What’s happening to airline pilot jobs?

In high demand, pilot unions have long had leverage on airlines. The pandemic is changing the relationship.


December 10, 2020

Most people think that pilots have an attractive job. Well, here’s a stat for you: In 2018, it was the No. 2 most right-swiped male occupation on Tinder (it was No. 1 in 2016).

In the US, the role requires many years of training and commands a median salary of $130k+.

Due to the expertise required and the boom-bust nature of air travel, pilots’ unions are also among the world’s most powerful, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The airline-union relationship has been strained by the pandemic

Unlike many other jobs, pilots are unable to work remotely — so their bargaining power vis a vis the airlines has taken a hit:

  • American Airlines has furloughed 1.6k pilots
  • Norwegian Airlines has furloughed or cut 1.9k jobs
  • Southwest Airlines is on the cusp of furloughing pilots for the first time ever (we wrote more about Southwest here)

Even airlines that have avoided job cuts (like Delta) are guaranteeing fewer hours and reducing pay.

One union president tells the WSJ that he believes airlines are angling to use the pandemic to permanently cut costs.

It’s very expensive to get a pilot’s license 

Total cost: between $60k-$80k, by one estimate.

Furlough schemes typically put the most junior pilots out of work first, making it difficult to pay off the training.

But if airlines lose too much capacity, it could burn them in a few years.

“If you think the industry is going to be recovered by 2025,” a United executive said on an industry call in November, “we need to start to think about how to attract those pilots of the future today.”

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