On the Clock: Airline Pay Explained

  • Sep 4, 2013 11:08pm GMT

Being a pilot, I would think that the first thing people would ask me about my job is something along the lines of “Have you flown over the Grand Canyon?”, or “Do you ever say ‘uuuhhhhhh’ in you PA announcements to the passengers?” No, the most common question that I get is one of pure vanity; “So, how much do you get paid?”

As far back as Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism: A Love Story” and as recent as a PBS special on the regional airline industry, the fact that regional airline pilots don’t make very much money isn't a surprise to most people. But that’s a whole other story. It’s not the pay that shocks most people, but HOW pilots and flight attendants in the airline industry are paid.

After working for three airlines, I can say that the system is fairly similar between them, but I can’t vouch for every other operating airline. Here is a brief description of some of the more surprising examples.

When sitting in the terminal, waiting for the gate agent to begin the boarding process, you may see the crew working your flight walk up to the gate. They’ll make their way down to the plane anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before departure to do safety checks, pre-flight and get the aircraft ready to push back from the gate. That time will vary with the size of the plane and the specific airline. You may also see the pilot at the gate computer, checking the route and weather.

Now it’s boarding time, you grab your things, get your ticket scanned and head down the jet bridge. A flight attendant greets you at the cabin door, and as you get on you glance left towards the cockpit. You see the two pilots working on getting everything set for departure. (Okay, sometimes we get done early and might be on our cell phones playing some unnamed game that involves lining up three or more similarly colored sugary treats.) The flight attendants periodically make announcements as they help passengers find their seats. You put your bag away and take your seat. After everyone is on board, the flight attendants close the cabin door. When that door closes, your flight crew finally starts getting paid.

Next the plane lands at its destination and pulls into the gate, a jet bridge is pulled up and the flight attendant opens the cabin door again. At this point the flight crew is no longer “on the clock." The 30 minutes to an hour before the flight, that was on us. As well as the time spent after arrival working to get the aircraft cleaned and ready for the following flight. This part of our pay is supposedly "built in" to the hourly rate that we get paid. However, some pilots will fly 7 or 8 segments per day, each with a 30 minute gap between flights.

The people that get hurt most by this unfair practice are the ones who could use the most help; the regional pilots that only make $16 an hour flying five or more flights a day. That sounds like a fair pay rate until you realize how many hours a month pilots fly.