Recent salary records show that a rookie first officer on a regional airline flying out of San Francisco International Airport may be paid less than the worker who washes the airport's windows.
First officers, sometimes called co-pilots, are second in command on commercial aircraft.
On regional airlines, their starting salaries range from about $20.50 to $29 per hour. That is significantly less than the skipper of a passenger ferry on San Francisco Bay, records compiled by California Watch show. Some earn less than toll takers on the Golden Gate Bridge or state prison nurses.
Pilots for regional airlines "are paid considerably less to work more hours," says Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, an independent organization of air travelers. "And it brings up safety concerns."
A driving force in the capping of pilots' pay has been the rise of regional airlines.
The regional airlines system was born after the industry was deregulated in 1978. Without government regulation, airlines moved to a hub-and-spoke model. Major airlines serve large flights between hubs such as New York and Los Angeles and contract with regional airlines to fly passengers to the hub from smaller markets.
Passengers may never realize they are flying in a regional jet, as they buy their tickets from the major airline and fly on a plane painted with the major airline's logo. Regional carriers now are responsible for more than half of the nation's commercial air traffic, according to a February report by the Regional Airline Association.
Airline deregulation ushered in an era of fierce competition. Carriers continually sought ways to cut costs in the fight for market share; bankruptcies and mergers beset underperforming carriers.
Financial pressure is intense for regional airlines, says Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline consulting firm. As a result, the regionals offer modest pay and limited mobility. When it comes to pilots, regional airlines are not always able "to compensate somebody at a livable wage," he says.
Further capping pilots' pay are flight restrictions. To limit fatigue, the Federal Aviation Administration restricts the hours pilots can fly. Pilots can fly a maximum of eight hours per day, 100 hours per month and 1,000 hours per year. A first officer who earns $20.50 per hour can expect to make a maximum of $20,500 a year.
The regionals give regular raises to pilots as they get more flying experience. But even after five years, their wages often are lower than those of California Highway Patrol officers, U.S. Postal Service letter carriers and city garbage collectors, records show.
For decades, airlines have hired former military fliers -- they're experienced and highly trained. Today, that's not easy for the regional airlines, says Paul Hamrick, a pilot and co-founder of AirlinePilotCentral.com.
"There's a direct correlation between pay and benefits and attracting qualified pilots," he says. "Somebody like a military pilot has the skill and experience to make quick airmanship calls. Is he going to come out of the military and work for $18,000 a year? Probably not."
Likewise, low pay has turned many young people away from aviation as a career, some pilots say. Records show a decline in the number of pilots' licenses issued.
As the pilot pool has shrunk, airlines have lowered hiring standards, many pilots contend. For example, in 1999, the regional carrier American Eagle required pilot applicants to have a minimum of 2,000 flight hours to qualify for a pilot's job, according to Aviation Accreditation Board International records. Today, American Eagle is accepting pilots with as few as 500 flight hours, the airline says.
The lowered standards have caused safety concerns. Of seven fatal airline accidents since 2003, five involved regional airlines, FAA records show.
On Feb. 12, 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407, operating as Continental Connection, crashed into a residential neighborhood five miles from its destination in Buffalo, N.Y. All 49 people on board were killed, along with one person on the ground.
Critics said the crash and ensuing National Transportation Safety Board report exposed the consequences of low pilot pay. The captain had four certificate disapprovals and had failed numerous proficiency checks.
The cockpit voice recorder showed that the first officer reported feeling sick but continued working because she couldn't afford paying for a hotel room. The first officer also said she had "never seen icing conditions," which became a contributing factor in the crash. The first officer earned a gross salary of $15,800 in 2008.
In the past two years, the FAA has worked to strengthen pilot hiring, training and performance, said spokesman Les Dorr.
"Sweeping rule changes on air carrier training have been proposed and are headed toward a final rule," Dorr said. "Over the next few months, we also expect to publish proposed regulations that would significantly raise commercial pilot qualification standards."
Since the Colgan Air crash, veteran pilots have voiced grave concerns about airline safety. Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, famous for landing US Airways Flight 1549 safely on the Hudson River in New York, testified before Congress regarding low pilot pay.
"If we do not sufficiently value the airline piloting profession and future pilots are less experienced and less skilled, it logically follows that we will see negative consequences to the flying public -- and to our country," he said.
California Watch reporter Lance Williams contributed to this report.
Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)