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. Like all industries with rising labor costs, there comes a tipping point when it’s more financial sense to automate or reduce the cost of labor through technology.

    While pilots may have scored a battlefield victory, I’m afraid this will push the war between labor and company to the next level. The only saving grace for the pilots will be the regulatory hurdles to remove a 2nd pilot. I don’t foresee that happening, whether or not the technology becomes advanced enough.

    After all, if the company doesn’t exist, what labor does it need?

  2. One doesn’t pay the airline pilot so much for his/her skills in piloting the aircraft when its working…but when things go wrong…THAT is where they earn every cent. If one thinks that a Tesla on autonomous driving is an issue, can you imagine an Airbus A380 down to a CRJ doing the same thing? The consequences are disastrous. If a drone goes awry, the casualties can be bad but not as bad as a plane load of people going down. A I has a LOOONNNGGGG way to go to replace the human interaction in surgery, construction, dental and (yes) flying. As for American Airlines, as pointed out in the article, they can’t sustain the current salaries much less new salaries. Poor management, poor interaction between employees and management and the union mentality of “…that’s not my job” have put AA in a vortex that will see them gone. When asked Teddy Roosevelt once said about being a leader, ““People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.” – maybe AA’s and union management could take heed of that quotation.

  3. “…the kind of error you would never expect from a machine…” Maybe not, but machines make lots of other errors. How many kinds would you want to see? So do humans, which is why redundancy is important in a high workload/high potential for disaster environment. Most commercial flying is automated, but it’s impossible to do that for every possible situation where human judgment as required, and two professionals trained as a team always beats one.

    Incidentally, the “cockpit” disappeared with biplanes. Airline pilots work on flight decks.

  4. Airline safety is built on multiple concepts, one of which is redundancy.
    Having two capable people in the cockpit is paramount with hundreds of lives on board.
    Where does this end? Is the next step letting passengers watch a 15 minute training video and receive a fare discount if they are willing to fly the plane?

  5. You can bet that Air Force One will — for safety and security reasons — not go down to having just one human pilot and a computer as back-up pilot in charge of flying. Even 15 years from now. Even a ground-based pilot acting as a back-up by being as-needed-on-demand drone pilot? Won’t be happening for Air Force One, regardless of which plane is being used by the US President then.

  6. For those that think we will never see only 1 pilot in a plane seem to forget it was common there were 3 for a long time. The flight engineer position has totally gone away since the systems on plane negated the need for it.

    Also @Win Whitmore – you referenced AI in surgery. I was in medical IT most of my career. There have been robotic surgical devices for many years (prostrate surgery is most common use at least a few years ago before I retired). Also, there is growing use of big data, AI and predictive analytics to help diagnosis and manage patients’ health. Like it or not technology will continue to become more prominent in all industries and workplaces.

  7. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to seeing some commercial, scheduled passenger flights operated entirely by ground-based pilots — aka drone operators — before we see computer pilots doing the same for the entirety of a commercial, scheduled passenger flight.

    The USAFA in Colorado may be graduating more drone pilots nowadays than in-the-plane pilots.

  8. There is indeed a place where costs to develop the technologies needed to support single pilot operations intersects with the benefits that can be obtained. The problem is that there is a whole lot more technology needed on the ground than on planes. Airbus has already acknowledged that the A350 has the capability to support single pilot operations and Cathay Pacific has already asked Airbus to develop it. You can bet that Boeing has similar capabilities on its newer jets – obviously NOT including the MAX.
    The most likely place that single pilot ops will show up first is on long range flights that cruise for hours and hours largely on automation. Yes, problems can and do occur in the middle of those flights but even removing 1 of 4 pilots on a flight over 12 hours and 1 of 3 on a flight over 8 hours doesn’t leave just a single pilot on an airplane. The other area where single pilot ops will be seen is cargo. Cargo carriers typically buy older aircraft but will buy newer aircraft if they can eliminate a pilot where the risk of massive risk to human life doesn’t exist.
    And let’s also not forget that single pilot is not even accurate. The pilot(s) that will be removed from the aircraft will be replaced with one on the ground that can remotely monitor and fly an airplane if necessary. Someone on the ground can monitor multiple flights at a time and a group can be prepared to jump in where needed. There won’t be a 100% reduction in the costs of a singe pilot but over a large fleet and as salaries continue to grow, the cost reductions will add up.

