Ask the pilot

No time to shine the Bentley -- the real truth about a pilot's life.


Patrick Smith
March 24, 2006 2:30PM (UTC)

[Pilots] just don't seem to understand how good they have it. They make more than most corporate Vice Presidents, while working 20 hours a week.

-- Anonymous posting to an online bulletin board

Pilot pay is back in the news again, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the New York Times, among other places. I'd like to take credit for getting the ball rolling with my Feb. 17 column, but in fact aircrew salaries are something of a topic du jour, due in large part to the turmoil at Northwest and Delta Air Lines.

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At Delta in particular, where pilots are talking strike under the threat of deep concessions and/or termination of their collective bargaining agreement, a recent BLS report, as analyzed in an article from Bizjournals, is a public relations disaster with the worst possible timing. According to BLS/Bizjournals, salaries for "airplane pilots and navigators" rank second only to physicians, clocking in at a wallet-stuffing $128,406 per year. (I wonder if there aren't thousands of apoplectic doctors out there experiencing the same frustrations that I am.) Not only that, but hourly pay for pilots -- a lurid $118.58 -- outscores all other professions.

Or so it would seem. Where to begin on this one?

For starters, not to disparage the efforts of BLS researchers or Bizjournals reporter G. Scott Thomas any more than is necessary, there hasn't been a navigator on a U.S. commercial flight in approximately 35 years. The last reported navigator sighting was that of the hapless Howard Borden on the old "Bob Newhart Show."

Otherwise, nothing in the report is false, exactly; the trouble is the context. Basically, there isn't any. Utterly absent from the caricature is the reality that tens of thousands of airline pilots earn under $50,000 per year, many less than half that amount, and only a fraction will have the good fortune of landing with the right airline and accruing enough seniority for one of those celebrated six-figure windfalls -- or what exists of them after the next round of cuts. The high wages garnered by senior crews at the best-paying carriers, of whom there are relatively few among the nation's 100,000 or so airline pilots, skews the BLS data, implying that all pilots are, as a rule, compensated so handsomely.

That hourly rate, especially, is in sore need of asterisks. Sure, $118 an hour will strike the average citizen as awfully high, until you realize it pertains only to actual in-the-air time, which accounts for only a portion of crewmember duties and obligations. Thomas' synopsis at Bizjournals includes this blatantly misinformed nugget: "Physicians have a clear edge over airplane pilots in annual earnings ... but pilots have an edge of their own. They work a lot less, averaging just 1,038 hours per year."

Heck, that's fewer than 20 hours per week -- a veritable part-time job -- leaving plenty of time for golf, polo, and polishing the Bentley.

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Typically, pilots are paid based on a schedule of 75-85 flight hours per month. Yes, that multiplies out to around 1,000 hours for the year. Actual monthly duty time, however, can be 150 hours or more, not including layovers. A pilot works 75 hours a month much the way a football player works one hour a week. All the preparation and paperwork of a journey by air -- weather planning, preflight inspections, flight plan review, etc., etc. -- are off the clock, strictly speaking, as are those nights at the Ramada or La Quinta.

Example: A pilot, let's call him Steve, wakes at 5 a.m. in a hotel room in Jacksonville, with a scheduled departure for Washington at 07:00. Steve is a first officer for a major U.S. airline and makes $65,000 annually. He and his crew fly to Washington, where they have a 90-minute stay before taking off again for Boston. After a two-hour sit and a maintenance delay in Boston, they fly to Toronto, landing just after 5 p.m. An hour later, they're dropped off at a hotel near the airport to spend the night. Total elapsed time from curbside to curbside: more than 12 hours. Total pay hours: fewer than five. Oh, and there's a 4 a.m. wakeup call on tap for the next morning.

Repeat this scenario, or something close to it, 16, 17, or 18 times a month.

Most pilot contracts provide for a so-called duty-rig, guaranteeing compensation for a set portion of on-the-job time. At one airline I worked for, we called this the "one-third rule": spend 12 hours on duty, get paid for four, regardless of time aloft. That was pretty generous. Even with those provisions, that $118 an hour is a farce once you do the division. Going by time on duty, which is, by any measure, a much truer gauge, a pilot's $65,000 yearly income boils out to roughly $34 per hour. For a regional pilot -- say a first officer with a salary of $23,000 -- it's about $12 per hour.

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I'm not the only one fighting this fight. Last Saturday, the New York Times ran an opinion piece from Bob Buck, octogenarian airman and the author of several flying books. The piece was called, "Why It Makes Sense to Pay Pilots a Decent Salary." I can think of plenty of reasons, each of them itemized, evaluated, and explored many times in this column, but unfortunately Buck skirts the core issue. Rather than highlighting the fact that pilots don't earn the salaries often cited by media and airline management, he plays the hero card, delving into the inherent risks carried by every pilot into the cockpit -- the responsibilities, in other words, that come with keeping hundreds of people alive. Not to downplay the immense amounts of knowledge, skill, and professionalism required to safely operate a jetliner, but this heart-tug argument has always struck me as backward. By attempting to justify salaries that, to a large extent, don't actually exist, you're nourishing the very myths that bring up this annoying conversation in the first place. And a large number of people simply don't buy it, thanks to similarly irksome mythology that says modern aircraft essentially fly themselves; that pilots are merely on hand as backup instruments, etc. The exceptional industry safety record that pilots work hard to maintain sets up a bit of a Catch-22: Planes rarely crash, so what's the big deal? It's only when a pilot screws up that he gets any attention, at which point, in the public's ill-informed eye, he looks foolish -- and overpaid.

