Photo: Daniel PortnoyJordan Rice spent between $130,000 and $200,000 gettting his pilot's license. After four years flying planes, he's yet to make more than $40,000.
Trends in Aviation
Minimum-wage pilots in Florida
The employee stocking the shelf at your local Walmart and the junior first officer co-piloting the regional airline plane you're flying have this in common: Both might not take home $25,000 a year.
Jordan Rice, a young Miami-based pilot for a regional airline, sees himself as more fortunate than most. His peers, as he did, spent between $120,000 and $200,000 to get the education and experience to be pilots.
But thanks to academic scholarships, family support and working as a flight instructor, he graduated debt-free from the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and fulfilled his lifelong ambition of becoming a commercial airline pilot.
“It’s everything I looked forward to as a flight instructor or student,” Rice says of his job.
Rice, who didn’t want to identify his employer because he said he was speaking about the industry in general, lived in Florida during the five years it took him to earn his degrees and accumulate flight hours. “It was a solid education and solid preparation,” Rice says.
He maintains a grueling schedule. In a typical week, he catches a space-available basis ride from northern Virginia, where his family is from, to Miami. From there, he works flying 50-seat airplanes to other cities, where he is put up in hotels, and then flies back to Miami to catch a space-available ride back to the Washington area. He feels fortunate his schedule means he doesn’t have to rent a place in Miami. “The biggest drawback” of the job, for him and his peers, he says, is the pay.
His first year as a first officer, he made $25 an hour, a tidy hourly wage. But federal regulations limit flight hours to 1,000, for a maximum salary of $25,000.During his first year, Rice drew a salary of only $19,200. Four years and a few months into his career, the 26-year-old’s pay hasn’t “cracked above $40,000.”
Most of the nation’s 70,000 commercial airline pilots are well paid — fewer than 10% of scheduled air carrier pilots make less than $65,420 a year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those earning lower wages tend to be entry-level pilots like Rice working further down the industry food chain at regional airlines. Many new pilots at the regionals have to move back in with their parents and moonlight to make ends meet.
As major carriers farm out routes, the regionals, which typically fly planes with from 30 to 90 seats, have become the fastest- growing part of the industry. In Florida, Silver Airways, based in Fort Lauderdale, now has more than 560 flights a week in Florida, says spokeswoman Misty Pinson.
Regionals operate half of domestic flights and carry about 22% of all airline passengers nationally, but they’ve had trouble filling the right seat in the cockpit. Eleven of 12 regional airlines the U.S. General Accounting Office interviewed for a February study reported difficulty filling first-officer slots.
Demand for pilots is growing as the federal government has made it more difficult and expensive to attain commercial airline pilot status. The 2009 crash of a regional carrier near Buffalo,N. Y., killing 50, led Congress to significantly raise the number of hours a pilot needs to be approved by the FAA to fly commercial airliners.
Before the law, which took effect this year, a first officer needed only 250 hours of flight time. The new law mandates 1,500 hours, which for pilots can mean two years of low-wage teaching, banner towing or hauling skydivers.
There are some exemptions, but the new requirements, the high cost of an education and the low pay for first officers at regional airlines have led to a drop in students pursuing studies, the GAO reported in February. “It’s pretty tough to live on $25,000 a year in the United States of America, and you’ve got to pay back your student loans,” observes Bob Rockmaker, president and CEO of Flight School Association of North America in Allentown, Pa.
The GAO, however, finds mixed evidence of a pilot shortage.
Indeed, the pilots’ main union says there is no shortage. The Air Line Pilots Association says hundreds of pilots sit idle on work furloughs, while others work abroad, where pay and benefits are superior. The problem, the ALPA says, is that pay is too low for professionals who have invested $150,000 or more to become pilots. It calls on Congress to adopt “strong, pro-airline” policies, saying consistently profitable and stable airlines will be able to offer better benefits and pay.
To secure more pilots, airlines have tried bonuses and aligning with schools. In March, Silver signed a preferential hiring partnership with Broward College to try to recruit more pilots trained there. More immediately, this year it announced it would increase its signing bonus for new pilots to $12,000 — $6,000 for the first year and $6,000 after completing a second year of employment.The 900-employee airline has 200 pilots.
Pinson says Silver is among the better-paying regionals with first-year, first-officer pay of $27,313 exclusive of bonuses. The union ALPA, however, in its study on the 10 lowest-paying airlines, ranked Silver second from the bottom at $18,693 for a first-year salary.
Disputes over numbers like that aside, however, there’s little animosity on the part of pilots toward the regionals, whose pay scale they see as a function of industry environment and federal regulation. Rice and another pilot, Bryan Colombo, both sound positive about their employers.Colombo says that while his pay is low, he also knows his airline’s investment in his training, including expensive simulator time, is high.
Some in the industry are pushing for more student aid for pilots and advocate more competency-based tests rather than flight hours to award airline pilot status. Others say mainline carriers need to adjust their contracts with regionals so that the smaller airlines can afford to pay more.
New pilots, meanwhile, look forward to moving to a mainline airline or seeing pay climb as experience mounts and they move to the captain’s seat. “That’s the driver for many people,” Rice says. “They see this as a means to an end.”
As for him, Rice certainly would like to earn more. But, he adds, “Being at work and flying the airplane is a lot of fun.”
‘A Step Back to Go Forward’
The demand for pilots has brought in some with unusual backgrounds. Bryan Colombo, a Colorado resident who is assigned to Orlando for a regional airline, got his private pilot license at 17 but never pursued becoming a commercial airline pilot. Rather, he spent a decade flying for missionary organizations in Central America and the Caribbean before returning to the U. S., where he worked as a network engineer and then airplane mechanic.
With thousands of hours of flight experience, he found himself “sought after” when the new federal hourly requirements took effect “because the pool of people willing to work for the wages they offered was small.”
He’s now 50 and just wrapped up his first year as a regional airline first officer. Starting pay was just over $19,000 on an annual basis, plus a four-figure signing bonus, though he recently got bumped up to $25,000 a year.
He says he made more as a mechanic. But his mechanic pay had topped out whereas as a pilot, “my ceiling now is going to be in six figures. I took a cut to go into the right seat. What some people don’t think about is, it’s a step back to go forward. I’ve got my foot in the door now.” He names several new rookie officers at his regional airline — he also spoke on the condition the airline not be identified — in their 50s and one nearly 60.
Piloting — By the Numbers
$168,350:Average annual pay for Miami-based pilots, third-highest among the nation’s metros
$129,600:Average annual pay for an airline pilot
$142,960:Average annual pay for an airline pilot in Florida, the highest among the top five states for airline pilot employment.
88,000: Number of new commercial airline pilots needed in North America by 2033, according to Boeing’s industry forecast
The Ratings Game
Student pilots aiming to fly commercial airliners typically start by earning five credentials: Private pilot, commercial pilot, instrument, multi-engine and flight instructor. Flight instructor lets pilots rack up hours while getting paid rather than paying for flight time. Don’t be fooled by the term “commercial pilot.” It just means you can be paid to fly, but it will be towing banners, hauling skydivers, crop dusting and the like. To become an airline pilot requires an Airline Transport Pilot credential, which currently requires 1,500 hours of flight experience — lesser amounts for pilots from the military (750 hours), bachelor’s aviation programs (1,000) and associate’s aviation programs (1,250.)