Captain Sullenberger Says He Isn’t Earning Enough

In some ways, it was almost inevitable that Mr. Sullenbeger would damage his image, at least in my eyes.   Fox News has this story where the US Airways captain claims he has to work a 2nd job and 7 days a week to maintain a “middle class” lifestyle. 


Now, it is well known that US Airways (East) pilots have taken several cuts in pay and a hit on their pension over the past several years.  There is no argument that being a captain at US Airways no longer is quite the lucrative job it once was.  However, a senior pilot, a senior captain such as Chesley Sullenberger is only struggling to be “middle class” if he’s a fool with his money. 


Let’s take a look at the pay for a senior (such as Captain Sullenberger) captain at US Airways under the “EAST” (or original US Air) contract.  Captain Sullenberger is earning well in excess of $120 / hour as an A320 captain.  Taking a look at United Airlines, their compensation is just over $130 / hour for the same senior captain flying the same aircraft. 


The captain would argue that while that hourly seems high, there are many hours worked for which they don’t get paid.  And I agree.  Let’s say Captain Sullenberger has 6 flight hours on a particular day.  That works out to $750 for that day’s work.  If he flew 6 flight hours, he probably has about 10 hours of what we would consider real work time.  So, $750 / 10 is equal to $75 / hour in “real” pay.  If Captain Sullenberger is working 85 flight hours per month (and about 120 hours of “real” time per month), then he’s earning a base annual salary of about $127, 500 not including health and other benefits.   The truth is, Captain Sullenberger is probably earning a bit more than that annually if he schedules himself for good trips.  Call it about $140,000 / year not including health and other benefits.


So, Captain Sullenberger is probably flying about 1080 flight hours per year and  experiencing about 1512 “real work hours” per year.  The average full time employee in the United States works about 2000 hours per year and has a medium income of less than half of Captain Sullenberger’s salary, enjoys no pension although perhaps a 401(k) and medical insurance that wouldn’t approach Captain Sullenberger’s medical benefits. 


Somehow, I don’t feel sorry for Captain Sullenberger’s misery in maintaining his “middle class” lifestyle.   We all have been hurt in our retirements.  We all make investments in our education and career and few of us experience the kind of job security that a senior US Airways captain enjoys even today.   And to portray oneself as “struggling” with such pay and a need to have a 2nd job is a bit insulting to a great majority of Americans who are truly struggling to maintain any lifestyle.


26 Responses to “Captain Sullenberger Says He Isn’t Earning Enough”

  1. It was not Capt. Sullenberger who said he needed a second job to maintain his middle class lifestyle, but the co-pilot, Jeff Skiles.

  2. Read the linked article from Fox. Cap. Sullenberger did indeed describe himself as having started a consulting business “. . . to make ends meet.” Yes, Skiles also said he needed a second job to maintain a “middle class lifestyle.” The larger point being made is that neither are being paid a meager salary and it calls into question what they believe is “middle class” when it comes to a lifestyle.

  3. Considering the fact that most pilots invest well over $100,000 in school loans just for flight school alone, plus have to start out with regional airline pay of 14,000 a year ,worry about airline cuts, furloughs, placing our career on the line every 6 months if we don’t pass our medical, pc,s then yes, $140,000 is not enough. If we lose our medical certificate then our career is over. Try looking for a regular job after being an airline pilot & people would look at you like you have two heads. It’ bad enough everyone thinks we all make $200,000 a year. We invest just as much time & money as a medical doctor, or lawyer plus have the responsibility of more life’s.

  4. I would like to clarify the numbers this column uses to calculate pay and working days for pilots. I am a Captain for a “regional” airline (the smaller airlines that fly half the departures for the mainline carriers in the U.S.). The way you have pay hours is pretty close, at 1080 hours a year. The way in which “real work hours” is significantly off. I average 12 days off per month, so that means I work 18 days. Ten hours per day is a conservative estimate on duty hours each day. Many days last 11-12 hours, while only paying 6 hours. If you multiply 18 days x 10 hours x 12 months you get 2,160. (Add another 6 days x 10 hours because each month doesn’t have 30 days). This gets you to 2,220 hours of “real work hours” per year. None of this takes into account that when you are at work those 18 days, you don’t come home from work each evening like most people in this country; you live in hotels. This 2,200 hours “real work hours” is in stark contrast to your 1,512 hours stated in this article.

    You also neglect to realize in this article that it took Captain Sullenberger many years to be able to hold a Captain’s position at US Air. He started as a First Officer and had to endure 10-15 years at half the pay of $127,500 that you don’t take into account.

