Low Pay for Airline Pilots "Threatens" the Country

Categories: OC Media
airline-pilot-illo-150.jpg
A couple months ago, I almost blogged something that claimed regional airline pilots earn an average of $14,000 a year. Believing that to be a typo--pilots are rolling in it, right?--I moved on to something more important, like Octomom boxing an East Coast skank.

However, the nonprofit investigative journalism project California Watch has let fly a report that shows all pilots average less per-hour in salary than most people probably assume, and that captains on regional carriers earn even less to work longer hours.

Pilot pay has been in decline for years, notes "Pilots Can Earn Less Than Airport's Window Washers" by Kyle Finck and Ben Breuner, who found that the rise of regional airlines since industry deregulation has not only created more open seats in cockpits, it's driven down salaries earned to sit in them.

chesley-b-sully-sullenberger.jpg
Sullenberger: low pilot pay threatens our country.
Based on recent salary records, California Watch discovered a rookie first officer on a regional airline flying out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) may be paid less than the worker who washes the airport's windows.Starting salaries on regional airlines range from about $20.50 to $29 per hour, while an airport window washer in Baghdad by the Bay earns $26.75 an hour. Meanwhile, a Golden Gate Bridge ferry master earns $37.87 an hour.

Drilling down farther to specific regionals, the report found that a California Department of Corrections nurse earns $22.37 an hour versus $22 and $20.50 respectively for first officers on Skywest Airlines and Mesa Airlines (US Airways Express) flights out of SFO.

Fierce industry competition, financial pressures to cut costs and FAA restrictions on how many hours a pilot can work are also factors when it comes to salaries, according to the report. And while regionals do give regular raises to pilots, what they average after five years in the air versus other jobs may both shock you and prompt you to apply for a garbageman position in Berkeley:

California Watch: Fifth-year pay for first officers on regional airlines vs. other jobs*

JOB AND 5-YEAR PAY (AIRLINES IN BOLD)                                                

California Highway Patrol - with OT: $105,185
California Highway Patrol - no OT: $90,185
SamTrans bus operator: $58,656
Berkeley city solid waste worker: $57,672
U.S. mail carrier: $47,732
Horizon Air
(Alaska Airlines): $44,500
SkyWest Airlines (Delta Connection/United Express): $37,666
Mesaba Airlines (Frontier Airlines): $37,250
Republic Airlines
(Frontier Airlines): $37,000
Mesa Airlines
(US Airways Express): $30,500

* Computed from hourly pay rate
Sources: Airlinepilotcentral.com; U.S. Postal Service; City of Berkeley; San Mateo County Transit District; California Highway Patrol
Declining pay for pilots is turning many young would-be aviators off to the profession, according to the evidence gathered by California Watch.

This prompted none other than Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who landed US Airways Flight 1549 safely on the Hudson River in New York, to testify before Congress: "If we do not sufficiently value the airline piloting profession and future pilots are less experienced and less skilled, it logically follows that we will see negative consequences to the flying public--and to our country."
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Mediation Jobs
Mediation Jobs

   “I had to refresh the page  times to view this page for some reason, however, the information here was worth the wait.”

Cy Phy
Cy Phy

Society just needs to decide how important things are, and how much we're willing to pay. I read a shocking article yesterday about doctor's pay falling, and it makes me wonder if we as a society want the best and brightest to have these jobs, or do we feel like just anyone off the streets can do an okay job. Airline tickets are way too cheap, anyway. Even if the price went up, the extra money would probably go into the pocket of one of America's 500 richest people, rather than into the pilot's pocket. Our country needs to fundamentally re-examine so many of the things that we're doing as a society. But we won't do the difficult work of society...instead the Tea Baggers will argue with the Libtards, and at night we'll all get together to watch Dancing With The Stars. Happy America!

A Reader
A Reader

Take a look at what EMTs and Paramedics typically earn outside of government agencies.  The guy saving your life can often makes less per-hour than the guy who preps and cleans the ambulances overnight.

