An eyeopening article about the pilots of Mesaba (Northwest Airlink)


Apparently a "terse" writer
Staff member
Moonlighting from Mesaba
Liz Fedor, Star Tribune

Published January 5, 2004 PILO05

On a brisk December morning, Mesaba Airlines pilot Ian Barrett got out of bed at 5 o'clock, hustled to the airport in Thunder Bay, Ont., and flew a Saab turboprop and its passengers to the Twin Cities. After a brief stop at his Inver Grove Heights home, Barrett drove to the Mall of America.

There, Barrett waited on customers at the Napa Valley Grille. He left at about 4:30 p.m. and spent a few hours with his son. Then he donned his navy-blue pilot uniform and headed back to the airport to fly an evening trip to Thunder Bay.

Barrett, 27, doesn't know when he will step off of this two-job treadmill, where he earns $31,000 a year flying and $12,000 as a waiter. He and many other Mesaba pilots work second jobs, dashing the notion that all pilots live comfortably on six-figure salaries.

The issue might come to a head Friday night, as Mesaba pilots prepare to strike over salaries, job security and retirement benefits.

Eagan-based Mesaba, which provides regional service for Northwest Airlines, has been negotiating a contract with the pilots union since June 2001. After failing to settle their differences with the help of a federal mediator, the two parties are making a final attempt at reaching an agreement this week.

Time is running out. The strike deadline is 11:01 p.m. Friday.

About 65 percent of Mesaba's pilots earn $30,000 to $57,000 a year, according to the Mesaba unit of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

"I only make $400 a week after taxes at Mesaba," Barrett said. "That's supposed to cover everything -- living expenses, day care, food and a car payment. It doesn't. I have to work here [at the restaurant]. I have no choice."

Many Mesaba pilots interviewed say they love aviation, so they've chosen to stay with Mesaba and work second jobs to cover their living expenses. As the son of an Air Force pilot, Barrett was drawn to airplanes as a child. Flying was "something my dad held a lot of pride in," he said.

And there is the allure of flying itself. "I love seeing the aurora borealis, the sunsets and the sunrises" while piloting a plane, Barrett said. "It's not your typical office job."

Before the pilots opened contract talks in 2001, a union survey showed that about 17 percent of Mesaba pilots held second jobs, said Kris Pierson, a union spokesman.

Pierson, 28, is among the pilots who juggle two jobs. He works as a personal and business banker at U.S. Bank in St. Paul. Although he holds a four-year degree in airway science and has been a Saab first officer since May 2000, Pierson often can be found working the 2:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift at the bank. He serves customers who call the 24-hour bank help line.

He makes $13,500 a year at the bank working 80 hours a month. In 2003, he earned $34,000 as a full-time pilot.

Pierson, who is single, said earning a second income allows him to maintain a livable lifestyle and pay off his student loans. He started working at the bank before he got hired at Mesaba. With the bank job, "There is a lot of independence," he said. "You are basically one-on-one with your customer. It is a different environment completely from the airline."

Pierson estimates that the portion of Mesaba pilots now working second jobs has grown to 25 to 30 percent.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks caused massive layoffs in the airline industry, more Mesaba pilots pursued a second income because they wanted some financial security. More recently, the likelihood of a pilots strike prompted those with captains' seniority to find second jobs, Pierson said. (Mesaba employs 844 pilots.)

Matt Doehling, a farm boy from Winthrop, Minn., said uncertain contract negotiations led him to start Doehling Lawn and Landscape Service in April to supplement his income.

Doehling is a first officer or co-pilot on Saab turboprops and his gross income averages about $30,000 a year. After mowing lawns and doing landscaping work last summer, Doehling now is plowing snow for businesses and homeowners.

"I've been able to just about match dollar for dollar during the summer what I was making with Mesaba," Doehling said. He and his wife, Jessica, live in Shakopee. She works in human resources for a health care company.

Doehling wants to improve his wages through a new contract agreement, but he advocates work rule changes so Mesaba pilots will spend fewer days away from their families each month.

Pierson said pilots are guaranteed 75 hours of pay per month. Their pay rate only applies to the hours that they are actually flying planes. Many pilots fly 85 or more hours per month. They are paid $1.35 an hour when they are away from their flight bases. Each month, some pilots spend 250 to 350 hours away from their flight bases, such as the Twin Cities, Pierson said.

That can be grueling on families, Doehling said. "I am considering getting out of the aviation business and just flying recreationally," he said.

Lost dreams

Pilot Justin DeMenge still hopes to make aviation his life's work, but he concedes that his dream of flying for a major airline is "fading." Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, many pilots planned to fly for regional carriers, such as Mesaba, for a few years and then seek jobs at the large airlines.

DeMenge, 30, of Sauk Rapids, works a second job as a bus driver in the Sauk Rapids-Rice school district. The job is close to home, and "it also gives me more time to spend with my three kids," he said.

"My youngest son, Tyler, rides my afternoon route," said DeMenge, who flies as a first officer on Mesaba's Avro jets. "If we meet new people [Tyler] will always tell them first that I drive a bus."

