Resident pilot 121pilot, a captain for a major U.S. airline, authors a new column on Live and Let’s Fly called Ask Your Captain. His mission: demystify the flight deck and an answer any question you may have on the topic of flying.
Q: I have a question about pilot pay versus aircraft size in airlines. Most airlines pay a higher hourly rate for larger aircraft, for example, a 737 pays less than an A350. Is a larger aircraft much more complex than a smaller aircraft to fly? I am referring to aircraft that mainline airlines fly. A few airlines like Emirates pay the same rate regardless of aircraft flown. Many pilots that fly widebodies have more seniority with the airline. Is this the reason? Or is it to compensate for more responsibility and a more complex operation? Something else? I am curious.
A: The reason most airlines pay more for bigger equipment goes back to the beginning of the airlines themselves. When four engine types began to replace two engine models post World War II you first started seeing this pay differential. The justification was that the larger airplane produced more revenue and thus greater profits for the airline and the pilot should therefore be compensated accordingly. Not that long ago some airline contracts still had formulas based on aircraft cruising speed and gross weight among other factors that determined pilot pay. Many regionals used to pay based on the number of seats but this has by and large fallen out of favor.
In general, most airlines today have specific pay rates for specific aircraft. There are often groupings where airlines that operate both 737 and A320 series aircraft for example pay all of those at the same rate. Its also pretty common for aircraft that have a common type rating, like the various models of the A320 or even the 767/757, to be paid at the same pay rate.
These days the biggest driver is the fact that this at least in the US is that when pilots go to bargain a new contract, they inevitably look at what the norm is among their peers. Since almost everyone pays pilots who fly 787s more than they pay those who fly A320s the system tends to perpetuate itself. If you are really curious, airlinepilotcentral.com is a pretty good reference for what pilots get paid.
Have a question for the captain? E-mail him at ask121pilot at yahoo dot com and you may see your question appear in a future column!
So the real answer is unions. Got it.
If pilots are paid for the work, then labor costs per seat would be higher in smaller planes than larger planes, assuming similar stage lengths.
Pilots are now paid sort of like CEO’s, where smaller company CEO’s get paid less. There are many exceptions with CEO’s.
Of course this begs the question: what has happened to pilot salaries over the past year? We see reports of many thousands being retrenched, leaving the industry ( including some even stacking supermarket shelves just to survive). Presumably they will need recertification in the event the recovery comes faster than anticipated. How long can they be ‘out’ before this is required? Do they lose seniority for employment gaps? Presumably pilots might be more attracted to domestic routes rather than international ones, even at lower rates of pay/benefits, given the likely softness in international travel over the foreseeable horizon?
Positive and informative story. Good job. Readable and enjoyable.
Thanks!!! Much appreciated Don.
First nothing happened to pilot salaries per see but many airlines did lower their minimum guarantees (Pilots are in essence hourly workers) which had the effect of dramatically reducing people’s income.
For example I’m normally a line holder who during the heart of the pandemic got forced to Reserve and then we cut our guarantee to help prevent furloughs. The net result for me in 2020 was an approximately $40,000 drop in gross income compared to 2019.
A furloughed pilot or one in a leave of absence never loses seniority but they may stop accruing longevity. Generally if your out more than 90 days that’s what starts triggering the need to retrain. How much and how extensive that retraining depends on the duration of your leave or furlough.
As for the routes people like to fly let’s just say those preferences vary wildly.
Thanks for the clarification…
I actually think 121 pilot has it wrong on this. This system was always a way for management to pay certain pilots less and create a pyramidal system with a ‘brass ring’ for junior pilots to reach for the more glamours widebody flying at the end of their career. Plus the way most pension schemes worked back then, your payout was based on your 5 highest paid years which was generally a “promise” at the end of your flying.
But who’s doing more work? a) the pilot that’s flying 16 hours to Hong Kong on a fully automated flight control system with relief and crew rest on a 77W? or b) the pilot that’s doing 4 segment, 1 hour flights criss crossing time zones all day, four days in a row on a 737? Given that take off and landing are likely the most ‘dangerous’ stages of flight, I think you could make a strong argument for short haul flier over the long haul. But that’s clearly not the way the pay system works.
Outside the pilots, US management loves this tired system. If you pay more per hour for widebody, and you have less W/B aircraft and therefore less crews, and because of the seniority system, they don’t stay long at these fleets. The airline intentionally makes flying widebody more attractive to make senior guys bid for those fleets, with less slots overall it keeps the pyramid very skinny at the top. Otherwise if you’re management, you might have to pay all the pilots the same rates regardless of fleet type. That would be a scary proposition to their bottom line. The promise of higher pay at your pension payout at the end of your career is the real reason for the different pay scales.
From talking to my brother in law for a European airline this is not the case for them. Their pay only increases by seniority, and not the type flown.