There are many challenges facing airline pilots in the USA today including fatigue, costs associated with initial training, time spent away from home and divorce rates. However, since deregulation in 1978, and to a greater extent since the turn of the millennium, virtually every passenger carrying airline has made drastic cuts to their employee pay scales and benefits in the face of fierce competition from low-cost carriers. Amongst other losses, airline pilots have taken 40% cuts and lost their pensions, in most cases. Although there are a multitude of problems facing pilots, some old, some new, none threaten the occupation as much as plummeting compensation.[1]

Commercial and airline pilot pay can vary widely from company to company and sector to sector. In fact, Southwest Airlines Captains and First Officers both have higher salaries than their counterparts at legacy carriers. As of May 2008, median annual earnings of airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers were $111,680.[2] However, such salaries represent the upper level of airline pay scales. Salaries at regional airlines can be considerably less though, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, median annual earnings of commercial pilots were $65,340, with the middle 50 per cent earning between $45,680 and $89,540.[2] Pilots making very large salaries are typically senior airline captains, while pilots making very small salaries are generally low-seniority first officers. A large variability in salaries can easily skew an average; thus, the use of median wages to gauge such things as salary. Where large gaps are seen between a median figure, and a lower-bound figure, this usually reflects those who do not stay in that particular field. Viewing this middle ground in context to the upper-bound numbers can give a burgeoning pilot an idea of what to expect if they are able to stay with flying as a full-time career. Based upon voluntary pilot reports, many United States airline pay scales are listed here:[3].

The Public Eye

Chesley Sullenberger honored

Captain Chesley Sullenberger, hero of The Miracle on the Hudson receiving Congressional Heroism Award; 2009

Bitterness over 40% pay-cuts, lost pensions and airline management using Chapter 11 Bankruptcy laws to escape previously agreed upon labor contracts is increasingly finding its way into the public eye. In September of 2011, 700 union and non-union pilots marched, in full uniform, at the Occupy Wall Street protests.[4] The pilots carried signs with images of the partially submerged Airbus piloted by hero, Captian Chesley Sullenberger. The event was later christened The Miracle on the Hudson. After saving the lives of every passenger aboard the stricken airplane, later, Captain Sullenberger testified before Congress that we are witnessing a brain drain in the occupation,

Active commercial pilots down 20% since deregulation. Source: FAA

I don't know a single professional pilot who would recommend that their children follow in their footsteps.[5] For the last six years, I have worked seven days a week between my two jobs just to maintain a middle class standard of living.[6] Bankruptcies were used by some as a fishing expedition to get what they could not get in normal times.[7]

FAA historic certification records corroborate Sullenberger's concerns. 2009 and 2010 data shows a record low new commercial certificates being issued and a loss of 20% of the active commercial and airline transport pilots since deregulation in 1978.[8]

Although the airlines have always been a topic to critics, in recent years the airlines are coming under intense scrutiny both from the public and the media. In his film Capitalism: A Love Story, director and film producer Michael Moore profiled how little most regional pilots are paid in the first few years of their careers. Although the industry average starting pay is around $21 per flight hour, hourly wages for regional pilots start at $12.50 an hour.[9] In comparison, a cabbie in New York averages $17 an hour, according to that city's Taxi & Limousine Commission[10]. On Feb 12th, 2010, a year after the crash of Continental Express/Colgan flight 3407, Frontline premiered its WGA Award winning exposè on the industry entitled "Flying Cheap". In it, journalist Miles O'brian questioned the impact such low salaries are having on pilot psyches and how safe this could be for the flying public. When asked to respond to an $18,000 a year first year starting pay Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association,[11] was of the opinion that,

There are many other people who earn less money than that and work more days in these communities that can afford it and do it and do it responsibly.[12]


Forces of Opposition

The free market has created a number of forces which combine to effect the airline pilot adversely.

Market Forces

Major Airline First Year First Officer

First year major airline pilot pay as of Aug. 2011. Source:, an industry career site.

Prior to airline deregulation, airlines were subsidized by the US government for carrying large portions of the US Mail. Further, ticket prices were set at an equal level from one company to the next, by route. By removing price controls set by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) airline deregulation opened the industry to the free market. This has created the opposite effect of what was expected. Instead of airlines competing over customers with superior service and comfort, airlines are instead competing over customers with a economic and marketing strategy called "Loss Leader Pricing". The theory of loss leader pricing exists based on selling a product at a price at or below the cost of bring it to market. Thus, in the current market in the USA we have a situation wherein the lowest priced ticket is, more often that not, the one that's purchased. Frequently route wars will occur amongst the carriers were each spend months, even years loosing money on the routes they are competing over. As could be expected, this becomes detrimental to the airlines competing, driving down revenue and profit.[13] Ultimately, airline management insists cutting pay, terminating pensions and curbing benefits are necessary in order to stay competitive in a free market.[14] As recently as Dec. 1st 2011 AMR Corporation, the company that owns and controls American Airlines filed for bankruptcy, the latest in a long line. Thomas W. Horton, the new CEO of American Airlines, said the following about the highest cost to any airlines operation,
Achieving the competitive cost structure we need remains a key imperative in this process and, as one part of that, we plan to initiate further negotiations with all of our unions to reduce our labor costs to competitive levels.[15]


Regional Pilot First Year Pay II

First year regional pilot pay as of Aug. 2011. Source, an industry career site.

