink. It doesn’t do much for job security, but I was fascinated to see how it all turned out, which is why I stayed so long.

After 9/11, a lot of people from major carriers applied to join the low-costs – they saw them as the future and somewhere they could work until retirement. They were immune to the downturn caused by SARS because they don’t fly to the Far East and wars and terrorism didn’t seem to affect their loads and yields.

Now that the industry is recovering, a lot of pilots are heading back to the majors, both for career advancement, because low-cost carriers can’t offer long-haul, and because of the rate of work they require – you are now getting a lot of pilots taken off the roster having reached their maximum hours. It’s hard on the people, as the company needs to maximise the use of every resource. The pilot workforce is using the low-costs more and more as a stepping stone, which is what they did before 9/11.

You can still get quite fast advancement at low-cost carriers, but that can be at the expense of your lifestyle, as you might end up based in some strange part of Europe.

Are there still good prospects for pilots at low-cost carriers as opposed to the majors?

Low-cost carriers are having problems attracting experienced pilots, especially direct entry commands. For example, some airlines don’t have enough first officers, so some captains are having to fly in the right-hand seat. There is a substantial recruitment of first officers going on and there always will be.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a pilot?

There are a lot of wannabe pilots, but the biggest piece of encouragement I can give is that actual flying ability plays little part in success – dedication, persistence and application will get them through.

Source: Flight International