That said, many EMT/Paramedic jobs are seen as a stepping stone to traditionally better paying --though perhaps not for long--firefighter jobs, hence the large supply of potential employees.  Large supply, limited demand = low wages.  Sad but true.

John Smith
John Smith

Sounds like we'll eventually have pilots working for $10 per hour and two free snacks!

That's about what I make as a long-haul truck driver. No free snacks, though.

Get Out While U Still Can!
Get Out While U Still Can!

I was an FO at the airlines for 3 years, never made more than $20k in a year and rarely saw my family/friends.  Finally I decided it wasn't worth it and I'm back at school to work on a new career.  So yes, the wages and working conditions are driving people from the cockpit.  I wish more people would follow suit.  Get the government out of our contract negotiations (see the RLA) or have them mandate wages and working conditions.  As it is right now, they are actively repressing our pay and working conditions while they search for any other reason to blame the problems on.

Regional First Officer
Regional First Officer

Major issue with those numbers. Those numbers are based on 40 hrs/week. Pilots are only paid by the flight hour even if they are reviewing flight plans or waiting on their next flight or sitting in a hotel. They are limited to 100 hours/month and in reality average about 80-85 hours/month....So comparing hourly rate to that of other jobs is not accurate and actually makes the pilots situation worse as compared to the window washer.

Sdgsdfg
Sdgsdfg

The hours presented above are per flight hour.  A real hourly pay would equate to about half of what is presented in this article.  

Jdrwright
Jdrwright

These window washers get paid for 80 hours bi weekly. Pilots get paid 76 hours per month!

Sjshost
Sjshost

If pilot pay is so low, then why do they continue to fly? We know why! SJS; Shiny Jet Syndrome. Window washing at 20 bucks an hour or RJ flying for 20 bucks per "flight" hour. We know what's right for you.

The Host

shinyjetsyndrome.com

Voyageur79
Voyageur79

Keep in mind that the hourly rate for pilots is only from the time re aircraft door closes until the time it opens again. It doesn't count the time spent on duty at the airport. So if you take what a pilot made in a day of flying, divided by the time they were at work, in their uniform, the effective hourly rate is even less!

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

We are now in a world of bean counters. It is easy to ask what is the least amount of money we need to budget for the job code. And then cut that.

saraslogg
saraslogg

“When I fly, I always take Delta… That’s because they pay their pilots the most money… You don’t want to fly with unhappy pilots.” 

Johnny Carson, Tonight Show monologue, 1981

Traversing race, culture, gender, education level and socio-economic standing is the desire to be happy. It is the most powerful force buried at the center of the human soul. An individual’s “happiness” is directly linked to how life unfolds relative to expectations. Hopes and dreams in a mate, family, friends, social standing, or a career are just a few areas that can fall short, meet, or exceed expectations.

Tragic irony of high expectations is the possibility they will not be met hence a greater risk of an unhappy life. Throughout life expectations are created and destroyed. Over the course of a lifetime a common pattern emerges where expectations follow a trace akin to a bell curve. Zero at birth, peaking mid-life, and diminishing as one passes the “mid-life crisis”. With this knowledge one might conclude the key to happiness at any point along the curve is to simply lower your expectations. Unfortunately expectations are often set as a result of something external to or as a result of something the individual did or did not accomplish. Print, video, and other environmental exposure are powerful influences. Performance in academics, sports, social life, college and graduate school play an important part of setting expectations. Success indexes life’s expectation curve higher while failure drives it lower. A driven, successful, highly capable person who has climbed the ladder to Chief of Neurosurgery at Massachusetts General will have radically higher expectations than a person who flunked out of high school, smoked dope for three years before setting a lifetime career goal to become a forklift driver at the city garbage dump.

Business leaders recognize it’s essential in a market-based enterprise to have happy employees. “Best man or woman for the job” does not imply the one who has the highest level of capability but rather the person whose capabilities and expectations most closely match the duties, responsibilities, and compensation the job has to offer. Management must balance the need for competence against cost. When a business cannot meet employee and customer expectations balanced against revenue, it will fail. When an entire industry finds itself in this situation, the entire industry will fail.In the airline industry an unprecedented percentage of unit revenue and unit expense is outside control of management.

