My grandmother loves to tell stories about the grand old days of air travel. She remembers fondly when going to the airport wasn’t just a hassle, a necessary evil to get to your vacation destination, but an adventure in and of itself. She recalls how everyone always showed up at the airport dressed up in their Sunday finest, and how taking a seat on the plane – even in coach – resembled the dining room at an upscale restaurant rather than a cargo hold. She remembers how the airline pilots were gentlemen (in fact, back then, they all were men, with the women relegated to the role of stewardess), always greeting you with a confident smile or a firm handshake.

These days, air travel isn’t what it used to be. It’s plagued by flight delays and long layovers, a passenger’s bill of rights, and flight crews that have had their fair share of public meltdowns. Passengers no longer dress up for a flight, instead showing up wearing yoga pants or ripped jeans.

But something in air travel hasn’t changed – although it really should. I’m talking about what those airline pilots are making.

I was watching NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams on July 13th when I heard a statistic I thought surely couldn’t be correct. (“Don’t call me surely” – sorry, it’s a bad air travel joke from the movie “Airplane”… moving on…) The reporter was talking about what the air travel industry expects to be a huge demand for commercial pilots over the next few decades – a need for nearly half a million airline pilots worldwide – when he dropped a bombshell. He reported that the starting salary for most airline pilots who work for regional carriers is just $25,000 a year.

$25,000 a year???

That sounded absolutely absurd to me. After all, we trust these men and women to fly a 30-ton aircraft over mountains and oceans, through flocks of birds and lightning storms, landing it safely even when the wind starts to howl. In other words, we trust these professionals with our very lives. And yet, here was a claim that they made less – substantially less – than the starting salary for teachers, garbage men, even news producers.

Being a former news producer myself, I decided to check the facts. According to a 2010 PBS interview with Regional Airline Association president Roger Cohen, the average starting salary for regional airline pilots is, indeed, $25,000. A promotion to first officer for one of these carriers will net you a raise, up to an average salary of $33,000 – above the median income for individual workers in the United States between 2006-2010, but still far less than most fields that prefer or require their employees to hold a four-year degree.

It got me thinking, though, about other job fields where an employee’s salary doesn’t necessarily match up to the critical nature of their role. Take law enforcement officers, for example. My husband, a local deputy sheriff, has worked in the field for almost seven years. Even though his tenure has overlapped largely with the Great Recession, he’s still managed to earn a merit and cost of living raise every year – and, despite that, has yet to crack the $40,000 mark when it comes to his annual salary… and even that salary milestone would still be more than ten grand less than the national average for law enforcement officers.

Firefighters are another group of workers who are paid, in my opinion, far less than they deserve. These are the men and women who run into burning buildings as everyone else is running out; yet, the average salary for these brave individuals is even less than law enforcement officers at just over $41,000 a year.

And yet, while these individuals – all of whom, to some extent, we entrust with our lives – are making very modest salaries, you have the opposite end of the spectrum. We’re talking about un- or under-educated athletes, actors, and reality TV stars who make hundreds of thousands of dollars… per episode.

Take Lebron James. During the 2011-2012 season, which culminated in his team, the Miami Heat, winning an NBA championship (the native Clevelander in me is trying not to be bitter), LBJ made $13 million on his contract alone – that doesn’t count an additional $40 million in endorsements. During the strike-shortened regular season, he also made 620 shots. If you break down those numbers, he earned roughly $21,000per made shot. I don’t care whether you’re a Miami fan or an angry Clevelander like me, that’s just ridiculous.

Reader, which careers do you think are the most underpaid – and undervalued? Which are the most overpaid and overvalued?



Libby Balke

Libby Balke