Union Airline Pilots Join the Occupy Wall Street Movement

At the end of September, more than 700 pilots from Continental and United airlines (as well as other pilots from the Air Line Pilots Association) joined the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York City, according to Forbes.

Their gripe? Salary.

Holding signs with pictures of the Hudson River crash and reading “What’s a Pilot Worth?” the group also is protesting the merger between Continental and United, saying it is moving too quickly.

And, it turns out, their complaints are not as lofty as you might think.

Flying a plane is a highly skilled job that also carries an enormous amount of responsibility. Considering airline pilots have the lives of hundreds of passengers in their hands, it might come as a surprise that entry-level pilots are among the lowest paid laborers in the country.

How Much Do Pilots Make?

According to FltOps.com, the average starting pay for a pilot with a major airline is $36,283, but first-year pilots at US Airways make just $21,600 a year – about the same amount of money as a bellhop at a nice hotel. That certainly makes you wonder why it is so difficult to find cheap flights, doesn’t it?

The starting salaries at United and Continental are slightly more – both around $27,000. Entry-level pilots hoping to make more money should apply to FedEx or Southwest – both of which offer salaries starting at about $50,000 a year.

Of course, pilots do have the opportunity to pad what they take home with international overrides, overtime, per diems and other perks. And that laughable starting salary doesn’t stay laughable for long: after five years, pilots at US Airways can triple their starting pay, and after 10 years, they can earn up to $105,408.

Ten-year veterans at UPS can earn up to $221,338 a year – and the average take-home pay for pilots at that level is $141,236.

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How Do Their Salaries Stack Up?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty threshold for an individual under the age of 65 is a little more than $11,000 annually. This is good news for new pilots – they are not officially impoverished (unless of course they are the sole supporter of three other people – then they might be in trouble).

Still, after all the training they have to go through – pilots must have a four-year degree in any subject and complete flight training either through the military (an eight-year commitment) or privately – it is probably disheartening that they earn so little at the outset.

By comparison, the average salary for an individual with a bachelor’s degree is $52,200 a year. Of course, the average U.S. worker probably does not have all the same perks an airline pilot does, including great retirement and benefits packages; free or reduced rates for travel; or, for some pilots, only having to work eight days a month.

And, if they can land a coveted job with a major airline, that salary is guaranteed to go up. After five years, their salaries are commensurate with a software engineer or financial adviser, and after 10 years, they can make as much as a dentist or CEO.

This kind of makes us wonder if those same pilots will be hanging out with those Occupy Wall Street kids in another 10 years.


Creative Commons photo courtesy of akinloch on Flickr


Published: October 14, 2011