  9. The U.S. airline industry is not smart. First, the A380, with a pilot capable of driving 555+ passengers, is stopped construction. Second, the free source of government-paid trained Air Force pilots has been drying up for more than a decade now, A one-two punch of retiring large aircraft and fewer free military-trained and war-experienced pilots, is knocking out the U.S. airline industry. As for me, I’ll stick with QR and EK A380s, while the U.S. taxpayer continually bails out mismanaged legacy airlines.

  10. We are not really close to solving autonomous driving or flying yet, sure it can work as expected 99.9% of the time, but rare difficult corner cases are not handled yet. Of course this is because the system is not actually smart enough to know context. It’s just a trained neural network, so when it encounters a novel scenario all bets are off. We are several years away still, perhaps decades.

  11. How did I know the author of this hit piece before opening it? Gary Leff must have been some failed pilot along the way. Quite the joke, you are Gary.

  12. Joseph,

    It will be like it is with KLM: “not possible”. Or “computer says ‘no’”.

    We already have the “computer says no” thing to some extent with all the various blacklisting that goes on. And they are merciless.

  13. IMO
    With AAs recent schedule changes to their European schedule they just cut in half their long haul labor needs. Yesterday, BA increased their fuel tax extortion scheme by 25% so net ticket prices have already gone up on AA partners. I think AA is at the break point and will pull out of that market soon. This will further devalue their only asset- the Advantage program.

    After 65 years of flying AA it’s time for me to give up. I just rebooked this years trips on UA.

  14. @Megalodale – not a hit piece! AI isn’t there today. But any observer has to admit that it will reach the point where it’s actually better than a second (human) pilot. And because that is inevitable there will be intense lobbying by ALPA and others to prevent its adoption. That’ll be lobbying AGAINST safety.

    Unclear when this comes to pass, but there be a point where the data supports it, and it’s closer than you think.

  15. @Nick years away? Yes! And humans are imperfect too. We may be decades away from adopting it (due to lobbying) but not to the point at which it’s better than humans. Already much of the flight is controlled autonomously, and many pilots even land on autopilot.

  16. If anyone has any questions about the concept Gary is proposing, look up Boeing’s team that has been working on it for at least a decade. If anyone has any questions about *viable* supersonic flight, look up a government/industry consortium that has been working on it for over 25 years. And, then there’s trans-atmospheric/hyper-sonic flight. Etc., etc. It will all come to pass.

    There’s a bigger issue though. The proposed pilot pay increase at AA would likely translate to a (say) $10 increase on a $400 ticket. Fine. How about a $10 increase on a $3000 long-haul business class ticket . . . that goes toward better in-flight food? All those in favor . . .

  17. Gary, you are an idiot. Don’t tell me how much I am worth being an airline captain. How much is your life worth getting from point A to point B safely? Yes, pilot’s make errors. They are human. However, the overall U.S.a system of aviation is very safe and that is due to the professionalism of the pilots flying the planes. Now look at the outrageous salaries and bonuses of airline executives. Look at the Southwest fiasco. Who is to blame?

  18. Gary, to your point in response to Nick, a pilot is currently needed for two things: take-off and landing. A flight plan is programmed into the aircraft. On-course modifications could readily be made remotely.

    In the unique case of vertical take-off and landing at pre-established points, the pilot is obviated completely. The air-taxi project relies on this concept. The flying-car company Terrafugua does as well.

  19. “Gear down…I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave”. Yes, I know I’m dating myself. A thought that occurs to me is, would insurance companies be eager to cover the liability costs associated with the “perceived” increased chances of an accident.

