For Airline Pilots, The Struggle Is Real

Listen to pilots talk publicly, posturing in contract negotiations, it’s a grueling career that no one should want. Privately, though, many realize that being entrusted with $100 million machines and flying them around for a living is a pretty great gig. Many also build side businesses in their time off (insurance is a common one).

Picketing by pilots is a bad look, though. Pilots do not realize how they come across. They simply aren’t successful marketing themselves as the exploited worker class.

Delta Air Lines pilots have been conducting ‘informational picketing’ to protest their exhaustion from working 80 hours a month. And they’re doing it by marching in the hot sun. Someone flagged these photos for me with the caption ‘Atlanta White Pride.’

Watch the spokesman for the American Airlines pilots union not answer Andrew Ross Sorkin’s question on Squawk Box about $400,000+ pay for senior widebody captains under American’s new contract proposal.

United Airlines pilots just negotiated an industry-leading contract that’s no longer industry leading, and they don’t seem to want it anymore. They were crowing about 14% raises. That was last Friday.

There are absolutely legitimate beefs about the pilot lifestyle. If you have a family you spend a lot of time apart from them. If your airline is operationally unsound you wind up in cities you never expected to be flying to. And you may not even get your hotel scheduled properly (take matters into your own hands, book the room yourself, and fight for reimbursement which might take months). You sit around a lot…

Airlines can and should do better for their pilots, and for their customers who rely on those pilots. But the truth is it’s a great gig for many, and even (some) regional carriers are now paying more.

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. Lawyers who work for firms absolutely do not moonlight. A. They have no time to do so. See billable requirements. B. Firms would fire anyone caught charging for time outside the firm. C. Malpractice insurance does not cover work outside the firm. D. Potential conflict of interest. All work in firms has to go through “conflict check”. You get involved with work in a client that opposes a firm client, you have an ethics violation that can result in disbarment. E. Lawyers are not fungible – they have specialties. A corporate attorney knows as much about wills and taxes as a 777 pilot does about flying an A350. Yes, they know the basics, but you want an expert, not someone who kinda sorta knows about things.

    As for the supposed surgeon making $1 million a few years after fellowship – most doctors aren’t surgeons, few surgeons make $1 million per year, ever, it’s probably after a good 20 years of training and education and I’m going to bet that’s an area not covered by insurance, so cosmetic work at a boutique practice in NYC or LA. Those are few and far between, not typical. That’s not your average pediatrician, internal medicine or family medicine practitioner.

    Here’s the bottom line – the airline business has been the same for years. The not getting paid for X or Y was arranged by your beloved union, as was the pay schedule, not imposed. You knew this going in. Anyone now whining about it is either stupid or a crybaby. Doctors and lawyers knew it too. Some quit because they can’t hack it or hate it. You bought the ticket, you get to take the ride.

  2. It’s human nature to want all you can get. It’s frustrating to see someone complaining when making money that puts them in the top 5% of wage earners. Do I feel sorry for them…no way. They chose the life, so you can’t talk about it like some one made them do it. You get paid handsomely for the inconvenience of being away from your base. Let’s not forget that when you are away, you also get paid per diem. And let’s not forget the UPS and FedEx pilots whom I’m told make more than the airlines pilots. I blame the management for the current state. They took the money and used it to get rid of pilots. Pilots took the early buyout because it made financial sense. The airline issues fall squarely on the management. That said I’d like to see the housing of these poor, abused pilots making 350K a year.

  3. @C_M Yeah, not quite. Many of the pay scales, schedules, etc are the result of pilots and pilot unions bailing airlines out of bankruptcy after bankruptcy because the idiots in the C suite are incompetent. When it’s time to renegotiate then they come to the table and whine about how poorly the company is performing, even after years of historic profits. They are currently facing a reckoning moment and will pay up. Bigly. Just like AA suddenly had the money to pay their wholly owned regional jet pilots nearly $20K per month to fly 50 seat airplanes, they’ll find the money to properly compensate their mainline pilots (and fix the issues you refer to) or they’ll watch their operation completely collapse. Pilots have a keen way of causing extreme financial pain for the execs while avoiding any semblance of work action in regards to the RLA like some idiot mentioned above.

