Sunday, April 01, 2001

This is your pilot: 'Want fries with that?'

        Sixteen-thousand, one hundred-eighty dollars a year. This is the salary of rookie first officers at Comair. Sixteen one-eighty, to get me from here to there, whole.

        Divided by 52 weeks, $16,180 is $311.15 a week. Divided by 40 hours, it's $7.79 an hour.

        There must be other issues in this strike by Comair pilots. I never got to them. The salary stopped my eyeballs cold.

        Sixteen one-eighty. Seven dollars and seventy-nine cents an hour.

        Comair explains it all. That sort of pay is typical for the industry, it says. First officers aren't flying the planes. We provide $22,000 worth of training that first year. If they stick around, they're making about $60,000 by their fourth year. It's a glamorous job.

        (Glamorous. Really? Which are the glamour runs on Comair? To Appleton? Greenville-Spartanburg?)

        Intellectually, I understand the company's logic. Lots of people want to be pilots. If they're willing to work for $8 an hour, let 'em.

        Emotionally, all I can see is a guy making Wendy's money, helping to land an airplane in a thunderstorm, with me in 7B, white-knuckling the armrest.

        The Comair people will argue that underpaid residents staff hospital emergency rooms. I will argue that I don't visit the emergency room 10 times a year. On the few occasions I have needed the ER, it has been on terra firma. If I want to leave, I don't need a parachute.

        Comair says its first mates are in the air no more than 1,000 hours a year. At $21,000 a year (the company's proposal), that's $21 an hour, it says. Well, OK. But that doesn't count weather delays, air traffic delays and delays when a guy tries to cram his steamer trunk into the overhead bin.

        If I don't take the peanuts next time, can we get these people some more money?

        It makes you think about who makes what. In most industries, we have it backward. Why should a school administrator make more money than a school teacher? Who's getting whose hands dirty from 8 to 3? Who is doing the bigger work?

        Why should a CEO who has run his company into the ground be paid millions to leave? The stock price plummets. Real employees — the ones actually creating the product and the wealth — are laid off. Brooks Brothers is on the first tee at Kiawah, spending his buyout.

        Shouldn't the guy on the line assembly line at the car plant make as much as the plant manager? What if his job is to install breaks? Isn't that kind of important?

        Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, he of the quarter-billion-dollar contract, will make $25 million this year. If he bats 600 times, that's $41,667 an at-bat. Rodriguez performs an entirely non-essential task. I know a hospice nurse who makes less in a year than A-Rod will get to strike out one time.

        That said, however, professional sports have the right idea. They pay the employees more than the managers.

        How do you feel about flying in an airplane where the first officer makes $16,180 a year? You could argue that what a person earns does not define his competency. I'd argue that most people don't become defense attorneys or neurosurgeons for humanitarian reasons.

        Besides, most people making subsistence wages aren't responsible for anyone else's well being, especially not at 20,000 feet.

        It's a silly debate, arguing whether someone is “worth” a certain salary. A person is worth whatever someone is willing to pay. Period. Same as a house, a used car or a jar of peanut butter. But shouldn't an airplane pilot be worth more than a fry cook?

        I'll be asking myself that Tuesday, if the strike has been settled. I'm flying Comair from Cincinnati to Columbia, S.C. that day. I'll hold off on the nuts.

        Contact Paul Daugherty at (513) 768-8454; fax: 768-8330.


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