  20. @Craig Kronfeld-

    “you are an idiot”

    Possibly! Although it would sure help if you’d give an actual reason why you think this, otherwise I’ve got nothing to go on!

    “Don’t tell me how much I am worth being an airline captain.”

    I haven’t named a number. In employment you are ‘worth’ the value of your marginal product.

    “Yes, pilot’s make errors. They are human. However, the overall U.S.a system of aviation is very safe and that is due to the professionalism of the pilots flying the planes.”

    Pilots are one piece of this. Airframe manufacturers, maintenance, air traffic control all play a role. But we have to continually improve across all dimensions, certainly there are cracks in ATC which have become more apparent. At some point AI will outperform humans at many functions. Not today, for pilots, in my view. What happens when that changes?

    “Now look at the outrageous salaries and bonuses of airline executives. Look at the Southwest fiasco. Who is to blame?”

    At Southwest it’s underinvestment in IT that made them vulnerable to a long tail event. I’d argue there are both overcompensated and undercompensated executives at airlines. The ones who destroy value are overcompensated! How much was Gordon Bethune worth to Continental, though? Kelleher to Southwest, and by the way he was notoriously cheap and underinvested in IT also?

  21. @Gary Isn’t a higher bar required for AI pilots as a failure results in more liability? Seeing this with Tesla now.

  22. it is beyond funny that Craig calls Gary an idiot in the same post that he writes “pilot’s” were there should be a simple plural rather than a possessive.

    Gary’s logic is sometimes fuzzy but it is 20/20 on this topic including in his response to Craig.

  23. It’s funny how pilots are worth every penny but other people in roles where they are entrusted with people’s safety are always told they’re overpaid.

  24. Wage quoted is only the most extreme situation. Most pilots will be lucky to make 1/4th that.

    I spent my career making less than a Seattle garbage truck driver.

  25. Hey Gary
    I happen to be at the top of the pay scale. At the airline you mentioned. If I were to make as much as you suggest. Free time and a real life would be unlikely.
    I get why people think flying is too expensive. You buy a ticket to travel somewhere. You get there and have nothing to show for your cash outlay. Except for memories. They may not even be good memories. You go to the store and buy a new UHD tv. Go home with something to remind you of your cash outlay. So I guess an airline ticket over 99 bucks is a waste of time.

    Airliners are certified to auto land. They need to perform one in each month to keep that certification. Quite often the pilot paperwork request this be done. So the ship keeps it certification. The reason it is quite often not done is for a number of factors. Winds, weather out of limits etc. The largest reason is due to the aircraft can be all over the place on landing. If you were to ride up front. You would see how the great unknown about aircrafts ability. Creates quite a pucker factor.

    You are entitled to your opinion. Seeing how often the technology around my house acts inappropriately.
    I’ll stick with 2 pilots for now.

  26. Replacement is coming regardless of cost even if they were paid $15/hr. Might as well collect the gold while they still can.

    However the current gen of autopilot is certainly not akin to AI. It goes where you tell it to go, and does not make any sort of decisions at all. It will fly straight into the ground if you tell it to.

    I do agree more advanced autopilots are coming down the road. I’d look to 2035-2040 time frame, and I’d actually learn towards zero pilots (in the air) vs one pilot. There will still be a “pilot”, albeit on the ground. Who knows if pay will remain high (although there will be many less of them).

  27. Seriously, Gary. This is another idiotic hit piece. Wall Street and the airlines have created this problem of supply and demand by short-changing the regional pilots for decades.

    Further, neither Airbus nor Boeing can make an airplane that is safe with 2 pilots, let alone one pilot. Anyone that has handled an aircraft emergency knows this. Circuit breakers have to be pulled. Fires have to be managed, etc.

    Get over your petty self and whine about the business class breakfast.

  28. In other pilot-related news, Southwest said today that it will not get the MAX 7 into service in 2023 – a stunning admission that its loyalty to Boeing is costing it way too much.

