Pilot Pay: Supply and Demand

The hard luck story of Bryan Lawlor demonstrates the brutality of the free market.

airline-pilot-hatThe 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. kth says:

    Much of what you say is fair enough. In the slightly longer run, though, you have to figure that if the coolness of the job is all it has to offer, and the money continues to suck, the turnover in the field will be higher than would seem ideal. The cargo of a passenger pilot is a little more precious than that of a UPS driver, after all.

    But I guess as long as the airlines are made to bleed profusely every time their corner-cutting gets people killed, the problem will take care of itself.

  2. LaurenceB says:

    Reading Cole and Joyner on this subject is a fun compare-and-contrast. Cole’s focus is on the bankers – who he sees as nothing short of criminal. But Joyner reads Cole and focuses on the pilot – barely mentioning the bankers. It’s like two people describing two completely different objects they see in the same Rorschach inkblot.

    Also, Google AdSense has decided to advertise a flight-school in the sidebar. That’s really funny.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    There were bankers mentioned in the New York Times article?

    The larger issue is that there are a lot of people currently being encouraged by the government and society to borrow extensively for training/eduction for high-paying jobs in fields that are imploding. I’m not sure what to do about it, but I’d start with the proposition that government should do no harm.

  4. I take it as a sign of the end days that “free markets” require any justification or explanation that no one is guaranteed a certain wage to perform a certain job indefinitely, that anyone believes that airline pilots are interchangeable with high-end Wall Street financial analysts, or that there is, or should be, some wage scale determined by a bureaucrat John Cole or his commenters would approve of that determines what my labor is worth relative to anyone else.

    Jeez.

  5. just me says:

    You can find almost any job that will invoke an outraged response for how low the pay is, but the reality is that some jobs pay more.

    Money doesn’t grow on trees and a business only makes so much money to dole out to its employees.

    It is tough to lose a job or be demoted not because of any lack of effort or ability but because a company can’t afford to keep you at a higher salary and position, but it is better than the unemployment line.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I also want to add that I found this sentence quite depressing and hope it ain’t so:

    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.

  7. kth says:

    PD, there was a lot of discussion of that passage at Balloon Juice. But if you read further, you’ll see that that was the pilot’s fear; his wife expresses support farther down in the story.

    Of course what else is she going to say to the reporter? but still, on balance it appears to be more his wounded machismo speaking than any real loss of affection on her part.

  8. John G. says:

    John’s commenters are outraged that a pilot could be making less than a garbage collector.

    The commenters and Cole himself are agitated types who always need to be agitated about something—namely producers and those who risk capital.

    Which is the point of linking the pilot in the story to Wall Street bankers…completely irrelevant. But that doesn’t stop the Ballon Juicers. Moral equivalence everywhere! They’re like seals. Throw them a fish and they keep clapping.

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    See there is this concept called supply and demand….

  10. PD Shaw says:

    Thanks for the tip, kth. The wife’s affections seem genuine to me; she’s got her husband at home more often and he’s helping more with raising the children. Plus he got a vasectomy!

  11. Steve Plunk says:

    Those struggling airlines could be doing better with cheaper fuel but our government class really doesn’t like the idea of domestic drilling so we could blame them instead of the bankers. Heck, throw in the Saudis with their $75 target for a barrel of oil (which we got to today). There’s a lot of blame to go around if we’re in the blaming mood like Cole.

  12. Highlander says:

    I was one of those guys who made $250,000 a year for flying a Boeing 777 for 9 days a month to Buenos Aires or where ever, and it was a damn fine way to make a living. But I could see the hand writing on the wall, and the game was changing so I retired 5 years early, and started another career.

    Technology is changing the pilot profession like everything else, and that is not good news for a young man or women who has a desire to fly for a living.

    But the bigger issue here is what is happening to the American middle class’s ability to make a decent living for their families. It is not just pilots who are taking a permanent down grade. It’s probably coming to your profession soon if not already.

    I would be considered moderately rich by most, but it appears to me if the rich elites continue to ignore the plight of struggling Americans and screw over the vast majority of their fellow country men. Then some very unpleasant things will happen to all of us very soon.(some would say this recession, and the election of Barry Obama is the start)

  13. Franklin says:

    I didn’t read Cole’s essay, but if he suggested that people making money on money and who nearly destroyed our way of life recently aren’t really as useful as someone who actually does something, he’s halfway right.

