Monday, January 11, 2010

A pilot's life: exhausting hours for meagre wages

The old hands say there was never much glamour in piloting several tonnes of metal thousands of feet in the air.

But there's no denying that to the earthbound back in the jet-set era half a century ago – when Pan Am's "Clippers" ruled the air lanes and service was modelled on transatlantic ocean liners – pilots were regarded with an awe just short of that accorded to astronauts.

The exotic blend of international travel, the authority of commanding the ever larger and faster airliners, and those dashing uniforms turned heads, drew autograph hunters and attracted groupies. Pilots also made a lot of money.

Today it is different. Captain Dave Ryter earned so little when he was a co-pilot for a major airline that he lived in a gang area of Los Angeles, commuted for hours to work and made less money than a bus driver.

"I was standing at a gate waiting to commute a few years ago. I was in uniform and a passenger walks over to me and strikes up a conversation as people often do. He said: where's your second home? I looked at him, thinking he was making a joke. He was serious. I said: actually, it's my parents'," said Ryter. "I was living in a very small town home in a gang area and my wife also worked for the two of us to support our family."

Anyone waiting for their underpants to be checked knows that the glamour went out of flying years ago. But nowhere has the cachet fallen so far as in the US, where pilots on commuter airlines responsible for more than half the country's flights now earn pitifully low salaries for long, unsocial hours.


Many are forced to fly half way around the country before they even begin work. Others sleep in trailers at the back of Los Angeles airport, in airline lounges across the country or even on the floors of their own planes. Some co-pilots, who typically take home about $20,000 (£12,500) a year, hold down second jobs to make ends meet.

Unless they have come through the military, many pilots also start their first jobs deeply in debt. "Many of them come to these jobs with $150,000 of debt for a $15,000-$20,000 starting job," said Ryter. "It's hard to make the economics of that work out. But there's a theory that one day they'll make a lot more money than that. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. But the problem is they are in, for a number of years, quite a hard haul and there's certainly no glamour. That's long since gone."

The result is not only the diminishing of a once coveted profession but increasing concerns about safety as many pilots are worked to the very limits of regulations, leaving them exhausted as well as relatively poor.

The largest union for pilots, the Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa), traces the change back about 20 years, when the smaller domestic airlines stopped selling their own tickets and began competing for contracts to act as local extensions of the major carriers. To win contracts they slashed costs, which included forcing down pay and demanding more of pilots.

Then came the 9/11 attacks, which pushed some airlines into bankruptcy and others to cut costs even further. Many pilots lost their jobs. Even those on some of the biggest airlines saw their pay slashed by as much as half.

But it is the regional pilots who have the toughest time. Ryter's salary rose to $72,000 (£45,000) a year when he was promoted to captain three years ago, but many co-pilots have little prospect of promotion for years.

More than half of all regional pilots commute to work – which often means several hours in the jump seat of another aircraft before they begin their own job – largely because they are not paid enough to be able to afford to live in the major cities, such as New York or Miami, where their employers are based.

Ryter said that smaller airlines also regularly shifted where their aircraft and pilots are based according to the needs of the big carriers, but pilots were reluctant to uproot their families, pull children out of school and sell houses only to be moved again in a year.

"In the post-9/11 world, when companies have done everything they can to reduce costs, there have been changes that have really made the piloting job very challenging, very fatiguing, very demanding.

"With our schedules now it's very common to leave one of the pilot domiciles and not see it for three or four days while you're flying around the nation in multiple time zones. Without doubt the effect is that you are physically and mentally tired.

"The airlines have stayed right on the hairy edge of federal aviation regulations."

The conditions in which commuter pilots now work were laid bare by an investigation into a crash near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people last year. It was revealed that neither the pilot, Marvin Renslow, nor co-pilot, Rebecca Shaw, had a proper night's sleep before the flight.

Shaw, 24, was paid so little – just $16,200 (£10,000) a year – that she held a second job in a coffee shop and lived with her husband at her parents' house across the country in Seattle. The night before the doomed flight, Shaw flew for several hours in the jump seat of two FedEx courier flights to reach her job at Newark airport and slept a few hours in the pilots' lounge. Renslow also slept in the lounge after flying up to work from Florida, even though it was barred by the airline, Colgan Air, because of the regular disturbance from other pilots coming and going.

The investigation revealed that Shaw's text messages just before the flight said she felt exhausted. Both pilots can be heard yawning on the voice recorder. During the flight, Shaw told Renslow that her husband, a soldier, was paid "more in one weekend of drill than I make [in a fortnight]".

The co-pilot also reflected her relative inexperience by commenting that she had never seen so much ice on a plane, as it made its way through freezing weather. That was to prove an ominous observation. As the plane came in to land in bad weather at Buffalo the pilots did not notice their speed slow too much until an alarm sounded.

Renslow did the opposite to what he should have done and caused the plane to stall. Experts told the investigation that Renslow's and Shaw's evident lack of comprehension as to why the alarm was sounding suggested insufficient training.

One of the inquiry officials, Kitty Higgins, said she believed that the two pilots' working conditions had contributed to the accident. "When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that the crew rooms aren't supposed to be used [for sleeping] but are being used, I think it's a recipe for an accident," she said.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board, Mark Rosenker, said that paying very low wages, knowing that it would result in pilots commuting long distances to get to work, was "winking and nodding" at safety.


Alpa's vice-president, Captain Paul Rice, a 35-year airline veteran now flying transatlantic routes, says that the industry still remains extremely safe compared with other forms of travel. But he is concerned that it has driven out more experienced pilots while giving the legal minimum of training to new recruits to cut costs.

"If you constantly remove elements of training, and training that once took three weeks is down to one week, it's easy to see how there's less time to pass knowledge along, practise certain manoeuvres, things like that," he said.

"The public needs to ask the question: is it worth it to always look at prices as the driving factor? Our managements and the investors in the airlines need to think about what is the cost of safety."

Many of the more experienced pilots who lost jobs on major airlines got out of the industry because they faced working for entry-level wages if they shifted to smaller carriers.

"If you can go down the street and get a job at Home Depot or in real estate where wages are substantially higher than at a regional carrier, that's probably where you're gonna go," said Ryter. "Our new entry pilots are right down at the food stamp wages. They can't afford to start over at a regional carrier."

Yet while the glamour may have gone, there remains a certain pull for pilots such as Ryter.

"It's all I ever wanted to do. I know we're talking about the negatives, of which there are many, but I still love what I do – being able to get into an aircraft that you could never afford to rent on your own, and be able to pilot it around the nation. I still love the business," he said.


  1. “The public needs to ask the question: is it worth it to always look at prices as the driving factor? Our managements and the investors in the airlines need to think about what is the cost of safety.”

    The public also needs to know that paying reasonable wages would only increase the cost of a ticket by a few dollars. Crew salaries are a small (tiny?) part of the cost of a flight.

  2. great article. thanks for sharing it.
    I agree with rw2, I would be happy to pay more if airlines promised to pay their pilots more. On a flight of 100 people, just $10 a person more could add $500 to each pilot's check per flight. Also, all these baggage fees are understandable for the airlines, but I doubt they are going to the pilots. They could start adding a tip field to tickets. That would add motivation to be alert and precise. I bet people would be willing to add a few extra bucks for an enjoyable flight. Just thinking of salary raisers.

  3. I agree as a pilot training to become an airline pilot I think something needs to be changes,

    the tip idea is a great idea for the airline buisness, only down factor on that is pilots may abuse that and over try to make the ride enjoyable they could go against regulations.

    Ian -


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