    And since United won’t get the MAX 10 before Southwest gets the MAX 7, neither WN or UA will be growing near as much as they had planned – and won’t need as many pilots.

    Perhaps that reality is why AA and DL are the ones much more anxious to get their pilot contracts in order while UA and WN are comfortable w/ dawdling.

  29. I won’t be seeing 0 pilots in my lifetime. We can get 90% of the way there but that last 10% is such a bitch to pull off and the level and cost of infrastructure needed to automate takeoffs and landings for every commercial airport in the world (that includes the third world too folks otherwise plane manufacturers won’t have the financial incentive to take on another A380 type project that only works in niche markets where the infrastructure is in place) AND get public buy in on it being safe…good luck.

    And for those that doubt me…ask yourself a question. How’s that NextGen adoption going in the US? Full automation is going to be just as complex.

    Single pilot isn’t as tough to implement. The problem is public buy-in. All it’s going to take is a statistical increase in the average commercial aviation crashes per year due to pilot error in single pilot planes relative to the number of historical yearly average crashes in multi-pilot commercial aircraft due to pilot error in the past 20 years to put pressure on the FAA to reconsider single pilot commercial aviation.

  30. Someone’s going to say “We don’t need full automation”…we just need ground control.” Fair point but that presents its own challenges, not the least of which is international travel and the lack of coverage the system would have without a heavy investment in satellite tech and the very thorny issue of which government(s) pays for it and which countries control which satellites. Hint: It’s not going to be the airlines I can tell you that. This too negatively impacts 3rd world countries from going there which in turn depresses the market from a manufacturer standpoint.

  31. Gary, you get some key things right in this article. For instance: yes, most incidents are due to human error, and yes, AI and autonomy can improve safety. There is good R&D in the industry to support this, and in fact, this is one of the primary reasons why there is so much work being done on autonomous flying today.

    Also, single pilot operation of a major airliner will be a reality. It’s also on track to come sooner than most probably think. It will start in Cargo and could be certified in the early 2030s.

    You also get a good bit wrong:

    1. Autopilot is absolutely not “effectively” AI. No way at all. Autopilot is deterministic automation. AI, or to be more precise about the type of technology being studied for use here–reinforcement-based machine learning– has key non-deterministic aspects and enables true “autonomy,” which means replicating human level analysis and decision making.

    2. The recent post-pandemic pilot shortage, nor recent pilot contracts, is in no way “fueling” work on single pilot operation. The work on single-pilot started long ago, well before the pandemic. It would be more accurate to claim that the pilot shortage is spurring more focus on this work by media outlets.

    3. The technology is actually ready for many use-cases today. The problem is not technical maturity, but to figure out how to certify it and to gain public acceptance (especially for passenger operations, which will likely be decades away.) Certification will begin to be solved this decade and will be robust in the next. Singe pilot cargo will start in the next decade and single or zero pilot passenger will be here in the 2040s.

    Just because we see AI as a long way off from driving cars doesn’t mean that it’s not ready for flying aircraft. The two are completely different problem domains and the car domain is in many ways far more complex. For instance, cars do not operate in a centrally managed or controlled environment (like high altitude airspace.) Drivers are not nearly as trained as pilots are in transitioning between different states of automation. And no one is going to kick a kick-ball in front of a plane at 30,000 feet.

    On the other hand, cars do not have the certification complexity of aircraft nor the same level of safety assurance requirements (this may change over time, especially after Tesla’s debacle with Autopilot.) Nevertheless, there are designs today on how safety assurance on AI can work and certification on mid-level safety-critical systems (DAL C in aerospace engineering parlance) can be here in a few short years.

