The Pilot Shortage from an Insider Perspective – By Michael Schneider

CHICAGO— The regional (or Fee for Departure) segment of the airline industry is comprised of over 25 airlines, operating over 50% of all departures in the USA, and flying into the world’s most complex airspace, and largest (and sometimes smallest) airports, in some of the most challenging weather conditions on the globe.

This means that, at any given time, you are more likely to be flying on a regional airline than the mainline airline through which you’ve purchased your ticket. In fact, it was not until just recently that the airlines were required to tell you the name of the regional airline on which you are actually flying. Most people think that if they buy their ticket through, for example, they will be flying on a United airplane, with United pilots, and United service. Many times, however, this is simply not the case.

You may recall the fatal crash in Buffalo, NY in February of 2009. Yesterday was the 5 year anniversary of this crash. It was Continental Connection flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air. Many friends and family members of those who died in that crash had never heard of Colgan. They were wondering why their loved ones were flying on Colgan when they thought they were flying on Continental. Much attention was focused on fatigue, and flying proficiency (rightly so), but there wasn’t much talk about pilot compensation. At the time of the crash, the First Officer earned about $20k/year. For her flight from Newark to Buffalo, she would have been paid about $30-$40. Total. For the entire flight.

Little has changed up to now unfortunately. Regional airplanes are painted in mainline colors, your flight is coded as a mainline flight, ticket agents, gate agents, and ground workers might all be employees of the mainline. But once you cross the threshold and board that regional jet, or turboprop, you can often hear passengers’ exclamations of how much smaller the airplane is than they’d expected. The trend now, however, is to replace these smaller regional jets with larger, more sophisticated aircraft, carrying many more passengers. Instead of receiving raises, pilots are offered only concessions. Take it or leave it. Leave it, and we’ll place the aircraft at a cheaper airline and shut you down. This is the reality of regional airlines and its dangerous downward spiraling of pilot compensation at a time of record profits, as well as a scarcity of qualified pilots. We believe this is a recipe for disaster waiting to happen.

We are: highly technically skilled, highly trained, highly competent, professional airline pilots operating some of the most complex equipment in and out of the busiest airports and airspace in the world, during all types of meteorological conditions.

But compared to our mainline peers, we are grossly undercompensated.

And chances are, we will be piloting your next flight.
The starting salary at a regional airline for First Officers (Co-Pilots) at one of the largest regional airlines is $23,256/yr. Broken down hourly, that’s a mere $12/hr, based on a 40-hour workweek.

You might hear the media and airline managements proclaim that we make a great hourly wage, but that’s entirely misleading. While away from home more often than at most full-time careers, airline pilots don’t get paid anywhere near 40 hours of pay a week.

Preflighting, flight planning, weather data gathering and interpreting, boarding, deplaning, configuring the cockpit before departure, maintenance delays, weather delays, inbound aircraft arrival delays, “sit” time between flights, and any other time that the door is not closed with the parking brake released is ALL UNPAID.

Imagine only being paid at your job for performing specific tasks, while some of the most important parts of your work go unpaid. That is how airline pilot pay structure is set up.

Let’s do some quick math. Consider this: You’re flying from Chicago to (insert any smaller city within about a 1-2 hour range) let’s say Cleveland, Ohio. You purchased your ticket on and paid $150 for your one-way flight. You arrive at the airport and head to the American Airlines terminal. You get to your gate, and see AA flight 3575 to CLE will be an hour-long full flight. You board the airplane, and find your seat on the 50-seat Embraer painted in American Eagle colors. You hit some turbulence en route as the pilots navigate around some winter storms. You are confident in your pilots’ ability to get you safely to your destination. As a professional airline pilot, your first officer is more than capable of completing the flight safely. But for his troubles, for this example flight, he will earn exactly $25.84, about $0.50 – yes that is fifty cents – per ticket. From your $150 ticket, a mere half a dollar will have gone to pay your First Officer. Chances are, you tipped your shuttle van driver more than your pilot made from your ticket.

In most industries, one can take their skill-set with them to another company or employer. Skills and experience do not lose value over time. If anything, their value increases.

But not at the airlines. A mainline Captain with 30 years of experience and tens of thousands of flight hours, who leaves for another airline, will make the exact same pay as a new-hire First Officer with the minimum qualifications. If Sully Sullenberger decided to come out of retirement tomorrow and fly for American Airlines, he would earn roughly $39,000 his first year, regardless of his very famous experience.

The regional airline industry has experienced tremendous growth, as mainline airlines have essentially outsourced shorter flights to smaller cities to these traditionally entry-level regionals. While this may have worked early on, 9/11 changed everything. Whereas before pilots expected to spend only a few years at the regional level, able to move on quickly to mainline airlines, the post-9/11 industry experienced a period of extreme pilot career stagnation, resulting in an extended era of low wages, and inability to move on to the mainlines.

In short, the regional model is broken. The regionals are unsustainable, and everyone in the industry knows it. But instead of effectively managing their industry by offering competitive wages to attract new-hire pilots to staff the regionals, airline managements have decided to lower labor costs to the point of near-poverty level wages. This has only exacerbated the glooming pilot shortage.

To answer the question though, they pay so little because they can. As was previously mentioned, pilots cannot simply switch airlines if a competitor offers a better future. On the regional level, there are over 25 regional airlines providing passenger feed for the mainlines.

Mainline executives demand regional pilots agree to concessions, or the feed they provide will be awarded to the next lowest bidder, and your airline will be shut down.

This, in combination with the Railway Labor Act’s extreme restrictions on the ability for pilots to strike, has culminated into what we are seeing today: the erosion of the pilot profession, as airline executives realize record profits. We feel that near-poverty level wages has an adverse effect on safety, and that corporate greed will unfortunately be to blame for the next great air disaster.

We want our pilots focused on operating their aircraft, not wondering how they’re going to pay their bills.

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