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I’M SITTING in a Michigan airport waiting for my American Airlines flight to Chicago, a man in a uniform sits down beside me and strikes up a conversation. I learn that he is actually a pilot, for American Airlines – or more precisely American Eagle, the commuter airline of American Airlines, which like all commuters, these days is now adding jets to its fleets for flights of under two hours. This saves the parent company lots of money, I guess.
The pilot who has approached me is not scheduled to fly the plane I’m on. He’s hoping to grab an empty seat for the flight across Lake Michigan.
“Do you have to pay to fly if it’s a personal trip?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “It’s about the only fringe benefit we have.”
He then revealed that the starting pay for a pilot at American Eagle was $16,800 a year.
“What?” I asked, sure that I had misheard the figure. “Sixteen grand per year?”
“That’s right,” the captain responded. “And that’s high. At Delta’s commuter airline, starting pay is
$15,000 for a pilot; at Continental Express, it’s around $13,000.”
“Thirteen thousand? For the captain of a commercial airliner? Are you messing with me?”
“No, I’m not messin’ with anyone. It gets worse. That first year as a pilot, you have to pay for your own flight training and your own uniforms. After that’s all deducted, you end up with about $9,000.” He paused so that could sink in. Then he added: “Gross.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” My voice was now getting to a level where others around us began listening in.
“Believe it,” he assured me. “One of our pilots last month went down to the welfare office and applied
for food stamps. No kidding. With four kids, at his level of pay as a pilot, he was legally eligible for assistance. The front office at American found out about this and sent out a memo that said no pilot was to apply for food stamps or welfare – even if they were eligible for it!
Anyone who did apply would be let go.
“So now my buddy just goes down to the food bank on his way home. They don’t ask for anything from you that would get back to American Airlines.”
I thought I’d heard everything by now. But this story was beyond frightening. I did not want to get on that plane. You see, there’s something about us humans and our basic animal instincts for survival – and one of those instincts, probably traceable back to the caveman days, is: Never, ever let someone fly you up in the air who’s making less than the kid at Taco Bell.
I got on the plane, but only after I convinced myself the guy must have been feeding me a line. How else could I justify risking my life like that? The following week, though, I made some calls and did some research. Much to my horror, that pilot’s figures were right. While captains who had been with these commuter airlines for a number of years were pulling in the big money ($40,000/year!), first-year rookies in many cases were living below the poverty level.
I don’t know about you, but I want the people taking me with them to defy nature’s most powerful force – gravity – to be happy, content, confident, and well paid. Even on the big jets for the major airlines, the flight attendants – another group of employees whose training may one day be critical to saving your life – start out at somewhere between $15,000 and $17,000 a year. When I’m at 30,000 feet, I do not want the minds of the pilots or the attendants to be occupied with how they’re going to get the heat and lights turned back on once they get home tonight, or which Bob’s Big Boy they’re going to have to stick up in order to make the monthly rent. And what’s the lesson for the flying public? Be nice to people on welfare – they may be flying you to Buffalo.
For the first half of 2001, the pilots for Delta Connection were on strike. The greedy bastards at the union were demanding $20,000 for their pilots’ starting pay. But Delta refused, and the work stoppage went on for months. You’d think that considering the booming economy – especially for the well-to-do who fly often – there would be little problem giving the pilots a wage that allows them to subsist on something besides dog food. (When boarding a plane, I used to do a “sniff check” to see if the pilots had been drinking; now I’ll be looking for stray Kibbles or Bits as I pass by the cockpit.)
After begging for scraps from the table, the Delta Connection pilots finally got their $20,000 a year.