  32. Couple of thoughts.
    1. Autopilots can not think. They currently can not cope with the multiple variables that a 3 year old human can easily deal with. They only do what is programed in the flight plan.
    2. Pilots today have not come close to keeping up with inflation in terms of wages, much like the rest of the working class. These pay raises only shrink the gap that they have lost to inflation not recover to what they made in the past.
    3. If you can make an AI in a box that can truly make decisions pilots may be in trouble but then again so will humanity. I see doctors and lawyers being replaced before pilots. True journalists are already going extinct.
    4. Are we really going to let “drones” from other countries into US airspace? Will countries like China or name your autocratic state allow our aircraft into their airspace? Can you see a situation where that might be problematic? Maybe a weather event and the foreign control prioritizes their country’s aircraft over other’s? Or maybe they just arbitrarily decide to not let our aircraft land because a celebrity or political figure said the wrong thing. Also, how do we get “control” of our drone back in a non US country? You could vary that scenario in all kinds of ways. Just look at how Russia charges airlines for overflight rights, have fun thinking up other nightmare scenarios.
    5. I think this is a just a bunch of marketing crap pushed by corporations trying to sell a system to the government and get rich off the research. Nothing wrong with getting rich but let’s see Gulfstream sell a pilotless multimillion dollar jet to the ownership class first. Good luck.
    6. Do you think the companies that have to insure 100 million dollar jets care about the costs of pilots?They want a return on their investment, you’ll have to show an AI system that is cheaper and safer than pilots.
    7. Capitalism is ostensibly about supply and demand. The last few decades have had a surplus of pilots, now that’s gone. If we let it, the market will fix this or we can just let the monopolies have their way and continue to gouge the consumer who has no real choice anymore. I’d suggest you let market forces solve this instead of fear bombing the pilots. What would be amazing is if someone like Elon Musk took over an airline and treated it like Twitter. Pretty sure the mechanics, flight attendants, ground crews, gate agents and yes the pilots would survive the purge but would the buildings full of admin staff? Next time you’re on a jet think about who’s the most important staff at whatever airline you’re flying on and think about where you want your ticket price value to be spent on.
    8. The really sketchy place is at the regional airline level. Take some of your journalistic skill and go look into that industry. You may not like the 1500 hour rule but not only does it provide a barrier to entry it also keeps the flight instructors working to create the next soon to be current generation in the pipeline. You want to shut off that pipeline keep talking about AI replacing pilots. Why would a kid go out and drop a 100 K in flight training to get replaced in a decade?
    9. Apologies in advance for my laptop’s AI missing any typos or incorrect grammar

  33. Y’all seem to be conflating *what autopilot is capable of today* with *what AI will do in the future* (a future that is very much being worked on).

    I did not argue in this thread that a pilot could simply be replaced by a computer today. But there will be a point at which it’s technologically superior – from a safety standpoint – to do so. ALPA will push back hard, and in so doing will be pushing for changes that harm aviation safety.

  34. Why is it that pretty much every article written in favour of the single pilot concept is from people who have never done the job ? Who don’t really know, what we do on a daily basis (in terms of intervening etc.) and don’t really understand the state of the infrastructure supporting todays flying, the limitations, and the capabilities? Yes, Airbus has demonstrated the very first commercial airliner with “auto” takeoff (A350), but in the world today, there are less than 150 airports with Cat 3 (autoland) capability, and whenever we use it capacity goes down , cause the system requires greater separation. When the AI replacement can understand the instruction given verbally by the air traffic controller whose first language is not english, and translate that into a change on the autopilot i’ll start taking it seriously, not before…….(and don’t start talking about cpdlc)

  35. Inflation. That is what is happening that is not being accounted for. In 1978 a Delta 727 captain made $77.00 per hour. An equivalent aircraft – Airbus320 – today pays $286/hr at Delta. That is an actual LOSS of earning power of about 21%. The bottom line is that airline pilots make less money – adjusted for inflation – than they made when airlines were de/regulated in 1979. One can complain about how much airline pilots make per hour or per year, but adjusted for inflation, they’re paid less today than they were 40 years ago.

