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Airline Pilots & Wages: Salary or Safety?


The friendly skies are not so friendly these days when it comes to airline pilots & wages, reports Fortune magazine. This story actually began back on 9/11.  After the 2001 terrorist attack, the airline industry began to nose dive; people were scared to fly, tourism dropped, the airlines were in trouble.  As the slump continued, some airlines were on the verge of bankruptcy.

In 2003, airline pilots and other employees agreed to give up 23% of their pay (plus other concessions) to help keep the airlines afloat. Today, the airline industry is making money, especially American Airlines whose top executives (including parent AMR Corp.) have received nearly a quarter-billion dollars in stock.  Now, the pilots want their pay back. Will this fight over airline pilots & wages result in a strike?  Keep reading!

How does your salary compare to an airline pilot’s wages? Find out by taking PayScale’s full salary survey.

Airline Pilot Salaries, Ready for Take Off?

The pilots are represented by the 12,000-member Allied Pilots Association, which says the pilots just want to earn the same compensation that they did back in 1992, adjusted for inflation. American Airlines grounded that idea. They claimed that would mean a nearly a 50% raise and cost $1.4 billion annually. Instead, they want "productivity increases," which would include more paid flying hours for pilots.

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Airline Pilots Union Troubles

The pilots’ current contract isn’t up until May 2008, but the union is gunning its engines for a battle. In fact, part of the union’s $32 million budget is being used to transform its headquarters into a "strike command center," which will even include a live TV studio. This struggle between American Airlines and the pilots is being closely watched as contracts are up at Continental and Southwest; and over at United, employees are trying to get a raise.

Airline Pilots’ Pay Scale

How does one become an airline pilot? Well, before flying for a national airline, wanna-be pilots usually start at smaller regional carriers; that’s where they normally complete their "first officer training."  Back in the 1990’s, you needed 1,500 hours of flying time booked before you could even begin first officer training. Today, that requirement has dropped to 300 hours. Why the big drop?  Some say it’s the airline pilots’ pay scale.

Airline Pilot Starting Wage: $20K or Less

In an article he wrote for, pilot Patrick Smith says there is a pilot shortage, not because of an actual shortage of pilots, but because of the typical airline pilot starting wage: $20K or less. Most people don’t want to fly for less than what they would earn as a fast food worker, so the airlines dropped the hours requirement to 300 to drawn in less experienced candidates willing to take the $20K. Does that compromise safety?  Possibly. Smith says training may be more important than experience, but you want both.

Odds of Becoming a Regional Airline Pilot

Flying for a regional airline used to be a steppingstone before moving on to a high paying job at a national airline, but as we’ve seen from the American Airlines pilots that’s no longer a guarantee. Today, flying for a regional airline is actually a career, and not a high paying one according to Patrick Smith: "… the prospect of investing tens of thousands of dollars for the necessary licenses, only to languish for several years earning poverty-level wages, has dissuaded many from a career in aviation."

Airline Commercial Pilot Training

That said, what if you are able to endure the $20K (or less) in wages and make it to a national airline?  What will be waiting for you? According to the PayScale Research Center, airline pilot jobs pay between $113 and $75 an hour.

Be careful in turning this into an annual income. Pilots commonly fly (and are paid) for 1000 hours or less a year, instead of the normal 2080 hour work-year (40 hours for 52 weeks). You could make six-figures, but keep in mind, you may have to navigate through pay cuts and labor strikes; better buckle up for a bumpy ride.

How does your salary compare to an airline pilot’s pay scale? The PayScale Salary Calculator is a quick and easy way to compare positions. When you want powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale’s full salary survey.


Dr. Al Lee

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