The career of the average Airline Pilot has become a bad joke

Here is an old airline joke about your probationary year at a major airline.

Question: “Why don’t you ever eat a crew meal on your last leg?”
Answer: “Because your family will smell food on your breath when you get home.”

Major Airline probation has always been a year of indignity; pay, status, etc. It was a year that you could be fired for the slightest infraction. I remember jump seating home during my probationary year (yes I was a commuter for years), the Captain asked what my opinion was on a union issue. I responded; “Captain, I don’t get an opinion for another 4 months.” He thought my comment was hysterical and all three of us got a good laugh. It was funny because we all knew it was true. Probation was the dues paying year, designed to weed out a weak player or “weird Harold”, that may have slipped through the hiring process. It was not a fun year, but, it was only a year.

So there I was: forty years old, two Post Graduate Degrees, seven licenses, a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Retired Naval Aviator; with, a wife, a house and four kids. The six of us earned $2,600 a month (before taxes), and I was lucky, I was senior in my class and got an MD-80 First Officer seat. Had I gone to the B-727 Flight Engineer position I’d have earned $2,200 a month. My wife and I laughed about it last night as my youngest heated up a piece of cheese pizza.

“Look”, she said, “A slice of probationary pie.”

AA had a crew cafeteria that served up pizza by the slice, cheese only was a buck (pepperoni was $1.25). I ate a lot of cheese pizza. I slept on a lot of recliners or cots in the airport and piled into crash pads in Chicago and Dallas for years. However, the pay jumped rapidly and allowed me to stay in hotels the night prior to a flight, if I couldn’t commute in the same day. Still with that same wife and four kids, I couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel on both ends of a trip, if I missed the last flight home. So I still slept in a lot of “quiet rooms” down in operations, seldom alone.

Probation was horrible; but it ended. For the Regional Airline First Officer and to a bit lesser degree the Regional Captain, it never ends. Unless, they leave the industry. It is a sentence in purgatory, where the crews stumble around in a zombie like state.

After 911 pilot contracts in the majors were gutted, the entire industry moved fifty years backwards. Legacy carriers were now flying to the rules of the regionals after giving up their contractual rest periods in a miss-guided effort to save the airlines. The 23-40% cuts in pay forced crews to fly more and more; fortunately the experience in the industry kept the aircraft safe.

A water shed effort to outsource mainline flying gripped the industry. The experienced furloughed pilots from the major airlines refused to work for the McDonalds wages at the regional’s and went overseas or left the industry. I have friends in Hong Kong, India and the Middle East; I’d be with them if I didn’t still have a couple of kids in High School.

Another trend started that had never happened at the Major Airlines: guys were just quitting. My class at AA never got furloughed, we were close, but hung on the bottom. Still, at last count, 15% of my class has quit. My roommate in training, a fellow retired Navy bubba, went to NASA. Others went to air cargo, one went to be a Professor at Embry Riddle, and others stopped flying completely.

One more trend started; most First Officers (and many Captains) I know, considers flying a part time gig and has a second job or business on the side. Airline Pilot is no longer a profession it is a job, one that pays less on average (even a Captain) than a Long Shore man or an FAA Controller.

The why? Big picture, fifty percent of the industry’s seats shifted to regional carriers, and they expanded like gangbusters. Experienced pilots passed on the 20K a year jobs; so they emptied the flight schools of instructors and then started going for the recent graduates. The experience level of the regional’s diluted precipitously; they also over expanded and began a bidding war after the restructuring of the Network Carriers. The regional’s slashed pilot wages and pushed them to the limits of the law.

We are seeing the result now. The best and the brightest do not want the job. The pool of available applicants has significantly gone down (30%/commercial licenses) while the requirement for airline pilots has gone up (25%/ATP); do the math.

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