  36. @Chuck N – comparing to the regulated era completely misses the point. airlines were encouraged to pay any amount to avoid strikes, the government set prices, and did so on a cost-plus basis. The idea of government-set pricing was to ensure profitability of airlines. Those weren’t market wages.

    Moreover, pre-1978 wages are not in any way relevant today, with a retirement age of 65 you do not have any current pilots at the major airlines who were ever being paid those wages.

    And there were a lot fewer pilot jobs then!

  37. “Why is it that pretty much every article written in favour of the single pilot concept is from people who have never done the job ?”

    Because they do not have a vested interest in the status quo.

    And by the way this piece does not favor single pilot today, only when the technology makes an AI second pilot safer than a human one. Which will eventually happen.

  38. Gary,

    Sorry you never had the drive or study habits to become a pilot. Looks like you found your place though, writing garbage articles undermining working professionals.

  39. The flying public will never accept this, and that is the biggest piece of this puzzle. A computer, or ground-based operator will NEVER give a flight deck the redundancy it needs! Plus, if they ever try to force this nonsense on me as an airline captain, I’ll retire and take my 30+ years with me. And I’ll bet a bunch of my friends will too, and then there will be no “heros” around to fly these dangerous airliners!

  40. @Commuter Type – and what’s happened to the denominator during that time…? More seats per aircraft, and by the way those marginal seats are lower yield. So this stat is meaningless.

  41. “…the kind of error you would never expect from a machine…”

    The machine might not make an error – but the programmers sure as hell do. The 737 MAX did EXACTLY what it was programmed to do….right into the dirt. Every airplane has a list of what we call ‘anomalies’ that are actually programming errors. Without pilot intervention bad things will happen.

    We are not even close to automating the airline pilot job…regardless of how much you wish it to be true.

    Current market forces are driving pilot wages up – because it takes a lot of skill, commitment, money, and time to create a professional pilot capable of ensuring the level of safety of which we are accustomed. The proof is in the new programs like Aviate.

  42. Makes me laugh.
    Do the math
    Average Delta pilot flies 75 hrs for 10.5 months.
    Round it down to 700/year.
    590,000 plus 354,000. (F/O typically 60% of Capts wage).
    Call it $1500.0/hr
    8hr flight to Europe equals $10,800
    777 full load 312-388
    Call it 300
    So it’s $36/pax extra for two trained professionals up front when the proverbial S hits the fan.
    Do you think it’s worth it???
    I certainly do.

  43. I am old enough to remember when there was a glut of pilots and management raped the profession and then AA CEO Bob Crandall called the B-scale pay and pension contributions market based wages. So, when there is a glut of pilots and they can pay new hires half what the current labor force gets and 1/3 the pension contributions (only to later steal that from them in bankruptcy), that is OK. But when the labor market swings the other way that isn’t market based wages? Give me a break…

    I have over 37 years at AA. I saw many pilots work their entire career and never make what they anticipated they would make when they made the investment to qualify to get hired at AA. During those 37 years I have also seen a revolving door of bean counter management types come and go. I have been amazed that the airline ever made a profit with some of the lunacy I have seen. I do not influence the cost of fuel, I do not make financial decisions with decades-long consequences and I will not underwrite either or abide someone who thinks that I should.

    A few months back a Wall Street Journal writer published a piece marveling at where it looked like Delta pilot pay was going. I wrote and told her that if AA doubled my pay – doubled it – in inflation adjusted dollars I would be making what a DC10 captain made in…are you ready for it? 1968. Double my pay and I am making what an airline captain made in the 1960’s.

    Here is another point to consider, if all the airlines pay about the same, what Crandall called market based wages (just higher than he would want) then how are pilot wages going to shut down one airline and not another or all of them? Spare me the tears over airlines shutting down. I am also pragmatic enough to know that there will never be another major airline pilot strike, so anyone talking about leverage from that angle needs to wake up and smell the coffee. There is simply too much political pressure to allow one to ever happen again. And either shut down scenario is simply BS. Too many people, too many planes, too much there there. Even in bankruptcy today, how a carrier might cry to a judge and say they simply can’t pay their pilots what brand-x is paying; these judges are not stupid. Post Frank Lorenzo bankruptcy rules were rewritten to keep unscrupulous management from filing for bankruptcy in order to abrogate their union contracts. Do they still try and get out of them? Sure. But it isn’t as easy for them to do it as it used to be.

