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May 15th, 2009
08:41 AM ET

Airline industry's 'dirty little secret'

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="CNN's Jason Carroll reports the average starting salary for a regional pilot is $18,168 a year."]

One former member of the National Transportation Safety Board called it the airline industry's "dirty little secret." Well, it's not a secret anymore.

The issue – how much regional pilots are paid to fly. According to an aviation consulting firm, the starting salary is $18,168 a year. Compare that to a janitor's salary at $21,000 or a New York City cab driver with just a few years experience $22,000.

The issue is coming into focus during hearings in Washington DC into the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407.

The plane's first officer, Rebecca Shaw made less than $24,000 dollars a year. Shaw lived with her parents in Seattle, but worked out of Newark. She commuted across the country overnight before the doomed flight and investigators have asked – did that prevent her from getting needed sleep?

Shaw's mother, Lyn Morris spoke out in defense of her daughter. "I don't think she came to work too tired," Morris said, "she came to work to do it to the very best of her ability."

When asked about her daughter's salary Morris said, "She told me what she was making, I was amazed, I thought she would be making a lot more."

Paul Rice, a spokesman for the Airline Pilot Association says while pilots are doing their absolute best, low pay could lead to complications in the cockpit. "Flying is an exacting business and as such you have to have all capacities available to you,' Rice said.

But Roger Cohen, the President of the Regional Airline Association takes offense to suggestions lack of pay equals lack of performance. "This kind of linkage just doesn’t make any sense, " said Cohen.

Passengers who we asked about compensating pilots said they would feel safer knowing pilots were paid more. One passenger told us, "I am putting my life in their hands. And I do think they need to up that... whatever it takes."

Aviation experts wonder if those same passengers are willing to pay higher ticket prices to offset the cost of higher pay for pilots.

Filed under: Transportation
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. David Wilder

    I didn't know about this situation until I saw the recent Michael Moore film. The problem is weak unions. I teach part-time at a number of colleges and have for years. My pay for working the same amount of classes as full time is 1/3 of full time pay. The AAUP is statisfied to organize the 25% of the faculty which is full time and ignore this huge problem in higher education. I've got a few graduate degrees to do what I do and can't pay back my student loans. I was absolutely shocked to see that airline pilots are in a similar situation. If I teach a bad class, the students don't crash and burn.
    We need unions that organize the unorganized and pilots unions that maintain safety through professional standards–including hiring.

    October 10, 2009 at 10:29 am |
  2. txpilot82

    I went to college to become both a commercial pilot and an A&P (airframe and powerplant mechanic). After college I went into the maintenance side because I couldn't pay back the student loans by flying. It's silly I was paid more than double what my friends who made the other choice were. After I paid my loans back I got out of the industry completely. Now it's someone else's problem.

    May 29, 2009 at 12:15 am |
  3. Old Airline Pilot

    The Buffalo accident was an almost identical replay of the Air Florida accident in Washington many years ago, right down to voice recorder comments about lack of experience in icing conditions. That airplane hitting the bridge after take-off because the pilots didn't even know their engines were not producing enough thrust was the government and industry's wake-up call that there is a downside to airline deregulation. What has changed?

    May 22, 2009 at 10:59 am |
  4. Kathy Mullins

    There's also the issue of "buy-a-job" that's going on in the regional airline industry. I was a flight instructor, and saw the kinds of pilots that went on to fly for regionals, and some of them were so bad that I wouldn't let them drive my car let alone a plane load of people and their families. My teenage niece thought the whole idea of buying a job was a very scary thing indeed–that some rich kid could buy a job with Daddy's money instead of hiring a good pilot with an ATP and experience under his belt.

    It has come to the point that several years ago, I could have taken a regional flight all the way to my final destination of Key West. Nope, I landed at a major airport and DROVE the rest of the way! I trust myself behind the wheel of a car more than I would with some of these grossly inexperienced pilots some of whom bought their jobs.

    I am now medically retired from flight instruction, and am glad that I am now working in the healthcare industry.

    I think after seeing more publicity about commuter airlines, I'll go buy some stock in Alamo Rent A Car!!

