Poor Airline Service Caused By Under-Staffing?

Working for an airline used to be a good job, according to Capt. Gene Malone, who as a pilot for American Airlines, saw his pay drop to $140,000 from $175,000 after the airline won concessions to stay out of bankruptcy. “An airline career is not worth it anymore,” says Capt. Malone. “It’s a very different profession than it was 23 years ago when I started.” It’s not just the pilots who are unhappy at doing more work for less money, the airlines are having trouble hiring people.

From the Wall Street Journal [Via AZCentral]:

Wrestling suitcases on and off planes got so grueling late last year for Southwest Airlines Co.’s 350 ramp workers in Chicago that by Christmas season one-fourth of them were reporting on-the-job injuries. Starting pay for the position: $8.75 an hour.
Airlines used to offer prestigious jobs with good wages and coveted flight benefits. Now, in the aftermath of aggressive cutbacks, a growing number of airline jobs are more akin to those at a fast-food restaurant. The pay is low, the work is tough and, in a new twist, airlines are having trouble hanging onto workers and finding new ones.

“What once was a glamorous job … doesn’t look so good any more,” says Andy Roberts, executive vice president of operations for Northwest Airlines Corp. Mr. Roberts says Northwest and its peers used to have a list of applicants “as long as your arm.” Now, “we have to go seek them out, even pilots.”

Lack of staff causes delays. Lack of gate workers mean that airplanes sit on tarmacs, full of angry travelers.

Recently, some airlines have been adding staff, but the WSJ says the conditions are unlikely to improve. The airlines just aren’t nice places to work anymore, and unhappy employees make for unhappy customers. —MEGHANN MARCO

As pay and benefits fall, airlines struggle to fill jobs [Arizona Republic]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Color me unsurprised.

    I wouldn’t mind paying more for tickets if the service returned to mid-90s levels or above. But increasingly, aircraft are just city busses with wings.

  2. dohtem says:

    @CaliforniaCajun: Nicely said. Air travel is not as glamorous as I remember. The quality has gone to sh#t. Flying used to be part of the reason people traveled. Now it is just another inconvenience before arriving at your destination.

    P.S. The piss poor job of cleaning them between flights is what gets me the most.

  3. timmus says:

    Well, crappy corporate culture certainly has a lot to do with it, but it seems that flying started getting crappy shortly after the 1970s oil crises. Overcapacity and high fuel costs probably started the spiral of cutting expenses, leading to service being slashed. Then to complete the death spiral, as travellers we began expecting crappy service (of course then many of the employees in airline service jobs shunned the service aspects to embrace more professional monikers, i.e. service representatives instead of clerks, flight attendents instead of stewards/stewardesses).

  4. mathew says:

    I noticed this after 9/11. The first thing all the airlines did was fire a ton of staff so that the lines were longer, the service was slower, and the overall experience was suckier.

    Yeah, that made me want to fly more, I don’t think.

    To those who want to pay a bit more for a better experience: Look to see if Virgin or another European airline flies the route you want. They have an option to pay more for upgraded economy seats, which have 7″ more legroom, 3″ more width, better food, etc.

  5. John Stracke says:

    …when, exactly, was being a baggage handler prestigious?

  6. @mathew:

    Unfortunately, most of my travel is domestic, and for most of that, I’m constrained to what flies between SJC and BTR.

    Even when I try to fly bigger jets (and pay more for the privilege) I find myself being screwed; you simply can’t count on the airlines to do anything right anymore.

    During my layover at O’Hare, there were 500-foot long lines of customers who had missed connections at the United Airlines “service” counters.

    Most of the people in line were also on the phone with United’s Indian call centers – which in my case routed me from Chicago to Burbank to LA to San Jose because United chose to send my connecting flight to SFO away on time with half it’s seats filled at the same time they cancelled two of the remaining four SFO flights for that day.

    Despite the fact that United could have held that early SFO-bound flight for 30 minutes, made up the time in the air, and made 200 people happy, they chose to leave “on time” and strand a bunch of people in Chicago. I’d paid $100.00 extra just to be on that early flight.

    I just want an airline that charges a bit more and delivers on the things that count. “Economy Plus” with four extra inches of seat pitch doesn’t mean much when you’re missed a job interview thanks to United.

  7. levenhopper says:

    …”Who saw his pay drop from $140,000 to $175,000??”

    I think this may have been the first typo I’ve ever seen on The Consumerist.

  8. Starfury says:

    Time to bring back rail travel.

  9. strandist says:

    @levenhopper: You should read The Consumerist more.

  10. I love our dear editors. Without the little errors here and there it just wouldnt be the consumerist. It adds character.

  11. GearheadGeek says:

    I find it hard to feel really sorry for the pilots making “only” $140k/year.

  12. TechnoDestructo says:

    I will not shed a tear if the airline industry collapses under its own weight. I want alternatives.

  13. adamondi says:

    I am shedding a tear for that poor, poor pilot who is making only $140,000 a year now. How will he be able to survive? Maybe they could fire all of the minimum-wage ground crews and outsource those jobs to even crappier ground crew companies that hire employees that do nothing but steal anything of value from all the checked baggage.