  4. @PHLPHLYER – Did the union agree to the current contract? Then you can’t really complain.

    Didn’t someone up above just complain about not getting paid for driving in to work. Guess who doesn’t get paid for driving into work? – Everybody! Next thing you know, union workers will want to get paid for sleep time, since their employer requires them to be well rested. And alcohol free, so they get paid for “dry time”.

  5. Phlyer,
    you clearly are at least an airline pilot if not in pilot union leadership.
    Since you are the only one that persists in the discussion, I’m not sure there is a whole lot to be gained to continue to debate the issue.
    The simple reality – whether you understand it or not – is that the US domestic airline industry was deregulated from a consumer standpoint over 40 years ago but labor was not. Nearly all of the airline labor unions at the big 4 including Southwest existed when the airline industry was deregulated.
    Air fares over those 40 years have plunged relative to the overall cost of living even if they have recently soared due to unprecented demand.
    The big 4 in the US have been allowed to merge and acquire smaller carriers as well as form joint ventures with global airlines to the point that small airlines can barely survive. Once again, JetBlue and Spirit are not expected to be profitable while Delta is expecting a $1 billion operating profit in the quarter that just ended with American and United COMBINED generating about the same level of profit. Southwest has margins 3 times what American generates. There are simply not MASSIVE profits in the US airline industry; the majority of US airline industry profits come from just 2 airlines – DL and WN, which incidentally have much higher market share in their top markets than American and United – and Spirit and JetBlue. High market share translates into revenue premiums which DL and WN have while most of the industry does not.
    The same trend is playing out worldwide. Scandinavian Airlines is on the verge of collapse and its pilots are on strike trying to prevent the outsourcing of jobs that are the result of labor inefficiencies. SAS is a niche, marginal player that does not have a large home market or has high share in its markets – not unlike many of the 2nd and 3rd tier airlines around the world.
    US airline pilot labor has grown so expensive at the top and so low at the bottom that small cities are losing air service and low cost carriers cannot compete for pilots and be profitable.
    The tipping point has passed.

    Airline labor is a cartel; the big 4 have grown so large than none will be allowed to strike for more than a few minutes. The fact that all airline pilots – cargo and passenger – are looking for huge new contracts at the same time makes it all the more UNLIKELY that there will be any significant upward movement in labor costs. Airline salaries will fall due to high inflation – which is exactly what is happening for most of the rest of working America.

    The only struggle that airline pilots face is accepting the reality that wages will fall and will never recover – not unlike what has happened to air fares for decades even as airline labor costs have not faced parallel declines.

    Enjoy your Fourth. We can check back next year but I can assure you that you will be disappointed based on your expectations today

  6. I just wish the airlines were subject to normal economy rules.

    Pilots demand pay rise and get it. Airlines raise prices to compensate the expense. Demand falls. Airlines have to cut frequencies. Airlines let go now unnecessary pilots.

    If only it worked this way. The way we see it works is all of us chip in to let the pilots have their raises and the airlines have their profits.

  7. @C_M As previously stated, the majority of the current ( albeit beyond their amendable dates) CBAs are bankruptcy era. Obviously they were ratified by the membership, but they have an amendable date for a reason and…chaaaaa-ching!!! Time’s up.Time to pay the F up!! I would never complain about not being paid for driving to work, that’s a stupid argument. I will most certainly complain about not being paid for the hours I’m required to spend preparing for a flight that I’m NOT paid for. I suspect when YOU report to work, you’re paid for all of your time there? Not the case here, but it’ll be fixed otherwise the APUs will run long time (much better heating/cooling), both engines will run from out-in (I’m losing confidence that single engine taxi is actually as safe as they claim), that tiny little cosmetic screw WILL be replaced before we leave Podunk USA (as minuscule as it may seem, it’s required by federal regulations). Delays and cancellations be damned, it’s all in the name of safety!

