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You Can't Beat The Inexperience
January 11, 2010 4:41 AM   Subscribe

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. A pilot's life: exhausting hours for meagre wages
posted by fearfulsymmetry (39 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
My next door neighbor's a pilot. I haven't seen him in a while since he split for his month long stay at a Hawaiian resort like he does every year around the holidays.

So what did the unions botch between the time my neighbor was in the air and the time these broke-ass pilots got on the scene? The word "union" appears once in the article, in a sentence that suggests one union just rolled over and played dead 20 years ago, letting airlines run roughshod over the employees. Can a union funded by guys who were at the time making serious six figures (of pre-Bush money, no less) really be so powerless?
posted by majick at 4:58 AM on January 11, 2010


I know a guy who flies charter jets from Toronto down to Florida in the summer and works as a carpenter's mate in the winter to make ends meet. Rich he is not.
posted by unSane at 5:18 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


" 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. "
I don't really understand people when they say this. I make far less than these pilots and so do many others I know and we all live in non-gang, though rather uncool areas of New York near airports. We share apartments, but we have our own rooms at least.

But I do sympathize with pilots, particularly having dated one. What keeps pilots down is an outdated seniority system that leaves young people hopeless to catch up. It's not about skill, simply about how long you have been there. This isn't the British Royal Navy, you'd think they could introduce some sort of meritocracy to reward skill rather than age.

If you want to be a pilot these days you just have to take it and forget about doing anything (family, kids, house) until your hair is grey.
posted by melissam at 5:51 AM on January 11, 2010


We had a former neighbor that flew international for one of the major airlines, don't remember which one. His wife had been a regional jet co-pilot and this story jibes with what she told us she made when she was working. Actually, they were living in a townhouse even when he was flying back and forth to Paris twice a week. They weren't poor, but I don't think he was pulling down six figures either.
posted by COD at 5:54 AM on January 11, 2010


The New York Times had a long piece on this last May.
posted by with hidden noise at 5:55 AM on January 11, 2010


My next door neighbor's a pilot. I haven't seen him in a while since he split for his month long stay at a Hawaiian resort like he does every year around the holidays.

There's a huge range of pilot salaries. A captain with a big international carrier or one of the larger American players doesn't do too bad, a junior pilot with a regional commuter airline makes a lot less.
posted by atrazine at 5:59 AM on January 11, 2010


This isn't the British Royal Navy, you'd think they could introduce some sort of meritocracy to reward skill rather than age.

Well, I may be being a bit simplistic, but I tend to feel that when it comes to flying planes, you're either doing it right, or you're doing it wrong, and if you're doing it wrong you may not be alive to face your lack of promotion.

Actually, I did hear something a while ago about an airline offering its pilots bonuses for flying in such a way as to save as much fuel as possible. Even that sounds a bit dangerous to me.
posted by Jimbob at 6:02 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


The article does a bit of word trickery. It starts off by telling us how pilots used to be well-paid and then goes on to say how these days, co-pilots are not so well paid.

I assume there's a difference between pilots and co-pilots? And between major airlines and small airlines and...well, this is an article that could use a few more facts instead of stories.
posted by vacapinta at 6:03 AM on January 11, 2010


The article does a bit of word trickery. It starts off by telling us how pilots used to be well-paid and then goes on to say how these days, co-pilots are not so well paid.

Well, God is my co-pilot, and he's doing pretty well from the look at the figures.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 6:08 AM on January 11, 2010


I think there is also a huge difference in the salaries between regional commuter airlines, always hanging by a thread, and the international giants we know and love. Patrick Smith, of Salon.com's "Ask the Pilot", has addressed that difference, probably in here somewhere.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:21 AM on January 11, 2010


on preview, what atrazine said.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:22 AM on January 11, 2010


I came out of an aviation college in the mid-90s and went to work as a flight instructor for low, but livable wages. I was able to pay rent without having a rommmate in a so-so-apartmernt complex, make a tiny car payment, buy clothes at the discount store, and buy furnishings at Goodwill and junk stores. For a kid just out of college, it was actually pretty awesome, and I loved instructing. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd go back to instructing right now, but no one is paying a mortgage on flight instructor pay. It's generally-speaking a 'pay your dues' sort of job.

