They wear polished black-leather shoes and navy blue suits. They bear three stripes on shoulder epaulets and wings pinned on their left breast pocket. Carry on bags in tow holding two or three more replicates of their outfit. Cap in hand or sitting proudly atop their heads.
Everybody stares at them, but as they stride by they barely notice.
Destination here, destination there. State to state. A hop, skip and jump across the country in four days and finally back home.
They are your regional airline pilots barely making a livable wage and Jason is one of them. Pilots are not allowed to speak to the media and identifying Jason by his full name would lead to reprimands by the airline he works for.
In his mid-twenties and now a first officer, Jason has a steady job. But, he’s only managing to carve out a mere existence. His financial situation is tight. While he earns about $2,300 a month, he only takes home, after taxes and deductions, around $1,400 to cover his living expenses.
That is actually on the high end of the starting salary spectrum at a regional airline, which is the rite of passage and stepping stone to being a captain at the major airlines where pay can climb up to $180,000. Most first year pilots earn only $1,300 to $1,600 per month before any taxes or deductions. Jason’s airline just happens to pay a bit more than some of the other regional carriers do.
Jason’s airport base is in New York City; it is the least wanted among regional airline pilots because of its high cost of living.
“The truth is we are like glorified bus drivers.”
– Jason, regional airline pilot
Although the city is expensive, for Jason, a New York City base is a stroke of luck. He can live at home with family in the New York City area and does not pay rent.
“I can’t afford to live any place else on my salary,” he says. Many others he works with do not have family in the New York City area. Instead, he says, they live at home in other states and commute to work by filling an empty seat on a flight, either the night before they start or the morning of.
With a steady job under his belt and a promising future, you would think Jason has it all. If all goes according to plan, Jason could be making the big bucks as a captain at a major airline in about 10 years. Although he is not exactly struggling to make ends meet, he has had to keep a sharp eye on his discretionary expenses. At times, in ways, you would not expect from someone who is employed.
Part of the reason for that is the economics of regional airlines. “The average starting salary for a copilot at a regional airline is $1,600, you can’t live in New York City or any city for that matter on that wage,” says Tom Hoban, a first officer and communications chairman of the Allied Pilots Association. Pay in the airline industry is a complex formula based on how big the airplane is, longevity at the airline, and whether you are a first officer or a captain, according to Hoban.
Industry-wide regional airline pilots struggling on bottom-rung salaries often must use their days off to make extra cash.
The copilot involved in the 2009 Colgan Air flight crash in Buffalo, for example, reportedly worked a second job in a coffee shop to supplement her first year salary.
“A lot of people I know are substitute teaching,” Jason says. “People are doing second jobs, when those days are there mainly to get you rested, recuperated so you can safely and effectively operate a flight.”
Pilots should be well rested he says because “people’s lives are in your hands.” There are 50 to 75 passengers on each regional flight and Jason pilots four flights a day.
Typically, pilots fly a four-day trip every week with two to three days off. That means they work between 70 and 80 hours a month. They can spend up to 12 to 15 nights a month in a hotel room, miles away from home.
At the airport, when he wears his uniform, Jason says, people stare.
“If I’m sitting at a food court in an airport eating, for the 20 minutes I’m sitting here eating I’ll probably have 50 people staring at me,” he says, letting a smile slip by. There is admiration and kids come up to him to ask him questions about what it is like to be pilot.
“I’ll show them. I’ll talk to them, I’ll act like I love it,” he says and quickly adds, “Like I do love it.”
The admiration and awe he says, is somewhat uninformed. “I think they still think this is back, you know in the 60s, the time of Pan Am where pilots are paid $300,000 a year,” Jason says.
In reality, with the salary many first year pilots could “technically be qualified for food stamps and welfare,” he says. But he never tells anyone that, he would be fired if he did, he says.
“The truth is we are like glorified bus drivers,” Jason says.
What most people do not know is that, pilots only earn money for the time the plane is moving. Delays mean no pay—and way too often, Jason says, passengers look at pilots as if they’re to blame for the hours spent on the ground.
“If we show up at the airport and sit there for five hours for some sort of delay, we’re not getting paid,” he says.
Flying a plane is his dream, though. He was only six when he took his first flight on a family trip to Florida. “I was already in love with it,” he says, but it made his urge to become a pilot “that much stronger.”
So now, in his mid-twenties, he feels as if he has accomplished his life goal, and enjoys the rewards of seeing places he never would have thought he would visit. He has been to 39 states.
“Once in a while I look down and I’m like ‘Wow I’m actually flying an airplane,” he says. “Or ‘I’m actually going down a runway in a big jet at 150 miles an hour.”
But he hadn’t factored in the low pay and its effects on him. He spends his salary on repaying his student loans: about $300 a month. He graduated with $25,000 of debt, less than most in the business. Many other pilots who go to aviation school put their entire tuition into loans, acquiring up to $150,000 of debt.
The rest he uses on gas, car insurance, airport tolls and his cell phone bill. About 5 percent goes into his retirement fund and 10 percent into his savings.
Jason says you do not really know how hard it could be “until you are hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the training.”
He says he can no longer afford to splurge on his favorite pastime: attending Rangers or Mets games. A game—and all the food and drink that goes with it—costs around $140, about 10 percent of his monthly take-home pay.
“Now, I can save enough to go to one [game] a year,” he says.
Yet, he stays positive. “I am not going to become a billionaire anytime soon,” he says. “But hey at least I’m living out my life dream.”