Astronomical Pilot Pay Fuels The Move To Single Pilot Cockpits

Delta Air Lines pilots got an incredible contract. American Airlines says they’ll match and that means pilots who make up to $590,000 per year. United Airlines and Southwest pilots are also negotiating new deals, and have a benchmark of what to expect.

The American Airlines pilot contract is so rich that the increased cost is much greater than the airline’s current profits. Combined with massive debt, American Airlines has a problem if fares do not go up.

Pilot unions have been successful for two reasons. They are better paid than other unions for two simple reasons.

  1. Pilots are in short supply not just because of early retirements during the pandemic (airlines too taxpayer subsidies meant to keep all airline employees working and used some of that money to encourage pilots and others to stop working early) while not training new ones, but also because pilot unions have been successful lobbying for rules that restrict the number of pilots – a 1500 hour requirement that no one else in the world including Europe comes close to, and that had no relationship to the safety claims used to push it through, along with mandatory retirement ages.

  2. Pilots can shut down an airline an airline can fly through a flight attendant strike, the way British Airways did, but not so much through a pilot strike because pilots can’t easily be replaced. Meanwhile pilots simply refusing to fly over minor, non-safety items or taking extra time to double and triple check everything combined with slow taxiing, cripples an airline’s performance way beyond what other work groups can do.

Pilots can bring down an airline and can’t be replaced. They have leverage. But their expensive pay could become their own undoing over the long term.

A near-miss like what happened as an American Airlines Boeing 777 taxied out on the wrong runway in front of a Delta Boeing 737 that was taking off shows the potential tragedy of pilot error, the kind of error you would never expect from a machine.

Artificial intelligence is not today ready to take over for a pilot in the cockpit, but much of flying can and is done via auto pilot and that’s effectively AI. We aren’t at a place today where computers replace pilots, but it’s hard to imagine we won’t be in a place 5 to 10 years from now where artificial intelligence computers aren’t a better option for the second pilot in the cockpit.

That’s why the next major battleground for pilot unions is going to be two pilots in the cockpit. Pilots have become so expensive that there’s now an incentive to reduce the number of pilots that are needed. And we’re likely to reach the point years into the future where young aviators will ask, “you mean the plane used to be flown entirely by people? How were they able to avoid runway regular runway incursions?

Pilot unions will say this is unsafe, but it’s also inevitable – but there’s a data-driven point at which a machine will become safer than a second pilot. We aren’t there today but it’s hard to imagine we won’t get there.

By negotiating these huge pay packages, especially for the most senior pilots who won’t be flying when crunch time comes over giving a captain the tools of a computer-as-copilot, these senior pilots potentially benefit at the expense of their junior colleagues and the profession as a while.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Some websites don’t care about quality, and whatever AI produces will be fine. But the trick isn’t to compare content to what AI can do today. Large language models are developing quickly, and will revolutionize much of life in the coming years (though there will be pushback). For instance while two pilots still make sense in the cockpit, we’ll get to the point where an AI co-pilot outperforms a human. […]


  1. So I make 370 an hour and there’s 380 people on the jet. Thats a dollar an hour per person? WTF are you talking about you schmuk. One Intl ticket is selling for $17000. You OBVIOUSY are on crack. My tesla can’t find its own a*s on the freeway. You are on drugs Mr. I fly on points guy

  2. Until technology can completely replace the pilots onboard, and the passengers have developed a comfort level with pilotless aircraft, there will always be two humans in the flightdeck. I only need to remind you of the story about the Lufthansa flight that went down when a first officer committed suicide by flying into a mountain, that explains the two person rule well enough. That story also pokes a hole in the argument that American pilots unions have pushed for higher flight hours for new hires. Other countries have well established apprentice programs with on the job training. The Lufthansa pilot I mentioned only had about 200 hours of experience before being hired. See how that turned out?

    When did this website become a tool for corporations to break up organized labor? Every CEO of these airlines wouldn’t dream of working without a contract. Why ask the frontline employees to work without one?

  3. While just one pilot can do the job, even on take off and landing (with all the stress and overwork that it’d entail) for safety reasons there has to be a minimum of TWO pilots in the cockpit. While the salaries mentioned in this article are NOT the norm, a pilot is not paid for just flying same old same old…They’re paid for that ONE time their knowledge and experience will save the day, literally. Who fails to see it, recognize it and stop envying a misrepresented “high life”, it’s because doesn’t know about it.

  4. This is no different than any publicly traded company making a decision between the cost of lawsuits from a defective product vs. the cost of a recall. It’s all dollars and cents.

    If the savings of cutting a pilot from flights is greater than the potential cost of lawsuits and brand damage from a loss-of-life incident and those who refuse to fly with a single pilot (as if they’d even pay enough attention to know), airlines will opt for the former, because it’s more profitable in the end. Look at the 737MAX coming back into service, it wasn’t a significantly different situation: bad design lead to deaths, they fixed it, they flew the planes, people bought tickets and the planes are full. Perhaps with some apprehension, myself included, but full nonetheless.

    As even the enraged pilots have said here, yes, pilots make errors. It’s also true that they are paid for when things go wrong, not when they go right. But by that logic, why pay for a 2nd pilot when the outlying situations that require the expertise of a pilot are so rare? The PIC can react and save the day, as they would if the 2nd pilot were incapacitated.

    All we need are computers and software that perform as well as the least capable 1st officer, at which point we are basically in the same boat as today. Anyone saying Gary is putting out a hit piece is clearly biased, this is simply the way business and Wall Street works, and to his point it is probably not as far off as people would like to think. The future is increasingly computers and AI, and the decision to implement them is merely an accounting equation.

  5. By your logic, why pay lavish salaries to CEO’s and other VP’s. AI can make better decisions and run a company much more efficiently than some Harvard grad or over paid human.

  6. I’m trying to figure out why anyone with common sense whether they had a financial interest in this or not thinks this is good idea. Insanity.

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