    The days of pilots bending over for airline management are drawing to a close. Thankfully. Interestingly, I’ve yet to meet an airline executive who was willing to release a parking brake or take personal responsibility for an aircraft and the lives of the passengers on board. Until that happens, the pilots will be very relevant. Sorry to disappoint.

  8. PHL……
    People should be concerned about being onboard ANY aircraft that is controlled by your incompetent, arrogant and angry hands.
    Here’s to hoping that AA fails and you’re out on your ass. I’ll say a prayer to that tonight.

  9. The statements that you make are precisely why the Railway Labor Act exists, why airline pilots in the US are governed by it, and why the disconnect between airline labor costs and passenger fares will change. The RLA does not allow contracts to expire because of the power of both sides and the potential damage to the economy. No US airline is any where close to being in mediation, let alone having a PEB established to determine whether a strike can occur.
    You can throw all of the hissy fits you want but demand will fall heading into a recession – already is in many aspects of the US economy – and sustained high petroleum prices will make it even more likely that demand will shrink.
    All your temper tantrums will do is ensure that airlines use one of the tools they have – abrogating labor contracts in bankrutpcy – to reset costs in ways they cannot do with market forces.

    and not a single US large jet airline labor contract that is in effect today was implemented during bankruptcy.

  10. @CHRIS Lmao thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers. I don’t work for AA, nor do I work for a passenger airline.

  11. @Tim Dunn Bankruptcy ERA. I assure you the vast majority of the work rules are a result of BK concessions. Thankfully I am very safe in my position, not even a global pandemic affected it and neither with the normal, cyclical nature of the industry that comes as no surprise whatsoever. Thanks for your concern, albeit as backwards and inaccurate as it may be.

  12. PHL…
    Well, I guess I’ll just have to settle for a personal tragedy then. AA still deserves to be gone though. Prayers for both.

  13. Once again, bankruptcy is one of the VERY FEW techniques that airlines have to lower labor costs which have gone UP while the average cost of flying has gone down over the course of deregulation. The other primary mechanism to reduce labor costs is outsourcing.
    Again, the gap in labor costs between new hires and top of seniority airline workers is costing city after city airline service while making it impossible for low cost carriers to pay the price for labor that the big 4 are now requiring.
    The US government will not allow the consequences which organized is pushing onto the American economy.
    There will be a hard reset and labor can either be a part of crafting the solution or have it dictated to them. Given the track record of organized labor at all industries, the chances are that airline pilot unions will have the solution provided to them from outside the labor movement.

  14. @CHRIS I’m so satisfied I triggered you. We are both in agreement that AA is the worst, however, I’m sure they’re appreciative of your generous bailout over the last 2 years. Have a good night!!

  15. Maybe I read this too quickly to understand. What I did hear was wide-body pilots getting a raise of around $65K per year, which just happens to be the median yearly income in the US. Who is complaining?

  16. It is only through an odd quirk in history (application of the Railway Labor Act) that pilots are allowed to unionize. They are obviously highly paid professionals with managerial and supervisory authority who do not fit into the definition of industrial workers who might need collective protection under the law. Everyone with a brain knows this, and knows that unions are bad for the pilots, bad for the companies, and bad for consumers. But good luck ratiionalizing this.

  17. I can tell most of you, especially @Gary, are not pilots. Let alone airline pilots.

    Go do the job and report back to me on how not easy it is. Most of you complaining clowns can’t figure out how to park your SUV. But are the first to complain about your plane being late due to a blizzard.

    Flying may look easy, and at times, it is. But when shit hits the fan, it goes bad REAL quick.

    Go learn how it is, then come talk to me.

    last I checked you guys want your flights on time. An airplane is a highly advanced piece of machinery zooming thru the sky at 500MPH. yet, you’re inthe back whining because the wi-fi is slow. Guess what, it’s the professionalism of the ones up front who make your whining something you focus on.

    Next time you have an emergency on your plane, the first thing you’re thinking is “Man I hope the pilots are ready for this”…. Guess what- they are. And you won’t be crying about paying them.

