Why is Regional Airline Pay So Bad?

By Robert Mark on February 11th, 2015

Why is Regional Airline Pay So Bad?

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I was thinking the other day about my early days as a working flight instructor. I remember hanging out with a bunch of other instructors at Palwaukee airport grousing about how we’d live on the 5 bucks an hour we could get paid for sitting in the right seat of a Cessna 150. Then one day we heard about this guy on the airport who was willing to instruct for free … zero, zip, nada … just because he loved flying so much. He had another job so he didn’t really care about the money. I can tell you … the rest of us instructors didn’t much like this idea of a competitor undercutting our prices.

q400.jpgThere was a lesson about pilot wages that I took from this experience after one of the other guys told me not to worry about that instructor. “Hey,” he told me. “The guy may get a few students, but don’t you think they’ll be paying him what both his students AND that instructor believe he’s worth?”

Hmmmm. I never forgot that.

So on to today’s topic … the lousy pay at the regional airlines. Why does it continue, many people wonder?

First a bit of context. Most of the regional airlines provide service to more than one major airline. Because there are only a few regional feeders to deliver service to the few majors we have left in this country, the business has become pretty cut-throat. That means those regionals will do most anything to keep costs low and that means … you guessed … keep wages low.

So let’s compare Envoy, the old American Eagle carrier, with the mainline pilots at American Airlines just to see how different the groups are.

You may have heard recently the American mainline pilots – represented by the Allied Pilots Association – just signed a new contract, one that gives them an immediate 23% pay hike and 3% annual raises after that. Not bad, but then American Airlines pulled down some serious profits the past few years including a windfall off the drop in fuel prices.

A point about those percentages though.

Long before AA sought bankruptcy protection a few years ago, their pilots took a 35% pay and benefit cut to help the company stay afloat. This of course was happening while AA management was lining its own pockets with hefty bonuses, cash payouts that eventually cost those folks their jobs.

That kind of management behavior happens more than you might think actually and it’s one reason pilots and management don’t get along very well … at any airline.

But back to the Envoy pilots since AA is making money these days. Well, the Envoy pilots just signed an agreement that freezes their already measly wages for at least another 10 years. So, despite being represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, the Envoy pilots are now guaranteed to remain poor for at least another decade.

However, that’s not the only reason regional airline pilots are so poorly paid. The pilots have a hand in this.

If regional airline management realized that pilots wouldn’t work for these awful wages, pay rates that enable some of them to qualify for food stamps, something would have to give.

Perhaps the mainlines would need to pay more for their regional feed, or perhaps ticket prices would need to go up, or perhaps the real cheapskate regionals might be forced to shut down.

Regional pilots don’t need to accept these poor paychecks. But until those pilots begin refusing these kinds of wages, I guess we can only say that they too seem to know what they’re efforts are worth.

From Chicago, I’m Rob Mark. See you next time.

And be sure and visit The Aviation Minute archive at Jetwhine.com if you need to catch up on some past episodes.

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4 Responses to “Why is Regional Airline Pay So Bad?”

  1. @williamAirways Says:

    Bravo! It’s about time you posted this reality.

    The other points that you did not mention is scope and how the pay scale is determined by the pilot unions. Airline pilots will eat each other and their young to get ahead. I believe the best description of an airline pilot career is: a cluster F.

  2. Kevin D Murphy Says:

    Rob, there’s a much less complex answer: regionals pay nothing because they can. It’s the American free enterprise system. Sometimes a completely laissez-faire economic system is not good.

  3. Ric Teves Says:

    I’m curious what regional pilot you talked to for your aviation minute. Any? It would appear to me, as a regional pilot, representation by unions are lacking at this level. The Envoy guys were sold down the tubes by the union. American took away any new aircraft from them and gave them to the likes of PSA. Like your story about the CFI who was instructing for free. Other regionals will be glad to take planes from the majors. I would be more than happy to provide you a bit more context.

  4. Robert Mark Says:

    You make an excellent point Ric.

    While I did mention that the Envoy folks are covered by ALPA, I didn’t point out their hand in that agreement and I should have because you’re right, the union helped put them where they are today.

    When I flew a Brasilia a long time ago, I too recall the ALPA guys making us all feel like we were second-class citizens even though we all carried the same ALPA card.

    However, one question I didn’t ask the pilots I did talk to is who really negotiated the contract? Wasn’t it a number of local Envoy pilots dealing with management followed by a signoff from ALPA national in DC?

    Perhaps you can shed some light on that aspect.

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