    May 19, 2009 at 7:12 pm |
  5. Greg Zahornacky

    To "Just Another Pilot",

    I must tell you that you hit the nail on the head. Great Post! I was hired with a major in 1986, and you are right, we did make great money and had a great deal of time off. SO, like the steel mills, we essentially over priced our services. Consequently, we watched as management invaded our world, and started to use the "shut down" scare tactic, and demanded we take lower wages and work more days. The pilots acquiesced, and the downward monetary income spiral began. I understand that some pilots today intentionally show up for food stamps in their company uniforms! How sad...
    We do need to police our own industry, we do need to refuse to work for the abysmmal pay, but as some others have posted, pilots will do just about anything, and get paid about anything just to fly an airplane. The love of flying is so great that it just does not matter what they get paid, just so they can fly.
    If the traveling public knew the experience levels of some the pilots that were flying them around, I think we would see alot less traveling public. But, as it has been observed, people want the bargains, they want their cake and eat it too, so that is why, in my estimation, we have been "Wal-Marted".

    With respect,

    Capt. Greg

    May 17, 2009 at 11:52 am |
  6. Just another pilot

    I have been in aviation for over 30 years now, and have always observed commuter airline (AKA Regional) pay to be substantially lower than that of the Major airline counterparts. Pilot pay rates at the Majors were achieved over the decades by the efforts of ALPA. However, ALPA ignored the Pilots flying for the commuters and left them to suffer poverty wages. When the "RJ" aircraft entered the regional markets, the majors decided that they could operate these route structures with the RJ at a significant savings due to the extremely low regional pilot pay rates. As the RJs were assigned to routes replacing the larger jets, ALPA suddenly took notice of them, but they were far too late. When you compare the pilot workload between Regional and Major airline flight operations, you may find that the Regional pilot's workload is significantly higher due to frequency of takeoff and landings. Higher workload should demand higher pay. But, I have not said anything that you folks don't already know, so I am preaching to the choir. The fact is that low pay attracts low experience. This is shown by airline management when arguing before a bankruptcy court that high salaries and retention bonuses are necessary to keep talented, high experienced management personnel. The same managers who took the airline into bankruptcy. With the state of the economy and specifically the airline industry, I fail to see where these losers of management would go to find another job if they didn't get their bonuses, but that's a different matter. I apologize for my digression. The poverty level wages at the regional is set up so that only young, inexperienced, single persons who still live with a relative (Mom & Dad) can afford to take the job. As long as there are those pilots in the industry willing to take a job that pays less than the drive-through window at McDonalds, thereby undercutting their fellow pilots, pay rates will never improve. I agree that 500 hour wonders, or in the case of the industry's worst company, Mesa / Freedom, (300 hours, a Private Pilot license and breathing at time of hire), should not be allowed anywhere near an RJ. I know of another company that is operating its jet aircraft while paying the Captain and First Officer as contractors $300 / $200 / day respectively, zero benefits and only paid when flying. It has almost come down to simply flying for food. But, they have some pilots willing to do it and screwing anyone else in the process. In the late 70's / early 80's these pilots would have been referred to as "scabs". So who is to blame? We pilots, as a whole, are in fact our own worst enemy. We can try to blame greedy management, but they are simply taking advantage of an opportunity to operate at a reduced cost that is created by pilots willing to fly for food. If we want to see better pay, working conditions, etc., then we need to police ourselves. This means, not flying for low or below poverty wages and not letting "scabs" ride in the jump seat. The FAA is also to blame due to their willingness to "look the other way" and allow inexperienced pilots to operate 50 seat RJ's. An interesting point is that aviation insurance underwriters require as a minimum, on average, 1,500 to 2,500 hours TT for cabin class piston twin aircraft and 3,000 Hrs TT for turbo prop / turbo Jet corporate aircraft. Of course the corporate or Part 135 jobs pay more than their Regional airline counterparts. How is it then, that the minimum experience requirements for pilots of larger RJ aircraft is only a third of that required for the corporate/Part 135 world. That seems to be just a bit ass-backwards to me. It should be as follows: The larger the aircraft, the higher the required minimum experience level and associated pay rate.

    May 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm |
  7. Edward

    It's clear the pilot community is using this as a spring board to subvert the facts. These pilots were lax, unprofessional and inattentive in conditions that required the opposite. No one deserves the same they shared for any reason, but the fact remains that they failed to follow basic responsibilities and the captain reacted in a violent inaccurate manner.

    The years of paying pilots 250k for working 12 days a month were caused by ALPA and created the fertile ground for new, low-cost carriers. People are clearly willing take the job no matter the cost...see the post about the guy who paid 190k for school.

