Wal-Mart in the Cockpit?

11:05 PM

The Internets are buzzing today about the fresh NTSB report just out describing the fatal crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Buffalo, NY. I am not going to rehash what happened in those last few moments before the plane stalled (read the pdf CVR transcript here) and nose-dove into the ground, and I am not going to place blame on the now-deceased pilots. There is enough of that going around tonight and I'm not going to pile on.

Instead, I am going to place blame on the regional airline system itself, in particular, the pathetically low wages that the regionals pay to most of their pilots. Yes, a Captain flying a RJ into the major hubs can make a decent living, but only after struggling through years of time building while earning about the equivalent salary as a clerk at Wal-Mart.

Sure, we all know that Wally World gets away with paying their cashiers such low wages because face it, these jobs are just not that hard to learn. But just how low is that anyway? The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has this:

"Wal-Mart pays an average hourly wage of $8.23 an hour, according to independent expert statistical analysis, which falls below basic living wage standards and even below poverty lines. Since “full time” at Wal-Mart is 34 hours a week according to company policy, full-time workers make a mere $17,114.24 a year—below the federal poverty level for a family of four. A "sales associate"earns on average $8.23 per hour ($13,861 annually) while a "cashier" earns about $7.92 per hour ($11,948 annually)."
That is about on par with the minimum wage here in Oregon, which rose for 2009 to $8.40 per hour, or $17,472/year for 52 40-hour weeks worth of work. And when you look at 2008 numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, yes, it appears on national average, airline pilots earn $123,500 per year on scheduled carriers and $86,060 on nonscheduled carriers. Those are some serious paychecks, about what you'd expect to pay someone who takes lives into their hands several times a day and must operate at a very high level of well-trained precision.

Those salaries however, must be skewed by the few international pilots who fly heavies over the poles...because according to today's Associated Press story on the crash of Flight 3407, low pay is one thing that is being probed by NTSB:
"The co-pilot in an airline crash that killed 50 people in upstate New York was paid a salary so low that she lived with her parents near Seattle and commuted across the country to her job, a combination of long travel and little money that a safety official called a "recipe for an accident." The second day of a three-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing Wednesday focused on whether Captain Marvin Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw were fatigued on the wintry night of Feb. 12 when they apparently made a series of critical errors as Continental Connection Flight 3407 approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Shaw, 24, had worked for Colgan Air of Manassas, Va., which operated the flight for Continental, for 13 months, flying 774 hours in her first year. Colgan pays its beginning first officers $21 an hour, which means she would have earned $16,254 that year, although she could have earned more if she worked more hours, said Roger Cox, an NTSB aviation safety expert."
Of course, Captain Marvin Renslow earned far more than the low wage paid his FO, which is par for the course on today's regional airline flight deck. But even if he earned the $67,000 per year that AP quotes in their story, it does not justify paying the right seat garbage wages just because the airline knows they have to build time en route to the left seat.

It is beyond my comprehension why there is such disparity in airline pilot salaries. Yes, I know the airline is taking advantage of young bucks fresh out of CFI school because the line knows they have to work somewhere to eventually become a Captain. Why pay them a fair wage when you can low-ball them and add the difference to your company's bottom line? So what if the FO has to eat dog food to stay alive, what's an FO's other options to move across the flight deck? Nada.

I know a few airline pilots, and even an FO on a Skywest Vibroliner launching out of FAT must train to a high safety standard that allows them to safely fly those passengers to their destination under any circumstances. So if a Brasilia driver must know as much about systems and safety as a high-time 777 driver at the bigs – and operate in the exact same IFR system – why would that FO's service be worth crap wages while the 777 driver earns a fat six-figure paycheck? Less people in back, shorter hops, yes, but I challenge anyone to tell me that the low-paid FO is less of a pilot. Maybe they're worth half of the 777 Captain's pay, but knowingly paying them the absolute minimum you can get away with is wrong on so many levels.

When a cashier at the big box store gets about the same wage for dragging beans across a scanner as a professional line pilot tasked with keeping a pressurized tube full of souls in the sky alive, there is something serious wrong with our current airline pay system. It is my hope that Colgan – and the other regional airlines who pay these insulting low wages – will get burned so bad by public and media flames that they are forced to increase FO pay to a level more in line with what that job is actually worth.

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