  18. There are quite a few on this thread that have embraced a higher level of ignorance. Rarely will a pilot’s, or crewmember’s, schedule of “80 hours a month” correlate with “a max of 190 hours working”. It’s TAFB (Time Away From Base) exacerbated by unproductive scheduling that erodes the personal life of most airline pilots. For an 80 flight hour month the TAFB relative to flight hour would be more like a 3:1 ratio. Plug in hours to commute and it’s probably closer to 3.5:1.
    Concerning pilot compensation, in addition to skills, knowledge and wisdom pilots also sell to the company a perishable product . . . time. They are worth exactly what they negotiate. In a highly technical and highly regulated field, I suspect that most companies would rather negotiate with a union representing 9,000 pilots rather than the 9,000 individual pilots. It’s the company’s responsibility to put the pieces of the puzzle together . . . and the airline annals are a testament to those who couldn’t.

  19. @steve – yes, we all expect the pilots to be ready for emergencies. Nothing is more important in civil aviation than safety – real one, of course, not what FAs call safety. But how is it different from expecting an ER surgeon to be ready to act or a expecting a truck driver in the next lane isn’t falling asleep or hoping a police officer is ready when we need him?

    I don’t think the problem is that we don’t appreciate pilots – we do. We just don’t buy pilot’s life is as poor as the unions are trying to present us. And if pilots and unions extort too much money from the airlines and make them unprofitable, I expect and hope they go bankrupt and cut those pilots. Can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    Oh, and no need to offer us to do pilot’s job. Pilots can’t do my job either.

  20. @steve – I am not a pilot. But I respect the job pilots do. I used to work for military pilots – specifically, helicopter pilots. One of my best moment from back then was not assuming I knew more than the pilots. I’m the guy who, when we were designing the new AH-64D pilot and CPG glass cockpit, said “Why are we designing this and then asking the pilots if they like it. We have a bunch of guys who just fought the Gulf War with the A model, why don’t we assign a couple to Mesa and have them design it in development with the engineers?” And they did. I moved on before the project was done, but I assume it worked, as there aren’t many media reports of the 64D not working. (It also helped that we demanded the first models be delivered with 100% reserve throughput and memory, unlike the A model that arrived already full. Which is why the box was swapped in development.)

    Yes, I’d like for my flights to be on-time, but I’d also really like for them to be safe. And I appreciate the job most of the flight crew and ground crew does. (Only on occasion do I run into a FA with an attitude – but that seems to have dissipated with the end of masking.) Ground crews seems to be more of a problem, with them lately not being at the gate when we arrive to operate the jet bridge. Or baggage taking over an hour to arrive. You didn’t know the plane was coming in? There’s an app for that…

    No, we don’t object to what pilots are paid, from bottom to top. We understand the system. What we object to is the incessant whining from the pilots and the union about how bad they have it. How they only get paid for time after the engines start? That’s been custom for how long? And the pay rate for the other time isn’t built into the flight time? You had to pay for training to get the job? You have to work away from home? Like no one else has similar situations at their job? Didn’t you agree to this and/or know this going in. It’s not like you signed up to be a pilot, then be told you have to flap your wings to do the job. You’re highly paid white collar professionals who complain like blue collar assembly line workers making $20/hr. Act like it.

  21. @ Tim Dunn. Lots of words but you’re wrong. I was an airline pilot both before and after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. I’ve lived it through nine airlines. Bankruptcy declared by poorly managed airlines did little to lower the direct cost of labor over time. What it did do is raid then terminate the funded defined benefit retirement and healthcare programs for airline employees. It also dismissed many subcontractors claims for goods and services placing some of those into bankruptcy.
    SWA has remained profitable in part due to Herb’s declaration that SWA will never have defined benefit retirement programs but instead embraced the defined contribution.
    A bit off subject but unfortunately our government unions didn’t follow. Open government positions now cost the taxpayer defined benefits for two or three retired employees from those positions in addition to the current payroll. It’s the 2/3 of the “iceberg” that is not seen. But when your product is a taxing authority, there is no need for fiscal responsibility. (my rant for the day)

  22. @One Trippe – The federal government mostly eliminated defined benefits for federal employees 40 years ago. (There is a tiny sliver of defined benefits left under the new system.) There aren’t many federal employees left under the old retirement system. What you are referring to is how most state and local employees are paid for retirement. That is a time bomb. (See Illinois.)

