View Full Version : NYT article on pilot pay

white rat
19th Mar 2006, 12:41
March 18, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
The Price of a Safe Landing

Fayston, Vt.

IT'S that time again time for airlines to make pilot pay the burning issue in labor negotiations. At Delta Air Lines, pilot salaries are in arbitration; at Northwest Airlines, pilots are close to striking.

Why is pilot pay always such a source of contention? Perhaps because it seems so high. After all, a pilot can make as much as $220,000 a year for working only 85 hours a month.

But this is only part of the story. True, a handful of senior pilots make $220,000 a year, but 85 hours is only half true because pilots spend as much time planning flights, looking at weather, studying, training and sitting around airports waiting for delayed flights, as they do flying. The 85 hours is counted only from the time the airplane leaves the terminal until it arrives at its destination. What's more, this is the very top salary; a captain for a regional airline, for example, makes around $60,000 a year.

And it's not as if pilots haven't already taken a hit. The Delta pilots agreed to an annual pay cut of $1 billion, or 32.5 percent, in late 2004. (Now Delta is asking for an additional $305 million.) Their Northwest counterparts agreed to $265 million of cuts in 2004 and $215 million in temporary cuts last year. Now the company wants to cut $145 million more. Pilot pensions are in a similar state of disarray.

This is not to say that pilot pay isn't high relative to other lines of work. The high pay dates back to just after World War I, when airmail service, which was managed by the Post Office, was established. And to my mind, the pay was wholly justified.

Back then, flying was dangerous; no radio guidance, no instruments for bad weather, no de-icing equipment or radar to reveal thunderstorms. Flying was all contact, meaning that you stayed in visual contact with the ground. Trying to see ahead when fog or low clouds forced the pilot lower and lower, with no visibility; pilots lost their lives running into hillsides or unseen obstructions.

In exchange for risking life and limb, pilots were well paid. In 1924, the top salary was $8,000 a year, or close to $1 million in today's dollars. In 1938, when I started flying DC-3's for Transcontinental and Western Air (later Trans World Airlines), we still were paid more for flying at night and over mountains.

As flying became safer, pay was reduced but still remained high. How? The pilots formed a union, the Air Line Pilots Association, in 1931. The key man was David L. Behncke, a retired United Airlines pilot, who fought the airlines' attempt to have one industry-wide contract for pilots. By seeing to it that pilots had individual contracts with each airline, Behncke ensured that each negotiation could build on the one that came before it.

He also helped to keep salaries high by emphasizing productivity as well as safety. Behncke argued that a pilot hauling 400 passengers should make more than one transporting, say, 70 passengers. This was a winning tactic, though I was never certain that it was entirely accurate. Smaller planes are not necessarily any easier to fly. A 747 pilot, for example, takes off from New York and lands in Paris: one flight. A regional jet pilot, by comparison, can wind up making five stops during one day, or night or making all his flights in the same lousy weather system.

People think that computers have made flying easier you just turn on the autopilot and relax. Not so. Computers do many things, but they don't know what to do when a line of severe thunderstorms blocks the flight path, nor do they worry about marginal weather at destinations and what to do about reserve fuel and a host of possible situations that can be resolved only through human intelligence informed by experience.

There are simply too many situations that demand a professional in the cockpit. I've flown for a long time, and I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard a colleague say (or felt myself), "I earned my year's pay on that flight."

Here's just one story. In June of 1970, I was piloting a TWA 747 from Paris to New York. Forty minutes into the flight, TWA's Paris dispatch office called to tell me I had a bomb on board. According to the warning call they had received, the bomb was due to go off in 45 minutes.

We turned around and dived toward Paris. We started dumping fuel to get our weight down, but we didn't have time to reduce the weight to the legal landing limit.

Decision time: land and risk going off the end of the runway, or circle around dumping fuel before the bomb goes off? Landing a plane that's overweight takes up runway space. I visualized what was off the runway's end: farmland. I concluded that it was probably worth the risk, even though we'd knock out lights at the end of the runway as we slammed through.

Thankfully, we landed safely. The passengers were evacuated down the slides while still far from the terminal. (Officials didn't want us nearby in case we blew up.) The only injury was a fracture in a flight attendant's ankle. They never found a bomb.

