In-Flight Peanuts

In free market free fall, pilots compete to stock shelves at Costco

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of people we don't want making minimum wage: Public servants who should not be so hungry they are susceptible to bribery (Dean Zimmerman, anyone? Brian Herron? Joe Biernat?) and those whose skills are essential to public safety. Building inspectors, for instance, shouldn't be too dimwitted to spot the brittle concrete in a sports arena or too amoral to look past it. So what about the wisdom of paying airline pilots less than Wal-Mart pays greeters?

Figuring out how pilots are paid makes deciphering how much each seat on an airplane can fetch seem like child's play. But according to the Air Line Pilots Association, if Mesaba gets the wage concessions it wants from its pilots, new hires could end up taking home $11,000-$13,000 a year. With wages like that, do you think the folks flying the planes are going to be the sharpest knives in the drawer?

Pilots are paid by hours in flight. It varies widely with seniority, but Mesaba pilots average 75-86 hours per month, according to ALPA spokesman Kris Pierson. If the airline, which provides regional "feeder" service to Northwest, gets its cuts, a new hire serving as first officer in a small jet will earn $23 an hour. Subtract family benefits and that adds up to $11,000-$13,000 a year.

The airline says it is losing $1 million a week and will have to liquidate if there's a strike or if the unions won't accept cuts of 19.4 percent. (A bankruptcy court judge has said Mesaba can't impose the cuts unilaterally.) If costs can't be brought down, it can't make competitive bids to provide regional service for Northwest, Delta, or anyone else. Wretchedly enough, the routes would probably be snapped up by a competitor, such as Pinnacle or Northwest's own soon-to-be unveiled Compass.

It's almost enough to make a citizen feel sorry for Mesaba's bean counters. Except that if the pilots and other unions are to be believed, in the months before Mesaba followed Northwest into bankruptcy, it "upstreamed" $100 million or more in profits to its holding company, MAIR. They say MAIR had $120 million in cash and equivalents on hand at the time. Remarkably, when airline brass were subpoenaed to testify in bankruptcy court last spring, they were allowed to do so in a closed courtroom and the labor representatives present had to sign confidentiality agreements, the Star Tribune reported in March.

In an August report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, MAIR, which is publicly traded, claimed to have $95 million in cash and investments on hand and "insignificant long-term debt." MAIR this week asked a court to declare its retention of Mesaba's dividends legitimate, appropriate, and legal.

ALPA reps concede that the $11,000 figure represents the extreme end of the spectrum, and they say it's being "moderated" in negotiations currently underway with Mesaba. But they offer up a few more details about the fiscal lot of the feeder pilot. Pay is contingent on seniority, rank, and the type of plane being piloted. Right now, the upper end of the chart would be an 18-year captain flying a 69-passenger jet for $96.38 an hour. This would drop to $86 if Mesaba gets its way--but it would also be a meaningless concession because Northwest is preparing to take back the planes in question. In effect, this will trigger a string of demotions: The senior pilots will fly smaller planes for less money, in some cases at a lower rank, and so on.

Doubtless white-knuckle flyers will be psyched beyond words to learn that the pilot of their flight had such poor prospects that he or she wants or needs a job that would leave them eligible for food stamps. One can only imagine in-flight liquor sales will skyrocket.

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