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The Best of Jobs, The Worst of Jobs

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There's nothing better than flying for a living, unless it's not flying for a living. That seems to be the consensus of the 90-plus commenters who had their say over the last week or so on the U.S. News Web site, which listed "Commercial Pilot" as one of the "50 Best Jobs for 2011." We've heard a lot this year about the downslide in a once-noble profession: Sully Sullenberger told a congressional panel he didn't know any airline pilot who would want his or her children to chose a cockpit career. The Colgan crash threw a spotlight on the low pay and punishing schedules of regional pilots. Economic doldrums have downsized airline and corporate pilots with thousands of hours and six-figure salaries, who are left wondering if they should look for jobs in Dubai and Bangalore, or maybe at Starbucks.

Plenty of pilots commented on the U.S. News site about the downside of the flying life, and they attracted a fair number of responses to the effect that they are just spoiled whiners. It's true that flying is not the only profession that has seen major changes in work conditions over recent decades. When I worked in a newsroom 10 years ago, co-workers just a few years older than me had nostalgic memories of the good old days, when teams of editors would fact-check, fine-tune, and proofread every story, aided by separate teams of photo editors, copy clerks and caption writers. Today one overworked reporter is likely to take on all of those chores, plus shoot video and post Twitter updates. Benefits and retirement packages and humane working conditions are scarce for workers across the board, not just pilots.

That said, the pilot career path does pose unique challenges. Huge investments of time and money are required to qualify for entry-level jobs that pay poverty wages. Despite advances in technology, every pilot is responsible for the safety of everyone on board for every flight. The big payoff of a captain's seat with choices of routes and schedules plus a comfortable pension seems a mirage for most. Some can't take the years of dues-paying and the rootless existence, with more nights spent in hotels than home with friends and family.

So, is commercial pilot a great career path? I think several of the U.S. News commenters were on the right track when they said, sure, if it's what you love to do. If you think of it as a means to an end -- to a big house and a fat bank account -- you might be disappointed. But the same is true of just about every decision we make in life -- as much as we like to think we can plan ahead and make smart choices, the future is full of unknowns and surprises. Doing what you love at least ensures that today won't go to waste, and that's not such a bad return for anyone.

Comments (29)

Wow, what a subject. I think it requires a much deeper investigation than what can be done in a short article. As a military pilot that joined a major international carrier, flew the line for many years then moved into a pilot management position that included new pilot hiring, I have a unique insight into the process. One of the greatest causes of disappointment/dissatisfaction is unrealistic expectations, and new hires immediately imagine themselves as B747 Captains flying once a month to Sydney, and that just isn't statistically possible and will probably never occur. Regardless of talent or experience, they are all subject to the vagaries of the seniority system which generates tremendous frustration. Young attorneys may imagine themselves litigating a cause before the Supreme Court, and with hard work they may, but a pilot will never rise above his seniority number. No young pilot should ever consider an airline career until they have read Earnest Gann's FATE IS THE HUNTER, and fully understands Macro Economics (Darwinian economic survival of the fittest). Pilots are the modern equivalent of Indentured Servants. A pilot survives only with the economic success of their respective carrier, (a fact lost on most union pilots). Full pay to the last day sounds very good on the picket line, but a little hollow in the unemployment line. I once met a young Lear Jet copilot flying nite checks for $1300/mo trying to pay off almost $100,000 in loans.

Posted by: Burns Moore | December 16, 2010 9:07 AM    Report this comment

As a flight instructor in a small part 61 school, I see a fair share of starry-eyed kids with shiny jet syndrome. When they come in for an intro flight, my first question is "What got you interested in this?". When they proudly exclaim that they want to be an airline pilot, I'm torn between my obligation to explain the realities of their goal and making $100 for the school. I usually do the flight then sit them down afterwards and explain the process becoming an ATP, how much it will cost, and their prospects of making it back as a pilot. Some never come back; others don't care about reality and find a faster albeit more expensive way to get there. Some believe that the airlines pay for your training and are astounded when I tell them that it doesn't work that way.

I make it a point to mention that the industry is cyclical and if they time it right they can achieve their goal. I remember a few years ago when, for a short time, the regionals were hiring pilots with wet commercial certificates. I also explain that you really, really need to love to fly, because if you don't, it's a pretty tough way to make a living.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | December 16, 2010 10:53 AM    Report this comment

I went the CFI route to build time, and five years ago at the ripe old age of 37 I interviewed with three regionals only to decide that I couldn't keep a roof over my head making 20k annually. A bitter pill to swallow as it was my true ambition to fly full-time, but the reality is the industry has changed, and not all for the better.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | December 16, 2010 11:13 AM    Report this comment

I am a retired air traffic controller and CFII with 16 years experience. Recently a prospective new student came to me for his first lesson. He gave me the usual "I've always wanted to fly" reason for taking lessons however before we could begin he was loaded with questions about money.