    Choices are personal. Don't buy a house next to the train track and complain about noise. You elected to take this course. I agree that safety is not compromised by pay.

    May 16, 2009 at 10:20 am |
  8. Jim E

    CNN Quote "Pilots aren't paid enough to fly safe".

    How stupid do you believe the public is? Pay has never been a component of effort...look at your own personal career.

    Secondly, pilots may start at 20k, but ramp up very quickly into the 60's, 70's and into the 180's at a mainline. Anyone else here start at the top of the pay ladder in their career?

    I'm disappointed that CNN is going sensational and salacious.

    May 16, 2009 at 10:12 am |
  9. Joe General Public

    At the end of the video, I thought this was funny. "The public has to get involved to demand that pilots be paid more"

    As Captain Greg said, this is all "monetarily driven". Airlines feed off the public's demand for $39 LA to Boston seats. Now at that rate, airline management needs to trim 100% of the fat out of the budget to even attempt to earn a profit and that includes the trimming of pilot wages. So as long as Joe General Public wants to fly coast to coast for $39, the issue of pay will never change. I don't ever forsee Joe General Public offering to pay $300 for his coast to coast ticket just to make sure his pilots get paid a more respectable wage. The public can demand all they want, but untill they open up their wallets and at least pay as much for a flight as they would for a ticket on Amtrak, these demands will be futile.

    May 16, 2009 at 6:31 am |
  10. Professional Airline Pilot

    Like this will change anything. Soon as you tell the pax that the cost of their ticket will go up to pay for our raises, the room will go very quiet....

    Roger Cohen is a tool. He knows very well that pay is directly related to performance and the amount of experience you get in that newly hired pilot, but he's in management's pocket so what'd you expect?

    You get what you pay for every time. Untill the public realizes this, people will keep dying at the hands of inexperienced 500 wonder hour pilots.

    Think about that on your next flight......

    May 16, 2009 at 3:23 am |
  11. rgnlpilot


    It's not as if the corporate private jet job you are doing is now or has ever been in great demand. Not to mention they long-term pay and benefits will far outweigh most any corporate gig. 7 to 14 days on? no thank you.

    We're all happy you were friends with someone rich or someone fortunate enough to already work there; however, if you hadn't been so lucky you'd be sitting at a regional just like the vast majority.

    Sometimes you have to take what is available in order to press on and move up. And other times you just get lucky and don't have to join the rank-and-file bottom feeding side of the industry.

    May 16, 2009 at 12:52 am |
  12. Another Pilot

    I think one area a lot of people are overlooking is the day to day life of a regional pilot. Yes, fatigue from a cross country commute from Seattle through Memphis then to Newark could have played a roll in First Officer Shaw's ability to do her duties effectively, but that same sort of rest can occur on a daily basis.
    The media has overlooked an important word – REST. When you think of that word, most people associate it with sleep or down time. The airlines consider REST from the moment you step off the plane until you arrive for your next flight. They are legally required to give crew members 9 hours of rest between flights when their duty day is done. I challenge you to walk off of a plane, get to your hotel (sometimes a 30 minute van ride), check in, unpack, find some food, go to sleep, wake up early to prepare for the next day, take the van back to the airport (30 minutes back), be there early enough to get through the security lines so you are at the gate well before departure time. Then calculate out how much SLEEP / DOWNTIME you really get. I'll tell you from experience if you get 5 hours of sleep you will be lucky! Then you do it all over again.
    Keep in mind these regional pilots are flying anywhere from 4 to 8 flights per day. Imagine getting in your car and driving an hour to a city, then hanging out at a gas station for an hour before turning around and driving back. After you get back, you drive an hour to another city, hang out there for an hour and then head back again. On your next drive you get delayed because of traffic or the weather is bad for an hour. You were only supposed to be at work for 12 hours today, but now you are on for 14 due to the weather delay. Regional pilots deal with this on a daily basis. At the end of the day, you might have flown 8 hours, but you really spent 14 hours at work which is completely legal. My point is, even if you live at your base you can become fatigued simply by the way you are scheduled.

    May 15, 2009 at 10:42 pm |
  13. Chris

    To all the regional pilots who are complaining about pay:

    Why are you doing the job? Was the pay a bait-and-switch? It feels as if you guys think you were forced into this job situation and horrible pay.

    A job is only worth what someone will do it for, and you guys are doing it in droves.

