Pilot Pay and Seniority

“Do you mean,” someone wanted to know following last week’s column, “That a pilot with 15 years experience on a 747, upon switching companies, would have to start over as a brand new rookie? Is this industry standard?”

That is exactly correct. I say again, there is no airline-to-airline transfer of skills or salary. If, whether by choice or through the forces of bankruptcy or layoff, a pilot takes a position at another airline, he resets that fancy watch of his and begins again at zero. Yes this is industry standard, and it’s one of the reasons pilots are often so militant when it comes to labor issues.

Thus, the hours in a pilot’s logbook are a valuable thing, so long as it’s within the context of a specific company’s ranks. Otherwise they are so much dust, useful for posterity or perhaps a quantitative gauge of proficiency, but worth little when it comes to earning a salary or maintaining quality of life.

Another reader asked, “Why don’t you guys get a union?” An earnest thought, but likely to offend ALPA, APA, IPA, and the other acronymic entities that represent most airline pilots, even those at the smaller carriers. At this point we are well entrenched in the seniority system, and there is rarely, if ever, any talk of overhauling it.

At a typical large airline, a probationary pilot will earn about $30,000, while those topping off the list — almost always gray-haired captains nearing the mandatory retirement age of 60 — bring home almost ten times that amount. It’s these fellows the airlines, and sometimes politicians, make examples of during contract negotiations, but in truth they make up a tiny fraction of all the pilots out there. The trick is to get yourself established — grab yourself a seniority number as quickly as possible — and hope for the best. The rewards come later, not sooner. And on the way be prepared for a multi-year layoff or two and all the cyclical scourges of the industry.

Risks are inherent in many professions, sure, but earning all the needed licenses and ratings, at least as a civilian, is extremely expensive, and you will not be recouping your outlay anytime soon. Many pilots are well into their 30s, or older, before earning any kind of respectable blue-collar salary. And you can forgo any plans for a predictable career.

Example: One pilot, let’s call him Patrick, is 24. His family has mortgaged its home and drained its savings to finance his flight training and education. He has been flight instructing for three years, pulling down about $200 a week. He is soon hired by the commuter affiliate of a major airline, and in his first year will make $13,000 flying multi-million dollar turboprops. His most impressive W-2 in a four-year stint with this same company shows a little over $35,000, just before the airline declares bankruptcy and shuts down, bouncing a few paychecks on the way out.

So Patrick takes a job with another regional carrier, starting off at about $15,000, this time flying sophisticated, 42-passenger planes for a company wearing the subsidiary colors of one of the world’s biggest airlines. Eventually he lands a position flying cargo jets, beginning at $22,000 and finishing up, four years later, at $60,000 when he leaves for his dream job at a large passenger airline. Starting pay will be around $30,000 and he’ll be assigned the dregs of routes and schedules.

At 35 he’s got a lot of making up to do, but things look fairly promising. However, a feisty gaggle of Islamic fundamentalists have some plans of their own, and, well, the next thing our pilot knows he is out of work and collecting checks from the government (and an online magazine). Can’t he fly for another airline? Sure, except it’s pretty much only the smaller regionals who are hiring, where he can look forward to…. well, see above.

And so on.


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.