    My figures for last year were $47,800 as a Captain, was away from my home and family approx. 82 hours each week, and safely transported around 32,000 passengers to their destinations.

  5. Adam, you take this blog entry written as gospel for all airline captains and it wasn’t written as that. Every captain’s pay at every airline is going to be different as are the hours. My stance was with respect to Captain Sullenberger’s position today.

    My point was that for someone in Captain Sullenberger’s particular position, it was hardly a struggle to maintain a middle class lifestyle. Indeed, his potential salary for his last year worked meets or exceeds that of 90% of all similar professionals such as lawyers, doctors or engineers.

    Did he have to “pay his dues” to get where he is? Absolutely. As you know more than anyone, every airline pilot does pay his/her dues and sometimes for a considerable amount of time.

    And so do most people. There is a misconception that others in this world have it easier. They don’t. Heck, just 4.5 years ago, I was unemployed for 14 months and ultimately took a job that was junior in position and a reduction in salary. After 3.5 years, I’m still not at parity with what was I was at 5.5 years ago. Certainly that is a story that sounds familiar to you or any other airline pilot.

    It’s the way the world works for 90% of all of us out there.

    No one is taking away from what Captain Sullenberger earned or any other pilot in a similar position. But it is disingenous to call it a struggle to maintain a middle class lifestyle in that similar position as well.

  6. Well I think I’ll chime in since I’m a US Airways pilot. Ajax you don’t know what you’re talking about. Of all of my friends that have pursued PROFESSIONS I am the lowest paid. Examples:
    Friend #1 Principal $120k a yr plus pension(I don’t have one)
    Friend #2 Sales manager orthopedic implants $350k yr
    Friend #3 CPA 150k yr
    Friend #4 CPA/Partner 400k yr
    None of these friends have the level of responsibility that I do. Granted I enjoy my job more than they do, but that shouldn’t count into pay. Please keep your posts to areas you have some knowledge of.

  7. Deadalus: You cited “friends” for pay and that really isn’t all that scientific. Just using Google, we learn that the average salaries for those positions in the United States are:
    Principal: $74,000
    Regional Sales Manager: $74,000 (ironically the same as principal.)
    CPA: $65,000
    CPA Partner: $91,600

    As for responsibility. . . what is responsibility and how do you measure this? I know you’re referring to your responsibility for the souls onboard your aircraft and I would certainly agree that that is a lot of responsibility. I manage software development for an aerospace company that potentially affects thousands of aircraft where one mistake not caught can have catastrophic results. Who is more “responsible”? I had to spend an exceptional amount of money to get my education and I had to spend quite a bit of time to get where I am today and my salary does not approach that of a US Airways Captain (or any legacy airlines’ captain.) For what it is worth, that’s OK since I do regard an airline captain worthy of a salary greater than my own. But how does that compare to an air traffic controller who, let’s face it, has the potential for killling for many more people with one mistake.

    To say that you are in charge of the safety and well being of 100+ people for each flight you fly is an absolute truth. On the other hand, you have to also examine the risk involved. If you argue that the risk involved is worthy of significantly higher wages than present, then I would argue that flying airplanes to get from point A to point B is apparently far less safe than advertised. Part of the risk equation is duration and if we accept 3 hours as the duration of a flight, how much risk is concentrated in those 3 hours versus a high school principal responsible for the well being of 1000 or more children for 4 years?

    As for keeping my posts to areas I have some knowledge of . . . I am a summa cum laude economics graduate with a level of resources and exposure into the airline industry that would exceed your own most likely. In fact, I’m particularly qualified to examine compensation for various jobs.

    Regardless, let’s turn the tables: What, to you, is appropriate compensation for a legacy airline captain who has, say, 20 years of experience and who is flying a mainline narrowbody aircraft? What would satisfy you, in particular, as fair compensation for your job?

  8. Zombie Thread Will Not Die!!!

    (what a bunch o’ drama queens…)

  9. I am stunned that Captains earn so little. Living out of Hotels may be exciting when single and new to the Job- but it sure sucks for a family man. Considering the overall physical and educational training involved- I would expect Captains to be well North of $200K. Hell-we have Boston Cops shuffling papers from one pile to another for $250K. Some earning $300K ! The most danger they see is a hidden paper clip. The most responsibility they hold is to make sure no one falls in a Construction Site hole. Average Fireman in Boston earned $125K- many much higher. Number of Fires last year in Boston ? 47. We got Firefighters earning $200K playing with their hoses. Pilots need a more corrupt Union.