When it came time to take the next step, I looked at jobs with the commuters. At that time, the salaries being offered by the larger commuters were in the $12,000 range, a 33% cut from what I was making as a flight instructor. On top of that, I would have to pay for my own training the first year, and training costs were about $12,000-$13,000. Some folks are hungry enough to get into the industry to swing that, so they'll move back in with mom and dad, or room with several other folks in an apartment in a metro area and make it work; I couldn't bring myself around to do it.

Then I looked at corporate pilot jobs. Jobs in this environment can be unstable -- you might luck out into a good, well-paying job, or you might get laid off in short order as a company cuts a flight department. Back at my flight-instructing job, I'd had two chief pilots -- both were middle-aged corporate pilots who had been laid off and had taken chief pilot jobs at my tiny podunk airport out of necessity -- so I knew what the situation could be. The first place I interviewed at, the interviewer told me flat out he couldn't hire a female, because their pilot teams share hotel rooms while out on a trip, and also 'there would be trouble with the wives'. I couldn't get another interview, I wasn't going anywhere where I was, and I wasn't willing to make the sort of sacrifices I'd have to make in order to move up in this unstable industry.

So I went into IT and that was that.
posted by 2xplor at 6:42 AM on January 11, 2010 [10 favorites]


I assume there's a difference between pilots and co-pilots?

Seniority. Same training and skills, mostly. The flight instructors I've talked to who don't want to be commercial airline pilots say the problem is union rules. Your salary and job depend pretty much entirely on your seniority. Your actual skill as a pilot is secondary. So if you're a young person and think you're pretty smart, it's not very appealing to be stuck 15 years as copilot on a crappy regional jet before you start making a decent salary. That, and the job requires a lot of time away from home, and is more boring than being a bus driver right until the moment where it's intensely demanding. Unless you fuck up once and your career is destroyed.

A key thing from the article is "Many of them come to these jobs with $150,000 of debt for a $15,000-$20,000 starting job". One of the requirements to be an airline transport pilot is 1500 hours of flying time. The absolute cheapest you can fly a plane is about $50 / hour, $7500, and it's way, way more than that to get time in a jet. Traditionally the way you got those hours was being a member of the military. People do it privately, mostly by working as a flight instructor or air taxi for a few years. Either way it's not easy, and takes a big technical training commitment before you're even eligible for a job.
posted by Nelson at 6:48 AM on January 11, 2010


For Captain Nietz, a 27-year veteran, the biggest indignity was flying hungry. Delays were so routine that he seldom left his plane all day long, even “to grab a biscuit.” With food service long discontinued, he said, the only bites to be had were “the occasional peanut — and the airlines charge the crews for bags of peanuts and cheese and crackers.”
Christ. They made the crew pay for peanuts while paying them peanuts.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:00 AM on January 11, 2010 [7 favorites]



It's long been a maxim that they way to make a small fortune in the airline industry is to start with a large fortune.

It seems to me that the best job in the industry right now is the TSA operator at the backscatter screener at a big airport. At least you get to look at naked people all day.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:16 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I assume there's a difference between pilots and co-pilots?

The copilot cannot eat the fish.
posted by schwa at 7:22 AM on January 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


There aren't many things in life that shouldn't be competitive, but flying commercial jets is almost certainly one of them.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 7:39 AM on January 11, 2010


Well, God is my co-pilot, and he's doing pretty well from the look at the figures.

I think you will find he is having to moonlight as a DJ to make ends meet.
posted by biffa at 8:11 AM on January 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


I know the Guardian is a popular left-leaning paper, but c'mon people - three of the last four posts are Guardian stories and if I wanted that, I'd go to www.guardian.co.uk.
posted by rhymer at 8:28 AM on January 11, 2010


Well, if you post something else, then only two of the last four posts will be Guardian stories--that'd be a huge improvement.
posted by box at 8:40 AM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd say skip the Guardian and go straight to PPRuNe.... this thread (not just the first page, but further on) gives a pretty compelling example how bad it is. Apparently a lot of young pilots have gone into serious debt and not even gotten their foot in the door. Other pilots have went off to China to get cheap training and then gotten screwed. And since it's not what you know but who you know, a few young pilots are going in as flight attendents to get a leg up on their peers.
posted by crapmatic at 8:45 AM on January 11, 2010


I've been aware of this whole phenomena of crap pay and crap working conditions for pilots thanks to Patrick Smith's "Ask The Pilot" feature in Salon. What I've never seen properly explained is why demand continues. In any other field, a starting salary of $12,000 a year after expensive training would weed out everyone but the mouthbreathers who can't run a calculator, let alone fly a plane, but for some reason being a pilot still attracts real talent willing to gamble on getting one of those coveted, 7-11 clerk pay level jobs.

