Posts Tagged ‘airline salaries’

What is a good…?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015


I often get asked about various aspects of my job, from what makes one company better than another to what makes a given day better than others. These are some general answers to the question, “What makes a good….”

Schedule: Generally speaking, pilots on reserve will get 11 or 12 days off each month. Line-holders will get 14 to 16, or even 17, and a rare few will get 20. Some regionals require that reserves get at least one block of three or four days off in a row each month. If you’re a commuter, a good schedule is one that allows you to commute in on the first day of the trip and commute out on the last day, so you don’t have to spend time or money on crashpads, hotels, or apartments.

Paycheck: A regional first officer will make from $19,000 to $22,000 the first year. The FO can expect to max out at around $40,000 as a base salary and might earn near $50,000 in some cases with aggressive bidding, trip trades, et cetera. A captain will usually start at around $50,000, and after 15 years or so, he or she can make $100,000. In the future, these individuals will be rare, as most pilots will be moving on well before 15 years of service. However, a $70,000 to $80,000 income is not unrealistic.

Trip: Everyone has an opinion on this, but a large number of the trips are three or four days, with as few as one leg per day, and as many as five. Before FAR 117 went into effect, seven-leg days were not uncommon. Layovers will average 12 to 14 hours, with some much longer and a few shorter. Again, FAR 117 has done much to improve this, requiring crews to have an opportunity to get at least eight hours of sleep, versus the old days in which pilots might have eight hours “free from duty,” which could mean only four to five hours of sleep.

Commute: No commute is good, but some commutes are better than others. If you feel like you just can’t live in base, the best commutes are one-leg commutes. Two- or three-leg commutes are much more time-consuming, very stressful, and no fun. A good commute has a number of options for flights, not just one or two a day. Ideally, there will be some very early flights and some very late flights, both going to work and coming home. One thing I discovered is that a commute that is short enough to leave driving as an option is both good and bad, because you know you can drive if you need to, but you find yourself doing it more than you’d like.

Work rule: The airlines are a union-heavy industry, and all but a few have union contracts. Those contracts spell out the various rules by which the company can utilize the personnel without abusing the personnel, while also giving the company the freedom it needs to move metal. From a pilot perspective, a good work rule is one that ensures you’re getting paid to be at the airport. Believe it or not, there are times when pilots are at the airport not getting paid; in fact, most of the airport time is unpaid. The more you’re paid when at the airport, the more time off you have.

There are a lot of issues that a pilot needs to consider when looking for a job, be it a first job at a regional or a move up the ladder to a major or a cargo carrier. These are but a drop in the bucket of things to consider, and as your knowledge base expands, you’ll learn to understand and ask about far more complicated subjects. This, however, is a place to start.—Chip Wright

Airline pay practices

Monday, July 7th, 2014

dollar signA post on a recent online thread about the airlines asked about the way pilots get paid—specifically, the fact that we don’t get paid for all of the time we spend not flying. It’s a good question, and one that is often not completely understood. Here is an abbreviated answer.

There actually is a history behind why are paid the way we are. When the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) first started, one of its goals was to have pilots treated—and paid—like professionals. There are generally three “professions” in the classic sense: doctors, lawyers, and accountants, all of whom are at some point paid by the hour (surgeons are paid by the procedure).

ALPA was aiming for the same level of recognition for pilots. Even if you accept that pilots are really more like a trade or a craft (which, in reality, is what we are), tradesmen and craftsmen also tend to get paid by the hour. Think of your local electrician, plumber, carpenter, et cetera. There may be a service fee involved, but almost all charge some sort of hourly rate.

That said, as professionals, we are getting paid only when we are practicing the “craft” of flying, which is generally defined as brake release to brake set.
Over time, the union contracts at the majors addressed the issue of unproductive trips with trip-and-duty rigs. With the trip rig, you are guaranteed to be paid one hour of pay for so many hours of time away from base (TAFB), which also determines per diem for most pilots.