In 1978 pricing power was wiped out with passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. During the 1990’s the Internet matured making it almost impossible to gain a revenue advantage over a competitor. Awash in red ink it was no surprise the chainsaw was wielded at labor in an attempt to reduce costs following the Dot-com bust of 2000 and the events surrounding September 11, 2001. It was the perfect storm. Luckily the airlines had resources in place to deal with the tragedy.

For the last 35 years a Washington D.C. based think tank funded by the airlines, Airline Industrial Relations Conference, has existed to achieve one objective: Control airline personnel cost. How well have they done? In a word, phenomenal. I will illustrate the fruits of their labor with their crowning achievement................. Airline pilots

In terms of inflation adjusted dollars, Airline pilots today earn less than half of what they did 35 years ago. The unit of work can be measured by flight hours, duty hours, hours away from home, Revenue Passenger Miles, Available Seat Miles, or most importantly, revenue generated per pilot.

Industry hyperbole: Pilots are paid way too much. Look at the hourly wage. Look at how little they work. Seems like a whole lot of money to pay someone for a part time hobby.

In reality if consideration is given to opportunity cost, time value of money, true number of hours required to become and work as a commercial pilot, risk in terms of not completing a career for any number of reasons, including getting killed; The economic justification is not substantiated to become a commercial pilot even if the career goal is attained. 

Industry belief: There is not now nor will there ever be a shortage of people willing to work as pilots at any wage. True fact. Nor will there ever be a shortage of people willing to be Professional Ball players, or Firefighters or CEOs at any wage. The question is this: Will the industry be able to attract and retain the level of competence required at any wage? The answer is no. At the current Federal minimum wage you would not be able to consistently find competent Professional Ball players, Firefighters, CEOs or Airline pilots.

 Industry stance: Pilots don’t get paid minimum wage and planes are not falling out of the sky. The current national manpower pool of airline pilots came in with substantially higher career expectations, thus capability than what will be the next generation airline pilots. Airlines now operate on borrowed time during the transition. It will take years, perhaps a decade for current pilots to retire and or leave the profession in significant numbers before the damage to safety will be acknowledged.

Industry opinion: Statistically we are enjoying an era of unprecedented airline safety. There will always be some level of risk to flying.

A time bomb is being built as airlines focus on lower expectation pilots. As the industry continues the “race to the bottom” airline leadership will confront a pilot labor pool decimated to such an extent that safe, reliable air transportation will no longer be feasible within the cost structure they created. As the next generation pilots take command we will see much more of what is now just the tip of an alarming iceberg: Unthinkable missteps by incompetent pilots resulting in massive loss of life and substantial hull losses. Recent events such as the Helios 737 crash, the West Caribbean MD-82 crash, the American Airbus A300 crash, the Northwest Pinnacle CRJ crash and the Delta Comair CRJ crash are examples are inexcusable errors that should have never happened. Safe air travel was built by minimizing identifiable risk. The industry has become complacent with the current level of safety and is willing to accept increased risk in an effort to reduce personnel costs.

 Industry objective: Replace human capability with technology. Over the last 35 years the modern airliner has been loaded with safety features in an attempt to idiot-proof flying. If we can teach Homer Simpson to run a nuclear power plant we can now teach his twin brother to fly a jet plane.

Flying is a dynamic environment requiring considerable judgment and intervention beyond the capability of technology. Members of the Airline Industrial Relations Conference need to dispatch with the NTSB Go Team so they could see first hand the true fruits of their labor. The severed body parts and blood splattered airplane wreckage. The stench of burned human flesh and charred remains at the crash site of Delta Comair 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky. They should be required to console the loved ones of those who were killed. Only Airline Industrial Relations Conference members would attempt to quantify why such a hull loss is acceptable. Air Conference members should be held accountable for manslaughter, or if they fully understand what they have done, murder.

Safety of the flying public needs to take priority over trying to staff airline cockpits with the cheapest human resources the industry can find. The Simpson’s is just a cartoon.