His wife doesn't work and he said that he needed to make at least as much as he currently did as a journeyman carpenter.He had heard that ag-flying paid pretty well and what would it take to get to that point. I explained the progression from student to commercial pilot, that he would need a tailwheel endorsement and specific training in ag flying. He didn't like the part about working for starvation wages in the beginning. He had spoken with an ag-flying school and the cost was high. I explained that he would spend a lot of time away from home because this type of flying follows the growing season. We didn't fly that day. He said he had a lot to think about. I never saw or heard from him again. My boss, somewhat sarcastically told me to remind him never to put me on the sales staff. Too many people think pilots are rich and don't want to or can't pay the dues.

Posted by: Donald Purney | December 16, 2010 11:52 AM    Report this comment

I wonder what could be done to alter the reality of low pay for regional/commuter pilots? The fact is, it is more dangerous an environment to fly in with flying in the weather and more takeoffs and landing cycles each duty day, in limited equipment. It requires more talent in many ways then the heavies. I would hate to be in the back knowing the pilot is making $20,000 a year and is exhausted to boot! I spent 100k on my flying education, and now it is questionable whether I want to or can take a job with a feeder operation...one has to pay the bills.

Posted by: eric hanson | December 18, 2010 8:24 PM    Report this comment

I wonder what could be done to alter the reality of low pay for regional/commuter pilots? The fact is, it is more dangerous an environment to fly in with flying in the weather and more takeoffs and landing cycles each duty day, in limited equipment. It requires more talent in many ways then the heavies. I would hate to be in the back knowing the pilot is making $20,000 a year and is exhausted to boot! I spent 100k on my flying education, and now it is questionable whether I want to or can take a job with a feeder operation...one has to pay the bills.

Posted by: eric hanson | December 18, 2010 8:25 PM    Report this comment

I know many have scoffed at the soon-to-be 1500 hour requirement to fly for the airlines, but it seems to me that it would force the commuters to offer more pay. Supply and demand always prevails.

Posted by: jere gardner | December 20, 2010 10:34 AM    Report this comment

Far too many pilots do not have a grip on reality as they embark on a fanciful career founded on ill-conceived dreams. The recent AOPA study addressing why 90% of pilot students drop out is totally missing the primary issue!

The root cause of the decline in the pilot population and training drop-out rate is simply that aviation is far less attractive than it used to be. There are all the issues raised by Mary and everyone else and all the obvious barriers such as ongoing cost, burdensome regulations, currency, fears of losing 100LL, etc. Plus the exploding list of opportunities for alternate hobbies. General Aviation is in a relentless decline with no apparent bottom to the free-fall!

Why are commercial pilots compensated so poorly until reaching The Big League? I suspect it is mostly just the law of supply and demand – too many pilots willing to chase jobs that pay below the poverty line. Why are all aspects of personal aviation so darned expensive and arduous? How do we fix all this? Perhaps we can not, but any hope of doing so must be founded on understanding and directly addressing these root causes.

Either way, I suggest it is disingenuous and unethical for the aviation industry to “lure” prospective pilots into and through the extremely burdensome training process without full disclosure of what they should expect to face on the other side of training. Kudos to Donald Purney (above) for doing exactly that – although I suspect he is in a small minority.

Posted by: James Herd | December 20, 2010 11:49 AM    Report this comment

A chief pilot I knew once said that the way to pay a regional captain 100K per year was to pay a 747 captain 100K per year! (That was back in the day when regional captains made around 50K at best, and 747 captains around 200K and up.)

He said this in a jocular manner, but he had hit upon the essence of the truth -- the little planes simply generated too little revenue (stemming from too few seats)to pay big bucks on their own merits.

Posted by: Anthony Vallillo | December 20, 2010 2:26 PM    Report this comment

Outsourcing, a "bottom line" mentality and the general state of the economy and relative powerlessness of wage workers in today's economy have all conspired to drive pilot wages down. Most passengers have no clue about pilot wages, and likely could care less, unless they happen to be the passengers on something like Sully's ill fated USAir flight. The trend is definitely down, and regulation probably won't help. About the only thing that can help is if pilot unions take a hard line and insist on higher pay and benefits during future negotiations. This will bring all pilot wages up eventually. The airlines CAN afford it. Pilot wages should be considered just like fuel, a cost of doing business. Pay the highest and attract the best. Not just for majors, but regionals too. Safety does have a cost, we just have to settle on the price.

