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Pilots in line for big raises amid global travel disruptions

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By DAVID KOENIG

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When I came home from Japan after doing JET, I entered commercial flight school (I'd gotten my private pilot's license in college). Unfortunately a change to FAA color vision standards enacted mid-training that would've made me ineligible for night flight, and thus unemployable by an airline so I dropped out. But being on the career path, naturally I learned all about the road ahead.

Pilots start with airlines in the righthand seat as first officers (co-pilots), after they accrue enough hours in multi-engine aircraft, hours generally earned by being a flight instructor in smaller aircraft. Even though a student may be flying, the instructor, technically being 'pilot in command', can log those hours in their own logbook.

People assume that pilots make good money, and they do if they're captains on larger aircraft, the international routes on the biggest planes being the most lucrative. But co-pilots starting out with regional airlines literally make less than $25,000/year. Pay is hourly, and the punch clock only runs when one is sitting in the cockpit with the engines running. I guess the industry figures that pilots are so driven by their love of aviation and dreams of becoming pilots that they'll eat it.

If the airlines want to gain and retain more pilots, they''re going to need to change this scenario. There's no way to support a family on a pilot's starting salary so you knock out candidates who have or hope to soon have families, and also people who don't want to be impoverished for 6-7 years. Moreover, piloting is extremely seniority based. You start with an airline as a co-pilot in smaller aircraft. You work your way up to larger aircraft and to a captainship. If the airline has layoffs or the airline folds, when you're hired by a new airline, you go right back into the small aircraft, despite your valuable ability to pilot larger aircraft. It makes no sense because your skills would theoretically save the airline thousands on training up to the larger aircraft, but that's just the way it works.

Commercial piloting can be lucrative, but generally not until the second half of one's career. If the industry is so desperate, they need to change the scenario whereby the guy who comes and pumps out the toilets when the plane is parked makes 3-4 times as much as the co-pilot.

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A lot of junior pilots live in trailers or motor homes parked at the airport so they can afford to live on their meager pay. I knew one guy who started out in helicopters who lived in his car and "showered" in the men's room of his employer. I still have an ad from about 1990 where an outfit in Van Nuys CA wanted someone who had a commercial and instrument multi engine rating and was a qualified A&P. The pay? Ten pinche bucks an hour with no benefits. Even in 1990 ten bucks an hour wasn't enough to live on in LA and any decent A&P could have made double that elsewhere. I did the co-pilot thing for a while in heavy lift helicopters. The money was ok but the lifestyle living in a motor home at logging jobs or in oil camps in third world countries and having my household goods all stored in LA and Oregon, never being able to ride my motorcycles or enjoy my audio system, having to do taxes for multiple states and foreign countries, just got old.

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