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Minnesota 2020 Journal: New Pilots Make How Little?

February 21, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

Think about workers directly affected by a minimum wage increase. Draw a picture in your mind. I expect that you’re thinking of food service and retail industry workers, maybe daycare providers or possibly even healthcare workers. You’d be right but chances are that you’re not thinking about entry-level commercial aviation pilots.

New commercial airline pilots have an average national starting annual wage of $22,400. New commercial pilots don’t fly for Delta, United or even Southwest Airlines. They fly for the major airlines’ regional partners, helming puddle jumpers while seeking an aviation industry toehold. These new pilots fly for a regional carrier, logging flight miles and experience before being hired by a major carrier. That’s the dream. The reality is more tempered.

Citing data provided by the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest US pilots union, a recent Business Week story reported at least one regional carrier’s starting pilot’s salary is $15,000 annually. That’s basically the US minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the same entry wage paid in the hospitality industry. I know that we’re underpaying food industry workers at $7.25 an hour so I’m shocked that new pilots are functionally competing with sandwich assemblers in the workforce.

My observation is, to be fair, dramatically stated. I don’t want to mislead. Aspiring pilots and prospective food service workers are drawn from different qualified labor pools. Food service worker ranks might include a licensed commercial airline pilot but the reverse isn’t true. Commercial airline pilots must hold an airline transport certificate, be formally qualified in the designated aircraft’s operation and have at least 1,500 hours of pilot flight log time. Entry-level food service workers are not typically licensed so the barrier is convincing the hiring manager of worker reliability and interest in the work.

Holding a private pilot’s license is an important first step towards flying commercial aircraft for a living. At $6-10,000, it’s also possibly the cheapest step in a multi-year process requiring well over $100,000 in tuition, training and fees. The University of North Dakota’s Aviation program is consistently one the nation’s top-rated departments. It’s a great value but it’s not cheap. Besides tuition, room and board, standard elements in any four-year degree program, aviation requires additional individual program fees to support learning to fly specific aircraft. Financial aid and scholarships are available but let’s not kid ourselves; an aviation undergraduate degree with a commercial pilot’s minimal qualifications are a career investment and must be understood in that context.

Many prospective commercial airline pilots qualify as aviation instructor-pilots during their journey to the major carriers. I-P status yields earned income and flight log hours paid by aspiring pilots, all while continuing to study and earn an airline transport certificate. Still, all newly minted commercial pilots face the same job market reality. They’re going to earn a very modest salary for their first years in commercial aviation.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveal that Minnesota commercial airline pilots earn, on the mean, around $80,000 annually. Given the job’s responsibilities and stress, that strikes me as a reasonable wage. But, the whole system is predicated on a regular supply of new pilots earning $22,000 or $23,000, working their way into major carrier employment by, in effect, subsidizing regional carriers through deferred lifetime earnings. New commercial pilots choose, in other words, to work for modest wages now in the hope that they’ll have greater lifetime earnings.

What happens when the new, cheap pilot pool begins drying up? The easy answer is wages will increase. The longer, complicated answer is that travel costs increase while access to smaller markets shrinks or disappears. Flying, already an increasingly unpopular and unpleasant experience, grows worse because the endless supply of new pilots suddenly reflects market reality.

The flying public is, unfortunately, addicted to illusory ticket prices. We demand low price airline tickets without regard to flying’s cost structure. The next effect is continuous downward pressure on wages in all airline labor segments. We might scratch our heads that new pilots make little more than minimum wage yet the entire operation is predicated on paying cleaners, clerks, baggage handlers and mechanics as little above minimum wage as is possible. Regional carrier pilots, it turns out, are the rule rather than the exception.

Wage stagnation is just as real in the airline industry as it is in every labor market segment. Workers, whether they’re commercial pilots for Great Lakes Aviation or Jimmy Johns’ sandwich jockeys, aren’t sharing in increasing productivity’s rewards. We all suffer when full-time work can’t sustain a family because it leads us down a path of impaired compromise, turning us against each other.

Minnesota is overdue for a minimum wage increase. We all do better when we all do better. $9.50 an hour is a start. I’ll feel safer when new commercial pilots make better wages. I’ll feel safer still when every worker earners a greater wage, sharing in the productivity and prosperity that they’ve created.

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