Supply and Demand and the Falling Value of Pilots
Pilot Wanted: $10/hour!
I was recently perusing some aviation related groups on social media to find that a particular screenshot of a job opportunity had been making rounds. The screenshot detailed a job posting for a helicopter pilot to work part time for $10/hour. Throughout many groups, people both mocked the low pay, chastised those considering it, and many even offered their thoughts on how their career progression involved working for pennies putting their “dues in” toward a lucrative career. It was a stark contrast to the good times that we have seen over the past few years where pilots went from sub-par pay to prosperity and proliferating wages across the industry. While to many it is upsetting to see wages so low and no shortage of pilots willing to take it, we must remember that nobody is truly incorrect in their opinion toward the falling value of pilots we have been seeing since the pandemic started.
I recently had one of my ferry pilots reach out to me about some concerns he had in his local area. This ferry pilot was one of thousands who ended up without a job when one of the regional airlines ceased operations amid the pandemic. He was upset because there was another pilot who was employed and being paid full wages by an airline who was trying to take business from him. I talked to him and as we discussed it, I told him that it wasn’t unique that a pilot would only look out for themselves, and that there are many retired and active pilots out there that would take a job, perhaps if only to ease boredom regardless of pay, even if it meant taking income away from someone else who needed it. While we can debate the morality of such behavior, in a way we are asking for a form of collectivism in the industry when we ask others who aren’t financial struggling to not take jobs away from those who are. In fact, unions are the prime example of an effective way of pooling together to keep working conditions good and wages higher within an industry; but for the most part most aviation jobs outside of the airlines are not unionized. I remember someone advertising free ferry pilot services, and while many responses were negative toward the poster, I remember one particular comment of “since when we did we have a ferry pilot union?” That hit the nail on the head – supply & demand outside of unionism defines the going wages for a particular job. And at that, unions still feel the effects of supply & demand and are constantly adjusting for the current industry. In many cases recently, airline unions temporarily prevented furloughs by presenting temporary concessions to the pilot group.
Whenever there is a surplus of pilots, there will be a shortage of jobs. This is why we have seen falling wages across the board. And unfortunately, there will always be someone who will take those low wages as they are still receiving another form of compensation that is often overlooked in our industry – flight time and experience. When someone is faced with renting a plane or helicopter to meet the requirements or working for that experience at $10/hour, we can see the obvious choice for many, particularly our younger and lower time pilots. There used to be a jet operator in Houston that you could pay $15/hour to in order to sit right seat in the jet, which was required for their insurance! However, when pilots were in short supply, they ended up having to pay for the SIC instead of getting paid. This is the basic economics of supply and demand, something we are seeing the negative consequences of across the board.
This article is not meant to condemn those who are taking the low paying jobs or those seeking additional employment in spite of their income, this is merely a discussion of why we are seeing the changes we have all felt over the past few months. While Socrates debated with his brother that people’s behavior only exists for self-interest, I tend to think that we often have to choose a balance between our own needs and that of our industry. This isn’t always black and white and we often have to make decisions that are the best for our own lives and families, in addition to balancing its effect on our future. While many would love to see collectivism rise and we band together to rid the industry of opportunists paying low wages, while supply is high and demand is low this will continue to be the norm. With time the industry will continue to ebb and flow toward supply and demand, and in the future, there will be times of prosperity again where a shortage of pilots leads to high wages and great opportunities. While it’s easy to get discouraged by the falling wages, we must remember that perseverance is key and while fogging a mirror was the minimum in the past to get hired in may jobs, now comes the time to differentiate ourselves from the competition in order to be successful. This now comes through networking, hard work, and sacrifice; but in the end the reward is just as sweet.
Sarah is currently a FAA Safety Team Lead Representative, NAFI Master Instructor, Gold Seal flight instructor, and 757/767 pilot for a Major U.S. airline. Sarah holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI and has flown over 6500 hours. She holds a pilot license in 4 different countries (USA, Canada, Belize and Iceland – EASA) and has flown over 147 different types of airplanes in 20 different countries including oceanic crossings in small aircraft. She is the owner and chief pilot of FullThrottle Aviation; which started out in 2013 as a small flight school and grew to an international business with over 20 pilots moving airplanes around the world today. She continues to stay involved in general aviation through her leadership roles and volunteering for different aviation organizations. Although much of her flying is now professional in nature, she enjoys flying and instructing in her Super Cub, Patches, and her Cessna 170, Stanley, on her days off. As a regular fly-in attendee of Oshkosh, she enjoys the company and camaraderie that general aviation brings.