Salaries of Airline Pilots

Some people still aren’t buying my bit about the low salaries of many airline pilots. I was ready to share my older W-2s with anyone who doubted me, but now I’m unsure if I’m willing to so embarrass myself.

Maybe it was that fellow on CSPAN recently who shamed us spoiled airline pilots for, according to him, making $300,000 a year and working 65 hours a month. In reality, a pilot works 65 hours a month the way a football player works an hour each week. Not counted in that total are the long stretches of time between flights, the nights laying over in distant hotels, and so forth. Meanwhile the number of pilots making salaries over $200,000 are a very small fraction of an airline’s roster — a list, in the case of giants like United and American, that includes some ten thousand names. Those at the very top, however, are handy ammunition for management during labor negotiations and tough economic times. Ironically, however, most pilots furloughed after last September, yours truly among them, are those with the least seniority, earning around $30,000 (or less in the case of the regional carriers).

When it’s all said and done, the business of flying planes is a blue-collar job, much as pilots are loathe to admit. We are sometimes so defensive about what it means, or doesn’t mean, to be a professional, that our pride comes across like some quivering self-help mantra. But blue collar, in and of itself, in no way precludes the true tenets of things ‘professional,’ and isn’t something a pilot, or anyone else, needs to be insecure about. Regardless of collar color, we’re in no way off the hook as far as needing to maintain the highest standards, and a job with a major carrier, (a position which in my case took sixteen years to achieve), at least when the ink is running black and people aren’t crashing planes in to buildings, is a good one.


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.