Roghair said all pilots struggle at the beginning of their careers. Current FAA regulations require 1,500 hours of in-air training before a pilot can work for an airline. “It also costs pilots thousands of dollars to gain the education they need,” Roghair added. “New pilots can come into the industry in significant debt. When you consider the wages they’ll make if they enter the industry, more would-be pilots are simply choosing another path.”
“Unless they come from a wealthy family, the problem every new pilot has is debt,” Simoneau said. “The First Officers I flew with at American Eagle came there with over $200,000 in debt for a job that pays $22,914 per year, to start. It took me about 10 years to pay it back. If anything, the situation for new pilots is much worse.”
Simoneau clarifies that not all pilots are hurting: If you're a senior pilot flying sought-after coast-to-coast or international routes, you can make good money. Otherwise, for the estimated 18,000 pilots working for smaller, regional carriers, the job can bring financial struggles that passengers wouldn’t expect.
In other industries, employees facing unsatisfactory wages would strike, but pilots don’t have that option. While they might be able to organize a short-term walkout on or boycott of an individual airline, a long-term, industry-wide stoppage would almost certainly draw federal intervention.
Edgar James, a labor attorney with James & Hoffman, specializes in the issues currently bedeviling the airline industry. Advocates like he and Roghair are limited by the fact that pilots can engage in collective bargaining with the airlines but are unable to strike by law.
“The result are negotiations [like those] the pilots had with American Eagle,” James said. “They asked the pilots to take concessions instead of offering any kind of increase. The pilots refused. You end up with pilots working without a collective bargaining agreement.”
But, for many pilots, the job has its appeal even so. As Simoneau puts it, "Flying is all I ever wanted to do. My father was a maintenance supervisor for TWA, and he would take me to work as a kid. I was just hooked.”
Of the regional and major airlines I contacted for comment, Emirates was the only one that agreed to respond. Alison Ward, the airline's vice president of human resources and recruitment, said that larger carriers like Emirates have no influence over the wages paid by regional carriers. Even the smaller airlines that partner with the majors to run short-hop flights set their own prices without direct interference from their bigger partners.
Ward pointed out that in order to make it easier for new pilots to enter the field without assuming such heavy educational debt, Emirates invested heavily in the construction of a flight academy in Dubai. The school will initially serve as the dedicated training center for Emirates pilots, but will eventually expand to include pilots from other carriers. Simoneau, however, indicated that Emirates's plan is a notable exception to the practices of other major airlines.