Interviewing people from every walk of life for three decades he understood what made people tick. If he were alive today, Johnny Carson would not be flying Delta or any other airline. He would not be able to find any well-paid happy pilots. The leaders of the airline industry have won and the flying public has lost. And it was all for what? $5.

Cy Phy
Cy Phy

Johnny Carson can fly Delta all he wants. But unless he's an airline expert, how does he know when he boards a plane that says "Delta," that he's not actually flying Pinnacle, Mesaba, or Compass? Well, if Johnny was still alive, he'd have his own jet by now anyway.

Once a Captain
Once a Captain

Find out how long and to what expense one has to do to become a regional airline pilot.

The regionals are the stepping stone to the major airlines but in todays day and age you'll be stuck making below 50K a year for at least 5 years before cracking into a Captain position at 75K. All this while enduring long hours away from friends and family, having every word uttered, action taken, recorded and potentally review by the company and the FAA, to retain the childhood dream. The profession used to mean something, used to be fun, used to be desirable, now it's the easiest way to drinking alone in Fargo, facetiming with your family from Durango and cheating on your husband or wife in Chicago, all while paying off your student loans for years at a benefit level less then a full time worker at McDonalds! From the outside the profession looks incredible, from the inside, it's downright shameful!! If you talk to the most experienced airline pilots today I garentee you 90% of them would leave if they could take 20+ years of crawling and scratching there way to the level of income today to anything outside the aviation community. The road to happiness in aviation happened in it's heyday of the 70's and early 80's, now it's just a big pain in the ass! Stay away, the glamor is design!!

david mowers
david mowers

"Cry me a river" ...says the millions of unemployed textile workers from the Southern United States.

"Boo Hoo" ...says the millions of women forced to work for $2.00's an hour as waitresses.

Steel industry- Gone.Manufacturing- Gone.Chemical industry- Gone.Plastics industry- Gone.Domestic energy production- Gone.

Exactly "how" do all you college-educated people think companies make the money they pay you? The U.S. should try a real "free market" with all professionally licensed trades, one where your skills are based on actual demand and profitability and not rigged and subsidized by the government. I'd like see nurse practitioner salaries with no Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement by federal tax payer money. Wouldn't it be a hoot to see how cheap these "jobs of the future" could be in a real free market? How about Airline pilots from Africa willing to work for $100s a day? Nurses and surgeons working for $100s a day? How about we let you all see what life is like in the lower classes where jobs are no longer subsidized by the government? Oh yeah, your only "for" something if it means money in your pocket, and because you were too stupid to figure out how to make money without staying in grade school another four years (which you paid for too) society should underwrite your chosen profession just because you think it benefits society somehow?

How? ..by costing everyone more of their money...oh yeah that is EXACTLY the real issue isn't it? Inflation is o.k. as long as I get the benefit. No one should ever fly as a passenger in an air plane, it is a hopeless waste of money only possible because of government subsidies and a terrible waste of a non-replenishable source of energy- oil.

909Jeff
909Jeff

The regionals are the stepping stone to the major airlines but in todays day and age you'll be stuck making below 50K a year for at least 5 years before cracking into a Captain position at 75K

So youre saying that a pilot should step out of flight school and into a captains position which at 75k a year is well above the median even here in CA.  Everyone has to start at the bottom.  Why should pilots be any different?

willflyforfood
willflyforfood

909Jeff- you have it wrong.

the airline hierarchy is not that of the logical mind.  It is an industry that has been gutted by the corporate bottom line that builds itself on the backs of its laborers. Maintenance, scheduling, dispatch, flight crews all have seen significant cuts to their pay and quality of life.  An average pilot walks away from their education $100,000 in debt. Starting pay is a dismal 14,000 - 25,000 at a good regional airline.  Simply waiting 5 years to upgrade to a captain position is not as clear cut as it sounds.  If the economy slows down 5 years turns to 10.

 Does PAN AM, Eastern, TWA, Aloha, etc ring a bell?  These names are completely ignoring regional airlines that have closed down with first officers whom never had the opportunity to upgrade resulting in starting over from square 1 at a different regional airline. 

