Overpaid Pilots?

Nowadays it’s with a degree of fear and loathing that I approach my online mailbox. The minute I feel some hotly contentious issue has been adequately doused with reason (or at least outrage), the letters roll in pointing me to this or that sequel taking flame in some corner of the Web.

Just when I had nothing more to say about airport security, along comes Nathaniel Heatwole to rekindle our idiotic pointy-object fixation. Just when I’d finished ranting about stupidly named airlines, United unveils an alter-ego abomination named “Ted.” And so forth.

This time the subject is pilot salaries, one of the more aggravatingly revisited topics in the Ask the Pilot archives. Months ago, after threatening to martyr (and humiliate) myself by publishing copies of my past W-2s on Salon, I assumed I’d put the myth of the overpaid and underproductive pilot to rest. Not so fast. Several of you were observant enough — perhaps cruel is the choicer word — to refer me to a pair of recent articles.

The first and more egregious of the two was a November 6th article by Chris Pummer of CBS MarketWatch.com. Pummer awarded airline pilots the number nine position in his list of the “Ten Most Overpaid Jobs in the US.”

While American and United pilots recently took pay cuts, senior captains earn as much as $250,000 a year at Delta, and their counterparts at other major airlines still earn about $150,000 to $215,000 — several times pilot pay at regional carriers — for a job that technology has made almost fully automated. By comparison, senior pilots make up to 40 percent less at low-fare carriers like Jet Blue [sic] and Southwest, though some enjoy favorable perks like stock options. That helps explain why their employers are profitable while several of the majors are still teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The pilot’s unions are the most powerful in the industry. They demand premium pay as if still in the glory days of long-gone Pan Am and TWA, rather than the cutthroat, deregulated market of under-$200 coast-to-coast roundtrips. Because we entrust our lives to them, consumers accept the excessive sums paid them, when it’s airplane mechanics who really hold our fate in their hands.

He at the close of his story, “If only we were all so fortunate.” Indeed, I could use some of that largesse myself.

After reading the article, I extinguished my cigar, put aside my martini, and stepped from the Jacuzzi, handing my waterproof titanium laptop to Carlos, who immediately began wiping my feet with a white hand towel. “Penelope!” I bellowed. “Bring me my robe, and take a letter!”

I proceeded to ask Pummer why he, like so many others who’ve penned similar apocryphals of populist outrage, chooses the “senior captain” as stock representative of the airline pilot.

Senior captains make up less than 25 percent of a typical seniority list, and are small fraction of all the airline pilots out there. Only half of an airline’s pilots are captains at all, never mind the senior kind. And is Pummer aware that that 10,000 major airline pilots are currently out of work, the majority having never hit a six-figure salary, or close to it, in their professional lives?

A survey might tell you that a fifth-year first officer (copilot) at a major earns roughly $120 per hour. Amazing, you think, until you realize he is legally capped at 1000 flight hours per year, a mark that’s rarely met. And those 85 monthly hours or so — 19 per week if you must — are the tip of the on-the-job iceberg. When paid hourly, as most are, a pilot has not punched in, so to speak, till the moment his plane is pushed from the gate, and is off the clock the moment he docks at destination. Not generally accounted for are the hundreds of ancillary hours spent in hotels, between flights, taking care of paperwork, cooking ramen noodles and so forth.

And no small number of pilots, I should add, will retire as first officers, not captains. When the industry shrinks or stagnates, as is happening today, there is little forward movement within the ranks.

Pummer has not, as of yet, responded.

Even more misleading than his citation of only the highest-end salaries — and I give him credit for reminding us of the disparity between regional and mainline pay — is the remark about cockpit automation. Pummer’s flippant comment that a pilot’s job is “almost fully automated” speaks absolutely nothing to the knowledge, training and experience required before an airman masters the console of a new Airbus or Boeing. And while not to disparage the fine and crucial work of the industry’s maintenance workers, his contention that mechanics are the ones who “really hold our fate in their hands” is about the most blatantly disingenuous thing I’ve ever read.

It’s the old joke about pilots falling asleep or reading the paper while the machine flies itself around the country or across the ocean. One is tempted to envision a comfy chair and a cup holder set before a switch marked “takeoff/land.”

