Maritime pay vs Airline pilot pay

Shipping and airlines have a lot in common. How do we compare the pay of a major airline pilot to a deep sea union officer?

It seems that at the top of the pile, the senior airline pilot earns more. But, in aggregate, maybe a deep sea union officer will earn more because starting pay for years 1-10 of work are usually over $100,000. And one can realistically make chief/captain on a ship in 6-10 years which, as of now, would pay 200-250k?!?

In many cases, guys are in the mid 30’s before getting a gig at a major airline. However, pay can be over $300k once hitting the top tier.

Maritime unions allow working for multiple companies, which is very nice when a company goes bankrupt…seniority and pension stays. Life sucks if one’s airline goes bust.

The public knows what airline pilots do; they have no clue what sailors do.

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Airline pilots prolly have more fun, hotels every night with flight attendants, mariners smelling that guy a dinner who hasn’t showered in 3 days and just put his hand in the bag of chips


US sailors are going to leave in droves unless there are BIG raises. $150k or so just doesn’t pay the bills like it used to, everyone I know ashore is getting $40k raises or more and barely does anything really compared to the work out here! $300k sounds more like it if you ask me


The pay may be up lately, but a commuter airline FO used to frequently qualify for food stamps. Also mariners are not expected to buy or charter their own boats and sail around at their own expense until they have enough experience to get hired.
There is one big thing in common, the usual suspects that want to end the Jones Act also want to end cabotage rules.
(There is no JA regarding where you buy your plane, but non USA flagged carriers cannot carry passengers on domestic routes and foreigners cannot be owners of USA flag carriers. I lost a great gig flying around Hawaii when the FAA uncovered a secret Japanese owner of the company :frowning: )

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Would love to know what company that is at? Most people working ashore barely get COLA, even if they do have outstanding appraisals.


It’s not so much raises per se as repeated ostensibly lateral job hops. It’s epidemic in tech and spreading to more white collar, those guys barely seem to hold down a job for a year before leaving for greener pastures, meanwhile their original job hires a new guy at a huge price increase too.

Thanks for that clarification. Yes, I agree on that.

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Pay for a career is often directly proportional to the hurdles you need to get the job. Pilots on big airlines are usually drawn from the pool of military fliers. Military academy, flight school, a spotless flight-record–all of those are major hurdles, driving up the labor cost for pilots.

Last year I delivered a boat. The other guy with me was a pilot for Southwest. Former F15 pilot. He knew everything there was about a 747. Could tell you how every mechanical component worked. Not in general. In detail. Had on his iPad detailed diagrams of everything. I happily listened for hours as he explained the workings of everything on the plane. The equivalent in the maritime world would be a guy who had both masters and chief engineers license.


When I was in school I was told the modern American mariner, has a shelf life of 5 years. 5 years in I feel like that is mostly true. With the old salts retiring, we’ll just see a less experienced fleet, with more turn over.

I’m not sticking around in the union for another 15 years with the hopes that maybe they’ll cover my health care. And for all the other new grads, there is a chance someone figures out nationalized healthcare for the US in the next 20 years. Thats a safer bet than having a family that loves me while I’m sailing for the same amount of time.

People will continue to leave, as they have been, and old men who don’t sail will continue to complain that the American merchant marine is a week shell of its former 1950s self.


While ex-military pilots do get hired by the airlines, that is not the source of the majority of them any more. You are quite correct about a modern pilot being both a master and an engineer, seeing as the actual flight engineers are disappearing, most large airplanes now are designed for a crew of two.

  • unlike mariners, being an engineer was rarely an end in itself, the vast majority wanted to move up to FO.

He is abnormal. Most pilots do not know all this nor do they care to. Southwest doesn’t fly 747’s. They do know enough about systems to get through emergencies, as required by their type rating (license). There have not been flight engineers in airliners since the 1980’s

I never understood this, though. For every high pay airline slot, there are at least 5-10 qualified and license pilots. There will never be a pilot shortage, as many people dream of a job flying planes. There are not lots of hoops to jump through…the pipeline and progression is very standard. The only unknown is getting lucky enough to get one of the airline jobs when they have 100 openings and 1,000 apply.

Also, the unions have always made it a feast for a guy at the top flying the wide body, but the poor guys stuck below actually working harder and doing more difficult flying (multiple commuter legs a day into small airports and bad weather) get paid much less. At least maritime unions pay equally for the job, and not by years in service at a company (this allows company switching when management screws things up, like they regularly do).

