Ask the pilot

Singing the airplane pilot workingman blues.

Published February 17, 2006 12:30PM (EST)

On Feb.1, United Airlines emerged from more than 37 months under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. United was and remains the largest transportation entity ever to file for court protection. Tainting the emergence was word of an estimated $300 million reward package to be split among 400 company executives. This after workers' pensions had been terminated, salaries and benefits reduced drastically. "To be sure," editorialized USA Today, "these executives took a ponderous, money-losing airline, pared it back, and reintroduced it as a company with a fighting chance. But that feat was built on slashing labor costs." Even the pages of Air Transport World, a magazine not known to opine sympathetically toward labor, couldn't help throwing out a barb, noting that the management stock award had originally been twice the agreed-to amount before angry creditors and employees got wind of it. ATW gave United a mock "Greed Is Good Award."

Since the Chapter 11 filing in December 2002, United has spent $324 million in consulting fees and other assistance with its reorganization, according to the Rocky Mountain News. The paper calculated that amount to be equivalent to 10,451 flight attendant salaries for a year.

How many pilot salaries that equates to wasn't specified, but based on first-year pay scales, the number is roughly the same. Dividing $324 million by 10,451 gives you $31,000 per year, which is a typical salary for new-hire pilots at any large airline, not just United. If anything, it's a tad high. At United specifically, cockpit crewmembers now earn about 40 percent less than they did three years ago, with a 20 percent increase in work hours -- not to mention the evisceration of their pension plan and the cutting of benefits across the board.

Welcome to the glamorous, lucrative world of piloting. While not to ignore the pains of the many other workers who've been asked to make sacrifices over the past several years, both inside and outside the airline business, a look at the tribulations of pilots is interesting and revealing. Despite the carnage imposed on collective bargaining agreements of late, many myths and misconceptions about pilot earnings continue to circulate.

Fast Company magazine actually included "airline pilot" on its list of "The 25 Top Jobs for 2005." "Airline jobs pay in the six figures," says the magazine. That one that had me spurting coffee over my keyboard.

Well, they do, some of them, but that's a bit like saying that acting jobs pay in the eight figures, just because a small minority of actors are lucky enough to become stars. Be cautious of sources citing "average" salaries. Those averages might pertain only to captains, or only to pilots employed by the major carriers. Along with these dollar values often comes the implication that they're obscene or undeserved, failing to explain that a given pilot is liable to be in his late 50s by the time he earns that fourth stripe and a respectable income, after a lifetime of slogging it out for nothing pay and possibly enduring years of furlough. A pilot's early and mid-career struggles, and the fact that many (or most) of them never make it to a major airline at all, aren't routinely quantified in the bullet-point salary rankings.

Another thing to be leery of are quotes of hourly pay rates. While it's true that most pilots are compensated by the hour, those are flight hours, not "work" hours as most people think of them. Those hourly totals might seem outlandish, but they are engineered to account for the off-the-clock ancillaries of the job: preflight planning, downtime between flights, and periods laying over in hotels. Only a fraction of a typical multi-day assignment is spent in the air. Over the course of a month, perhaps 75-80 hours of actual flight are recorded, but a pilot might be on the road for upwards of three weeks.

At airlines, where the seniority system rules all, raises -- along with upgrades from first officer to captain -- are based on length of tenure and little or nothing else. Increases come annually, and modestly. An eighth-year first officer at United now grosses approximately $85,000. Perhaps that doesn't sound terribly unreasonable for a position with a large corporation, but you have to consider the typical career path endured by the typical pilot before he or she achieves such level of tenure. In the United States, aviators do not begin their careers with major airlines, where the average age of new hires is somewhere between 35 and 40. In other words, you could be 42, 48, or even 50 years old before bringing home that $85,000.

Prior to that, a civilian-trained pilot faces long stretches of de facto apprenticeship, usually flying regional planes. And prior to that, he or she probably built time as a flight instructor, teaching doctors to fly Cessnas for eight bucks an hour, or in some other entry-level capacity for next-to-nothing wages. And prior to that, he or she needed to amass the requisite FAA licenses and ratings to become employable in the first place.