    If the FAA required regional pilots to have more experience, you could ask for more pay when you show up. But when your company could basically hire a non-pilot (or someone with 400 hours) to sit in the right seat, why do you really expect to be paid better?

    I have been flying private jets for many years, and before that I flew freight and flight instructed. I wanted to work for a regional airline.... but quite simply, I could not compete financially with my lower-qualified "colleagues" who were willing to take these awful-paying jobs.

    I know many regional pilots, and I know some of them are great at it. However, I still think you should have quite a bit more flight time before you get to be responsible for the safety of 50 or more people.

    May 15, 2009 at 10:03 pm |
  14. Flyingforfoodstamps

    Sean, how much experience did the major airline crew who of American Airlines flight 587 have when the First Officer snapped the vertical stabilizer off from overcontrolling in wake turbulence? How much experience did the check airman Captain of KLM 4805 have when he took off without a clearance and collided with another 747 causing the greatest airline disaster to date? I have a mile long list of accident investigations and the vast majority ARE NOT from you so called "inexperienced" regional airlines.

    Please do not blanket an entire industry pilot group as "unnacceptable" based on what you see and hear on Fox news. Experience is very important, but complacency is the root of most all accidents in the past. Complacency that ranges from new pilots to pilots with tens of thousands of hours.

    How do we battle complacency? Have you ever worked for several years on well-fare qualifying wages while trying to support a family and operate a $25 million airplane 14-16 duty hours a day at 1,000 flight hours per year (1,000 hours is the FAA maximum 12-month limit)? Yeah I didn't think so.

    Please, the next time you see a pilot that you think looks young or whatever else you might ignorantly be basing "experience" on go up to him/her and shake their hand. They are keeping you safe every day for PENNIES. They're doing a job they love and doing it the best they can in spite of job threatening fatigue/sick policies. Yes, that's right, Pinnacle and Colgan threaten their pilots with carpet dances if they call in sick of fatigued.

    May 15, 2009 at 7:47 pm |
  15. PostiveRate

    Well obviously Roger Cohen has no idea what he's talking about. Being a furloughed (laid-off) regional pilot myself, with $190,000 dollars in college and flight training debt, I can say that pay DEFINITELY has a tie in to performance. Aside from obvious contributions to fatigue (not being able to afford to live near your base and forcing a long commute), stress (being called by bill collectors because you can't pay your $1500 student loan payment on $1200 a month, or credit cards for that matter), and the overall low morale of someone in that situation have staggering effects on performance, just the same as a good nights sleep. I suppose I could rant on for a while, but I think it's pretty obvious that an "industry standard" pay so low you can't even pay back the debt you incurred to get into it, or live a slightly normal lifestyle, is unbelievable.

    Think about that next time you get on an airplane.

    May 15, 2009 at 6:06 pm |
  16. Joe Pilot

    The questions should be, why does the FAA allow airlines to hire pilots to fly paying passengers when those pilots dont hold an ATP license. An ATP should be the bare minimum requirement for employment flying as an airline pilot. After all isnt that what an ATP is for" Airline Transport Pilot? Hiring beginners to fly highly complex jets is absurd. When i started out in this business i had less than ATP minimus (not by much) and its alot for a new pilot to take in. Fortunatly you have 2 pilots in a cockpit and the CA's are mentoring new guys while they gain experiance. Is that really the place to mentor and teach though? Should the captain be obligate there are plenty of experienced pilots out there but not that will work for the wages the regionals pay.. Keeping pay low allows them to hire low time/experienced pilots because they are the only ones willing to take the jobs. so they can "gain experience". Raise the pay and the working conditions and they wouldnt have to hire beginners to fly airliners. The companies dont want that though because it will eat into their business and ceo bonuses to have to pay for experience when they can just sneak by with beginners. They are cutting corners along with pay and in the end you'll eventually end up with a problem.

    If you pay peanuts, eventually you'll end up with a circus.

    May 15, 2009 at 5:06 pm |
  17. roger

    Im a regional pilot in my fifth year and make 35K a year. With well over 100K invested in my college and flight training. Mr. Cohen you should be ashamed. PAY has everything to do with performance. I could write a book on how many conversations i've had in the cockpit about pilot pay and the industry and where its going. Moral is low and pilots are viewed by management as just another work group. We are not rampers!

    To many lives are at stake. It shouldn't take a accident to make change.