One other major difference is the licensing a qualification process. One can be qualified and licensed to captain left seat of a 747 with just 1500 hours of flight time. However, unlike us sailors, airplane pilots must actually take practical tests and prove they are competent in their skills at each level, and regularly after that.

Most airline pilots are in a simulator every 6months getting emergencies and other difficult scenarios tossed at them. Each step of they way they had check rides, flight examiners, etc etc. They also have a very rigid procedures and checklists. Nearly everything is objective.

Where does a USCG licensed mariner ever take a practical test? Instead, time in grade is relied on as the qualifier, not objective skills test. Time in a job is rarely a good indicator of competency.


Yeah it’s perfectly possible in maritime to coast a long way not knowing anything hopping ship to ship. Third on something really simplistic, second somewhere with really good fuel, first on a pre-po with two firsts and a gas turbine and chief in ROS or somewhere with lots of vendor support. Vs bulling your way through on the biggest or most complicated ships where you might get a truly humbling education.


If you run a business where worker expertise counts, you eventually learn the Golden Rule of Pay: Try to pay your employees enough where you can afford to fire them.

In jobs where skill and knowledge are key, employers are loath to fire people, because expertise is in short supply. Fire someone and you might not be able to find a replacement as good.

If you run an auto shop you’re always afraid of losing your best mechanic to the shop down the street. If that mechanic is an asshole, you may want to fire them, but you’re afraid to, because you might not find a good replacement at that pay-scale, and a bad mechanic=bad Yelp reviews=going out of business. In effect, you’re not paying enough to afford firing people.

If your pay scale is high enough where you can fire a worker and get as good or better a replacement
overnight, everyone is happy. The worker especially, because he’s making top dollar.

That’s the upspoken principle behind pay for skilled workers in the USA. A lot of people never understand it. It’s a desideratum, mind you. What really determines what employees are paid is the market.

Low skill/knowledge jobs are something else.


Flying for the majors is ALL about seniority and it isn’t portable. You could literally take a 75% pay cut jumping airlines and depending on how fast you moved back up and how far up you were, you could very easily never make it back to your old level.
I guess the mariner equivalent would be going from the master of an Exxon tanker, getting mad at Exxon, jumping over to Chevron, and going back to 3rd assistant barnacle scraper.
IF - and this is a big IF - you get on to a major and they don’t go bankrupt, merge, or otherwise get disrupted, you keep passing medicals and checkrides, and the company doesn’t stagnate and quit hiring, it can be a really nice life. High seniority bids first on routes, you get paid a lot, you have medical coverage, and a nice pension. You and your family also fly for free, which is more useful for vacations and such than riding on a tugboat for free.


Sometimes I think it would be nice to ride on a ship and do nothing but then I realize I’d wake up at every alarm

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Completely different industries, skillsets, education requirements, risks, etc. Comparing apples to oranges here. I have to admit that an airline pilot flying a plane full of human lives probably deserves more incentive than the guy delivering rocks via barge (me). A majority of commercial pilots are as cool as a cucumber under pressure and don’t lose their temper if the bubba burgers are over cooked.


Comparing Pilots to Mariners is like comparing a heart surgeon to a dentist, they are both doctors, but are they really.
Pilots deserve more pay than mariners. Our job is not that difficult.


Well, with the demise of the flight engineer, I believe that is what commercial pilots have to be these days. Or IT guys for the Airbuses. . . .

When I came ashore, I still spent some time at sea (and still do occasionally). It did take awhile to adjust to NOT responding to alarms, engine slowdowns, etc. The first few trips, I actually would spend extra time down below “just because”. Most of my time at sea now (when I go) is on construction barges, support vessels, DSVs, etc. and not involved with the actual operation of the vessel or its condition. Just so long as I don’t share a cabin with three dive tenders, it isn’t too bad.

FYI, A flight engineer in many ways is an easier job than an a ship engineer. You don’t ever fix the airplane, that wouldn’t even be legal. You basically are playing with the controls for generators, air conditioning, switching fuel tanks, being an extra pair of eyes on engine gauges, etc. etc.
Some third-world ops might expect the flight engineer or FO to be able to wrench on the place as well, these people would also be licensed A&Ps (Airframe and Powerplant).