Posted by: ed neffinger | December 20, 2010 3:12 PM    Report this comment

I had the desire to be an airline pilot when I was in high school and started flying lessons at age 16 and continued obtaing my ratings by working odd jobs and attending an airline training school so I could get a job on the ground with an airline. I did this to obtain an inside track on the airline world. It took 10 years to get enough flight time to be hired by an airline. I was hired and due to furloughs in the early years, I was layed off four times and worked for a few airlines before I settled in on one and was making 500.00 per month the first year and 600.00 the second. I desired to be an airline pilot no matter what it took. I hold a flight engineers rating in the three differant types of aircraft, piston, turo prop and jet and flew in these positions before becoming a copilot and then Captain on the early B737-200's and steady move up from there. I flew in the airlines for 36 years and will say that an airline pilot job is the best job in the world but you must love flying. If you do not, persue a another career because there are many up and downs in the airline business. I was very lucky to have a job that I looked forward to going to work. To a young pilot out there do not let anyone down grade the airline pilot career. If you love flying go for it. With all due respect to Sully, I disagree with his statement he wouldn't advise his children to become an airline pilot, I would if they had the desire.

Posted by: richard calarco | December 20, 2010 4:34 PM    Report this comment

Dear Ed, surely you jest. If you take all profits and losses since the inception of flying, the airline industry is egregiously in the RED. Ask Warren Buffet about his airline investments/addiction. A very good argument can and has been made that the reason reg'l salaries are so low is that they are subsidizing the majors' salaries. And as to your safety vs. salary level, let me get this straight: Low cost pilots are suicidal, right? The fix is a national seniority system, so once hired the pilot isn't chained to the same carrier. Now, very carefully, sell that to United or Delta ALPA, but its best if you wear a bullet proof vest. Let me know how it works. And as Richard said, you have to love it, not the percieved perks. If all you want is to be paid like a Wall Street investment banker, go to business school

Posted by: Burns Moore | December 20, 2010 7:47 PM    Report this comment

No Burns, I don't jest. You correctly point out that the industry is in the "RED" but it's not due to pilot salaries. If you increased ticket prices by 5% you could probably double pilot salaries. And I do think that you attract a higher quality candidate with higher salaries. I would agree with you on the national seniority list. That would go a long way towards giving pilot unions the leverage they need to raise pay.

I would guess most professional pilots would be happy with a small percentage of what investment bankers make in this country. Surely there's a middle ground between that and what they are currently paid.

Posted by: ed neffinger | December 21, 2010 11:23 AM    Report this comment

I agree; you're just not going to get the best pilots unless you have a livable wage at least. Supply and demand will be on the pilot's side eventually since many will indeed forego the job at the current pay level. Schools will suffer (perhaps should), due to decreased student interest, which is already starting to show (not just due to the economy). There must be some adjusting of pay, such that one can pay something reasonable to regionals/commuters (yes it is subsidies from the major carrier). The feeders do after all, not just pay for themselves only on that flight but in the continuing higher priced fares on the continuing long-haul flight. I don't know how they account for profit/loss on the commuters...but it seems some of their value is passed on to the long hauler without compensation?

Posted by: eric hanson | December 21, 2010 2:44 PM    Report this comment

The term "best pilots" is an interesting concept. With the unions holding as much power as they do, it is virtually impossible to fire a pilot for lack of proficiency, and when coupled with the "minimum acceptable standard" training levels, the best may perceived as too expensive. Time is not available to perfect a V1 cut for example, once a maneuver is completed to acceptable standards, the crew moves on to other training objectives. Stock holders, investors and the traveling public won't pay for "gold plated" pilots. My airlines' previous CEO stated, when asked at a Flight Standards Mtg for all check airman, why he didn't just add $5 to each and every ticket. He stated with great eloquence and logic that if he did that, it would add about $40 round trip for a family of four from a midwest city to Disney World. That would equal another day at the resort. For that, they would just travel on a carrier that didn't cost as much, and spend the extra day. Argue with that my dear friends. Economic reality is a cruel mistress.

Posted by: Burns Moore | December 21, 2010 6:45 PM    Report this comment

That's where the government comes in...mandate (as they're now doing), the "silver plated" pilot at least. Then supply goes down, pay goes up. Since we're on it, where can a family of four stay an extra day for 40 bucks? Seems like the kind of math that has caused this discussion in the first place. I ain't buying those numbers!

