Why pilots’ salaries have decreased over the years
By Amy Obarski
So it’s the 1970s. You are a newly trained commercial airline pilot, and you are a god. People see your uniform, and a sense of admiration fills their eyes as they watch you walk through the airport from one terminal to the next. They whisper, “He must be flying somewhere important!” and “What country is he going to next?”
Flash forward. It’s 2010, and national security is at an all-time high. You are constantly tense, and people’s expectations of you have risen tenfold. It seems like the only thing you can do to reclaim your glory is to land a plane in the Hudson River like Chelsey B. Sullenberger.
Today, not only is the honor of being an airline pilot lost, but the benefits that come with it are slowly dwindling too. Airline pilots have seen pension and pay cuts, from once being promised $300,000 in school to now making $181,000 after fiveyears (if they are the highest captain in the highest-paying major airline company, Southwest). UPS captains, who are risking packages, not lives, get paid over $50,000 more than Southwest captains.
Joe Malinchak, a pilot for U.S. Airways Express who has been flying since the age of 17, took a 11.5-percent pay cut after 9/11 and is currently making $70,000.
“Pay with the airlines is based on seniority… I now have 19 years with the company, and I am close to the top of our Captain pay scale… As a commuter pilot this was a big hit in pay.”
On any given day in the U.S., there are approximately 87,000 flights, with 1,500,000 people flying each day. Though pilots are responsible for so many lives, the starting salary for a pilot at a major airline is averaged at $36,283. But the most pathetic figure is the salary for commuter airline pilots, who usually work more than major airline pilots—most starting off making around $16,500. Sadly, the cost to even become a pilot is rather high, with Airline Transport Professionals, a training company, offering a license for over $48,000.
“Considering the training and experience required to become a pilot. I think [our salary] should be much more,” Malinchak said.
From a civilian standpoint, Roseanne Desliets, a frequent, international flyer, said, “There should be a more equitable distribution of salaries. Whether you’re flying a puddle-jump (a commuter plane) for a major airline, you’re still responsible for people’s lives.”
Besides being responsible for lives, many pilots are overworked. Some, as we learned during last year’s congressional hearings on flight safety, even take naps in the airport crew cockpit. According to Malinchak, pilots can fly up to 16 hours at a time. “Running a whole day on one crew saves the company a lot of money.”
In addition to these toils, flying is something that deeply affects the home life. According to Lisa Mauro, also a pilot for U.S. Airways Express, who has been flying for almost 30 years, pilots and airline hosts have some of the highest divorce rates among different professions.
“There’s a saying in the airline industry that when you celebrate your 20th wedding anniversary, you’re really only celebrating your tenth because you’ve been in the air half the time,” Mauro said.
According to Robert Thomas, the president of the Taughannock Aviation Corporation, which provides general aviation services, pilots’ salaries have decreased pretty steadily since the 1970s when the airlines were deregulated, after previously being federally subsidized. Many new airline companies were created to compete with the old carriers and “completely changed the way that the economics of the airline business.”
“Airlines were no longer guaranteed to make a profit by flying on profitable routes… Today, you can go from N.Y. to LA on a trip for a couple hundred bucks because there is so much competition in those routes. And on less competitive routes, you have to pay a lot more money,” Thomas said.
The deregulation is actually largely accredited to Alfred Kahn, who is from Ithaca and is known as the “Father of Airline Deregulation.” A former professor of economics at Cornell University, he was brought into the Carter administration in the Department of Transportation.
Then after 9/11, the number of people flying decreased dramatically and caused airlines to cut salaries. Though passenger numbers have now gone up, salaries were never as they once were.
“I don’t feel sorry for the major airline people who have been there a long time because they make very good money, even though they don’t make $300,000,” said Thomas. “They certainly make well in excess of $100,000 and up to $200,000. But the ones who don’t get paid very well are the entry level pilots. It’s really bad.”
Thomas mentioned how although major airline pilots’ salaries have gone down, commuter pilots were always paid dismally low. He mentions the plane crash in Buffalo, in which the pilots could not even afford to live in the city they worked, travelling hundreds of miles to the airport. They then had to pay to stay in a hotel since the airlines don’t provide rest accommodations when pilots are commuting to work. One of the pilots even had to take on a second job at a coffee shop.
“It’s a disastrous situation and that needs to be changed,” Thomas said.
He also said the major airlines have “an unbelievably good safety record; the commuter airlines are much worse, but it’s still better than driving.”
Malinchak also noted that there is very little mobility in the airline industry, so pilots can’t move up the ranks quickly and make a higher salary. Also, oddly enough, when pilots transfer between companies, they have to start at the bottom of the ladder.
“It’s not like most corporate jobs,” said Mauro. “A pilot has to start again, financially, at square one.”
As a passenger, Desliets knows pilots’ families are given benefits. She has a widowed friend who still gets to fly for free because her husband was a pilot. “Maybe what airlines should do is cut out all of those perks and pay their pilots a decent wage,” she said.
Still, the 1970s are gone and the appeal of being a commercial pilot has lost its luster. Not only are you responsible for the lives of people on a plane, but you have to deal with companies who have sedated your love and passion for flying. Hopefully, in this ever-expanding time of globalization, airline companies will realize the importance of their pilots and think twice before cutting their salaries.
Amy Obarski is a freshman cinema and photography major who thinks pilot uniforms are still sexy. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.