A good trip rig is one hour of pay for every 3.5 hours away from base (1:3.5). The duty rig looks at each day of work on the trip, and it pays you a minimum of so many hours of pay per day (5.0 hours being considered a historically good number). At the end of the trip or the month, you look back and take the greater of the trip rig, the min day values, or the actual hours flown, and that’s what you get paid.

An extreme example is a trip I flew recently. It was a five-day trip that began with a deadhead. I flew three legs over the next four days that were worth 10 hours, but because of the minimum day credit, I got 25 hours of pay. Unfortunately, there is no other way to build the trip. Without the rig, it could only be flown by reserves, who wouldn’t be able to do anything else for those five days.

Other unions followed suit, and once one company jumped on the bandwagon, it made it easier for others to do the same.

Most regionals don’t get any kind of rig. When I was at Comair, we had rigs that were based on a look back at the end of the month (as opposed to using the rig to look forward, which would force more days off when your schedule is actually built). Even with a look-back rig, I had many months where the rig paid me extra money. Unfortunately, there has been relatively little success in getting rigs at the regionals. The companies tend to cry wolf, and claim that it will cost them too much money, and the pilots tend to accept a slightly higher pay rate in lieu of the rigs, especially since no pilot at a regional ever thinks s/he will be at that regional long enough to care.

Done correctly, trip-and-duty rigs incentivize both management and the pilots. For the company, there is a motive to make the trips as productive as possible (or, alternatively, where they have no choice, to minimize crappy trips). For the pilot, not only are there more days off, but you usually will lose some money on a sick call, because you often only get paid for the block time, not the lost “soft” time, thus minimizing the need for extra reserves. In theory, the rigs force the company to optimize trips as well as individual duty periods, which should lead to a decrease in fatigue. The concept of the rig precedes the jet age, so in that respect it’s a bit dated.

The fractionals often pay a monthly salary, which is then used to work backward to compute an hourly rate for various penalties that the company must pay. Pilots—especially (but not only) ALPA—have historically fought against salaries for fear that there will be fewer opportunities to make extra money, and the company will try extract more flying from the pilot, thus decreasing the cost per hour of the pilot, and decreasing the number of jobs at a given carrier.

Airline pay actually is pretty complicated, and it takes effort to keep up with it. But, once you understand it, you have an easier time of making sure you are getting what you are owed.—By Chip Wright

When do you upgrade?

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

It’s no secret that, in aviation, the captain gets the big bucks and the first offcer gets—well, usually a whole lot less. Further, the pay discrepancy is magnified even more in smaller equipment.

By that I mean, the smaller the aircraft, the worse the FO pay is. When Beech 1900s ruled the commuter skies, top FO pay often did not go above $20-24 a flight hour; captains could top out at $40-plus at the right company. While there is still a noticeable discrepancy in pay even on the heavy iron, for the FO it isn’t nearly as significant an issue. Good luck find anyone who feels sympathy for the person who’s earning the top FO pay on a Delta ($160) or a United ($130) 747.

At the regionals, FO pay tops out in the ballpark of $45-$48 an hour, depending on whether  the RJ in question seats 50 or 70, and that top pay is usually in the eighth year of service, give or take. An equivalent captain is making $70 an hour, or close to it.

Given the financial incentive, should one upgrade as soon as possible? Well, that depends….

There are three issues that are hard to ignore: money, PIC time, and seniority unknowns.

Considering that so many pilots make such a huge investment in their careers, there is often a strong urge—if not need—to upgrade just so that the bills can be paid, or at least paid more easily (a problem made worse with student loans and/or credit card debt). You may just want to go from an apartment to a house or get a better car. Family issues factor in as well, especially if young kids are running around your house.

Pilot-in-command (PIC) time is probably as much of a motivator as anything, especially at the regional level. At the majors, most FOs have plenty of PIC time in their logbooks from previous jobs, and unless they are planning to switch carriers, the need for PIC time doesn’t usually enter the equation. Besides, PIC time is unusual in that its value doesn’t really change over time. While there is a difference between turboprop versus turbo-jet PIC, it’s not a major issue, and all another carrier wants to see is that you have exercised the responsibilities of the position without having an incident or an accident.