Posted by: eric hanson | December 21, 2010 6:53 PM    Report this comment

Another interesting economic anomaly is that the seat mile costs on Regional Jets (RJ) is much higher than bigger jets. Turbo props are more competitive, but the profits just aren't there on RJs. So while I am very sympathetic and cognizant of the pay and lifestyle for RJ pilots, I don't see an easy fix. Remember the majors that owned their regionals, but spun them off since they were too expensive with too many downsides (strikes & slowdowns etc). Good luck guys, but I don't have a solution unless you can get ALPA to spread the wealth. PS. Good luck with that.

Posted by: Burns Moore | December 21, 2010 6:56 PM    Report this comment

Eric you don't have to buy the numbers. This was about 10 years ago, but the principle is still valid. You are correct that there could well be a pilot shortage. The age 65 rule just delayed it for 5 years, but it is still coming. There are many solutions, bigger planes with fewer trips (don't think that could be forced: think European CO2 limits which could well force the issue), cabatoge, ease the rules for foreign pilots or raise the limit to 70. As Carl said much earlier, do if for the love of the job, the beauty of the early morning sunrise, or the personal interaction that some derive from the experience.

Posted by: Burns Moore | December 21, 2010 7:10 PM    Report this comment

We're all mostly psyched about flying or we wouldn't be on Avweb! Sunrise...great, that's what we want. It used to be when you were sacrificing that it got you a bonified job for criminy's sake! There will indeed be a shortage of well qualified pilots! Some are waiting (I am just running out of time). I guess that is it; plenty of fools like me, ready to do anything for a dream we won't necessarily be happy attaining (and frankly, at any pay level). The flying career is always more attractive until you live the lifestyle for awhile.

Posted by: eric hanson | December 21, 2010 9:47 PM    Report this comment

Eric, as i said in the first post on this blog, you need to take and understand Macro-Ecomomics. Once you understand the forces at play, you can then intelligently ask yourself, "Is this worth it". And my friend, only you can answer it. When my 3 children were young, we had many long dinner time discussions on the effects of world economics and how it would effect their life. One is now a Harvard MBA, one an attorney and one a career officer in the Marine Corps. For them the cost wasn't worth it. They wanted to be in some control of their lives, and professional pilots are not, and one must accept that. It was/is a marvelous job, but you must be honest with yourself and realize the shortcomings. An airline pilot is labour, you wear a white shirt, but you are a highly skilled blue collar worker. Don't ask or expect more. As Ed said, it isn't salaries that cost airline profitability, but a falling tide lowers everybody. If there isn't money left, you'll have a hard time at the bargaining table.

Posted by: Burns Moore | December 21, 2010 10:30 PM    Report this comment

I am not in disagreemet. I did major in Economics at University of Colorado, before deciding to go to Embry-Riddle years ago. The economics lessons never cease, and the decisions and life choices don't either. I don't regret either education. I can't add much more...merry Christmas all.

Posted by: eric hanson | December 21, 2010 11:00 PM    Report this comment

There is a saying and I’ve repeated it many time “the only Constant in this world is CHANGE”. Capitalism has changed and become socialism. Today too many people want to know what their neighbours are earning and bemoan anyone earning more than they are. What a shame the trend will eventually move socialism to communism. People earning high wages are under increasing pressure to reduce their expectations and come in line with those earning less.

The other trend is the cost of flying commercially, what used to cost sever hundred Dollars is today costing a few tens of Dollars etc. Extrapolating this trend will show that in the same manner as catching a bus, tickets will be purchased as you enter the aircraft. In many cases there will be one pilot (driver), maybe even none and as to cabin crew, none. Terrorism is a fallacy and is costing the IMF and Governments too much to maintain there is no place for it in the future therefore no need to have the high security issue that we have at present.

So what is the best job? Good question maybe a plumber or electrician as everyone else wants to be in high flying jobs earning supposedly more money but in fact earning less.

Sorry to disappoint many but I have seen too much of life and what was a great life with a good future in my younger years is no longer available for my grandchildren. I actually feel very sorry for them (and all the other children) of today as I don’t believe there is much of a future for them.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | December 26, 2010 6:18 AM    Report this comment

I don't know about the U.S. becoming "Communist". Sounds like too much Glen Beck-watching to me. Communist China is overtaking us by the way. Not to suggest that is any model for us (god forbid), just an observation. When we bang the drum for "free markets" we also have to accept that may largely impact Americans negatively. Fair markets ought to be the mantra. I think establishing a sound airline industry, with prices being more realistic to costs, is fundamental. The airlines run themselves out of business trying to undercut competitors and establish market share (while running losses often).

