One of the very first things a pilot keys in when looking for a job is the salary — of course! But what if the salary is not necessarily lucrative? Are the benefits, perks, and career growth good enough to offset a mediocre pay check? Unfortunately, regional airlines in the United States are not willing to boost real pay although they are facing the worse shortage of pilots in recent history. Moreover, they are resorting to a hodgepodge of gimmicks in attempts to lure first officers into their cockpits.
For the past couple of years, regional airlines in the United States have expressed serious difficulties recruiting new pilots. Moreover, far from improving, the problem just gets worse. So much, even Republic Airlines — a fairly large regional with close to 3000 pilots — blamed the lack of pilots for its recent bankruptcy. Other regionals have cut service to smaller communities pointing fingers at the same culprit. More demanding F.A.A. requisites for first officers do not help either, along with soaring mandatory retirements in legacy airlines which suck dry the experienced regional pilot pool. Now, finally realizing planes will be grounded soon if nobody flies them, but still reluctant to pay a deserving amount, regionals have put forth a plethora of gimmicks. It still might attract carefree and eager young pilots. Here, some of the gimmicks to watch for:
Bonuses are a something to keep an eye on — or aware of — should you be in the market as a first officer for the regionals. One airline offers up to $15000 as a sign on bonus! The amount is impressive indeed. But as you read the fine print, you realize the $15000 bonus is for first officers with 1000 hours of more of part 121 experience only; all others get $10,000. As a lump sum it sounds like a bounty. But as you add it to an unflattering salary of $22,500 per year, both premiums are nothing to write home about.
Another company also boasts a similar bonus of $12,000 for signing up. However, their disbursement plan is quite unique. Only at the end of a third year will they finish paying everything off ($6000 the first year, $6000 by the end of the third year!) This unusual bonus disbursement schedule could imply not only that pilots do not stick around for such a long time, but also that the company has found a way to not pay for it! In addition, you’ll quickly find out that entry level salaries here are, on average, $2016 a month for the initial three years.
Kind Commuter Policies
An example of a kind commuter policy, according to some websites, is around $3000 a year, which translates into $250 a month. As a commuting pilot, it is safe to say four stays will be used every 30 days. But honestly, when was the last time you stayed at a clean, decent hotel close to the airport for $62.50? Remember the farther away the hotel is from the airport, the more expensive the cab fare will be (if no free shuttle). With all fairness, a hotel corresponding to the stature of a pilot is worth much more. If uncomfortable due to the many issues that could creep up, a poorly rested, fatigued pilot could infringe into the realm of unsafety the following day. Unfortunately, other airlines bragging about “kind” commuter policies probably hover around this same allowance amount in order to stay competitive.
Quick Upgrade Times
Another feature readily advertised by some regionals is: an “exceptionally” low time to upgrade (to a captainship). The problem arises if the same outfit is also recruiting “street captains” and even high time first officers. It can be pilots from other airlines to fast track them into the left seat. This creates an inherent conflict of interest since the industry will always have a preference for more experienced pilots regardless. This means that for every captain or high time officer brought in, a hard working loyal first officer will have to wait again for a turn at command.
At any rate, most upgrade times are contingent not only the amount of total and company hours logged in, but also depends on a pilot’s performance, and standing against cohorts (his competition). So whenever a website brags about a “quick upgrade to captain,” it must be taken with a grain of salt. Besides being an exemplary employee, the candidate must also be an incredibly talented aviator if the company affords him/her such chance.
In addition, other regionals draw attention by telling prospects they will flow seamlessly from their line to a major/legacy carrier, just like the agreement drawn on paper declares. The thought of flying for American, Delta, or United is amongst the most popular goal for young pilots at the onset of their careers. After all, who wouldn’t dream of six digit salaries, the biggest equipment, and the cushiest schedules? Moreover, working on international routes and flying into new worlds, meeting different and interesting people all on the company’s dime, is a driver for young bright minds wanting to fly airplanes for a living. But flowing to a major airline, despite the claim, is not that simple.
After analyzing one of the regional’s website offering a flow “promise” to a legacy carrier, you may find out that only handful—literally—of pilots a month flow up to the job of their dreams. With close to 2000 pilots, only 5% of pilots makes the cut a year, while the rest are put on hold. As a matter of fact, the ones being summoned by their larger partner might have spent no less than a decade to a decade and a half flying regionally to finally land the rewards they dreamed of back when they started.
Another company which claims a “fast flow” to a major carrier is sending slightly larger numbers up per month. Their website claims a possible flow in three to five years should you be admitted in a class today. But in reality, only 12% of their total pilots flow up yearly. Taking into account total pilot numbers, and seniority—which can never be dismissed in the aviation world—the data suggests more like five years instead of three for the flow to take place. It’s still better than having to wait decades, but paltry wages for five years in row is also a taxing sacrifice.
Despite the many gimmicks regionals rely on to attract young new pilots, the good news is companies are improving pilot compensation as we speak. Most of these airlines increased earnings in the past year knowing that pilots will accept only if the money is right. These salaries, however, are still not fair. Especially when considering that the industry as a whole reaped record profits last year due to cheap oil and an overall economic rebound. Amidst the standard, I found one airline guaranteeing at least $50,000 dollars the first year once all bonuses were counted in. That is by far the best amount for a first year regional pilot in ages—the rest pale in comparison. So if this trend continues upward, driven by passenger demand and the “worse pilot shortage” in the history of this country, newcomers to the regionals’ flight decks will soon make the money they truly deserve.
With over 4600 hours in his logbook, Patrick has island-hopped in the Western Caribbean as Captain in Let 410s, and as copilot in Jetstream 31/32s.
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