Tradition holds that pilots earn very high salaries. Is this really so true anymore?

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You’ll often hear about pilots making upward of $200,000 a year. These are the fellows who airlines and pundits love to make examples of during contract negotiations. In truth, a very small portion of all pilots out there make this much—the gray-haired captains nearing retirement, on the highest rungs of a major carrier’s seniority ladder. Seldom do you hear about the pilots making thirty, forty, or sixty thousand. Or, at the regionals, twenty thousand.

There are those of us who make a decent living, but believe me, it didn’t come easy, and overall the profession isn’t nearly as lucrative as it once was. According to the Air Line Pilots Association and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average airline pilot salary in the United States fell 42 percent between 1977 and 2010. The biggest drop came in the years between 2002 and 2007, when carriers slashed wages by 20 percent or more. On top of this, pensions have been gutted and benefits cut.

Annual starting salaries at the majors are around $30,000. Even with yearly raises, it takes eight or ten years’ tenure before you’ll earn six figures. That is, provided a pilot is lucky enough to reach that level. Most who set their sights on the majors never get that far and have to settle for a career at the regionals, where the pay is considerably lower. A junior copilot on a RJ might earn as little as $19,000 a year. Senior captains top out around $100,000.

Readers should be cautious of sources citing “average” pilot salaries. Those averages might pertain only to certain sectors of the industry—the major carriers, for instance, neglecting the approximately 40 percent of airline pilots who work at the regionals. They also fail to explain that a given pilot is liable to be in his fifties by the time he earns his captain stripe and a respectable income, after decades of mediocre pay and perhaps a layoff or two. Another thing to be leery of are quotes of hourly pay rates. While it’s true that most pilots are compensated by the hour, these are flight hours, not work hours as most people think of them. A hundred dollars an hour might seem extravagant, but it is engineered to account for the off-the-clock ancillaries of the job: preflight planning, downtime between connections, and periods laying over in hotels. Only a portion of a typical multiday assignment is spent in the air. Over the course of a month, perhaps 80 hours of actual flying are recorded, but a pilot might be on duty for 250 hours and away from home for two weeks or more. This disparity spawns the idea that airline pilots work far less than the typical full-time employee. I once heard a radio commentator remark snarkily about pilots “only working seventy hours a month.” A pilot works seventy hours a month the way a pro football player works an hour each week.

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