In pursuing loss leader pricing, collectively airline management has created what USA Today and The Washington Times are calling the "Race to the Bottom",[16] [17] with one company filing for bankruptcy after the next, leaving only those who have not paying their employes what was contractually agreed upon.[18] The purpose behind government regulation is to create a stable industry.[19] Since deregulation, the number of major carriers in the United States fell from six in 1978 (United, American, Delta, Eastern, TWA, and Pan Am) to three by 1991 (United, American, and Delta). Since the year 2000 every major airline has filed for bankruptcy at least once. US Airways has filed twice in the same number of years.[20] These data clearly shows that the destabilizing effects of privatization were felt immediately with the bankruptcies of Braniff and Ozark Air Lines, and have become worse as time has passed.

Lobbying Groups

Two large lobbying groups which act in the interests of the airlines as corporate entities exist. They are Airlines for America and The Regional Airline Association. These lobbying groups actively oppose pilot quality of life issues in the interest of saving the corporations money.

ON COLLECTIVE BARGAINING - In 2010, a federal court upheld new democratic voting procedures for workers in the airline and rail industries who want to form unions. Earlier that year, the National Mediation Board (NMB) issued a new rule that says air and rail union elections must be decided by a majority of votes cast. Previously under the Railway Labor Act, which covers rail and airline workers, every worker who did not cast a vote in a representation election was automatically counted as a “No” vote. The A4A, previously known as the Air Transport Association, a trade union itself organized to increase corporate powers of collective bargaining, and 10 of its member airlines, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to block the NMB ruling. The court upheld the new rule and denied ATA’s (A4A's) request for an injunction. What had unfolded was a classic example in the adversarial relationship between corporate and labor agenda in the USA. Needless to say the A4A has historically had an adversarial relationship with the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and other airline employee labor groups.

ON PILOT FATIGUE - In 2010 the Air Transport Association opposed extending pilot rest periods from 8 hours to a 9 hours. Airlines for America stated that the new regulations would add significant operational and scheduling complexity that would cost the airlines too much.[21] This however is not the first time the A4A has challenged either existing or impending FAA rules regarding pilot rest regulations. In 2001 the Federal Aviation Administration received correspondence from the ATA legal department urging action to view duty time as "scheduled time" not "actual time" on duty. The ATA challenged that an airman's duty time should be extendable beyond the regulatory 16 hours should there be either a weather or mechanical delay. The Federal Aviation Administration decided in the favor of airmen and its existing rule that on-duty time will be counted as actual, not scheduled.[22]

Other Forces

For pilots already involved in airline flying, their choices were probably made years ago, in brighter times. Newer entrants into the job market have forces other than market conditions to consider.

Union Pay-scale Inequity

Most airline pilots are unionized, with either Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA)[23] or Coalition of Airline Pilot Associations[24] (CAPA), an association of independent airline pilot unions. Often during post deregulation mergers, airline pilot unions must negotiate how to blend the two groups of pilots together. There is frequent discord amongst union member in regards to equability of pay.[25] What's more, further aggravating the situation is that junior airline pilots are stifled by labor agreements struck by their union, and approved by airline management, having vastly disparaging gaps between most junior and most senior pilots. For example, a first year first officer in a regional airline is eligible for food stamps in most states[26] . Meanwhile the senior captains at the same company are making close to a 6-figure salary which it took him at least a decade to achieve. This makes stretching an already shrinking payroll dollar virtually impossible to work with for pilots on the lower half of the pay-scale.[27] [28]

High Costs of Becoming an Airline Pilot

Since the mid 1990's fewer and fewer pilots are being trained by the US. military. The rise of Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and Unmanned Combat Arial Vehicles (UCAV) also will continue to make already waning numbers come to an eventual trickle. Those pilots who are flying for the armed forces are staying there, unwilling to enter an unstable airline job market.[29] Increasingly, ambitious men and women are facing vast amounts of student loan debt in order to train themselves to fly an airliner. Many students take out loans well in excess of $100,000[30] to garner the pilot certification and experience necessary to become airline pilots. As previously discussed, the prospects for not defaulting on these massive loans is scarce with starting pay beginning in the low $20,000 range. What's more, the experience gained to even apply at a regional airline takes years to accrue either flying as a Certified Flight Instructor or as a light charter pilot.

Civil Flight Training Deaths

Flight training fatality is not uncommon in the early stages of preparation for a career as an airline pilot. According to the National Transportation Safety Board in 1999 the number of deaths occurring during flight training doubled from the year before, up from 29 to 65 in '99.[31] Nick Lacey, the FAA's director of flight standards in 1999 stated,

We're going to put a bigger emphasis on flight training. Training is an area where there are significant fatalities. It really is a high-risk area.