Airlines are not the most stable job in the world.   Our industry is not like many others.  If a doctor with 20 years of experience suddenly decides that his hospital is not going in the same direction as his career expectations, he/she may go to the next hospital and say "I have 20 years of valuable experience and knowledge that can benefit your facility. If i leave my hospital will you pay me the same or more than my previous employer?"   In the airline industry if the a 20 year captain, yes even Ca. Sully, decides its time for a new boss he/she and presents the same argument they will be met with a shocking response.  "your experience however important and valuable to the safety of our passengers is irrelevant. Our first year pay is $20,000 and you will have to wait 5-10 years before your seniority can apply for a captain position."

There are many obstacles in this career that hide behind the Hollywood image and public perception.  Do you feel comfortable knowing that we regularly start our duty day 15+ hours before we are putting your plane safely on the runway?  What about starting your early morning flight off with receiving only 8 hours of time between landing the night before going to the hotel, maybe dinner, trying to fall asleep and then showing up 45 minutes early to set up the plane just to get you out on time.   (if you guessed at rough numbers it equates to 5-6 hours of sleep if you are lucky)

Your response to this, "make the union fix it, go on strike!"   Our hands are tied by the Railway Labor Act.  We are unable to make many of the necessary reforms due to the fact that our labor groups have no leverage.  We are unable to make credible treats to our employers such as; we will not show up for work tomorrow unless we see some improvements.  Without permission from a federal mediator our unions can not go on strike.  At any time that strike can be forced to end by the mediator.  Please refer to the RLA for more information on that subject...

To sum up your simple complaint of "self entitled" pilots wanting to be different.  W are different, we just want the same opportunities as everyone else.

Mauricioinwi
Mauricioinwi

Good logic/critical thinking...wish I can understand why so many people lack it. Could it be genetic?...environmental?....would love to know...

Mauricioinwi
Mauricioinwi

Sir,

No need to call anyone names; you can make your arguments without offending. I too spent a lot of money getting my licenses. Back in 1982, when I realized that my dream career and making a decent living were not going to be in the same context. I moved on, and got into something else. The airlines can't pay what they don't have. They consistently are money losers its a thin margin business. It is what it is; count your blessings that you are free to retrain and try again at something else.

Mauricioinwi
Mauricioinwi

Sir,

There is no portability of experience in the airline world because the unions prevent you from changing. Go to one of the chinese, middle eastern airlines; they don't have unions, they'll take you in a s a captain.

Cy Phy
Cy Phy

95% of people don't understand this. They think that if you get on a plane that says "Delta," you're flying Delta. But you're not. You're probably flying Compass or Mesaba or Pinnacle, airlines that people have never heard of. This is an issue of deregulation, and the answer is simple, if our country has the will to act.

909Jeff
909Jeff

It has nothing to do with me being arrogant.  Its simple business.  The market pays what the market pays if you dont like it move on.  Am I to assume that you are a pilot because you care so deeply about humanity? Bullshit... you do it because it keeps the lights on and food on the table.  I'm sorry that you have to live in westminster instead of Newport Beach but it is what it is. And look man I feel your pain... When I left the Marines I was well on my way to getting my A&P license.  I chose the 4 year degree option because I knew it would take years to get to a point where I was making a living wage working on planes. Not to mention I no longer wanted to expose myself to all the chemicals. 

Maybe youre right and I just dont get it... Do I think pilots should be well compensated, sure... I think their should be a graduated payscale and that your experience should matter when seeking other employment .  I dont begrudge you the ability to earn.  But what would you have us do?  Would you rather have the airlines regulated as they were until deregulation?  Create another government bureaucracy?  Why dont you hold your union bosses accountable for not negotiating on your behalf.  Sounds to me like your issue should be with them, what the hell are you paying them for?

Bcrosier
Bcrosier

You really are an arrogant @$$.

"Change Careers... You are only guaranteed to the persuit of happiness. Sounds to me like its more convenient for you to play the victim."