Growing up in McGregor, Minn., DeMenge decided in high school that he wanted to become a pilot. "It's a natural rush for me to fly," he said. But before he got his turn in the cockpit, DeMenge worked behind the desk at Mesaba as a customer service agent.

DeMenge earned about $34,000 as a pilot in 2003 and about $10,000 as a bus driver. His wife, Carleen, is a special education teacher.

In anticipation of a strike, he said, "We've been trying to put away as much as we can" in savings. But he admits that they've saved very little money. His second income as a bus driver is essential to the family's budget and it's spent on everything from "groceries to lunch money for the kids."

When Barrett, the Napa Valley Grille waiter and Mesaba pilot, is not working, he spends time with his three-year-old son, Alexander.

"I try and see him every single second that I can," said Barrett, who is recently divorced and shares custody of Alexander with his former wife.

Barrett tries to take Alexander to the Minnesota Zoo at least twice a week, and to squeeze in three trips to the gym to lift weights. "I need to do something for myself," he said. "I don't get a chance to go out to movies or anything like that."

Even though Barrett knows where every dollar of his paycheck goes, he does not express any fears about going on strike at Mesaba.

"Honestly, it's no big deal. The strike [benefit] that we'll be paid when we go on strike is $1,400 a month. It's $200 less than I make right now at Mesaba," Barrett said, adding that he'll pick up extra work as a waiter to fill in the income gap.

Barrett, who holds a bachelor's degree in aeronautical science, said he believes he is underpaid for his work as a pilot. "We're professionals. We work hard to make sure everything is done right and safe and we give good customer service," he said.

After his deductions, taxes and $50 retirement contribution are subtracted from his gross income, he gets a check for $811 for two weeks of work as a pilot. "Can you live off of $400 a week?" Barrett asked. "That's a question I'd love to ask the CEO."

Mesaba spokesman Dave Jackson declined to comment on the practice of pilots working second jobs.

"Pilot performance is excellent," Jackson said. "Our goal is to negotiate a fair agreement for the pilots that allows the company to survive and grow long-term."

Barrett and others are ready to strike to win a contract that mirrors agreements at other regional airlines. "I'll be walking a picket line," he said. "Between walking here [at the restaurant] and walking there, I'm going to be so skinny when it's all finished," he joked.

Barrett added, "I have many college buddies who work for Comair and Atlantic Coast and Air Wisconsin and they don't have to work two jobs to survive."

Liz Fedor is at
All I gotta say is damn.

WTF....did he say he never gets the chance to go to the change.

Seriously hope they get what they want from mgmt.

"My youngest son, Tyler, rides my afternoon route," said DeMenge, who flies as a first officer on Mesaba's Avro jets. "If we meet new people [Tyler] will always tell them first that I drive a bus."

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Thats just sad.
... so if they go on strike what can an average person do to help them? long term. as in making sure one can live doing this line of work without flipping burgers to make ends meet. this just stirs memories for me and makes my blood boil. seems like the average working Joe (and Joann) are getting ground to powder and there seems to be no end to it in sight.
I feel for these guys and agree that pilots are underpaid and under appreciated. BUT . . . $34,000/yr is a livable wage, even with loans hanging over your head. Granted, I don't have any children, but you should be able to live well on that amount of money. If you can't, you're not spending wisely. Live within your means: ditch that car loan and buy a 5 year-old sedan flat out, don't eat out all the time, move into a simpler, cheaper apartment, lose the cable, etc., etc., etc.

$34,000 is more than a LOT of people with kids in the US make, let alone the world.
... that's true, but still it's not your average job either. something is still amiss (sp?). if i'm not mistaken one can start a 'real' flying job and still starve.
Yeah, you can definitely get by on $34K a year but when you consider that a bus driver here in Maryland starts at $25K a year, gets a raise after six months, and get his training paid for...

It's just nice to see an article that doesn't talk about guys working ten days a month bringing home $300K as if that is the norm.
I made ends meet on $14,000/year, but I had lots of parental support, a paid for car and no family. I didn't intend on staying at Skyway and making it a career by no means. I guess rent-controlled low income housing helped me out a lot too. I remember doing my laundry some evenings and wondering if someone's going to snatch my clothes and sell them for Xanax!

Add a wife and a kid and maybe a mortgage and $400/week vaporizes pretty darned quick. Couple that with the personal sacrifice it takes to maintain an airline job and you've got a tricky situation.
I think the "problem" is that now regionals are no longer a "2-yr stepping stone" and the pilots who fly for 'em are starting to realize this. So the "I'll do what it takes for a couple years" attitude for crap pay in order to make the majors is fading away. I think (and hope anyway) we're going to start seeing aggressive contract negotiations at the regional levels because it's a long-term career now and folks want the pay/benefits/QOL that goes along with a "career."

