Case in Point: An Airline Pilot’s Lament

An Airline Pilot’s Lament

Arguably, no single sector of the U.S. economy was hit harder by the events of 9/11 than the airline industry. By the time passengers did start returning, though, more than just the routine of getting through airport security had changed. Rather, the structure of the industry had begun to shift from domination by large national carriers—such as Delta, American, and United—operating according to the hub-and-spoke model, to increased competition from lower-cost regional carriers offering point-to-point service. Efforts by the large carriers in the early 2000s to reign in their costs and restore their financial health led to agreements with their labor unions that resulted in lower wages for most categories of airline workers.

How have airline employees responded to lower wages? Some categories of workers, such as mechanics, have little flexibility in deciding how many hours to work, but others, such as pilots, do. Below is an explanation by a female pilot who works for a major airline of the impact of wages cuts on her labor supply:

We were normally scheduled for anywhere from 15 to 18 days a month, which translated into 80 to 95 hours of flying and around 280 hours of duty time. Duty time includes flight planning, preflighting, crew briefing, boarding, preflight checks of the airplane, etc. We bid for a monthly schedule that would fall somewhere in that range. After we were assigned our schedule for a month, we usually had the flexibility to drop or trade trips within certain constraints. Without going into the vast complexities of our contract, I can tell you that, in general, we were allowed to drop down to 10 days a month, provided the company could cover the trips we wanted to drop, and still be considered a full-time employee. Generally, at that time, my goal was to work a minimum of 10 to 12 days a month and a maximum of 15 days a month. After the first round of pay cuts, the typical month became 16 to 20 days of flying. With that round of pay cuts, my general goal became to work a minimum of 15 days a month and a maximum of 17 days a month. I imagine that with another round of cuts my goal would be to keep my pay as high as I possibly can. Basically, I have a target income in mind. Anything above that was great, but I chose to have more days at home rather than more pay. As my target income became more difficult to achieve, I chose to work more days and hours to keep close to my target income. . . . When total compensation drops by more than 50% it is difficult to keep your financial head above water no matter how well you have budgeted.