How much do top gun pilots earn

Pilots: "We don't need top gun types"

Every year hundreds of young Austrians take the entry test for pilot training. In the end, a maximum of ten percent make it. Faraway countries, a monthly income of 10,000 euros and admiration beckon you.

Flight US Airways 1549: A routine flight from New York to Seattle. On January 15, 2009, however, just a few minutes after take-off, nothing was routine anymore: birds had hit both engines of the Airbus A320 and paralyzed them.

Pilot Chesley Burnett Sullenberger did not have time to return to La Guardia Airport or to reach another airport. He prepared his passengers for a water landing. Then he steered the machine into the Hudson. And one of the rare cases where skill and luck come together occurred: The Airbus landed evenly, did not overturn, did not break. All passengers and the crew were able to save themselves on the wings and were rescued by ferries. The "miracle of the Hudson" had happened.

Loss of thrust in both turbines and ditching - no pilot in the world wants to experience this horror scenario. It is enough for him to go through something like this during training and the regular checks on the flight simulator. "You practice your whole life for situations that will probably never arise," says Raoul V., co-pilot with a major European airline. This competence in an emergency is what the pilot representatives use to defend the high salaries. “The worst thing is that you have to strike for your rights every ten years in Austria,” says Christoph Mair of the Austrian Cockpit Association (ACA), referring to the current situation at AUA. There is currently a struggle for a new, cheaper collective agreement without privileges.

Most of the time it is calm above the clouds. Which, especially in times of crisis, when airlines have to save and the focus is on the high salaries of pilots, regularly leads to heated discussions. 10,000 euros and more per month - that is by no means justified for someone whose work is largely done by "Capt'n Autopilot" anyway, they say.

Many dream of flying. Despite all the quarrels, the fascination with the profession of pilot is unbroken. The AUA receives around 400 applications every year - if it does not advertise the training itself. Otherwise there are up to a thousand. AUA is currently training 18 pilots in three courses at the Lufthansa Aviation School in Bremen. Lufthansa counts several thousand applications per year. Although the requirements are high and the training is expensive at around 80,000 euros. “Mastering the technology”, “the pleasure of flying” - these are the most common answers you get when you ask pilots the reasons for choosing a career. Some people “just like to be far away”.

For many, this is a childhood dream come true. Just like for Raoul V., who obtained his glider license at the age of 18 - and three years later was allowed to pilot an Airbus for the first time. Once when he was a passenger as a child, he knew he wanted to be a pilot. “That sounds cheesy, but I was fascinated by freedom. You start in Amsterdam, and a few hours later you are on the east coast of the USA. You can see the whole world. "

In the beginning, however, the young pilots mainly see books, the simulator, doctors and psychologists. Many fail because of the basic requirements: Anyone who wants to become a pilot should not be older than 29 years old, have a high school diploma, be able to speak German and English, be at least 1.65 meters tall and in good health. Glasses or contact lenses are allowed, but no more than three diopters.

Anyone who feels that they are well equipped will be put through a four-stage entrance test in Bremen. For five days, applicants have to prove, among other things, that they are technically skilled, familiar with electronics and can think three-dimensionally. “The soft skills are just as important,” says Dieter Watzak-Helmer, head of pilot training at AUA. This includes the ability to work in a team, strong nerves, stress resistance and resilience.

Heroes are dangerous. Too much courage is more of a disadvantage. “We don't need top gun guys at all. If you want that, you have to go to the military, ”says Watzak-Helmer (Tom Cruise played a daring fighter jet pilot in the US Navy in the film“ Top Gun ”). Heroes are rather dangerous as airline pilots. The uniform, the authority, the dream to see the world - at the beginning that's what you want, says Pilot V. “But when you get to work, everything is put into perspective. Then you think pragmatically. You have responsibility for many people, that is the most important thing. ”The 28-year-old has not lost his passion. "Moving a hundred tons of mass by hand is simply fascinating."

For the lucky eight to ten percent who pass the test, does the famous unlimited freedom finally begin above the clouds? Far away countries, interesting cities, beautiful hotels - and always a bevy of pretty flight attendants in the entourage: Is that what makes the job a dream job?

For many, the enthusiasm of the early years has clearly waned. Because the job has changed significantly, the conditions are much tougher: If there was a week's vacation in the Caribbean between a return flight, pilots now fly to Delhi and back on two days. “We used to fly to Paris, have a nice cup of coffee and fly back to Vienna. That's it, ”remembers Watzak-Helmer of his beginnings.

And today? Profitability is the top priority: That means minimal "turnaround times" at the airports, which enable four take-offs and landings per day on short-haul routes. On long-haul routes, modern aircraft allow you to fly through for up to 14 hours without stopping. There is no time for relaxing evenings at the hotel bar. A flight Vienna – New York begins in the cockpit one and a half hours before take-off, in Vienna in the morning. The whole flight is played through. The flight itself takes about eight and a half hours. The landing takes place due to the time difference in the afternoon. And the next day it goes back in the afternoon. “With four or five New York flights a month, eight nights are missing,” says Christoph Mair. Speaking of time differences: pilots live in their “home time” with such short stays.

Electronics is also a double-edged sword. The systems are more precise and therefore require extremely fast and late decisions - for example when starting up. That creates stress. “The computer has pushed manual skills into the background, but in extreme cases that is exactly what is required,” says trainer Watzak-Helmer. That is why more emphasis is placed on manual skills again. "We fly with the very best," chats Watzak-Helmer from the flying school.

Times have become rougher at the corporate headquarters as well. Low-cost airlines are depressing ticket prices and thus earnings. Then there are terror, wars and natural disasters that regularly shake aviation. Then even more is saved - and the pilot's salaries are in the pillory. If an airline goes bankrupt, hundreds of pilots can be looking for jobs in one fell swoop.

More stress, a lot of responsibility - but also the scarce supply and high demand - "that makes the price," says Watzak-Helmer. One argument of the advocates of pilot privileges is protection against occupational disability. That can happen quickly: even a mistake in the simulator can cost a pilot his job, not to mention health problems. Insurance against failure is not exactly cheap.
Airlines advance costs. Young pilots first have to shell out the training costs. If that doesn't go through the family, there is often only a loan. Or the airlines bear the costs and deduct them from the salary in the first years of service. For this, the pilot has to commit himself for several years. A beginner earns around 1,800 euros net per month at AUA. V. also pays his monthly installments.

“Anyone who only does it for the money is out of place anyway,” is the résumé of a long-serving AUA pilot. In the end, despite the tougher conditions, it remains a dream job for many that they do not want to exchange. Christoph Mair, who as a representative of the ACA is currently in a clinch with the AUA, emphasizes the beautiful sides of his job: “You deal with technology, you work in a team, and every flight is different. And when you land, you have finished your job. When it's foggy below, you can see the sun above the clouds. That is good for the soul. "

And Raoul V. also raves: “The landings are the most fun. If I land on time, which is good for the passengers, and use little fuel, which makes the airline happy, then I'm happy. "


According to the World Aviation Association IATA, there are pilots worldwide. The US aircraft manufacturer Boeing estimates that the number will double by 2030. Demand is particularly high in Asia and the Middle East.

An older pilot earns euros and more per month. However, the starting salaries are much lower - around 3000 euros gross.

("Die Presse", print edition, March 11, 2012)