I have considered changing careers, and may do so at some point.  If I (and a number of my colleagues who are contemplating the same thing), do so, remember your next flight may well be crewed by inexperienced, marginally qualified pilots who elected to go into aviation because they couldn't hack a four year degree.  By and large the crews in my demographic have years of experience and were selected into degree programs more exclusive than many medical schools.

"By and large the largest slice of overhead for a company is its employees... unfortunately thats the asiest to trim the fat from."

For incompetent business school grads who have no idea how to actually run and build a company, yes that's true.

If you're satisfied with bottom of the barrel people operating your flight, you may well get your wish.  You should probably look at accident statistics in other parts of the world before you start wishing for that though - and I don't mean Europe.  You pay peanuts, you get monkeys...

909Jeff
909Jeff

Change Careers... You are only guaranteed to the persuit of happiness. Sounds to me like its more convenient for you to play the victim. I feel for you to a point, and we all have taken a step back to take two steps forward... Its the nature of the beast.  The average person changes careers 6 times in their lifetime. Notice I said CAREER and not jobs there is a difference. And like any other industry when they find themselves in a shortage of good talant, changes will be made.  By and large the largest slice of overhead for a company is its employees... unfortunately thats the asiest to trim the fat from.

909Helper - I speak like a knuckle dragging neanderthal because I was a product of the OC school system and the Cal State system. 

See the post below by "Get out While U Still Can"

909helper
909helper

you'll have to use simpler words for Jeff909 to understand.  Instead of portability, how about:  Jeff quit, Jeff start rookie.  Jeff 20 years experience.  No use.  Always rookie at start.

Bcrosier
Bcrosier

Jeff -

You are conveniently (and apparently arrogantly) ignoring one very important point:  There is no portability of experience in the airline industry.  As was explained to you, if a pilot leaves an airline for any reason, they start over at the next airline at year 1 pay - so we really don't have the luxury of quitting and going somewhere else.  It's not an issue of being unwilling to "earn your stripes," as you so snidely put it - we have.

I took an entry level position, worked there five years.  I started at 20K, which was better than average, I left as a captain earning $37.5K, well below average.  I then went to a major airline, I worked five years, upgraded and made decent money for two years.  Then the company went bankrupt.  I was forced to accept a nearly 50% pay cut, then spent the next three years there making progressively less each year until the company finally went out of business.  Ten years of my life down the drain - I started at my next employer at year one pay (as did everyone else from the airline who ended up at another airline).    I've been with my current employer for four years now, and I'm still earning less than I did seven years ago.  I've paid my dues.  I've been a captain for a number of years, I've flown widebody aircraft internationally, carrying vacationers to Europe, businessmen to New York, and troops into war zones.  I think I've paid my damn dues.  I'd like to be able to make a living.

909Jeff
909Jeff

I wouldnt say I have it wrong...

Look, If janitors got paid 100k a year the world would be a cleaner place.

I came out of school with debt as did my wife, and my collegues and we all had to take entry level positions starting in the mid 30's.  Now, 10 years into our careers we are well compensated.  Earn your stripes.  I'm sorry if someone lied to you or tricked you into following a career path that didnt pan out.   

Yes pan am, eastern (and western) all ring a bell.  They were unable to adapt their business model and were out done by thier rivals.  Just like K-mart and woolsworth etc...

 As far as your union goes, I didnt mention anything about that, lest Bill T (one of Gustavos goons) shows up and try to break my leg.  But yet another shining example of how unions in the modern era are uderly worthless. Do you look at the state of affairs in your industry and wonder why you even pay dues?

In response to what you said about my simple complaint... Sometimes the simple solution is often the best.  The great thing about free enterprise is that the workers have the ability to quit as well.

Drew
Drew

As someone who stupidly fell prey to the "vocational school" scam, I dropped 35+k on flight training before coming to my senses and cutting my losses. Especially with all the super high hour military pilots glutting the market, paying for your own training and working up fron Cessenas isn't going to work out for 99% of non military looking to break into commercial aviation. There aren't that many banner towing/ crop dusting / aerial tour / skydiving jobs out there either.

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