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With 2,000hrs of flight time, a commercial ticket for ASEL and AMEL, CFI, CFII, MEI, and a Master's in Aeronautical Science I could easily qualify to fly right seat for a regional airline, but I just can't compete with pilots willing to work for $17k/yr. For comparison, federal minimum wage is currently just over $15K/yr.

Why are the starting salaries at US Regional Airlines so low?
It seems odd that pilots go through extensive training which takes a great deal of time and expense, but they have to be prepared to work for what is a very low salary compared to other jobs that require a high level of skill and education.

Supply and demand is one explanation, but I really don't understand how there is so much competition for flying jobs but at the same time there is a supposed "pilot shortage".
Are there really so many pilots out there that the competition for jobs drives down starting salaries so low?

I am hoping to understand why it is that well-qualified pilots appear to have so little earning power in the marketplace.

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It's worth noting that meaningful cost-of-living increases seem to have gone by the wayside sometime in the last 20 or 30 years. It's likely that the unions' concessions following deregulation in the mid 1980s (and their relative weakness since) were a factor. –  egid Jan 9 at 1:54
There are some other ways some airlines choose to save money on new pilots. For example, do they pick up the cost of lodging during training, and do they pay during training. Of the four airlines I worked for, none of them paid during initial training, and only one paid for lodging during initial training. Also, none of them paid for travel expenses to get to the initial ground school. –  Terry Jan 10 at 21:47
This seems to be a simple problem of supply and demand. Q: Wouldn't everyone love to get paid to fly around in planes, instead of doing some crappy desk job? A: Yeah. lots of pilots + limited positions = low wages –  Mike Pennington Jan 27 at 8:02
You have a TON of Baby Boomer pilots beginning to retire over the last few years. And there aren't any younger guys in line behind them to fill the ranks. Add to that the fact that the regs have recently changed to add significant time to be a 121 First Officer, and there's absolutely about to be a very visible shortage of qualified pilots. The pilot shortage has been here for a long time. It's just been camouflaged. If you have enough pilots to go around at all levels, then you never have to worry about "pilot fatigue" being an issue. Ask any regional pilot if that's the case. –  Shawn Jan 27 at 23:16
@p1l0t There are more than a few factors involved there, and plenty of fault on all sides. Passengers, airline management and pilots are all culpable. But I do imagine that will begin changing a little bit here soon. It's more expensive for a pilot to be an airline pilot, and hopefully they'll be less willing to take the crappy pay and conditions when they realize they don't have to. Airlines will have to pay more to entice people to be pilots, especially in the US. And passengers will have to pay more to get from A to B safely. The whole industry is about 30 years behind schedule. –  Shawn Jan 27 at 23:49
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2 Answers

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You need to look at turn-of-the-century early industrial age history for your answer. Factories were filled with skilled workers who could weave or smith or do some other specialty with great speed. These were not unskilled workers by modern standards, but their skills were common in those days. The efficient factories lowered prices for those products, making those skills less valuable. The workers were dependent on that factory for their livelihood, they could not easily find work outside the factory. If they grew up in that factory town, they likely had no other skills. There were few factories of their kind they could work in, and no unions or labor laws.

Airline pilots are in a similar situation. While airline mechanics can quit and maintain power plants or trucks with a little training, pilots are stuck with now three major airlines and a handful of regional airlines. They have no skills that can cross over to another industry. Their unions cannot strike or even hint at a job action expressing their discontent. But the airlines can outsource their jobs to cheaper pilots, and have done so with over half their pilot jobs over the past decade.

Those cheaper pilots are disappearing, as the major airlines start hiring, and young people realize what the career of an airline pilot has become. This has been leading up to a pilot shortage for many years, and the efforts to stave off that shortage have resulted in fewer pilots getting trained every year. The result will certainly be a wave of much higher pay, but it won't change the underlying cause. The wave of young people who rush into the career when the pay skyrockets will certainly see their pay drop again, along with layoffs and working the bottom jobs, when the airlines have enough pilots and hit another down decade.

Oh, and $17k is a little more than Skywest, Republic, American Eagle, Great Lakes, and other entry-level carriers pay their new-hires for the first several years. Sorry.

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Skywest is around $20k for the first year and increases thereafter, according to airlinepilotcentral.com –  egid Jan 9 at 15:50
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Well, the short version is: The airlines pay what they have to pay in a free market. They can get away with it because pilots are willing to accept it. Like any other business they are in it to make money and keeping costs down is just as good as making extra money, so they aren't going to volunteer anything extra.

Now, why do pilots do it? Because of the promise of better things down the road. It isn't as good as it used to be, but after being at the airlines for a few years, you can make a livable wage and as you get further into your career at a major airline, you still get paid pretty well for a "part time" job. As I've heard other pilots say before: It's better than a "real" job!

Other pilots do it just because they love it and can't imagine doing anything else!

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Ah, I see - your position is that, market permitting, they'd pay even less. Yep, can't disagree with that. –  egid Jan 9 at 1:59
It's too bad down the road is so far away (especially with furloughs moving people backwards) that it still makes it a terrible 'investment.' I couldn't imagine moving halfway across the country for a 60+% paycut. I would have to sell my house and I wouldn't even be able to get a new mortgage with that salary. Maybe I should be thankful I can't compete with this. –  p1l0t Jan 9 at 14:58
@p1l0t: I agree, although hiring actually is turning around with so many people retiring... I still think it's a dumb way to handle things.... –  Lnafziger Jan 9 at 15:26
I left the airline industry largely because of the bad pay and bad working conditions required to even get your foot in the door. Even today, I don't know that I could recommend an airline career to anyone. Things haven't changed a lot in the last decade. Other than the old guys kept getting older. Do I love flying? Absolutely. Is a wide-body Captain job at FedEx a good job? Absolutely there too. Is it worth it to spend over a decade working a high-skill, very-low-paying job in an industry that is incredibly cutthroat and willing to lay you off or replace you in a heartbeat? It wasn't for me. –  Shawn Jan 27 at 20:50
@Lnafziger Hopefully the airlines figure it out before a serious pilot shortage actually hits. Good pilots aren't exactly something you can drum up in a few weeks. –  Shawn Feb 4 at 16:43
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