  10. From my p.o.v—I am a professional nurse and have had numerous airline pilots as patients. Considering ratios and work hours and (this verses that). I am quite aware of inadequacies of pay. I absolutely love what I do also. There are large gaps in Americans pay all across the diversified working force. P.S. I do have much respect for airline pilots——All of that fly time/responsibility.

  11. what ever

  12. Why has no one said that he could not have legally worked over 1000 flight hours?

  13. He also doesn’t take into account his family ,he has two kids so college ,very expensive. He has at least one home in California, very high property cost. So 120k a year after taxes 80k so if his wife pulls in another 40 120 a year. Then let’s say a mortgage of 2k a month 24k a year plus 400 a month utilities so let’s say 30k from 120,90k . Then subtract car payments and insurance, plus home insurance, plus any money for school clothes and books etc. That doesn’t leave a lot. Especially when college for two kids can easily exceed 50k a year.

  14. I think pilots have a lot of responsability but so do train engineers, bus drivers, cab drivers. Transportation positions. They all have their pros and cons. The thing is no one forced you to be a pilot.As with these other careers you chose it. I have a college education and have been in my career 35 years. I make gross $ 100,000 yearly.I have had quite a few un compensated hours. Part of the game. I dont complain. I’m able to own a home raise a family vacation etc..When i look at what i have and what i need to do to get it im good with it.These pilots arent gonna get rich but they live fine. It’s all part of the decisions we made in life.

  15. Well. This should piss alot of you off about who has this biggest Johnson money wise
    This is 100 percent true I have a high school diploma and make 150000
    A year as a Corp pilot and mechanic and work maybe 2 days a week. Maybe

    I have been in aviation some 35 years and enjoy every minute of it

    And by the way. If sully and his copilot followed the check list and closed
    The outflow valves ( which they didn’t ). The airplane wouldn’t of sank
    So fast.

    Just saying

  16. So, because he’s not making minimum wage, he shouldn’t complain? I’m sorry, but someone who has dedicated their life to their carreer should not apologize for complaints of lack of pay during or after retirement. We all do it. Why can’t he?

  17. I saw the movie Sully last night (Friday Sept 16), and pressed my hand hard on my heart throughout most of the movie, it was awesome!! I remember the incident when it happened Jan. 2009 and thought, “How outstanding, courageous, and extraordinary!” I’m so glad I saw the movie to know the whole story.
    Bob, so savvy of you to point out the outflow valves. Really!! Oh shucks!!! Sully didn’t think of that!!!! I guess it should been YOU in that pilot’s seat, YOU would’ve thought of everything!! Every detail on the checklist!! YOU would’ve made the difference of the plane not sinking!!! We should all be cookie cutter people that should all think like you!!! How dare that we don’t! I really wonder with everything that was going on, the sudden realization of the gripping predicament he suddenly found himself in, along with the other 154 people, the rapid chain of thoughts going on, the adrenaline etc., etc., but shame on him, he shouldn’t have forgotten that one detail!!! The outflow valves!! Ugh!! A “V-8″ moment!!
    So, I suppose Bob, you have never in your life ever had a spontaneous emergency moment that you DIDN’T think of everything, all the details…. AND follow a checklist!!! Sully was intensely focused on maneuvering the most surviving technique option possible to him, with what little precious time he had left was of the essence!! He certainly wasn’t thinking about outflow valves being priority at THAT very moment!!! He was thinking nothing more than pure survival!!! Period!!!

    You are like my sister who will never give anyone the admiration they deserve for doing what they thought was the very best they could at the very crucial moment under certain dire circumstances, without finding at LEAST one flaw!!!! Instead of giving the man the glass is “half full,” you can only think “half empty!!!”
    My father was a pilot in WWII, then worked for TWA, and then, because of an incident one day where he dared to “think outside the box,” the FAA hired him for that back in 1957 (which such honorable recognition would never happen today), until he retired at a ripe old age. He too had a superior mindset.
    I work with doctors, and sometimes in surgery when a situation becomes suddenly imminent, doctors may not have followed their checklist, instead, their massive experience and instinct may have driven them into rising above that quickly proved to be a more superior decision.
    It’s a “corporate” mindset today to slam people whenever they can, especially when they think outside the way they WANT them to think, I see that every day!!!! God forbid we give out too much praise or be humane!!! Encouragement is not even thought of anymore!! Compassion is becoming a rarity!!! Recognizing people as a hero for being courageous, and going beyond is becoming extinct!! Instead they point fingers, find something they’ve done wrong and reprimand them!! That’s Big Corporation!!!!