Buck's Op-Ed also gets us mired in the controversy of vocational worth. What is a pilot, with hundreds of lives in his hands, "worth"? It's a pointless question that segues into the tired old debate that pits teachers, cops and soldiers on one side of the altruism scale; athletes, celebrities and Dick Cheney on the other. Somewhere in there fall pilots, their exact placement usually varying with the debater's level of aerophobia.

One venue to prominently splash the BLS/Bizjournals findings on the front of its business section was MSNBC.com. What I like best about this story is the accompanying through-the-windshield photograph of a pilot on the flight deck. Look at the captain saluting, as if he's signing off on this nonsense. In one of the sharpest ironies I've encountered in some time, you'll notice that he's sitting at the controls of a Canadair Regional Jet. It'd be easy to mine a thousand words from this absurdly ill-chosen picture, but here's the short version:

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I see a guy about 55 years old. He cut his teeth flying commuters in the 1970s for $220 a week, until landing a job at Braniff in the late 1970s. The future looked bright. Until Braniff, once one of the world's biggest and fastest-growing airlines, went under. Then, he took a job at Eastern, starting over, per protocol, at the bottom of the list at probationary pay and benefits. Then came Lorenzo and the strike, and Eastern too was soon gone. Onward to USAir -- again to the bottom, and another re-set of the pay and benefits clock. It seemed an acceptable bet -- until yet again things turned sour and he was furloughed. Next he settled in with one of the growing regionals, where he made about $15,000 in his first year. Eventually, when his turn came, he upgraded to captain, and today he's as comfortable as he can expect to be, looking at retirement in just a few years. He earns $70,000 or so -- more than at any prior position. A respectable income, certainly, but that's his big payoff after, what, 30 years of flying? Just out of view is the first officer. He's 28 and a new hire, with fifty grand in college and flight school debts. He expects to bring home about $18,000.

So why enter this lousy line of work, with all its pitfalls and dangers and smashed-up dreams? Because you love it, of course, and because, should the cards come up right, you can be one of those lucky ones sitting pretty in a Boeing 777 en route to Shanghai -- hopefully while you're still young enough to enjoy it. As J.A. Donoghue, the editor of Air Transport World magazine, once put it, "Aviation does not attract the easily discouraged."

One can argue that pilots themselves are much to blame for what has been a slow erosion of quality-of-life standards. It's true that industry economics have changed drastically since deregulation, but aircrews, and their unions too, have not fully adapted. I've been a union member for several years, but the seniority system, with its huge rewards for those at the top and comparative crumbs for those at the bottom, is greatly out of step with a volatile, unstable industry that no longer ensures long-term tenure.

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And the pilot mindset, especially at the lower, entry-level echelons, still hinges on tenets of intense self-sacrifice. Suffering for one's art is at times noble -- or even, for the most passionate devotees, nonnegotiable -- but sleeping in your car or sharing a flophouse apartment with 10 starving colleagues, all for the chance to maybe land a job that offers a blue-collar wage, is, in many people's eyes, something less than dignified or professional.

And among the piloting corps, dignity and professionalism are extremely common buzzwords. In-house publications, union newsletters, and even our flight manuals are constantly making didactic reference to that ubiquitous and increasingly vague concept: professionalism. It's worrisome that pilots find themselves so preoccupied with this word, using it with such lack of discretion as to be render it meaningless.

I have a book here -- an insider guide for pilots that tells you how to prepare for a job interview with an airline. One of the tips it offers is an admonishment not to wear shirts with button-down collars to the interview. These, it says, are "not professional." Will somebody tell me what on the great green earth have collar buttons to do with being a professional?

A regional carrier I once worked at lectured its new hires about the virtues of, naturally, professionalism. The airline demanded its trainees wear ties to class and meet near-perfect standards of performance and behavior. Fair enough, but this same company paid us all of $14,000. Is that professional?

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As a pilot with one carrier, I was told to make sure the knot in my necktie was the proper width. Then I would step into the cockpit of my freighter aircraft, where the floor was often so covered with filth, gum wrappers, dust and dirt, that a rapid decompression would probably have blinded the entire crew. How about some professionalism there?

Employees are shouldered with the role, unwanted or otherwise, of representing the company they work for. That company has the right to demand they present themselves in its desired image. But shouldn't it work both ways? One regional pilot puts it this way: "I find it hard to take my job seriously because I am not treated seriously. Rather, I take the idea of my job seriously."

Pilots have an obligation to uphold the honor of their trade, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of mistreatment. But that should involve more than insecure worrying about the minutiae of uniforms or facial hair. I say facial hair because I was once verbally harassed by a colleague after showing up to class with a two-day goatee. Our egos shouldn't require such self-affirmative soothing or sartorial pomp. We already know that we're professionals, or at least we should, and there is nobody in the world of labor, management, or the general public, who would deny this. A pilot obsessed with spit-polishing his shoes, like a fisherman wearing a tuxedo, is a fool. There are far more pressing threats to our careers than rogue tie-knots and stubble.

GO-AROUNDS

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Re: Fuel hedging

One thing about the Southwest success at buying fuel in advance: it wasn't the result of genius foresight that everybody thinks it was. At the time, oil was trading between $20 and $30 per barrel, after spending the better part of a decade at or below $12 per barrel. On the day it hit $30, I remember Gordon Bethune, CEO of Continental, predicting it would drop to the high teens. Nobody really expected it to go beyond the $15-$30 range. Southwest hedged at $25. Oil was trading around $20 when the $25 hedge was signed. It wasn't necessarily to save money as it was to turn a cost variable into a constant. It became a brilliant move (and Southwest is happy to leave the impression that they were geniuses), but at the time is was only an average business decision.

-- David Bunin

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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