Airline pilots go through stuff like this all the time. This is why they deserve to be paid decently (if not extravagantly). It's for this reason that I hope the union will remain strong as it works with Delta and Northwest (and whoever's next) on problems of pay, retirement and safety. As they talk, pilots, I know, will do their job of getting airplanes from departure to destination safely. After all, the pilot is on board, too a fact that should be respected, but not taken for granted.

Bob Buck is the author of "North Star Over My Shoulder: A Flying Life."

19th Mar 2006, 13:07
bob buck may also be robert buck the author of the definitive book on aviation wx flying called, "Weather Flying". Back in WW2 the Govt. gave him a crew and a B17 to see the what the limits were in flying a bomber in bad wx. His experience was set down in that great book.

robert buck is one of the genuine aviators who not only fly well, but can communicate to fellow airman and laypersons the mysteries of the air...place his books near those other wonderful authors who actually know and respect the air.

His books belong on the same table as, "Fate is the Hunter" and all others by E.K. Gann. "Handling the Big Jets" by D.P. Davies, "Fly the Wing" by Jim Webb. The books of Nevil Shute. Throw in "The Song of the Sky" by Guy Murchiee (who taught me to look for the green flash).

If Bob reads this, thank you!

jon regas
[email protected]

PS. It is time for my fellow flying brothers to take back the controls of their careers. any pilot who votes for a republican again is just asking for trouble. Your pay went up during the last democratic administration...What has this republican administration done for aviation? The only airline making a profit ( a big one anyway) is southwest due to fuel hedging...Southwest pilots are now the best paid in the industry for that sized plane. What a world!

19th Mar 2006, 14:46
PS. It is time for my fellow flying brothers to take back the controls of their careers. any pilot who votes for a republican again is just asking for trouble. Your pay went up during the last democratic administration...

Don't forget, it was the Dem. admistration of Jimmy Carter which instituted deregulation, which ultimately led to the fare wars and GREATLY expanded travel marketplace we have now. If we still had CAB, pilots' pay would be substantially higher, but there would be far fewer pilot jobs!

19th Mar 2006, 16:29
I have been flying for 36 years, man and boy, military, civil and police aviation. One thing I have noted over those years is that we, the pilot fraternity. are our own worst enemy. We are sometimes treated very shoddily by management (administrative) who don't know any better but more often than not we are treated very shoddily by management (pilots) who should know better and choose to forget they once were just an F/O or a line Captain. Moreover, when companies get so bad that the crews are lining up to leave by the front door there are more 'new hires' lining up to take their places via the back door. It was ever thus!
Why do we do that? you might ask. The answer is simple - we just love to fly! And moreover most of us would have done it for free had we not been paid to do it.
I have worked for some wonderful outfits, amongst them Loganair, Jersey European, (UK) TWT International (Middle East) Eurotrag Gabon, (West Africa)Trans International Express (USA) Roblex Aviation (PR) and also enjoyed my time as both a military pilot and a police department pilot. But I have also worked for some axxhxles, who should never have been in charge of either an airline or pilots, but they were and so it will always be.
But I wake up every morning and thank God that I never had to join the "Rat Race" or the daily traffic queues on my way to some dingy office building :)

19th Mar 2006, 16:56
Sadly, MercenaryAli, you are all too correct.

Just (for example) look at EK today.
There, folks are indeed unhappy, not only First Officers with the prospects of DEC's delaying their upgrade, but also the long hours and high cost of living that apparently has not been addressed by the company management.

And yet...
The so called 'holding pool' of new applicants apparently contains hundreds, so no need to address ANY problems...just open the back door.

About the only folks that pay top dollar nowadays are those that absolutely need experienced Commanders on a specific type, so the recent trends will definitely continue for the foreseeable future.

19th Mar 2006, 17:14
It seems the best offering the best pay and quality of life are abroad with Cathay, Singapore, JAL, ANA, Emirates, etc... It has to be a great ordeal to put upon one's family by becoming an ex-pat... especially uprooting children from their normal routine patterns of life. Its a shame, with the over abundance of pilots on the street, the hey days of aviation are long gone in the US for the immediate future.