If I may pluck from an old column: Chatting gate-side with a frequent flyer, a pilot hears, “But do you really do anything? Doesn’t the autopilot do all the flying?” A week from now, when you’re visiting friends and family for the holiday and somebody has laid out an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner, try this: “But did you really do anything? Doesn’t the oven do all the cooking, while you sit on the couch watching football or sipping a pre-dinner cocktail?”

An automated flight deck makes a pilot’s job easier the way high-tech medical equipment helps a surgeon at his job. Have a look up front at a state-of-the-art airliner and tell me if “easy” or “fully automated” is what comes to mind.

No sooner had I apologized to my keyboard for my angrily typed rebuttal to Pummer when I was referred to a New York Times piece that ran November 18th. Here, in an otherwise entertaining story about seaplane pilots operating on the East River, writer Michelle O’Donnell states: “Being a seaplane pilot is a hard living… The pay is not high: pilots make around $50,000 a year, and co-pilots around $35,000 – a fraction of what commercial jet pilots make.”

Clearly O’Donnell wasn’t writing with an agenda; her ignorance is precisely the kind of thing propagated by Pummer’s style of direct misinformation. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t deserve a letter.

And so in a brief email I remind her that the starting salary for pilots at the major US airlines is only about $30,000. At smaller regional carriers, I inform her, new-hire first officer pay is around $20,000 and sometimes considerably less. Those river fliers, in their single-engine seaplanes, are doing quite well. There are plenty of commercial jet pilots, snazzy uniforms and all, who don’t bring home anywhere close to $50,000 annually.

A few years back, US News and World Report published a ranking of the salaries of transportation workers. The low-end value for airline pilots was slightly higher that those of subway operators and slightly lower than public bus drivers. In fairness, repeatedly citing low-end extremes is no less manipulative than Pummer et al. using the higher. But most people’s assumptions of pilot earnings is such a caricature that it almost begs to be contradicted by one. Keep showing me $250,000, and I’ll keep showing you $13,000.

The seniority system, while not without its benefits, has deeply entrenched this dichotomy. And when contract talks come around, it’s those senior captains, paying highest dues to the union, getting most of the leverage. Last year, Delta Air Lines spent $71 million on pilot pensions alone. To a guy clinging to lower rungs, it seems negotiators have a hard time acknowledging life between ages 30 and 60. This is the price we pay, I might be told, to ensure a hefty retirement down the road. I’m free to envision myself at 60, I guess, driving a camper through Yellowstone and entertaining the grandkids, but for now, in the prime of life, I’ll spend eight years on the street.

Do I think a senior captain deserves to make $250,000? The short answer is no, but neither does a new first officer deserve $30,000. Or $17,000, for that matter, at a regional. Admittedly this sets up a trap: does a dentist “deserve” $300,000? Should an athlete collect $8 million? Through the other end of the telescope, does a teacher deserve $22,000? The trap is making moral judgments on a market-determined product. For a while, the market supported the $250,000 pilot, so there are $250,000 pilots. If the market can no longer support the $250,000 pilot, it will go away.

By economies of scale, the quarter-million dollar pilot was made possible thanks to widebody aircraft bringing in revenue from hundreds of passengers. An economist (or a management executive) might argue that a 50-seat regional jet offers no such possibility. Which is true, and nobody is advocating that an RJ captain be paid the same as his counterpart on a 777. But if we apply some version of temperance to the high-end salary, let’s also address the low end.

Spreading out the wealth wouldn’t drastically change an airline’s overall tab, and is maybe the most equitable solution. As I’ve written previously, this is a gripe, if indeed a given pilot sees it as one, to be taken up between pilots and their unions rather than unions and the airlines.

The top-heavy concentration of earnings renders “average” figures meaningless. “Average” salary for a first officer (copilot) is about $70,000. Tell that to a third-year copilot at Northwest Airlink, flying a $19 million dollar RJ, who’ll be reporting about $24,000 to the IRS.

Note to self: Breathe. Sigh. Relax. Time to wrap this up, at least until the next Pummer or O’Donnell gets my ire up again.

How much the pilots at “Ted,” United’s new anthropomorphic stepchild at Denver, will be making I cannot say. (The name, if you haven’t heard it yet, is taken from the last three letters of “United,” and is better (?) than one of the earlier choices they’d come up with: Starfish. The whole air/sea thing never felt right.) If there’s no such thing as combat pay in the world of civilian flying, perhaps some kind of humiliation bonus can apply instead.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.