Runway Not Paved with Gold for Pilots

Jan. 30 -- Piloting jet airliners has been considered a glamorous career for so long that one quiet fact is easy to overlook: the pay.

It's no longer what you might call generous.

Indeed, the cabbie driving you to the airport may earn almost as much as the co-pilot flying you out of Indianapolis -- about $25,000 a year for newer pilots.

Big airlines staggered by steep fuel costs have outsourced loads of short and medium routes to independent regional airlines, such as Indianapolis-based Republic, that are able to fly for less, in part, because they pay less.

Travelers at Indianapolis International Airport are increasingly likely to board a 50- to 70-seat regional jet piloted by a captain whose income is half the $140,000 annual base pay of the skipper on a 120-seat Boeing 737.

"We have this perception that a pilot is worth $250,000 a year because that's what it's always been," said aviation analyst Vaughn Cordle, president of Airline Economics in Washington, D.C., a research firm. "But the value of the pilot in the marketplace has gone down significantly."

It doesn't mean flying out of Indy is no longer as safe as it was, aviation experts say. It does mean a green first officer serving as co-pilot in the regional jet may earn no more than a taxi driver at AAA Hoosier Cab in Indianapolis in a good year. And the captain is probably no gray-haired veteran of the skies.

"It's kind of amazing really, the low salaries for these regional airlines," said Daniel DeLaurentis, an assistant professor of aeronautics at Purdue University. "But I think the safety record speaks for itself: We don't see planes falling out of the sky."

Younger crews in the cockpit don't faze Renaye Baker. Waiting at Indianapolis International Airport to board a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 bound for Florida, Baker said she was less concerned about the qualifications than the pay level.

"I wouldn't be afraid to fly with a 25- or 26-year-old pilot, as long as they're licensed and have all their training," said Baker, 56, Zionsville. "But I don't think the pay is right at all, with all the schooling they go through to learn to fly, and all the responsibility they have."

Piloting a commuter airplane never has been a way to wealth, even today, when the planes have gotten bigger. Republic Airways became the No. 2 passenger hauler at Indianapolis International in recent years by flying routes for major lines at lower costs.

But the 33-seat turboprops once familiar to Indianapolis commuters hopping to Chicago on Chicago Express have given way to sleek regional jets such as Republic's 50- and 70-seat twin-engine Embraers. They look like scaled-down Boeings and can reach Texas from the East Coast in three hours.

With the bigger planes, pay for pilots on the regional lines has increased. In the late 1990s, regional airline captains with 10 years of experience averaged $68,000 a year, compared with $84,000 last year, said pay expert Kit Darby of Aviation Information Resources in Atlanta.

Still, turnover continues. Lower pay causes many pilots at regional lines to leave after three or four years for the major carriers' bigger jets. Pilot pay is geared, in part, to aircraft speed and weight, Darby said, so the major carriers often attract the more experienced pilots from the regional lines, especially now with pilot hiring on the upswing.

Despite the pilot turnover, regional carriers aren't keen to raise pay. If they do, they can price themselves out of business.

"Republic is a young, fast-growing company," Cordle said. "They're able to grow market share because regional airlines have some of the lowest labor rates in the industry."

Republic earlier this month said it would add 670 pilots in the next two years because of new business flying throughout the nation for larger carriers, including Continental, Frontier and US Airways.

Republic will hire as many as 1,000 pilots to fill 670 positions, expecting about 330 will leave for positions with other carriers and through natural attrition, Republic spokesman Warren Wilkinson said.

"Are we the highest-paying regional airline? No, we are not," Wilkinson said. "Do we want to be? No. We want to be competitive so we can continue to grow the business."

For its new hires, Republic will offer first officers $25,000 to $35,000 in base pay, while captains with four years of experience will receive $70,000 base pay.

Wilkinson called the income midrange for regional carriers and said Republic was attractive as a place to work in part because of its new airliners, culture and lifestyle. Captains can choose the base they want to live in.

Republic pilot David Opwonya agrees. A former flier for Mesa Air and an airline in East Africa, the first officer is based in Indianapolis and said he's not looking to move to another carrier.

"After paying your dues, it's OK to stay and work here," Opwonya said.

Although pay has edged up for the regional carriers over the years, it's fallen among the big airlines. They slashed wages to survive amid fare wars and fuel price crests. United's typical Boeing 737 pilot went from $190,000 in annual base pay in 2002 to $130,000 today, Cordle said.

"I'm not really worried about airline safety in the regional airlines or the legacy carriers," said Cordle, a former pilot instructor. "These planes can practically fly themselves.

"I think where the airlines should be a little concerned is about management's ability to manage morale. Poor morale can lessen the safety margin if you've got guys thinking about making mortgage payments."

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