I mean, yes, flying is really cool, but at this point I have to question the sanity of anyone who actually makes it into such a lopsided personal situation. If your risk/reward gland is so hormonally imbalanced, do I trust you to make life-or-death decisions in the cockpit? How many people who want to be pilots think "I could instead make enough money at a white-collar job to buy a plane and fly it on the weekends"?
posted by fatbird at 9:26 AM on January 11, 2010


They made the crew pay for peanuts while paying them peanuts.

My work makes me pay if I eat their food. Perhaps the pilots should consider packing a sandwich to their job?
posted by blue_beetle at 9:42 AM on January 11, 2010


I mean, yes, flying is really cool, but at this point I have to question the sanity of anyone who actually makes it into such a lopsided personal situation.

In all fairness, I considered this as a serious career option 15 or 20 years ago, and I would respond with this:
(1) between weather, ATC, and time/personnel scheduling, the job is rarely the same, which gets you away to a certain extent from monotony and drudgery.... I went into a different aviation-related field myself that was drastically different every day and I absolutely loved it;
(2) the instruments and systems on a plane and the procedures involved can actually be extremely fascinating and satisfy those of us with an interest in engineering;
(3) it can be argued that most jobs are cyclical, and like the stock market, if you get in while things are low it can work to your advantage later (I'm not implying that I think this; I really don't know what will happen to the career field, esp. given factors like recession and the peak oil theories, but then again the Boeing 787 has 851 orders and warm bodies will be needed, so.... shrug);
(4) there's the status symbol of being a pilot -- it may not pay well but it remains a highly respected profession and still carries some of the glamour from years past.

While in a practical sense it would be insane to try to go into this field if you have debt, obligations, or family to take care of, and I have my own reservations about the role of the pilot 20-30 years from now given the spectre of increased automation both in ATC and on the flight deck, there are some good things to be said about the career field. And for a newcomer, there's a difference between going in as an underpaid/nonpaid intern at some god-forsaken high-tech company and going to Africa to get a block of flight hours in... I'd bet only one of those would yield stories for the grandkids one day.
posted by crapmatic at 9:56 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


How many people who want to be pilots think "I could instead make enough money at a white-collar job to buy a plane and fly it on the weekends"?

Because that wouldn't allow them to fully express their self-importance and control-freakery. Really, how many mid-level white-collar jobs allow you to have people tazed and imprisoned at a whim?
posted by stet at 9:58 AM on January 11, 2010


In any other field, a starting salary of $12,000 a year after expensive training would weed out everyone but the mouthbreathers who can't run a calculator, let alone fly a plane, but for some reason being a pilot still attracts real talent willing to gamble on getting one of those coveted, 7-11 clerk pay level jobs.

Except grad school!
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:07 AM on January 11, 2010


Just another example of how the older generation pulled the ladder up behind it, screwing us over and demanding that we pay our dues by going deeply into debt before even starting work.

I mean, they're all retiring and earning interest on their investments. Someone has to pay that interest. And that person is all of us. Conservatives can bitch all they want about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme.

As long as the real economy grows linearly and interest grows exponentially, it's the people entering the workforce now that end up paying for the retirement of the older generation-- with the interest on our ''educational'' loans. Some education.
posted by wuwei at 10:42 AM on January 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


Regardless of what segment of society is to blame for this situation..... it ain't good. I do NOT like the idea of trusting my life to a pilot or a pair of pilots who are low on sleep, fatigued from their second jobs as burger-flippers, who make less money than a teacher makes... and who are pressured by their employer to fly when better judgement might dictate otherwise. Commuter airlines... not for the faint of heart.

And I am a pilot, been an aircraft owner for almost 40 years. Don't do it for a living, though I take my headgear off to those who are able to thrive and who make it through that unbelievable gauntlet.
posted by drhydro at 11:03 AM on January 11, 2010


The hell, stet? How many people with the desire to tase and imprison people on a whim do you really imagine go into this career? That's a cheap shot they wouldn't sell at the dollar store.