Divorce Rate

People whose jobs require frequent travel, such as pilots, flight attendants and even military personnel have statistically higher divorce rates than other occupations. Airline workers are typically away from home for up to a week at a time, which puts a burden on the other spouse and ultimately leads to divorce.[32]

"Glorified Bus Drivers"

Passagiersvliegtuig op Schiphol Airliner at Schiphol airport

Ford Trimotor flown by American airline pilots throughout the 1930's and 40's

The fact that today antagonists of the occupation refer to an airline pilot as a "glorified bus driver" is not missed by history. Throughout aviation history some have tried to subjugate the occupation by using the pejorative prefix "glorified". Long before the rise of glass cockpits and GPS, the term was used by those trying to oversimplify the occupation for their own gains, economic or other. As far back as the 1930's management didn't considered airline pilots the pioneers that Orville or Wilbur Wright were, therefore they didn't consider them worthy of benefits commensurate to the occuption. This opinion, and the term "glorified chauffeur" were brought up by management coalitions at the code hearings of the National Recovery Administration in 1933. Finally, during the NRA convention The New York Times published an article defending the embattled airline pilots. It stated, "If the captain of an ocean greyhound can be called a glorified ferryboat skipper, if an eagle can be called a glorified sparrow, then an air transport pilot may be called a glorified chauffeur!"[33]<p> .<p> .<p> .<p>


  1. "Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger To Congress: My Pay Has Been Cut 40 Percent In Recent Years, Pension Terminated". Huffington Post. 05/25/11 02:05 PM ET. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers. Retrieved on 2012-05-18.
  3. Airline Pilot Salary and Pay Rates. Retrieved on 2012-05-18.
  4. "Airline Pilots Protest Management at Occupy Rally". Forbes. Sept, 29th, 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  5. Katie Couric, June 12, 2009. [1], CBS News.
  6. HuffPost, Politics, May 25th, 2011. [2]
  7. HuffPost, Politics, May 25th, 2011. [3]
  8. Active Comm and ATP Pilots at all time low. Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved on 5 June 2012.
  9. Low Regional Airline Pilot Pay. Retrieved on 19 May 2012.
  10. "Low Pay One of Many Difficulties Facing Regional Pilots". Fox News. May 13, 2009.,2933,520097,00.html. 
  11. RAA Executives. RAA.
  12. O'Brian, Miles (Feb 9th, 2010). "Frontline: Flying Cheap". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 4 June 2012. 
  13. Kaps, Robert (1997). Air Transport Labor Relations. Chapter 1: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 4. ISBN 0-8093-1776-1. 
  14. Wertz, Joe (April 24th, 2012). "AA in Bankruptcy Court: Airline Wants to Cut Contracts, Unions Want a Merger". Associated Press. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  15. Citing Increased Labor Costs AMR Files For Bankruptcy. Retrieved on 5 June 2012.
  16. Mutzabaugh, Ben (April 2, 2012). "'Race to the bottom' sends Pinnacle Airlines to bankruptcy". USA Today. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  17. Armstrong Williams, The Washington Times, Dec 26th 2011 [4]
  18. United Federation of Teachers Bankruptcy is newest union-busting tool, March 5th 2012
  19. Kaps, Robert W. (1997). Air Transport Labor Relations. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-80-93-1776-1. 
  20. "Epidemic of Bankruptcy". Associated Press. Nov. 29th 2011. Retrieved 23 May 2012. 
  21. Unger, Carl (2010 Nov, 16). "ATA/A4A Opposes Increasing Pilot Rest Time". Smart Travel. 
  22. "ATA Challenges FAA Definition of On-Duty Time". 2001. 
  23. Air Line Pilots Association. ALPA. Retrieved on 2012-05-18.
  24. CAPA Airline Pilot Union. CAPA. Retrieved on 4 June 2012.
  25. "United, Continental pilots split on pay". Chicago Tribune. Nov 2010. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  26. Moore, Michael. Pilots on Food Stamps. Retrieved on 5 June 2012.
  27. Pay Scales of Major Airlines. Airline Pilot Central. Retrieved on 5 June 2012.
  28. Regional Airline Pilot Pay Scales. Airline Pilot Central. Retrieved on 5 June 2012.
  29. Litton, Charlie (November 15th 2010). "Pilot Shortage May Develop as Job Loses Luster". The Cutting Edge. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  30. D. Glater, Jonathan (July 4th 2009). "Were They Just Paper Airplanes?". New York Times. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  31. McCartney, Scott (Dec. 28th 2000). "FAA to scrutinize pilot training". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  32. Jobs That Lead to Divorce. San Diego Divorce Center. Retrieved on 5 June 2012.
  33. Kaps, Robert W. (1997). Air Transport Labor Relations. Part 1, Section 3,: Southern Illinois Univ. Press. pp. Page 48. ISBN 0-8093-1776-1. 

Additional Reading

Air Transport Labor Relations - Robert W. Kaps (1997) Southern Illinois University Press<p> Flying the Line, Vol. 2: The Line Pilot in Crisis: ALPA Battles Airline Deregulation and Other Forces - George E. Hopkins (2000) Air Line Pilots Association International; 1st edition

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