So I’m taking one of those Delta vans from one terminal to the other at JFK when a young guy in a suit and tie sits down next to me.
It’s late, and we’re the only people in the van aside from the driver.
We get to talking.
Turns out he flies for Delta.
But that doesn’t mean what you or I might think it means.
It doesn’t mean that he’s ex-military, commands a six-figure salary, struts through the airport like a colossus, and makes $250,000 a year.
Instead, he told me, he flies for a company that subcontracts regional jets to the major airlines—the Americans and Deltas of the world.
Those companies, he says, came to the major airlines years ago and said, “We’ll take care of regional flying for you. We’ll hire the planes, get pilots, and fly them for you. All you need to pay for are salaries and gas.”
The airlines jumped at the opportunity. As a result, your “Delta” pilot flying a plane marked with Delta insignia actually works for some other company.
We got off the van and headed up an escalator to our terminal.
“The guy I work for,” he told me, as we headed from terminal two to terminal four, “is so rich he has an indoor, full-sized basketball court in his house. But he only has to pay people like me $22,000 a year.”
Airport janitors must make more than that, I thought.
How can you pay a pilot so little?
We got on one of those moving conveyor belts
I asked him if it was because he had no union.
“We have a union,” he told me disdainfully. “But it has no power. Because of President Ronald Reagan, who fired the air traffic controllers and put in a law that we need Congressional approval to go on strike.”
We got on one of those moving walkways. I looked at the other passengers, many of whom probably flew in planes piloted by over-taxed and underpaid flight crews.
“If we want to get a job with Delta or American,” he was saying, “we have to fly a certain number of hours with the regionals. You have to work your way up.
“And they can furlough you anytime they want, and when they rehire you, they bump you back down to $22,000. They’ve done that to me twice already.”
We passed a janitor emptying out a trash bin by a Starbucks. I wanted to ask the janitor how much he made. Probably more than 22K.
“On top of the low pay,” my new friend was saying, “we also have to fly as many as 16 hours in a day. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Remember that accident that happened a couple of years ago, on a commuter jet from New York to Buffalo?”
I shook my head. It was one disaster that somehow escaped my attention.
“Turned out that the pilot had been flying 16 hours that day,” he told me. “He spent the night sleeping in the crew room at Newark Airport because on $22,000 a year, you can’t afford a hotel room.
“They crashed because the pilot and the copilot, who was based in the northeast but actually lived in Seattle, were just too tired to land the thing.”
We walked past Delta gates with signs indicating that the flights were regional affairs, not unlike the ones he flew.
“The NTSB got involved and wanted to know how come the plane crashed,” he continued. “When they found out that it was due to pilot fatigue, they told the regionals they had to pay us more money and give us better working conditions. Fewer flights per day.
“So the regionals went to Congress and said that if we had to do that, they’d have to raise the fares. So that was the end of that.”
We reached my gate, a regional jet to be flown by one of his buddies, headed to Boston.
I wondered how many hours my pilot had already flown today.
Probably a lot.
“I got an email out of the blue,” he said, “from an airline in China. They’re offering me $9,000 a month to come fly there. I think I’m going to do it, for the money and the experience.
“But it doesn’t seem right that an American would have to go to China to get a decent job.”
We parted—he was headed to the crew room to get a night’s sleep, because he couldn’t afford a hotel room at JFK.
Not on $22,000 a year.
My flight to Boston was two hours late, due to high winds, but we landed uneventfully.
When I passed the cockpit on the way out, I asked the pilot how many hours he had flown that day.
“Eleven,” he told me wearily.
“I guess eleven is better than sixteen,” I told myself as I headed off the plane.
If you want to take the broad view, you could say that this young pilot’s travails were a function of what David Stockman, in his book The Great Deformation, calls the thirty-year war on the middle class.
I doubt that the pilot himself would see it that way.
After all, it’s tough to think of yourself as a member of the middle class if you’re only making $22,000 a year.
Originally published at BusinessGhost.com
Photo: Flickr/liz west