  23. @C_M, imagine being told your job is to do all your safety inspections, pre flight duties and functions, but it’s unpaid. Or, on “per diem” which is still not much. Whatever your job may be, do you wish to do part of it unpaid? I sure don’t. And, if you do, I invite you to change you’re “I’m salaried managerial mentality” to first, an hourly rate on a standard 40h week and then add on uncompensated hours. You’re screwing yourself by not expecting YOU to be compensated for your time. I bet your lawyer doesn’t give you free time. That clock starts the moment you sit in their chair. But, does anyone complain about lawyer salaries?

    People need to stop looking at their jobs as a 40h week or a “pilot only works a few days/mo”. I, again, bet the 40h/week guy works more than that and wastes so much time commuting to/from work on top of it. Additionally, the airline pilots do make good money. But, not all. Senior pilots work less and get paid more compared to junior pilots who make way work more and make less. I have friends who fly the 737 who make 300k+ and a 777 friend who makes 165k. Seniority and amount of trips you work all factor into it.

    Somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot for some.

    If you’re blaming the pilot for “not knowing we’d be on the ground by a certain time” aka, late bag deliveries. You realize that the pilots are GONE long before you are with your bags. You think they have any responsibility to your bag? no. Take up your “hour long wait for bags” with airport management staff.

  24. @alex…the fact you want airlines to suffer to cut “ungrateful pilots” is a bit pathetic. So, a portion of a companies entire staff speak for an entire company? You realize you’d account for close to 100k employees to be unemployed cuz of some whining pilot?

    Jeesh, you’re worse than I thought.

  25. @Steve – Read the clue. I am not complaining about how much pilots are paid, I’m complaining about the whining they do regarding what they have to do. And I’m not blaming them for no jetway or for baggage – I’m blaming the ground staff.

    How long has preflight inspection been part of aviation? Forever. That is undoubtedly built into the rate pilots get paid for a trip. I admit, doing preflight and then having the trip cancelled should perhaps result in some pay, particularly if the pilot caught something wrong with the aircraft, but if you don’t get paid for it, blame your union. I doubt pilots have ever been paid for this – it’s their job! And if you do get paid for it, prepare to get less for flight hours. The idea that you are going to get more hours for everything you complain about at the same rate you’re currently getting is just ludicrous – that’s all already built into the payscale. It’s a lot easier to keep track of. Do you really want the paperwork that would come with keeping track of all those activities at different pay rates? No, you don’t.

    Yes, I pay my lawyer an hourly rate – for the work they do for me. I don’t pay them for CLE, entering their billing time, examining prebills, chit-chatting at the water fountain, getting a LLM, or taking a dump. (And trust me, they would bill for the oxygen in the room if they could find a way to meter it.) Some actually do bill for the previous list, two clients at a time – which is why you should always examine your bills closely. I happen to know a few lawyers who used to do this on a regular basis – until they got caught. There are rules about how lawyers bill, just like there are rules for pilots. Each profession has its rules and traditions.

    And for the record, people complain about lawyers rates all the time. Try getting divorced or fighting a child custody case and see how long you remain silent. The joke in the legal profession is that it takes as long to get a divorce as a couple has money.

  26. @ C_M and Steve. Based on my personal experience in the cockpit and in lawyers office, you’re both right!

  27. @steve – The US has 150 mil taxpayers that collectively and excessively supported the airline employees through the times when the airlines could not possibly survive by themselves. And now as soon as they feel these times are over, pilots of all big airlines come up and ask to give them more because the current job market situation looks positive for them. That’s what I’d call pathetic.

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