    I mostly agree with JJ, except that the airline industry isn’t exactly a free market. If it was, I could get on a plane without stripping and giving up my water bottle. But the fearmongers put an end to that.

  14. Our way of life is people making money on money, it’s called capitalism. Now if you want to talk about people who are destroying our way of life like Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd but don’t actually do anything, well, now there’s a conversation.

    And whatever TSA absurdly does has absolutely nothing to do with how free or regulated commercial air travel is. Their actions are ostensibly about public safety, just like being required to wear a seat belt says nothing about free auto markets are. If you really want to make air travel easier and safer, let all of us carry our pocket knives onto planes. That would make air travel faster, cheaper, and less aggravating, but then it would mean government having less control over us along with fewer union and patronage jobs and we can’t have that.

  15. Richard says:

    Side note: I know plenty of people who work in Wall Street who hate their jobs. Most are just there for the money.

    As for anger at bankers’ pay, it’s a delusion that pay is directed by a free market. Sure, companies compete with each other to set wage levels for appropriate talent, but there’s no downward pressure when the government is implicitly backing you and no clawbacks are in place to rid you of any profit from short-term gains.

  16. whatever says:

    For every high salary banker that makes headlines, there are thousands and thousands of people working in banking and finance making less than this pilot. So the comparison is bunk – nothing more than a political ploy.

    But if the environmentalists have their way there will be no flying – taxes and increased costs are their goal to reduce all flying – carbon and all that you know. So the left-wingers are the ones who want to lay off all pilots – including this guy.

  17. jason says:

    PROBLEM #1 — PEOPLE COME INTO THIS PROFESSION FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS example, WOMEN, ITS COOL, FAILED AT EVERYTHING ELSE IN LIFE, THINK THERE GOING TO MAKE A LOT OF MONEY, USING A PILOTS SUIT TO EXPRESS THERE MANHOOD, AND AS A SIGN OF POWER — IDIOTS

    PROBLEM #2 — ZERO TO HERO SCHOOLS GIVE THESE IDIOTS AN AVENUE TO THE AIRLINES. I AM NOT SAYING THAT REAL PILOTS DON’T COME FROM THESE PROGRAMS BUT THESE SCHOOLS FLOOD THE MARKET WITH FAKE WANNA-BE PILOTS, THERE ARE NO ZERO TO HERO PROGRAMS FOR DOCTORS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THEN EVERYONE WOULD BE A DAMN DOCTOR

    PROBLEM #3 — MANAGEMENT IS SCREWING THE WHOLE PROFESSION. DRASTICALLY CUTTING PAY, MASSIVE LAYOFFS, WHILE THEY COLLECT THERE HUGE SALARIES.

    PROBLEM #4 — PILOTS ARE UNORGANIZED. ESPECIALLLY WITH IDIOTS MIXED IN THE POOL WITH REAL PILOTS. I TAKE MY HAT OFF TO CAPTAIN SULLY. ONE OF HIS STATEMENTS WAS ABOUT HIS 40% PAY CUT. HE UTILILIZED HIS SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE TO SAVE LIVES AND TO MAKE A POINT TO THE COUNTRY ABOUT THE HARDSHIPS IN THE PILOT PROFESSION. THESE FAKE PILOTS WOULD NOT HAVE A SAID ANYTHING

    PROBLEM #5 — THERE IS NO PILOT SHORTAGE. THERE NEVER WAS AND THERE NEVER WILL BE. PLANES ARE NOT LIKE HOSPITALS, THERE IS NOT ONE ON EVERY CONER IN EVERY CITY. THERE ARE ONLY BUT A PRECISE NUMBER OF JET AIRCRAFT IN THE COUNTRY. THE INCREASE IN THE # OF PROFFESSIONAL PILOTS EACH YEAR DOES NOT COINCIDE WITH THE INCREASE IN THE # OF JET AIRCRAFT. EVEN IF THERE IS AN INCREASE!!!!!! MOST AIRLINES ARE REDUCING THERE FLEETS