If you want to move on from a regional or a commuter, PIC time becomes a huge focus, because it takes so long to get it. Depending on who you want to fly for, you will need at least 1,000 hours and often 1,500 or more. Every leg you fly will help chip away at that goal.

Seniority is another issue that must be considered. It’s possible that a bid will open up that you can hold for whatever reason. Maybe guys just senior to you are finally getting the left seat, or maybe a spot will open up in the most junior, undesirable domicile. But seniority is not always hard and fast. With almost every upgrade class, you will notice that the slots don’t fill just based on seniority. You may see a few where a junior pilot unexpectedly gets the coveted captain position. Often, what happens is that pilots may have other reasons that prevent them from bidding a class. Remember, training is almost as long as new-hire training—at least three weeks, if not four or more, depending on sim and line check airman availability. Pilots may gamble and skip a class because of family commitments, weddings, vacations, et cetera. Or, they may be married such that the money isn’t an issue and they decide to wait for quality of life.

But skipping a class is a gamble for two reasons. First, if the upgrades suddenly stop, you may have to wait years for another chance. When things are slow, airlines wait longer than they should to upgrade captains because of the cost. Second, you may think you can hold a bid that is more to your liking, only to find out that some of those senior hold-outs are now taking the first available class. I’ve seen both issues really hit people, the first example being the more common.

To use my own company, for example, we had a very junior and less-than-desirable domicile at John F. Kennedy International. The main hub was a far more optimal place to be based for a number of reasons. JFK simply had way too much that was not in its favor: It’s expensive, delays were a huge issue, the commute can be difficult, the airspace is challenging, and did I mention that it’s expensive? That’s especially true if you are on reserve.

A number of our FOs who had the seniority to upgrade chose not to, opting instead for quality of life. They wanted to avoid reserve as a captain, and figured they’d wait until they could hold a regular line with a predictable schedule. Further, many did not want to commute. So…they waited.

When the economy hit the skids, so did their advancement. Yes, they were home more. Yes, they had more days off. Yes, they spent more time with their families. But, they topped out on the FO pay scale, and they did not get that coveted PIC time, and now many of them are having great difficulty moving on because they can’t differentiate themselves from other applicants. They face the risk of having to go to another regional, or overseas, in order to advance their career (these tend to be pilots who do not want to move overseas). While the most junior captains often lived a life of misery on reserve, they continued to add PIC time to their logbooks, and recruiters admire the resilience of someone who is willing to sacrifice so much to get their dream job. Believe me, at some point, upgrading is not about the money.

Deciding when to upgrade is a personal choice. You have to be emotionally mature to handle the responsibility. You need to have not only the skills, but also the confidence to use those skills along with good judgment. You need to be able to admit when you need help, as well as when you have made a mistake. If you have not had a chance to fly a lot in various weather conditions, then you need to get that experience in dealing with thunderstorms, icing, and everything in between.

In the future, you will be required to have 1,000 hours in the right seat before upgrading. In today’s environment, that’s a given, but as we begin to see the pipeline to the majors open, there was a built-in risk of seeing very junior and very inexperienced FOs begin to move into the left seat. The new rules will help minimize that.

Upgrading is not as easy as it seems. Quality of life on reserve (if you can’t hold a line) or even as a junior line-holder takes a big hit. It can be as much of an adjustment for the family as it is for the pilot. The new responsibility can be intimidating. When I upgraded, I went for being home 12-16 days a month to being home for six, and it was a jolt for my wife. I had to work holidays again, and I missed a lot of family events. We didn’t have kids, but she did get pregnant, and she had to handle most of that on her own.

But the rewards are many, and the personal growth is very rewarding. When, and if, you are ready, make the leap.—Chip Wright