Posted by: eric hanson | December 26, 2010 2:22 PM    Report this comment

Hi Eric how’re you? Sorry I don’t know Glen Beck.

Am I correct to say that Democracy is defined as “you can say what you want to but you do as you are told to” and Communism is “you cannot say what you want to and you do as you are told to” Three letters is the difference and those three letters are slowly disappearing. We are no longer able to say what we want to in many cases without having a knock on our door or our neighbour telling us off because we complain are therefore not patriotic. Communism is a must if we want to have more children the world cannot sustain any further population increase with its present political ideals. This is not what I want as I spent 15 years of my life fighting communism.

My reference to low cost airlines is that this is where costs are going to be driven down and that will affect the wages of the pilot (sorry driver as they are seen by the airlines). Both Boeing and Airbus have been asked (no have had demands) to fit better and more efficient engines, find a way to reduce the amount of fuel the aircrafts carry i.e. find a way to eliminate the mandatory 45 mins additional flight time fuel. Why? Because this is additional excess weight and is costing too much.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | December 26, 2010 2:57 PM    Report this comment

We shouldn't get too off the track on this thread, of course. I am not in agreement on your "definition of democracy" though. Democracy involves one major freedom only, and one right. That is to have people decide how they want to govern themselves. If the majority choose to limit certain freedoms...then that is still democracy. We have a representative republic, not a true democracy. That is how it was designed. The Constitution, as well, can be changed by ammendment. Freedom of speach is the last thing we're in danger of losing, in my opinion (this thread as example).

Changing safety regulations to reduce cost isn't a good idea. Pilots will have to get used to lower pay. Doctors are next on that path. Lawyers just keep making more though....hmmm!

Posted by: eric hanson | December 26, 2010 3:19 PM    Report this comment

Lol. An old adage: Engineer pay’s for his mistake, a Doctor buries his mistake and the Lawyer still gets paid for his mistake. You can believe what you want about democracy and the democratic system but you have to agree there are changes in the wind.

I agree about safety regulations but what can we do about it if it is changed? Most times we don’t even know about any changes hence doing away with the pilot would be a simple issue and employing someone who is good at flight simulator and pay them peanuts (monkey’s maybe?). Many flights are completed with the pilot not touching the controls he is simply there for the ride. With that in mind what do we need the pilot for?

Posted by: Bruce Savage | December 26, 2010 3:46 PM    Report this comment

"What do we need the pilot for"...I'll let other's weigh in on that seperate topic. Seems creative problem solving in light of system failures is a biggie. Flight 232 is an example (Sioux City). Maybe the already forgotten Sullenberger flight..hundreds more. The auto-pilot was invented decades ago, and "hand flying" in normal operation has long been seen as unnecessary (other than proficiency maintenance in the event of system failure). The thought that pilots are unneeded comes up regularly from the missguided, and illinformed.

If doctors died when they made mistakes there would be far fewer unnecessary patient deaths!The fact that the pilot's fate is inextricably tied to his pax (i.e. patients)improves safety. The aviation safety record speaks for itself (in the U.S.). I heard a stat that if aviation lost as many passengers as the medical profession does due to documented mistakes, there would need to be a fully loaded 747 crashing every single day! Pilots and the rest of our aviation infrastructure do an incredible job! Yes, and should be so compensated.

Posted by: eric hanson | December 26, 2010 4:23 PM    Report this comment

As far as what one wants to believe about the "Democratic system", and it's definition, that is readily available. It is not an opinion, it is largely a Greek concept, though far from perfect. It derives from "Power" and "people". It implies a degree of freedom....but doesn't imply limitless freedom whatsoever. Americans generally over-weight the freedom aspect of the definition (probably a nice way to err). It chiefly is defined by freedom to choose how they are governed (which could be anything). Obviously every American couldn't vote on every single government decision or disaster would insue!

I don't know why you're so worried about some change on minimum fuel requirements, frankly. It would follow a "Notice of proposed rulemaking" process. You can even comment at that time Bruce! I think most would favor not eliminating the existing fuel requirement, but if one doesn't comment then one can't complain. I liked your "adage" this time. There is also an old adage: There are two kinds of people; those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don't. Likewise for adages? All the best :)

Posted by: eric hanson | December 26, 2010 4:25 PM    Report this comment

Well done Eric I've had great fun thanks see you the next round

Posted by: Bruce Savage | December 26, 2010 4:38 PM    Report this comment

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