(We'll mostly stick with civilian ranks for the purposes of this discussion. Civilians account for close to half of all airline pilots and represent the bulk of those now being hired. Military fliers frequently have the comfort of armed services pensions, and they are often -- though certainly not always, as we'll see later -- able to bypass most entry-level stints once in the job market.)

As we speak, pilot recruitment is in fact robust, but the majority of openings are at the regionals, where new-hire pay (at the helm of a $20-plus million Embraer or Canadair) is in the vicinity of $16,000-$22,000. Between a quarter and a third of all airline pilots are working at regional carriers, and the percentage is going up. A senior captain at United and a junior first officer at United Express are airline pilots just the same -- indeed one can argue the latter has the more challenging position -- but the captain's salary might exceed the first officer's by a factor of 10.

And don't forget, there is no sideways transfer of pay or skills. A laid-off crewmember from United, Delta or Northwest is free to fly elsewhere, but must begin again as a junior copilot at probationary pay and benefits. In America, around 5,000 airline pilots remain on indefinite furlough status from the biggest airlines (and some of the small ones too). For understandable reasons, not too many of these out-of-work airmen are champing at the bit for a chance to start from scratch at a regional.

At Mesaba Airlines, a Northwest Airlink affiliate founded in 1944, pilot compensation now begins at $21,000 per year. (For flight attendants, it's $14,000; for mechanics, $27,000.) Average base pay for all Mesaba pilots, captains and first officers together, is roughly $48,000. Crewmembers and union representatives have been holding informational picketing recently, as management has put forth a Section 1113c motion in an attempt to nullify its pilots' contract. With its parent company, Northwest, now in Chapter 11, Mesaba wants to chop wages 19 percent and impose a 60 percent increase in health insurance premiums. Apparently $21,000 is an untenable expenditure for a highly skilled technical position.

The public should understand that for a civilian pilot, just getting to the point of being a competitive candidate for this airline and numerous others like it -- all the Links, Expresses, Eagles, Connections, and other suffixed regionals out there -- requires an outlay somewhere in the range of $30,000 for primary training over a period of years -- plus, usually, a college degree.

Competition for the more elite jobs, or what exists of them, is brutal. A cockpit seat at JetBlue, for instance, is among the most coveted (starting pay $53,000, give or take) Good luck getting your application noticed in a stack with 10,000 others, many belonging to highly experienced furloughees from United, Delta, Northwest and elsewhere. Opportunities exist overseas, but there too the bar is set high. Rapidly expanding companies like Emirates, who take on mainly expatriate crews, expect candidates to come with hundreds or thousands of hours of advanced jet time. With the glut of furloughees, they, like JetBlue, have little trouble finding applicants to their liking. Last year, my own application to the fast-growing Qatar Airways was rejected out of hand. Less than two weeks after I'd mailed a résumé off to Doha came a thanks-but-no-thanks letter. Most of my experience is captaining regional turboprops, or as flight engineer on older cargo jets. They want a logbook fat with high-tech Boeings and Airbuses.

Hiring trends are the primary driver of how quickly an individual advances from bottom-feeding first officer to, ideally, captain at a major airline. The industry is cyclical, yes, though the amplitude of the waves is tough to predict, dependent as it is on industry health, attrition from retirements, etc. Some people hit the cycle at just the right time; they move quickly up the ladder in a lucrative career that hardly skips a beat. Others end up like me: twice-furloughed castoffs whose annual take-home totals have been as low as $11,000. My own example is somewhat worst case. For the sake of comparison, let's take a look at somebody else -- a colleague of mine whom we'll call Dan:

Dan is 39 and started off as a Navy fighter pilot. After leaving the service in the early 1990s, the best job he could find was a $12,000 per year position with a Northwest Airlink franchise hubbed out of Boston, flying 19-seaters -- often as my copilot -- until the company's collapse in 1994. Afterward he caught on with American Eagle, earning $15,000 as a first officer based in San Juan, where he shared an apartment with three other pilots. Around this time, the airlines began their mid-'90s hiring spree, and Dan, unlike most of his friends and co-workers, managed to land a slot at one of the industry giants. His opening salary was only $26,000, but rapid and continuous hiring pushed him swiftly up the seniority list. Within five years he was flying international routes on widebody aircraft. By age 35, he was making well over six figures.