    Will automation replace pilots? Sure, at some point and to some degree. The guys and gals that need to get their contract affairs in order to preclude that are FedEx and UPS. And I told their union leadership that very thing when it would have been cheap and easy to limit, over twenty years ago. To my knowledge they did nothing of the sort. So, when I see the first airliner hauling boxes with one or no pilots on board, then I will be concerned long-term for the passenger carrier pilot’s careers. I personally think it won’t happen in my lifetime. I may be wrong, but I doubt it. Go to the airport and ask people if they would get on the plane if they knew there were no pilots on board. Few would. Maybe it will be like ticket pricing, make it cheap enough and they will get onto any fleabag operator’s plane. But that one there will give them pause. And the first time one smokes into the ground full of passengers; that setback will hurt the early adopters. So, we’ll see. In the meantime, I am quite pleased that Delta’s pilots held firm. Delta used to only hire pilots that would salute the admiral and say yes sir, but it looks like their pilot group has firmed up. Congratulations to them!

  44. This article is written from the perspective of complete ignorance for the industry.

    Becoming a pilot can cost nearly 100,000$. And years of your life to train and gain experience, Not including the college degree most legacy airline pilots possess. Or years in the military.

    Also when pay figures are thrown around they are typically illustrating pay for the top 1% of pilots near 60+ years old in the last years of their career at the best companies in the industry flying the largest airplanes.

    When your talking pilots. You need to include all pilots from the bottom up. Military Pilots. Flight instructors making $15,000 a year. First year regional jet pilots making $50,0000. Regional jet captains making $120,000 a year. Coporate pilots. Cargo pilots. Pilots at non legacy majors that make far less then pilots at Delta, United, and American. All pilots move thru all these positions throughout their careers and only get the high pay after decades of sacrifice. And not all pilots, in fact most do not achieve the captain chair of a legacy airline. Your progression can stop at any of these steps do to, incompetence, loss of medical, economic conditions, lack of motivation, or a myriad of other possibilities throw a wrench in your career.

    American Airlines does not yet have a new contract with the pilots. Also no pilots at Delta or American will be getting paid $590,000. That’s a grossly exaggerated figure that includes every possible tax, benefit, retirement funding, and an impossible to achieve amount of overtime.

    The contract just accepted by the Delta Pilots is only increasing pay to match inflation. So their real cost has not increased from contracts certified almost a decade ago. Their pay adjusted for inflation is still FAR lower then it was in 2004. And their pay is not in the same universe as it was before de-regulation in the late 70s.

    Anybody pushing for one pilot in the cockpit has never flown an aircraft. The lay person thinks that difficult part of flying is flying the jet. In reality the difficult part of flying is managing the entire operation of the aircraft. That duty in practice is far more complicated then the writer can comprehend. And it is absolutely foolish to attempt that management without the input and assistance from another human being with you on the flight deck.

    When you have 200 people paying 300$ to fly from Chicago to Miami. The 350$ an hour you are paying the captain and the 180$ an hour you are paying the first officer is a drop in the bucket compared to the $60,000 in revenue the flight is taking in.

    The most dangerous part of flying….is actually operating the aircraft on the ground. And Tesla still can’t make a car go from your house to work. Or drive down a icy road. We are a LONG WAY from having R2D2 strapped into the cockpit with you. Which is the kind of AI needed to replace another human.

    So when pilots get a raise you should be happy for them. They have sacrificed much to take you on a magic carpet ride at 600mph across the country. The extra 3$ you now have to pay this year for your ticket to keep up with inflation is a small price to pay for their experience.

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