19th Mar 2006, 17:26
barit 1

you are quite correct about President Carter's signature deregulting the airlines.

And, for the record, I would take the old CAB back again. Remember, in the USA some 30 years give or take have passed since then...there are more people in America too, possible passengers.

I would rather see fewer but better jobs for pilots...this is after paying some 30 years of dues. You might think flying that cute little CRJ would be fun, but it might be better to wait and get a job paying what our industry once paid.


19th Mar 2006, 17:35
You can't place the entire blame on deregulation. It starts with the individual and what they are willing to accept as far as pay and conditions are concerned.

In the 1970's during CAB regulation, pilots were furloughed and on the streets. These guys were taking any job and even under cutting pilots wages flying corporate. When I was in college in the 70's I had a gig ferrying crop dusters from Oklahoma to South America with 5 other guys. Pay was pretty good. It helped pay my tuition, car and what not. A group of furloughed Eastern Airline pilots took over our positions for a fraction of what we were getting paid.

Deregulation doesn't control salaries it's the airman.

19th Mar 2006, 17:49
to all:

there are many reasons "why". One very sad thing is that it would be illegal to have every pilot at every union airline walk off the job the day before thanksgiving.

The sadder thing is that current bankruptcy laws allow for our pensions to be thrown away...a CEO of a major airline will be guaranteed his payout, but the pilots and other fine workers of an airline cannot get the YEARS and YEARS of loyalty and work back.

so, let me be the first to suggest civil disobedience? pay cuts for the future are one thing, but the rules have changed and promises broken mean we must change the rules of engagement.


19th Mar 2006, 17:55
Not true... American Airlines pilots had the blue flu during Thanksgiving... I don't recall what year... I think it was in 1990... to get some concessions from management.

19th Mar 2006, 18:01
dear captjns:

Sir, you are wrong. If you have any actual data please post it but:

there were legal repercussions from that including a fine against the union and its leadership. (while later part of the concessions agreement) a judge did rule their actions illegal.

another airline, now gone from the skys, was WESTAIR . A friend and otherw were accused of conspiring to make an illegal walkout...even their PHONE records were subpoenaed to see if there was a concerted effort to organize something illegal.

The rules very much favor the management. Remember that when you elect your representatives.


21st Mar 2006, 17:13
note that NYT has posted a correction to the original article:

Correction: March 21, 2006

An Op-Ed article on Saturday, about pay for airline pilots, misstated what the top salary for a pilot in 1924 would be in today's money. It would be about $93,000, not $1 million.

Bob Buck is the author of "North Star Over My Shoulder: A Flying Life."

21st Mar 2006, 17:41
jondc9....agree with your posts.....only as you state,it starts with your union,mec,lec reps...and for what its worth,the major I fly for,.....they(the elected reps) cant even work together or unite the pilot group ....

Our ALPA president,D Worth is a pilot for NWA,....look at where they are...the saying....."sh&t runs downhill"......PB

23rd Mar 2006, 13:45
Having flown the B747 internationally, as well as DC9 / B727 domestically, I also wonder why a plane that carries 400 pax in one flight pays the Crew more than five legs on a domestic paring carrying 150 Pax each leg. Only reason I could come up with is the Five Striper concept.

Most relaxed job I ever had was the "74", most nerve racking was domestic flying on the "72" and "73". Then Ican comes along and you start over. Then the Beach Boys come along and you start over again.

ALPA's concept of poundage / pax per trip pay rewards the employee's work the least, not the ones that work their Arsses off.

Several Carriers are switching to payscales based on years of service and position, resulting in decreased training costs and fewer commuting Crewmemebers. Downside is Five Striper's take a bit of a hit as the domestic Captains see minor increase.

Having paid ALPA dues for over 25 years and watched this concept at several Carriers, I tend to lean towards to concept of Longevity pay vs.
Lift capacity pay. Ya I know, the guys with the "big bellies" are screaming at me right now, however, the real issue here is the retirement pay based on final earnings.

With the current status in the U.S. Airline industry, retirement pay could very well become a lost concept.