The Airlines Are Greedy, Not the Pilots

by Anthony Losanno
United Pilots

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Demand for travel is at an all-time high and pilots are demanding wage increases. While some of the salaries thrown around might seem high, stop to think for a moment what pilots do and how many lives are in their hands (not to mention the revenue that airlines are currently generating). It’s time for carriers to pony up and show their pilots the money.


During the pandemic, Congress enacted the CARES Act, H.R. 748 (116). It provided money for airlines to use to protect their employees’ jobs so that when the health crisis ended they would be able to resume normal operations. Airlines were given $25 billion in grants and $25 billion more in financial assistance, but many still sped up employee retirement dates and furloughed scores of others. It seems as if airline shareholders were the real winners here.

Airline tickets are expensive and adding to costs will likely increase airfare more. Sure, airline management needs to address this as they truly answer to a board and shareholders. But, the alternative in cancelling flights by not having enough pilots will surely cost the airlines more.

Contract negotiations started with Alaska Airlines. In October 2022, the airline finalized a new collective bargaining agreement with its pilots. Delta Air Lines pilots came to an agreement on a new contract in December 2022. Once signed, pilots immediately received an 18% pay increase, they receive a 5% increase a year later, and 4% increases for each of the two years that follow, plus a one-time payment of 4% of their 2020 and 2021 wages as well as 14% of their 2022 pay. They also received a bunch of other benefits like increased maternity and paternity leave, better meals, better insurance, etc.

American Airlines’ pilots are now threatening to strike. At American, they seem close to an agreement. American’s CEO sent the pilots a letter promising as much as $475,000 per year for narrowbody pilots and up to $590,000 annual for those flying widebody jets. The contract has yet to be signed and now American’s pilots are threatening to strike. I didn’t know that they needed the federal government’s permission to do so (but apparently that’s a thing). Some pilots are threatening to strike regardless.

Southwest Airlines saw a recent vote by its pilots. 99% cast ballots to strike.  They want more money. While they are seemingly well paid considering they fly 737s relatively short distances compared to some of the exotic (and far) locales that American, United, and Delta service, they are still providing the airline with skilled service.

Now, United pilots have joined the discussion. Pilots and management reached an agreement, but then they saw what other carriers were paying and rejected it. United’s CEO went on TV to praise the Delta union and say that paying pilots more was good for business because it would hurt the low-cost carriers. United pilots are protesting now in the hopes of getting more money and they should be paid more.

We’ll see how all of this plays out. Pilots are under strict guidelines around work hours, retirement age, and more. Airlines know there is a pilot shortage and they can’t afford a strike during the upcoming busy summer. Pilots have the leverage here and I hope they get what they seek.

Anthony’s Take: I am not a pilot. I am not an expert on pilots, unions, or contracts. What I have observed in millions of miles flown as a passenger is that being a pilot is not easy. It has to be stressful knowing that you are responsible for so many lives. They start out in the military or going to expensive schools to become a pilot and then land making the equivalent of administrative assistants at regional carriers. After years of grueling work for little money, they make it to a big carrier and begin to work their way up. We pay doctors lots of money for the lives they care for and don’t even get me started on the exorbitant amounts that movie stars and sports figures are paid. I wish the pilots well and hope that management decides to pay them more. Happy pilots are a good thing. I’m sure the airlines will figure out ways to save money by cutting back benefits, soft products, and more. They’ll likely do that anyway, but this way at least some of the money will go to those who fly us everyday.

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Christian May 15, 2023 - 9:39 pm

I see your view but disagree. Starting pay for copilots is now around 100K a year. I’m personally quite happy that the days of $28,000 a year for the first few years are gone. Now that pilots are earning (by USA standards) insanely vast amounts of money, they could show some love elsewhere by supporting union members in other professions like flight attendants rather than complaining bitterly over only making five or six hundred thousand dollars a year. But they don’t. Instead they engage in theatrics like turning their backs on the CEO of the company they choose to work for.

I have great respect for professional pilots. They do a tough job that can lead to disaster if they screw up. Stress levels can be high. They’re often expected to comport themselves in a professional manner even when they’re not working. What I’m seeing here is that pilots pretty much don’t care about the company they work for, they certainly don’t care about coworkers who are employed by a different union, and don’t seem to care that much about the flying public. It’s time for pilots as a whole to say that they’re making ridiculous money, have glamorous jobs, don’t work that much by normal U.S. standards and enjoy wide societal respect. In short, everybody wants to be them so maybe they should pipe down a bit about how downtrodden they are and enjoy their situation that they’re in.

Dave May 16, 2023 - 1:58 pm

Christian, you are uninformed and mistaken! Very few, if any pilots make $500K-$600K per year. Those max pay scales on wide body aircraft that everyone likes to tout are only given to very few and at the very end of their careers. And after putting up with furloughs, displacements, etc. over a long career. It’s completely BS to say that pilots don’t care about coworkers represented by a different union! As far as turning their backs on a company CEO, yeah, they do. He’s one of the biggest reasons that these contract talks are dragging on for so long. Oh, and he just got a $6M bonus on top of the multi million dollar salary he already earns. Do you call tat ridiculous money?

Christian May 16, 2023 - 3:44 pm

Any pilot with a mainline carrier who has more than a few years in the left seat can easily make 200K+ even on a narrowbody, and the upside is very substantial. My niece works for a major airline so I hear a lot about the subject. Slice it how you like, even a mere quarter million a year is money that normal people can only dream of.

When was the last time a USA pilot’s union threatened a sympathy strike for mechanics, baggage handlers, gate agents, or flight attendants? Not actually did strike, simply publicly threatened?

As to Kirby, I detest the guy. He’s a soulless bean counter who completely lacks understanding of anything that’s not on a spreadsheet. He simply can’t shake his ULCC past and figure out that you have to offer a quality product to get people to actually want to fly your airline. I think that CEO’s pay is insane in general and certainly in this case but the subject at hand is pilot pay; executive pay is a separate argument that deserves separate consideration.


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