Pilot Pay: Supply and Demand
The hard luck story of Bryan Lawlor demonstrates the brutality of the free market.
The dark blue captain’s hat, with its golden oak-leaf clusters, sits atop a bookcase in Bryan Lawlor’s home, out of reach of the children. The uniform their father wears still displays the four stripes of a commercial airline captain, but the hat stays home. The rules forbid that extra display of authority, now that Mr. Lawlor has been downgraded to first officer.
He is now in the co-pilot’s seat in the 50-seat commuter jets he flies, not for any failure in skill. He wears his captain’s stripes, he explains, to make that point. But with air travel down, his employer cut costs by downgrading 130 captains, those with the lowest seniority, to first officers, automatically cutting the wage of each by roughly 50 percent — to $34,000 in Mr. Lawlor’s case.
The demotion, the loss of command, the cut in pay to less than his wife, Tracy, makes as a fourth-grade teacher, have diminished Mr. Lawlor, 34, in his own eyes. He still thinks he will return to being the family’s principal breadwinner, although as the months pass he worries more. “I don’t want to be a 50-year-old pilot earning $40,000 a year,” he said, adding that his wife does not want to be married to a pilot with so little earning power.
In recent decades, layoffs were the standard procedure for shrinking labor costs. Reducing the wages of those who remained on the job was considered demoralizing and risky: the best workers would jump to another employer. But now pay cuts, sometimes the result of downgrades in rank or shortened workweeks, are occurring more frequently than at any time since the Great Depression.
John Cole is incensed, especially since this report comes out on the heels of news that some people in the financial sector — which brought on the current crisis — are doing quite well. He wonders, “Why doesn’t everyone just quit doing what they do and go to work on Wall Street?”
Presumably, because those jobs are hard to come by and most of us aren’t interested in doing that kind of work. Lawyor, by contrast, is in the very early stages of a career that he’s always dreamed of.
Bryan Lawlor was five years out of Virginia Tech before he turned to aviation, his first love as a boy. His mother still cherishes a photo of her son, age 5, seated in a cockpit. But Mr. Lawlor studied chemistry in college and he used that skill, taking jobs as a chemical technician, to support his growing family. Layoffs marred those early years and in 2003 Mr. Lawlor made the “crossroads” decision to become a commercial pilot, borrowing $24,000 to learn to fly and to acquire the necessary licenses.
His current employer, ExpressJet Airlines, is a spinoff from a feeder operation for Continental Airlines. It brought passengers to Delta hubs as well, mainly in the West, and to help handle that traffic, Mr. Lawlor was promoted to captain from first officer in July 2007. His pay rose to $68,000, with the prospect of reaching $100,000 — roughly triple a first officer’s pay.
That is not so much money by the standards of an earlier era. Even senior captains on legacy airlines rarely earn above $200,000 today, as they often did in the past. Mr. Lawlor says pilots’ pay these days fails to recognize the training and skill involved in transporting passengers even more safely than in the past.
So, basically, he started training to be a pilot six years ago. He’s still working for a puddle jumper service, paying his dues to get to fly a jumbo jet. And he’s in an industry that’s struggling to stay in business.
He was briefly a “captain” of a puddle jumper but, the need for same being diminished in the current economy, he got demoted to co-pilot status (presumably, bumping someone else to the unemployment line) and gets only his decorative sleeve stripes to remind him of his former position.
A lousy situation? Sure. Do I understand his feeling sorry for himself? Absolutely. But it’s hardly a tragedy that a guy doing his dream job is having to subsist on a meager salary just six years into his career when his industry’s in the dumper.
John’s commenters are outraged that a pilot could be making less than a garbage collector. Well, I’m sure the garbage company would be happy to have someone with Lawlor’s education and work ethic. Presumably, he’s not interested in taking that career path.
I recall being just out of graduate school, with the ink not yet dried on my PhD diploma, struggling to find a job that paid $30,000 a year. Meanwhile, my high school chums who never even graduated college were on strike at UPS, where they were making over $40,000 a year delivering packages. But, not wanting to spend my life driving around in a brown truck in brown shorts delivering brown boxes, I persevered and ultimately landed a community college teaching gig at $30,000.
Should airline pilots make more than $34,000 given that they have to get substantial training and have people’s lives in their hands? I suppose. Although, really, $24,000 in training isn’t a huge investment compared to, say, an MBA much less a PhD.
Beyond that, who’s going to give it to them? So long as the airlines are forced to sell tickets from Chattanooga to Atlanta for $47 to remain competitive, it’s not happening. And, again, flying puddle jumpers is essentially an apprenticeship — a way of earning a paycheck while logging enough miles to get into the big planes. (The Air Force, Navy, and Marines provide an alternate route.)
And, frankly, if we never get back to paying people who fly jumbo jets $200,000 a year again, I’ll get over it.