Pilot Training Contracts: Are They Really Unenforceable?

The aviation bug bit me when my kindergarten class went on a field trip to LAX. On that trip, my class was able to tour a brand-new Boeing 747 that was sitting at one of the gates. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be an airline pilot.

The Airline Deregulation Act had just passed, and the “experts” were predicting a shortage of airline pilots. The year was 1978, but the “pilot shortage” didn’t actually arrive until almost four decades later.

As a consequence of the pilot shortage, a number of aviation employers, particularly those with high turnover of their pilot workforce, are requiring pilots to sign “training contracts” as a condition of employment. Training contracts require a pilot to pay back some or all of the employer’s initial pilot training costs if the pilot does not remain with that employer for a minimum period of time. Employers are typically prepared to spend $50,000 or more on initial pilot training for each pilot they hire but count on recouping that investment through the pilot’s employment. However, if the pilot does not fly for the employer for that minimum period of time, the investment is not recouped. The “training contract” protects the employer against this loss by holding the pilot financially responsible for the lost training cost.

There is an unfortunate belief among some pilots that these training contracts are “unenforceable.” Pilots who rely on this “belief” feel free to sign training contracts but then thereafter disregard them. This “belief” is unfounded: pilots should always assume that any contract they sign is enforceable. The true “enforceability” of any contract can depend on a number of factors, including: the state law that governs the contract, the circumstances under which the contract was signed, and the contract language itself. Therefore, any “belief” regarding the enforceability of a training contract should come only from competent legal advice from a qualified attorney.

Even if a particular training contract turns out to be “unenforceable,” the employer may still choose to sue a pilot who breaches it. The pilot will then have to incur the expense of defending the lawsuit, and they may not be able to completely recover their costs and attorney fees from the employer, even if the pilot prevails in the lawsuit. Further, breaching a training contract with a particular employer, even if the contract is “unenforceable,” could have other adverse consequences with future job prospects. In sum, it is important that pilots not rely on the old adage that training contracts are “unenforceable,” and instead assume that there is a substantial risk of consequences for breaching one.

Here in Arizona, a literal “hotspot” of pilot training and general aviation employment, it could be incredibly difficult for a pilot to defend against a training contract. Our state laws generally favor employers, and our courts strongly favor enforcing contracts. In the few Arizona court cases concerning pilot training contracts, pilots have found success in defending against those contracts only where: (i) the pilot coincidentally had a separate employment-related claim against the employer (such as unpaid wages) that was unrelated to the training debt; or (ii) where the employer filed the lawsuit after the statute of limitations expired. However, even in those cases, the courts never found anything “wrong” with the fact that the employer could hold one of its pilots on the hook for a substantial amount of money (sometimes equal to several months’ salary).

The lesson here is that the “free legal advice” out there concerning training contracts is worth much, much less than what was paid to receive it. Pilots should consult an attorney with employment law experience about any training contract they intend to sign prior to signing it. Even if they signed without getting legal advice, pilots should still consult an attorney prior to departing early or otherwise breaching the contract. Or as a better alternative, given the favorable job market, pilots might choose to avoid an employer who requires a training contract.

Mitchell Vasin is a second-career attorney, entering law school after 12 years flying for the airlines and attending law school while flying a full schedule. Mitch has now been licensed to practice law in Arizona for 5 years. Prior to practicing law, Mitch served for a union representative for over a decade, representing pilots in NTSB investigations, disciplinary proceedings, and labor agreement disputes in various capacities for the Air Line Pilots Association.  While in law school, he co-founded the Aviation Law Students Association with Dr. Sarah Nilsson who is now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a renowned expert on drone law. Shortly after law school, Mitch started a law firm with another pilot, Tania Rocco. Their law firm represents aircraft owners, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and a number of aviation-related businesses and organizations.

Mitch has approximately 12,000 hours of flight time and holds an airline transport pilot certificate with type ratings in the ATR42/72, Airbus A320, Boeing 737, 757, and 767. Mitch also holds a CFI, airplane single and multi-engine and instrument. He currently flies as a captain on the Boeing 737 for one of the “Big Three” legacy airlines. His law partner Tania flies the Boeing 787 for the same airline.

Related Articles