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jul 14 2008

How much do air-traffic controllers and pilots make?

The FAA recently offered a $100,000 bonus to air-traffic controllers who agreed to relocate to one of New York City's five radar centers, reports The New York Post.

But how much do air-traffic controllers get paid in the first place?

People just starting out in the job earn very little, while those with seniority and terrific performance earn a lot. It's a bit more fair to focus on the folks in-between. The middle 50 percent of controllers earned between about $85,00 and about $140,000, according to the most recent data available online.

It's worth clarifying that, unlike most other federal agencies, the FAA has a compensation system that uses broad salary ranges and a complicated formula of cost-of-living adjustments and hikes for good performance. Rookies start out low, between about $16,000 and about $35,000, depending on the assignment, says the air traffic controllers' union.

Given the FAA's recent $100,000 bonus offer, it seems that salaries are too low in the high-stress, high-expense market of New York City.

What about pilots?

As of May 2006, the most recent year of available data, the median annual earnings of commercial pilots was about $57,000. Let's look at the middle half of pilots on the income scale to get the most representative range of wages. This middle half earned between about $41,000 and about $84,000, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But those numbers have to be put into context, says Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who writes a popular column for Salon called "Ask the Pilot." Here's an excerpt from his recent column on this topic:

Starting pay for pilots at a major carrier is around $30,000 per year. After roughly 10 years of seniority..., it will be at or near six figures. That's a major carrier. At the regionals, first officers make between $15,000 and $30,000 a year, varying with seniority. ...The number of pilots who make upward of $150,000 is a small fraction of the airline pilots out there.

Meanwhile, the idea that pilots work only "20 hours per week" (similar numbers are parroted routinely by the media) is grossly misleading. Pilots are compensated only for the time their aircraft is actually in the air, not the time spent flight planning, waiting out delays, sleeping in hotels and so forth.... Over the course of a typical month I will fly four multiday trips and be away from home for a total of approximately 300 hours, covering all or part of 15 calendar days. Sometimes more, sometimes a little less.

Is pilot pay high enough? Maybe, maybe not. Keep in mind that the number of commercial pilot licenses issued dropped from 124,000 in 1999 to 117,000 in 2006, suggesting that fewer people are becoming pilots. According to the Christian Science Monitor, "many regional airlines formerly required a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience for new pilots," but, in order to attract enough pilots, have lowered their minimum to 250 hours.

Not surprisingly, whether pilots and air traffic controllers are adequately paid depends on your point of view.

UPDATE July 15: Aviation analyst Evan Sparks has blogged a response to this post, concluding that pilots used to earn "middle class" wages but now earn "working-class" wages.

Feel free to share your opinion below.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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