    I just have such a hard time feeling really sorry for the guys who get to fly anywhere they want for free AND a six-figure salary. I know getting a $35,000 per year pay cut is a lot, but they are still making six figures.

  14. QuirkyRachel says:

    Hey, I’d like to have a pay drop to $140,000. In fact, I’ll volunteer to take that wholly unworkable sum off your hands.

  15. dohtem says:

    Everyone that’s bringing up the $140k should slow down. A pay cut is a pay cut. If they are making less than their counterparts doing similar work for other airlines, or in other countries, it is still unfair. The specific amount it not in question here (though I wouldn’t mind earning that much). If I worked my way up the ladder only to get to the top and get a pay cut, I’d raise hell too.

  16. badgeman46 says:

    I think most of the commenters here need a little education in pilot salaries. Before you say “HOLY SMOKES 140 k!!” Please realize that this man has been flying for 23 years. Most pilots spend about 30,000 dollars out of pocket for training these days; and that is pure flight time, not including the college degree. These days, the whole thing would leave you about 140K IN DEBT before you even had a Job! An entry level pilot makes 18K. I could make that flipping burgers. Its dismal pay, because the airlines exploit pilot’s love of flying and they know they will almost work for free, as long as you put them on an airliner. I miss those days when the captain made more than the President of the United states, and only worked six days a month. Thats how airlines used to reward pilots back in the 80’s and 90’s. And it worked! Flying was great then.

  17. axiomatic says:

    Also, I think 140k is just about right for a pilot. There is a huge responsibility of being the pilot for 300+ moms/dads/kids/workers.

    I’m 38 and I still remember the HERO status pilots used to receive wherever they went.

    I wish they had that status still.

    I blame corporations and grossly overpaid VP’s / CEO’s as the crux of the issue.

    America is really starting to suck.

  18. mac-phisto says:

    just for the record, this guy’s not a pilot, he’s a captain. captains typically don’t fly smaller commercial planes. this is the pinnacle of flying & would be comparable in most industries to an upper floor manager. historically, their pay is significantly higher than most pay grades b/c it reflects YEARS of flying & exceptional skills/education & increased responsibility – these men/women are responsible for the lives of 300+ ppl at a time.

    to put it in perspective, i believe a relative of mine was pulling in ~$220,000 as a captain with a major airline. he retired when they were planning on cutting his pay about 20%. & that’s exactly what this guy got: a 20% paycut. i don’t care how much money you’re making – would you stay in your job if you took a cut that big?

    & that’s what happened. most of the glory boys that were eligible for retirement packages took those, a bunch of ppl moved onto other industries (or other airlines) & what you have left is a completely demoralized industry.

  19. TechnoDestructo says:


    They don’t get to fly anywhere they want.

  20. TechnoDestructo says:

    @John Stracke:

    For being low-skilled labor with no particular education requirements? I’d call being a baggage handler quite prestigious.

  21. dancing_bear says:

    The pilot only works 70 to 80 hours a month.

  22. cabinaero says:

    @GearheadGeek: You do realize that the $140k salary is for a senior captain with a major carrier, right? Pilots for regionals and even low-seniority first officers on major carriers make far, far less than that. e.g., FO on a United 767 starts at $31/hr and is only guaranteed 65 hrs/month of work. The regionals are even worse — try $19/hr with 75 hours guaranteed at Skywest. Or $15/hr with 75 hours guaranteed at Great Lakes.

    Kinda’ shocking that someone who is responsible for the lives of hundreds of people per day makes less than a new hire at Starbucks.

  23. brokenboy says:

    As has been pointed out here, pilot salaries are great for leaving your kids lots of money. You make nothing when you are young, average amounts when you are middle aged, and good money if you manage to make it to 20+ years service. Of course many companies go bankrupt long before that, and airlines pay almost purely based on length of service with the same airline.

    At the end of your career, maybe you made an average $70K salary, but it all came at the end. You weren’t living a life of luxury when you were 35.

  24. ord2fra says:

    Consumers stopped shopping based on service long ago. Now it’s whomever is at the top on the Kayak.com results that gets the fare. It’s a billion-dollar game of chicken as carriers try to be the last holdout as others raise fares to cover increased costs.

    This is an old, expensive industry, and change is glacial. A lot of it is perception management, and it is black and white for customers and airline staff. Customers expect things like meals, flights held for connections, friendliness, being on-time, checked baggage to arrive, and an open seat next to them. Employees are there to provide a service, and we expect that, but on one side the company is telling you the procedure, and the customer wants something that is absolutely out of the question (my flight was delayed, so upgrade me to first class and I want to be on the next flight out).

    Our procedure manuals are very clear: THERE IS NO ALLOWANCE FOR PERSONAL INTERPRETATION. As long as we follow the manual, we won’t get in trouble. Trouble is, the manual was written to provide the lowest cost service and to protect the airline.

