Regional airlines need pilots but offer low wages

Pilot Doug Fowler, fed up with his low pay, quit an Atlanta-based regional airline after just nine months. He now flies corporate customers in a single-engine turboprop. 

There's a huge and growing demand for pilots at the nation's regional airlines. The Government Accountability Office says the small carriers need to hire thousands of new pilots.

So you'd think lots of folks would be in line. After all, some pilots pull in $200,ooo a year.

But starting salaries are much lower, which is sending some pilots elsewhere.

Take Doug Fowler, who quit his regional airline gig with Atlantic Southeast Airlines (now ExpressJet) after nine months.

"My paycheck -- my [take] home pay -- was $13,300," Fowler says.

According to the Air Line Pilots Association, the average co-pilot at a regional carrier starts out at about $22,000. That's $10 an hour. Fowler says he had to work a second construction job just to pay the bills.

"You should be paid more than $20,000 a year," he says, citing the responsibility pilots have for the fifty passengers on board. "My wife's life is worth more than twenty grand a year," he says. "So that's the way we look at it."

But that's not how regional carriers look at it. They bid contracts to the big airlines to fly small planes on short routes. It's fiercely competitive. So about the only way to make money is to pay pilots next to nothing.

"Typically, pilots worked in this position and moved on to another company, so the airlines felt they were being used as a stepping stone," says aviation consultant Kit Darby. Everyone knew the game. "Since they were leaving anyway, there wasn't much incentive to provide a living wage at the starting position," Darby says.

All that used to happen quickly. Within a year, you were on your way to captain's seat and better pay.

But now there are more barriers.

Mandatory retirement for pilots went from age 60 to 65. And a new Congressional mandate requires pilots amass 1,500 flight hours before they can get an airline job. That's a 600 percent increase.

Darby says something's got to give at the regionals.

"They have to be mindful that they are competitive with other companies, or they'll take what is an inadequate supply and turn it into no pilots available."

Doug Fowler, the pilot who quit, says he might return to the big guys one day. But for now, he's content flying corporate customers in a single-engine turboprop at about $30,000 a year.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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