Insights & Advice

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What’s wrong with this flight plan?

The next time you board a regional airplane remember this. The co-pilots responsible for your safety are making the minimum wage. That means they are earning about as much as the guy hauling trashcans outside your local supermarket or flipping fast food burgers and working a heck of a lot longer hours as well. 

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has mystified the world. It has also brought the issue of flight safety on the front burner again. The investigation has now centered on the possibility that someone on the flight crew tampered with or re-directed the flight path of the plane carrying 227 passengers. To me, it simply drives home the point that whether you are on an international flight or a regional puddle-jumper, your pilot is crucial to your survival.

As such, it is hard for me to accept that pilots, who are required to have a college education and countless hours of flight certification, can make as low as $22,000/year or less and work 240-300 hours a month for that privilege. Unlike most professions, pilots only get paid from the time the airplane leaves the gate until it arrives at its destination. So the typical pilot is only on the clock for 21.5 hours a week.  That translates for a first-year co-pilot as no more than a gross weekly pay of $495. A pilot with a decade of experience might average around $1,312.

Why then does anyone want to be an airline pilot? Many simply have a passion for it and will do anything to fly. In addition, regional airlines are considered a stepping stone to a much more lucrative job at one of the major airlines. The senior-most pilots who fly 747s or 777s can earn $200,000 or more a year. It may have required thirty-five years or so of poor pay and long hours to attain that level but, unfortunately, there are few such openings available given the overall number of working pilots.

The pilots of the missing Malaysian airplane are being investigated now as part of the government probe. Authorities believe that whoever disabled the plane’s communication systems and then flew the jet according to a different flight path had to have a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience. It illustrates how much control one individual can have over a great many people.

Although the amount of money you make does not necessarily reflect an individual’s competence or sense of responsibility.  I believe the airlines, in compensating their pilots, have sunk to new lows in their multi-year industry task of cost-cutting at the passenger’s expense.

Like you, I have accepted most of these management changes with a modicum of grumbling. I have said nothing when, without warning or explanation, they cancel my flights (and the next one) simply because there are not enough passengers available to pack in like sardines in a can.

Although miffed, I also shelled out the extra money I’m charged to carry luggage on my trips. I had no choice. The fact that I now have to pay for seat selection as well as their lousy food and surly service, is the new normal in aviation.

But I draw the line at paying our pilots a minimum wage. After all, this is my life we are talking about.  I don’t like to entrust it to a young man or woman who is overworked, under-paid and probably less than motivated on a bad day. It is a wonder that we don’t have more pilot safety issues already, but to their credit, these pilots, despite their slave labor, have consistently given their utmost to ferry their passengers to safety time and again in every kind of weather and obstacle. If there was ever a reason to raise the minimum wage, this is one.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics