Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Pilot Pay

I just got my T4 slip this week for the 2004 tax year. I thought I would reach a career milestone this year, but poor weather cancelled many flights for part of the year, so I came up $600 short of the poverty line for my area. The company I work for isn't even on this list.

Low pay is normal for flying jobs. Only the higher paying companies are on that list. You may look at the top end of the Air Canada pay scale and think that is the payoff, but look what it takes to get there. The basic commercial multi-engine IFR qualification will cost at least $30,000, with no guarantee of a job at the end. This How it Works site mentions the training, the medical requirements and the myths about salary, but it doesn't include a Canadian reality. In some countries a newly qualified pilot can go straight to the airlines to fly a jet. In Canada there are vast murky areas of aviation to be navigated before those airlines will even look at you. WestJet, a discount carrier with a Boeing 737 fleet, requires 4000 hours of flight time from new applicants. The How It Works site leaves out the low end jobs with six hours of training, not six weeks.

Pilots are typically paid for flight hours, so when pre and post flight responsibilities and waiting around time are taken into account (and there is always waiting around time -- why do you think I blog?) a brand new pilot is lucky to make minimum wage. And he doesn't even get free cheeseburgers. Even in the United States, where the aviation situation is better, pilots starting at some regional airlines qualify for food stamps.

Like anything else, it comes down to supply and demand. There are lots of people who want to work as pilots, and a sufficient number of people hold the minimum qualifications for any job opening below heavy jet captain, that a company need only pay enough to keep a pilot alive.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I call what you're describing the "glamour effect" -- the cooler a job seems, the more people it attracts and thus the less they get paid. Essentially, part of their pay is in glamour (and job satisfaction) rather than money.

I experienced the same problem when I was a university professor. Most people who start grad school never finish, most people who finish don't get work, and most people who get work don't get tenure-stream appointments (they struggle by as sessional teachers working long weeks for about CAD 20K/year). If, somehow, you claw your way to the top of that pyramid and get the tenure-stream appointment (likely in your mid-30's), you'll start around CAD 45K/year after many years of struggling to make ends meet as a university student and sessional instructor.

Other high-visibility professions have the same problem. Contrary to popular belief, law school grads have a *lot* of trouble finding work, and usually end up starting out earning peanuts for 80-hour weeks. Just as most people hear only about the 747 pilots, most people hear only about the partners in big law firms who make hundreds of thousands per year, but they're the tiny tip at the top of the pyramid. A criminal lawyer who did mostly legal aid work (criminals don't tend to be rich) would come close to qualifying for welfare.

Hamish said...

I'm always amused by how much non-aviation people think pilots get paid. I have friends who are freight dogs here in California who are lucky to clear $12,000 per year living in the Bay Area (where minimum rent would be well above that for a small place) -- but when I tell people about this, or the tiny pay rates for the smaller regionals, etc., they just don't believe it. It's always the 747 captain they've got in mind...

But then I'm a professional photographer. Freight dog would probably be a step up in income (don't get me started...).

Anonymous said...

So the secret is to go work for some backwater African or Malaysian company that will hire anyone with the bribes, then fly extremely long routes to rack up the hours.

It was a shock to hear that union grocery clerks here make more than paramedics, but I always thought lawyers and pilots were well-off. Should we tip the attendants on small feeder flights?

Anonymous said...

Take it from a 30yr airline Capt...go into medical field..and remember there aren't any more stagecoach drivers!