By Lisa Fickenscher - NY Post
Airline pilots are flying higher than ever — on the pay scale, that is.
Carriers large and small — in both the cargo and passenger sectors — desperate to hire pilots to keep their much-in-demand planes flying are offering signing bonuses of up to $25,000 along with salaries that have doubled in the last couple of years to $54,995 on average, interviews with several carriers revealed.
Carriers are also offering more time off — making piloting one of the hottest jobs in the US.
It’s quite a turnaround from just eight years ago, when a glut of pilots pummeled starting salaries. At that time, pilots on regional airlines made as little as $16,000.
But in mid-2017, thanks to an expansion of overseas flights by large commercial airlines, increased demand from corporate jet fleets and the expansion of cargo-service demand from the likes of Amazon and other e-commerce giants, carriers are often battling each other — stealing pilots back and forth.
It’s not unheard of for a pilot to take a large signing bonus, stay for a year and then leap to a rival carrier — and collect a second signing bonus.
“It’s a competitive market for new pilots,” said Chris Lewless, managing director of labor relations for Horizon Air, a regional carrier for Alaska Air.
In January, Horizon started offering signing bonuses of $10,000 to $15,000 for new hires. It was the first time it offered a bonus. But it’s gotten so frothy that Horizon’s new labor contract allows it to raise the bonus to as much as $25,000.
“If a number of our competitors started paying higher bonuses, our agreement allows us to go up that high,” Lewless added. Horizon is hardly alone.
At PSA Airlines, first officers, or pilots, can get a $20,000 retention bonus on their one-year anniversary. Wisconsin Air is dangling a $57,000 sign-on and retention bonus spread out over several years.
“We get pilots that will take the bonus for a year and will jump to a second regional,” said Tim Komberec, chief executive of Empire Airlines, an Idaho-based regional for Hawaiian Airlines and FedEx.
Empire last year began offering $10,000 retention bonuses and a 25 percent wage increase.
“We are just stealing pilots from each other,” Komberec added.
The pilot shortage is impacting fliers as well.
Since 2013, with carriers not having enough pilots to fly planes, about 500 airports experienced schedule reductions of between 10 and 20 percent while 18 airports lost connective passenger service altogether, according to the Regional Airline Association.
Last fall, for example, Empire lost one of its FedEx routes in the Southeast to a rival because it was understaffed for several months, according to Komberec.
“We face an industrywide challenge rooted in the fact that there are too few pilots to fly all of today’s routes, let alone tomorrow’s,” said Faye Black Malarkey, president of the trade group.
By 2020, the major airlines will need to hire some 18,000 pilots as that many are expected to retire. That’s as many pilots as are currently employed by all regional carriers.
Jumping into the field is not easy — or cheap. A four-year aviation degree can cost up to $150,000.
“Our industry has regained its health,” said Capt. Paul Ryder, with a union repping 57,000 pilots. “It’s a great time to become a pilot.”