    Think of the mindset these employees have had over the last few years: multiple paycuts, outsourcing, pensions gone, and increased workload. The message is that “we would work without you if we could”. Then, your CEO goes and spreads the newfound wealth among the top folks that never see a customer unless they go on a trip.

    No airline is immune from this… look at the last year and you’ll find about every airline made the news for something. That’s the troubling thing… it’s systemic and no one has a solution.

  25. Bay State Darren says:

    Maybe they should outsource the pilots? Have the planes on remote control from somebody 80,000 miles away who’s multi tasking and running three planes at once to keep costs down.

  26. cabinaero says:

    @ord2fra: You sound like an airline employee and, based upon your screenname, I can only assume it either flies big grey or white birds or bright shiny silver ones.

  27. ord2fra says:

    @cabinaero: Or white ones with a blue tail and a yellow bird.

  28. cabinaero says:

    @ord2fra: Gotcha ;) You were sounding more like an employee of an American airline headquarted in these United states.

  29. Sudonum says:

    I believe that was also around the time of deregulation?????

  30. orlong says:

    Awww poor guy. He only gets paid 140,000 a year now to sit on his butt, flip some switches, and turn some knobs for 8 hours a day, while people who bust their ass all day laying bricks or building roads are getting paid 30k

  31. cabinaero says:

    @orlong: Obviously you don’t fly much or really know anything at all about commercial aviation if you think that being captain of a modern jet airline is anything at all like being George Jetson.

    The captain from the article is being paid beause, as a senior captain, he’s a highly trained profressional directly responsible for the safety and lives of tens of thousands of people per year. You show me a brick-layer that spent over $100,000 on their initial training and many years working shitty jobs for no-name charters and regionals at a barely-beats-burger-flipping wage JUST to get enough PIC hours to be considered for a job at a major airline. And then get hired by a major and work their way up a seniority ladder while still making less per year than your brick layer or road worker. Then they get furloughed for a couple years and go back to working for a charter to make ends meet. Maybe if they’re lucky they’ll top out in the $150k/year range but, just like pro-sports, not everbody is pulling down the big bucks.

    I’m sorry but nobody goes into commercial aviation looking to get rich quick. Building up to that level of pay takes decades of bad hours and comparitively crummy pay.

  32. Killian says:

    Why do I get the distinct impression that the eventual solution to the whole airline mess is going to be having the government declare it a regulated monopoly of some sort?

  33. FLConsumer says:

    While understaffing can cause piss poor service, Thousands Standing Around (TSA) proves that large #’s of workers does NOT equal good customer service. Good management and good attitude go a long way.

  34. crankymediaguy says:

    Banking, airlines and broadcasting. What do these three industries have in common? They were all respected at one time, then they were deregulated. Now all that the corporations involved in them are interested in is figuring out how to cut costs to the bone, usually by laying off people and/or cutting salaries.

    At least in the cases of those three industries, I’d say deregulation has been a dismal failure.

  35. yalej says:

    I can’t believe all the wage jealousy here. OMG someone is making $140k!! He is rich! If some people had their way everyone would make $35k/year just like they do. A pilot has your life in their hands, I wouldn’t mind it if they got paid 2x or 3x as much.

  36. kimsama says:

    This is another good reason to fly based on quality and service instead of price. I never fly American carriers if I’m going overseas because the service is dismal. And I don’t go with whomever’s cheapest, but with carriers that have consistently treated their customers well.

    Unfortunately, when you fly domestically, you have to take a U.S. carrier, but then I always try to go with Continental or Delta, since they seem to at least have decent ontime stats and decent service. And I will never ever fly United ever ever. If you want to actually get where you’re going on the day you’re supposed to get there, I recommend you don’t either. If you love frustration, incompetence, and rudeness though, they’re quite a bargain!

  37. kimsama says:

    @crankymediaguy: I couldn’t agree more. How wonderful that the CEOs and VPs are still making tons, though.

    Everyone complaining about the captain’s salary here didn’t consider that he got his pay cut so that some VP could get his $400,000 bonus that year. Those are the salaries that burn me, since they’re doing such a great job managing the airlines and really deserve their salaries. I mean, it’s one thing to be directly responsible for the lives of 300 people, but it’s clearly much more important to usher in a new era of bankruptcy for your company. Bravo, airline executives!

  38. badgeman46 says:

    @orlong: And a brain surgeon gets half a million or more a year to sit around and play golf. Like the pilot, he is paid for the high skill/high risk job he does. The pilot isn’t paid for drinking coffee at FL320, he is paid for putting a planeload of 300 people on the runway safely in bad weather, or emergency situations. Would you want your pilot worrying about how he is going to pay his mortgage when an engine goes out? And believe it or not, most pilots did bust their ass laying bricks or building roads at one point or another. I’m an air traffic controller and a pilot, and I pushed boxes around in shipping for a living only two years ago.

  39. dohtem says:

    @badgeman46: Air traffic controller? Is it true you guys are a suicidal bunch that punch holes through a radar screen once a month just to get sent to a mental ward for the time off?

    j/k. But I hear that’s a stressful job.

  40. badgeman46 says:

    It can be stressful, but we arent nuts!