That’s a tough one to answer, and it sets up a trap. Does a baseball player deserve $10 million a year? Or, turning it around, does a teacher or a social worker deserve $24,000? That’s making a moral judgment on a market-determined product. Pilots aren’t paid what they’re worth; they’re paid what they can get, through negotiation and collective bargaining. But, just for fun, pretend you’re traveling from New York to San Francisco on an airline whose pilots are compensated by voluntary passenger donations. How much is safe transport across the continent worth to you? How much would you put in the cup?
In practice, you’re putting in about twelve dollars. When you average out the pay rates of the biggest airlines, the captain of a Boeing 767 (a typical plane for this route) makes $190 per flight hour. The plane has 210 seats, and the flight lasts six hours. That hashes out to a contribution of $5.42 per seat. The average flight is 80 percent full, which brings it to $6.78 per passenger. The captain gets just under seven dollars of your fare. The first officer gets around $5.00.
Now let’s try a regional. It varies with seniority, but you can expect the captain of a sixty-five-seater to make around $95 per flight hour. For a ninety-minute flight, you’ve given him $2.74. The copilot gets slightly better than a dollar.
Flying, it has been said, is a lot like acting, painting, or playing minor league ball (or trying your luck at writing a book). Reward awaits the fortunate, but countless others toil in extended purgatory for their art. The trick is to grab a seniority number (see next question) as quickly as possible and hope for the best. Rewards come later, not sooner, and though risks are inherent in many professions, aviation is especially unpredictable and unforgiving. Nevertheless, and despite the setbacks endured over the course of my own career, I’m obliged to admit that I enjoy my job tremendously. A berth at a major airline, at least when the ink is running black and people aren’t flying planes into buildings, is still a good one.