Then came the downturn. Dan's employer happened to be one of those household names that by 2001 would find itself in a heap of trouble and wearing the collar of bankruptcy protection. Now in his 11th year, Dan flies 747s to the Far East and brings home $95,000 annually, but only a few years ago it was substantially more. "My pay is about half of what it was in 2002," he notes.

So, is this a success story or a failure? Here's a guy not yet 40 flying the world's most prestigious aircraft to exotic destinations in Asia, with nearly a six-figure income. On the other hand, here's a guy whose pay and benefits were lopped in half by a bankrupt airline whose future remains questionable. Depends how you see it, I suppose.

Dan laughs. "All in all, I'd say that I'm extremely fortunate to be where I am. Most pilots would kill to be where I am, and to have the strokes of luck I've had."

Also to Dan's benefit, taxpayers covered the cost of his primary training. Those early years in Boston and San Juan would have been a lot tougher had he been paying off flight school loans. "My college loans were expensive enough," he says.

From my perspective, and plenty of others' too, Dan's situation, for all its unknowns and could-have-been-betters, is about as good as it gets.

Between the extremes are many thousands of pilots, working hard and earning what most people would consider run-of-the-mill blue-collar checks. (Of course, the whole notion of a blue-collar job, millions will attest, isn't what it used to be either.) Many, if not most, will make it partway along their intended path. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; retiring as a first officer with a large airline, or as a captain with a strong regional, is nothing to be ashamed of.

Regrettably, plenty don't make it even that far before running out of time -- or patience. In a recent study by the Wilson Center for Public Research, as reported in Air Line Pilot magazine, one-third of pilots age 40 or younger say they plan to leave the piloting profession at some point before retirement, and 15 percent said they plan to leave within the next five years, describing their choice of an aviation career as a "mistake." Doesn't sound like Fast Company had wind of this study before releasing that list of best jobs.


RE: Who's to blame when a 737 skids off a runway?

Your article regarding December's Southwest Airlines accident at Chicago-Midway is in error. Flight 1248 did not, according to the NTSB, land 2,000 feet beyond the threshold. It landed 2,000 feet beyond the runway's end. Runway 31C has a displaced threshold of approximately 700 feet. Thus the plane touched down only about 1,300 feet beyond the threshold. Your error implies that the pilots may have done something wrong.

-- Kevin Fergerson

Author's reply:

I stand corrected. This is important, because it means that the crew of flight 1248 did not, despite allegations to the contrary, land too far down the snowy runway at Midway. On the contrary, they were within the 1,500-foot parameter used by their onboard computer to ensure adequate stopping distance. This only deepens the mystery of why the jet was unable to decelerate in time.

The layperson should know that a runway's threshold and its end, which is to say full length and usable length, are not always the same thing. Many runways have so-called displaced thresholds -- a portion of several hundred feet or more off limits to arriving aircraft. This area can be used for taxiing, for takeoff, or as an overrun, but because of glidepath obstructions is not available for landing.

The NTSB report consulted for my Dec. 23 column includes the following:

"Preliminary calculations show that the airplane touched down with about 4,500 feet of remaining runway..."

Here's what we have: Total length of runway 31C is 6,522 feet, with a displaced threshold of 696 feet. That's a usable length of 5,826 feet. The plane touched down with 4,500 feet remaining. Subtracting 4,500 from 5,826 gives us 1,326.

The plane landed 1,326 feet from the threshold, not 2,000 feet. The 2,000 figure (2,022 to be precise) erroneously includes the 696 feet of displacement.

Importantly, however, neither the NTSB advisory, dated Dec. 15 and excerpted above, nor the original synopsis available on the NTSB Web site, specifies the total or usable distance of runway 31C. I mistakenly took it for granted that other media reports harping on the plane's having landed "2,000 feet down the runway" were in reference to the actual threshold and not the meaningless (in this case) total length.

It would have been relatively easy to look up the published length and do the subtraction myself, but I had no reason to believe those "2,000 feet" were in reference to anything other than the obvious implication. Adding to the confusion, pilots use the terms, "end" and "threshold" fairly interchangeably.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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