As I was preparing this post, I noticed that Sean O’Neill at This Just In has written something similar. So, go read his work, then come back here for further reflections.
Commercial airline pilots: blue-collar or white-collar? Working class or middle class? (Never mind the fact that “working class” and “middle class” are swiftly becoming relics of a past era of social stratification.)
In the white-collar column: pilots are professionals who require a government license to practice. They are required to have bachelor degrees. Although less so today, in the past, they often came from the military officers corps, whose members tend to exit into middle-class lives. And commercial airline pilots enjoy an average annual wage of $148,810.
In the blue-collar column: pilots are operators of machinery. They have strict uniforms and ranks. They are organized into highly regimented seniority structures. They are unionized. They are paid by the hour. They are highly vulnerable to layoffs and furloughs. And they start their careers making less than $20,000 per year in many cases.
Indeed, the airline pilot is a strange blend of blue and white collars, as if he washed his colors with his whites. As one of Patrick Smith’s correspondents writes, “Pilots are a weird blend of white- and blue-collar, neither tradesmen nor professionals, and the usual definitions don’t apply. What do you call someone who spends tens of thousands of dollars on his own training, then endures years in an ill-paid apprenticeship, in a notoriously unstable industry, cemented into a seniority system, unable to freelance or change companies? I don’t know, but it’s not a professional. Of course, neither are we true blue-collar workers, who at least have transferable skills. And I suspect the ubiquitous seniority system, originally set up to protect pilots from capricious promotions and demotions, may be our greatest hindrance.” The seniority system is a holy grail of the unions.
It’s clear that unions introduce inefficiencies into labor markets. I tend to think, however, that the costs of unions are worth it, because they channel passions that flare up violently in other countries into democratic and peaceful means of negotiation. But I also think that excessive unionization (as in France, for example, or pre-Thatcher Britain) can dangerously gum up the economy. I’m also cheered by falling rates of union membership, which is as often as not a token of the growth in entrepreneurial business ventures that make hash of the dichotomy between “worker” and “owner.”
And it is becoming increasingly clear that unionization does not benefit all workers as much as entrenched workers. Just as businesses prefer regulation and cartelization to protect themselves against competition from new entrants, so senior workers often prefer unionization to protect themselves against wage and performance competition by new entrants into the workforce. As Adam Smith writes: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
Take that generous average pilot salary, for example. One hundred fifty thousand dollars is not chump change. But that’s an average, which is not particularly useful in statistics because a few high outliers can artificially skew the sample. Number-crunchers tend to prefer working with medians, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide those median figures in full. What has happened in airline labor negotiations is that, over time, incumbent pilots’ pay has suffered less than pay for new hires. This happened fairly often during the productivity drives of the 1980s: an airline would sweeten the deal for pilots already in the system while dramatically cutting pay for new hires. In this way, the pilots unions worked against their future members’ interests. It’s not surprising, but it does explain the growing differential in pay between senior and junior pilots. A quick look at the hourly pay charts at Airline Pilot Central will illustrate the gap.
And Sean, Smith, and others are right on about the hours worked. The pilot lifestyle is not cushy. It involves frequent high-stress operations, working far more hours than the clock shows, spending many nights away from home (half, on average), often working on the back side of the clock. There are long years flying RJs to places like Wichita and Fort Wayne. If a pilot can avoid getting furloughed or laid off, he might eventually get to fly widebodies on overseas routes, but the chances aren’t good. And if a pilot is laid off, he has to start at the beginning at another airline, in both pay and seniority — hardly a recipe for a middle-class mid-life. Little wonder so many pilots are dropping out of the industry altogether or doing like a pilot I know who is making a mid-career switch from Northwest to Emirates, where the prospects are much brighter.
So, to recap, airline pilot is a mostly working-class profession that requires middle-class credentials and that once upon a time allowed pilots to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.