Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why I Am Not An Airline Pilot

I often refer to myself as a "commercially licensed" pilot rather than a commercial pilot, as I hold a Commercial Pilot's License, yet am not currently employed as a commercial pilot, with the exception of occasional flight instruction.

I have flown commercially on a scheduled charter airline which flew both passengers and cargo between Colorado and Wyoming. In Wyoming, we had a "crash pad" in the basement of some house where we would attempt to sleep during the day.

Today, the Washington Post has an article about underpaid pilots for regional airlines and their crash pads. From the pictures and description of the crash pad they visited, it seems vastly superior to the one I used to stay in at Rock Springs, Wyoming.

The article points out that "..first-year pilots in the industry can make as little as $20,000". Actually, that is a little optimistic. I was once offered a first officer job by Mesa Air. According to their web site, their current starting salary for first officers is $19.26 an hour for turboprops. That sounds great, until you realize those are only flight hours. The time you spend at the gate and in the airport doesn't count. Your contract specifies a minimum of about 76 hours a month. Do the math, and you are looking at $17,565 dollars a year. No wonder they live in $200 a month crash pads. Word has it that many airlines include applications for public assistance in their new hire packet. Something to think about when you book a ticket on Delta/United/American that is "operated by" Skywest, Mesa, Colgan, Pinnacle, etc. More data on region airline pilot salaries is here.

This current scrutiny stems from the aftermath of the Colgan Air flight 3407 crash in Buffalo, in which pilot fatigue seems to have been a major factor. Let's just say that I can understand how that can happen, having worked flights departing at 4 AM. My only problem with the article is that it makes it seem like crash pads and pilot fatigue is a recent phenomenon caused by current events, when this has been the situation for decades. I will grant that it probably has gotten slightly worse over time, but it is not new.

Amazingly, you will periodically read about pilot shortages, not just from people selling flight training, but from serious publications like Aviation Week. There is no pilot shortage, just a shortage of people willing to fly airplanes for less than $20,000 a year, especially when they can be located anywhere in the country based on factors that are out of their control.

Most people would be surprised to know that being a pilot is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. It is usually listed second or third behind fishermen in stories like this. Police on the other hand, despite their high and mighty claims that they must taser children, great-grandmothers, and pregnant women to protect their saftey, rank only 10th.

It is the final quote of the article that made me remember why I ultimately turned down the job offer from prestigious Mesa Airlines. The article quotes the wife of one of the pilots:

"...it has been difficult for their children. "My little girl, she says, 'When is Daddy coming to visit us again?' I said, 'Daddy doesn't come and visit us. This is his home.' "

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