The next time you fly a regional carrier — and chances are good you will given that half of US domestic flights are operated by regionals — chew on this stat: A first-year regional airline pilot makes $18,000 to $20,000 before taxes.

Yes, that’s right: When it comes to regional airlines (these are the connection subcontractors who fly on behalf of the major airline carriers), the pilot manning your flight, as it climbs tens of thousands of feet into the air, earns about as much as someone flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Ready for more? A fourth and fifth-year regional pilot makes $25,000 to $28,000, also before taxes. Now swallow this: The best of the regional pilots are quickly being snatched up by the major carriers, such as Delta and United, as they begin hiring new pilots for the first time in several years.

That spells one very big issue for travelers: a looming pilot shortage ahead.

Start Road Trippin’?

“The seriousness of the possible pilot shortage cannot be underestimated,” says Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel industry analyst. “The pilot shortage won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen sooner than many realize.”

How soon? Some say it’s already started.

Beyond the major domestic carriers, the competition for pilot talent is coming from abroad, too, as this plush offer from a Shanghai-based carrier shows.

“Foreign carriers are already paying huge premiums to US/FAA-certified pilots, further drying up the domestic pilot pool,” says Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst in Port Washington, NY. “Absent recognition of the problem, the pilot market will only become tighter, and airline service more unreliable,” says Mann.

Others are more optimistic. “One way or another, I figure carriers will figure out a way to find the pilots they need long before there’s a reliability issue,” says Patrick Smith, the airline pilot-turned-blogger of AskThePilot.com and author of the new book, Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.

Rising costs, though, may be harder to ignore.

“A lack of pilots means fewer flights — smaller cities will be disproportionately affected,” says industry analyst Harteveldt. “Fewer pilots also means fewer flights, period — flying may become less convenient and more expensive, since the supply of seats may decline.” (And for us at the Travel Channel, that’s about as good a reason as any to start thinking of more Road Trip ideas.)

Cockpit Confidential

How did we get here?

Blame the graying of America (including its pilots), as well as a shortage of younger pilots being recruited from military ranks, which are facing their own dwindling numbers. Then there’s the lousy pay.

“An aspiring aviator has to ask: ‘Is it worth sinking $50,000 or more into one’s primary training?’” says Patrick Smith of AskThePilot.com.

Factor in the FAA’s new requirements, says Smith, which call for new pilots to log a minimum 1,500 flight hours before training with an airline.

“The time it will take to build the requisite number of flight hours to apply for a job, plus, the cost of a college education, only to spend years toiling at poverty-level wages, with at best a marginal shot at moving on to a major [carrier],” says Smith, spell, in his mind, one very big conclusion: This isn’t exactly a safe career path.

Fewer Pilots, Where Now?

No one’s faulting the FAA’s new ruling.

“Airlines can’t compromise on training; it’s essential that we maintain our high standards of safety,” says analyst Harteveldt.

But adjustments on the part of carriers will need to be made, adds Mann. “The new 1,500-hour requirement … will require significant upward adjustments to starting salaries, and generally, to regional pilot compensation.”

More compensation may spell higher ticket prices. But that may be the price consumers pay to ensure greater pilot numbers in the regional ranks.

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Airports, Trends

3 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    I would think it would make people nervous to no the guy keeping them safe has to worry about his MickeyD wages!

  2. The 1500 hour requirement is ludicrous. I can go (legally, I might add) fly a jet with a private license, an instrument rating, and a type rating. I know people here that do that. You have to put some blame on the FAA. They've doubled the time required to get an airline job (effectively doubling the money and time you have to spend to make it to that level) and pilots still get paid basically nothing. By the time you've built up 1500 hours total time (we can assume that the last 500 are probably paid) you've spent $157,500 in just time alone (Cessna 172 rental cost at $150/hr wet for 950 hours, most airlines require 50 multi engine hours). Add the costs of an instructor for a minimum of four ratings, at $50 an hour for 200 hours. Another $10,000. Then include the costs of 4 checkrides at $400 a piece ($1,600), the 4 written exams (You must have your ATP written completed before they will hire you) at $150 a piece ($600). Throw in another $4,000 for pilot supplies (headset, charts that must be kept current, etc.) and you're looking at spending $173,700 to become an airline hiring candidate, well above the $50,000 you quoted in your article. This on top of normal student loans, and you come out making $18,000-$20,000 a year with an awful quality of living and no time at home, not to mention if you've managed to stay single through the whole process.

    To put that in to perspective, USC medical school costs $326,568 for four years, yet a family medicine doctor starts out at a measly $138,000 as a median starting income.

    Let's think about that, a regional airline pilot has a minimum of 4 legs a day and 3 days on, 2 days off. So in a week, the pilot is responsible for 1,000 peoples lives a week whereas the doctor sees what, 15 patients a day? Yet the pilot makes 13% of what the doctor makes with just about equal the average daily responsibility makes. Does that make sense to you?

    Sources:
    I am a corporate pilot http://www.usc.edu/admission/fa/applying_receivinhttp://www.profilesdatabase.com/resources/2011-20http://www.flychautauqua.com/employment/recruitme

  3. capri142 says:

    This is interesting. My father in law who has passed away now. Flew for eastern Airlines his entire life. Hw was hired by Eastern when he got out of the service after flying missions in B24's over Germany. He started out with them flying a DC-6 and retired as a captain flying an L 10-11. I had many interesting discussions with him about his career and avaiation. In the 60's he could see all of this coming, lower wages , cost of training being put onto the pilots and a general complete decline overall in the airline industry. I remember him saying (this was in the early 70's) "Soon, flying will be no different that taking the Greyhound bus to Tulsa". He would not be surprised to see what it has become today, although I am sure that he would be saddened. He was very proud to be a pilot.

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Lisa SinghLisa Singh is an Interactive Producer at TravelChannel.com. Her multimedia career has spanned print and online publications. One of her first stories involved following a convicted felon into the Mexican...

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