To me, this all began with Carl Icahn and his 1985 takeover of TWA, which began an era of wage competition that never really ended. In short order the various airline unions found themselves giving wage concessions at a new carrier every other year, just to preserve jobs. The flying jobs (pilots, flight attendants) remain attractive because of the travel benefits and so there is a huge oversupply compared to the actual wages. Probably it also got tremendously pressured by a lot of loss-leader competition on the high-traffic hub-and-spoke routes due to deregulation, as well as higher fuel prices. At least when you run a railroad you usually own the tracks; when you run an airline you have to lease or mortgage all the planes and then you have to keep them running to make the payments, and if you fall short the bank or lessor takes them back. So it's pretty much a job for staying out of reach of the wolf's bite to begin with. Seems pretty crazy.

But yeah, my brother is a railroad engineer and it isn't all that glamorous a job. Every conversation I have with him seems to involve some sort of detour into a detailed discussion of union work rules. When I heard about the guys that overshot Minneapolis getting into their scheduling software so deep they weren't answering the radio, I immediately thought about that. Take away the passengers and the jobs are pretty similar in the end, and nobody would really be surprised to hear these stories about train engineers.
posted by dhartung at 11:37 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the pilots should consider packing a sandwich to their job?

Yes, but that breaks my pun.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:21 PM on January 11, 2010


Also...

Just another example of how the older generation pulled the ladder up behind it, screwing us over and demanding that we pay our dues by going deeply into debt before even starting work.

EVERY profession is seeing this problem. Want to be an architect? How about a journalist? How about a trusty MBA? No? Well, thank goodness you can always sell your soul and go into law, right? How about ANYTHING requiring a degree? No?

This is capitalism's end-game. Sucks to be a pawn.
/pawn
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:29 PM on January 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


The hell, stet?

Yeah, that was a dick comment. I've had way too many shit dealings with airline pilots but, still, no more posting before coffee for me. Self flagged and apologies to the Metafilter community.
posted by stet at 2:40 PM on January 11, 2010


At least when you run a railroad you usually own the tracks

Actually the situation is not a whole lot better on the railroads. Basically the same problem; oversupply of people who want to do the job coupled with a stultifying seniority system that ensures you don't get to do anything but watch someone else for years. The training burden isn't quite so bad as becoming a pilot, admittedly, but mostly because there's just no way to do it yourself even if you wanted to. (I guess maybe you could join a fan/excursion railroad somewhere, but they're mostly staffed by retired guys and there aren't that many of them anyway.) And, like flying, it also can involve long periods in a small metal box without a bathroom. Most locomotives actually have a tiny lavatory in them, but some railroads are notorious for failing to maintain them.

It has a retirement system that's in far better shape than Social Security, but other than that, not a ton going for it.

Like seemingly everything else today, it's not really anything about the profession in general, just too many people; not enough jobs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:50 PM on January 11, 2010


Civil_Disobedient: Totally agree that this problem stretches across all areas of the working world. This situation is bullshit.
posted by wuwei at 3:03 PM on January 11, 2010


My brother (who's 24 now, to give a temporal position) started his college career assuming he'd do commercial aviation. But after looking at the economic realities, he chose ATC instead. I couldn't possibly handle that job or its demands, but it seems to have been a better choice for him.
posted by flaterik at 5:41 PM on January 11, 2010


So the US military serves as a de facto training program for US airlines. I don't have any problem with military service providing future job training, but it's no surprise that yet another US industry is opaquely subsidized this way.

God bless the "free" market.
posted by bardic at 6:26 PM on January 11, 2010


God bless the "free" market.

Yeah, did you know in some places in the U.S. the government actually subsidizes nearly FIFTEEN YEARS of free training? They teach you all the important job skills, like reading and writing English and many foreign languages, mathematics, nearly all the different scientific fields, music and the arts…

Crazy, I know.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:39 AM on January 12, 2010


"So the US military serves as a de facto training program for US airlines. I don't have any problem with military service providing future job training, but it's no surprise that yet another US industry is opaquely subsidized this way."

This seems like an incredibly good deal. Besides the cost savings from being able to hire untrained personnel they maintain their training structure so if the need to go to war in a big way comes around they have practical knowledge on expanding the number of trained personnel.
posted by Mitheral at 7:28 AM on January 12, 2010


The Truth About the Profession, a mostly negative view of being a professional pilot from a major carrier pilot with 20+ years experience.
posted by Nelson at 9:23 AM on January 16, 2010


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