    May 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm |
  18. Greg Zahornacky

    Hey "roger cohen" ... How much do YOU make? Go see a psychologist, you need a mental wake up call. How can you possible be in charge of the Regional Airline Association? People like you are part of the problem in this industry, you need to get in touch with reality.

    May 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm |
  19. Brent

    Still sounds like better pay,less stress and better overall conditions than the Mechanics face, but that story won't break for another few years once all the higher paid mechanics start to retire and leave a gap to fill with quickly trained new mech.'s. Pilots and Mechanics have been complaining for numerous years to deaf ears . most ex-mechanics that left during the 2002 aviation bankruptcies are now being laid off from their well paying automotive assembly jobs as well. It's our own fault for ignoring them and compensating the upper echelons with vacations, a reasonable schedule and high bonuses (hopefully they spent their earnings well, otherwise it might have ended up wasted on naked statues of ice that urinate vodka).

    May 15, 2009 at 1:23 pm |
  20. Dan

    quite true that these pilots come in several hrs before there scheduled flt and have to wait in the terminal like the rest of us passengers. I know the major airlines have better facilities than the regional carriers but imagine yout pilot on your next commuter flight who may have had to travel accross country in the same jet as you how comfortable and relax do you feel ??

    May 15, 2009 at 10:50 am |
  21. Greg Zahornacky


    Great story on Airline Pilot pay. I have been in the industry for 36 years. I was a Captain for a major domestic carrier until I decided to take an early retirement at age 50. What prompted my decision to do so was the fact that the airlines (which have a herd mentality) decided to do AWAY with the pensions. My carrier was the first, and the Airline Pilot's Association did NOTHING to stop this. Add to the fact that since the tradgedy of 9/11, the airlines crying poor mouth forced paycuts on the pilots, and concurrently they started to fly these "regional jets". These aircraft are "slightly smaller" than those that are considered main line jets. For example, some of the regional jets are about as big as a Boeing 737. But the caveat is that the pilots get paid substantially less. If you go to the airlines management and ask them about this disparity, they will give you some song and dance about how the pilots are remunerated correctly. The simply fact is that YOU can check the salaries of pilots on line. For example, a First Year First Officer on an Airbus 330 makes $25.00 per hour! I happen to know a gentleman who has a GED, a very long rap sheet, and a new job as a landscaper and he is making (are you ready for this?) $45.00 per hour! The airlines are just like any other business, they are greedy, they are made up of individuals of what they deem as "management" that know little to nothing about airlines operations. They would be better suited to running a fig newton factory. They have NO BUSINESS in this BUSINESS.

    Most people that I tell that we have no longer have pensions do not believe that this is true. The fact is that the pensions we did have have now been relegated to the PBGC.

    The people in Human Resources are part of the blame as well. They look at a piece of paper with a pilot's qualifications, and then determine if that person meets the criteria for hire. Now, let me ask you a question, what does a person working in HR, who is NOT a pilot, know about HIRING a pilot? The latest tradgedy in Buffalo, when we look at the qualifications of the First Officer, show that she did not have any experience in icing conditions, (by her own admission). Why would you hire a person that, even though qualified on paper, has insufficient experience to fly in the extreme conditions that sometime prevail in the northeast? The answer is monetarily driven. These companies are merely trying to get away with hiring pilots that they feel can be paid these abysmal wages. This will continue as long as long as the management feel they can.

    Pilot pay has taken a nosedive. The senior pilots still make a great wage, (albeit substantially less than it used to be). But, management has the "hold hostage" tool. We'll shut down if you do not take a pay cut. SO, people are forced to take paycuts. They need to take care of their families, make their mortgage payments, and try and live a life that is comfortable. Unfortunately, many people are suffering in this terrible economy, so the money that is made by the professional pilots is maybe one to be envied, but would you feel comfortable getting on an airplane if your pilot makes less than a taxi cab driver? I know I would not.

    With great respect,

    Capt. Greg Zahornacky

    May 15, 2009 at 9:17 am |
  22. Sean Mulligan

    Look at the experience level. No one should be allowed to fly for an airline with less than an ATP rating and 2000 hours. The hiring practices at the Regional are irresponsible and I blame the FAA for allowing these practices. My nephew looked at the pay level and decided to go to Med School. It takes more than just money to get into Med School.

    May 15, 2009 at 9:13 am |