  18. RE: @ Bob Sept. 7th. Are you envious with “soylent green”, here? You don’t have the slightest notion of what you’re talking about. if you even are a professional pilot, which I wonder really. After making such snarky stupid remarks here. The flight crew of US 1549 on that cold January day in 2009, they did a spectacular, marvelous feat in their Hudson river ditching. Much judgment replaces procedures at times, and becomes an adlib to all of that. Everyone successfully evacuated the aircraft at the direct of the flight crew AND cabin crew. Added to this, a well coordinated boat rescue and other 1st responders were ‘on it’, you IDIOT.

  19. I agree that they shoose to be a pilot, but having to be away from your family so many hours a week, and having the responsibility of hundreds of lives, I would have guessed they salary was near the 200k. I Have been a estate agent in Miami Florida for 15 years, I have some college, but did not finish it, and I make 100k a year. I am not responsible for lives in my career and sleep with my family every night, and yet my salary is almost captain Sullenberger’s. My respect for those pilots and I do think their salary should be much more

  20. Those precious people on Captain Sully’s plane that day were surely blessed to have him at the controls. Each time I get off a flight, I tell the captain or first officer “good job”. My life is in their hands every minute that plane is in motion. And, I do agree they are under paid for having so much responsibility. It takes many years to get to the rank of Captain and, yes, they are away from home a lot and miss so many things their children are in like sports and school activities. I totally have respect for those who have other’s lives in their hands.

  21. Good news. The hourly rates have doubled since the post 9/11 bankruptcy rates posted earlier in this thread. I fly the 737 and make 250.00 per hour and will break 300K for the year. I’m 40 (started early). Major airlines are still THE place for an aviation career but you have to have a 4 year degree (with extremely rare exceptions).

  22. When considering pay for pilots, remember Airlines are private businesses, competing with other Airlines. Add in the whiney American public with their Wal Mart mentality demanding that everything be cheap and you get planes piloted by skilled and dedicated people who are not compensated very well. Yes, the long timers will enjoy good salaries the last 10-15 years of their career, but below them, regionals and right-seaters make very little–so little, that many regional pilots quit because they can no longer take the financial strain and opt for something more stable. You’ve seen in the news “Airlines cutting routes!” … more than a financial move, they don’t mention the real pressing issue, pilot shortage. Just this year, they’re starting to increase regional pay (a batista at Starbucks makes more than a regional pilot) in order to keep a stable of well trained and qualified pilots coming up the ranks. Watch for other moves like increasing mandatory retirement age from 65 to 67 as they wait for other big jet pilots to accumulate enough FAA required hours and training. At the end of the day do we want a bunch of “Sullys” flying our jets? Yes. Are they worthy of a 6 figure salary? Yes. Are regional pilots deserving of a living wage YES (my life is my life, whether I’m in a 747 or a 30 seat turbo-prop Brazilia.) So consider the real cost of a $59 flight on Southwest…

  23. With his book and now movie, good old Hero Skully will be well off. And I think he has earned it lol….

  24. As a small electrical contractor earning very well, I believe almost all pilots are underpaid. Since the government has no problem taking money from Pilot’s every month in the form of tax’s, they should step up to the plate and pass laws that would ensure Pilot’s pensions are safe. They bailed out the banks when they should have backed american pensions. In fact there should be some strong labor laws put in place. I want the person piloting the plane I am in to be focused on his job and not on the fact he lost his pension and got a 40% pay cut.

  25. There was a true incident where a plain was hijacked, ran out of fuel an was forced to land in water beside some island. Some tourist filmed the landing and it sure did not have the same ending as the landing in the water on the Hudson River. When the hijacked plane landed , the pane cartwheeled and broke in two and I know that there were many casualties including the hijackers and I believe the pilots were both killed. I believe it was Sully’s experience as a pilot that made all the difference. Sully, I salute you!!!????????????????????????????????

  26. Just watched the movie, and decided to use google to see how the brave pilot is doing now. We all have different opinions and different views about pretty much everything that is going on in the world, I get that, but in this particular case, I do find it pretty disgusting how the author is talking about the pilot. Lots of people are struggling financially and it’s not like Sully was sitting there complaining about how little he makes, it was more about the industry in general with a few mentions of how he makes a living now. The author of this piece got “disappointed” because of a few remarks by somebody who did a truly remarkable thing, well, like I said I do find it pretty discussing that nowadays just about anybody can start a blog and start dragging other people’s name through the mud. I guess for every “Sully” there are thousands if not millions of “writers” like this one here.

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