Anyway you cut it $34k for a pilot is cheap, cheap cheap. Any other profession with the same level of required training and responsibility starts at a much higher pay rate than $34k.
Uhh yeah, that's what I was trying to say! But in my poor monosyllable English diction.
"I don't have any children, but you should be able to live well on that amount of money. If you can't, you're not spending wisely"

When you do have kids let's revisit this topic because you'll then understand how much they truly cost. Being away from home so much a pilot family is going to shell out some serious day care money - around here the average is anywhere from $85 to $125 a WEEK(we'll use $100 a week average)!! We all know how good the medical coverage is at most regionals so let's assume the spouse has a decent policy where he/she works - coverage for a family of 4 can easily reach into the HUNDREDS per month - let's just assume $150/month. There's over $550 a month just for daycare and insurance. Car payments? Yeah going out and buying a 5 year sedan is great and all - IF you have the cash to do so - most regional pilots don't. If each spouse has a $5000 car the payments are going to be around $200 a month total. Add $100 a month for insurance for both. Like most everybody else I have student loans. I think mine are a little lower than most but let's use my payment of $195/month. If both spouses have one there's another $400 a month. What does food cost for a young family of 4?? Let's say $100 a week - which is on the very low side. Depending on how far you drive to work there's another $190 a month for gas(1 16 gal fill up each week for each car at $1.50 a gal). And let's face it - Mesaba's hubs of Minnie and Detroit are no LaGuardia but they ain't the cheapest places to live - what would be a fair estimate of a 4 bedroom apartment "in the slums" up that direction??? $650 a month? Add utilities, clothes, 'stuff' for the kids, etc. etc. etc. Don't forget you have to save some for when you WILL get furloughed and/or on strike. I don't think this scenario would be considered 'living above your means' and I haven't kept track of the numbers but
I bet it's getting close to maybe about $3000 - with two people bringing home $400 a week that's cutting it awful close. Is it impossible? No. Do people do it everyday? Yes. But add in a couple of unexpected bills or anything above the most very basic expenses I outlined and the young airline family is screwed.

Something else that isn't apparent in the article is how per diem figures into all of this. Nobody that has responded to this thread so far(as best I can remember) has ever flown for a regional so let me explain it. The young man working at the restuarant stated he made "about 31K a year gross" - I don't know what Mesaba's pay scale is but I'm gonna' guess somewhere about $24 an hour after probation which isn't that bad in the regional world - 85 hours a month times $24 an hour times 12 months only comes out to $24,480 so I'm going to assume that the rest of that $31K is per diem. You can't really can't per diem as income because you've usually already spent it. A typical 4 day trip would be about 80 hours TTAFB(total time away from base) at my airlines - at the stated $1.35 an hour that's $108. Out of that you have to pay for about 7 meals (assuming your hotels have free breakfast). Hotels and airports aren't the cheapest places to eat by any means but you're able to average $8 per meal - there's $56 out of the $108 gone already - or roughly half. 5 4 day trips a month is going to get you roughly $500 a month in per diem - $6000 a year plus the roughly $25K a year from the "flight pay" is where he got $31K a year - but wait - you've already spent half of the per diem 'on the road' so subtract about $250 a month from you checks from the airline.

Maybe my numbers are a little off, maybe my logic on some things is slightly flawed but I hope that I made point that $34K sounds great but it really ain't all that much - especially when you have kids.

I think everyone needs to keep in mind as well, that pilot is a profession, not a job.
I guess Doug and 602 beat me to the post reply button but yeah what they said.

And to provide and example of what 602 said - I had a high school buddy go thru the same amount of schooling that I did - actually less when you consider all my weeks spent at Flight Safety in the various initials and recurrents, etc etc - and he just bought a $400K house - the compensation level for pilots as compared to other 'professional jobs' with similiar amounts of training is ridiculous.

But most of us love what we do too much to stop doing it long enough to force the pay rates higher - there's nothing more intoxicating to a young CFI than the smell of jet fuel.

"$34,000 is more than a LOT of people with kids in the US make, let alone the world."

It depends greatly on where you live. 30k in a large city will get you nowhere, fast. In a more rural setting is much more livable.

I WISH my family made 34k, but I won't get into that.
Something else everyone needs to remember that if you're planning on becoming a professional pilot, whether you work for SWA or AA, you're going to find yourself in a situation where you approach a strike deadline date.

Take the time now to study the situation, learn the issues and give yourself a 'head start' because this is a situation that you have to deal with until you retire.
I don't want to be a jerk here, but it is possible to get by on $34K a year in a big city. I got by on less during 2003. I got laid off in December of 2002 and didn't get back into my field until September 2003. If you look at the paystubs from the jobs I was using to keep afloat, it would have come out to be about $20K or so for a full year.

Now, granted, I don't have any kids (that I know of, anyway
), my car is paid for, and I also am lucky in that my folks pretty much kicked my butt until I bought a condo with the money left from my college savings fund instead of a car.

But it can be done. I'm not saying it doesn't require some sacrifice and that it's easy. However, even a spoiled brat like me could do it when I really set my mind to it.

And that doesn't change my contention that a pilot damn well ought to make more than a bus driver!

I was referring to the situation the pilot was in, not living with your parents (if you did) getting bills paid for you.

Huge difference.

Yes you can get by on your own with 34k a year in a big city, but there won't be much of anything extra.

In NYC, 1200 a month will get you one room.
Yes you can get by on your own with 34k a year in a big city, but there won't be much of anything extra.

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Nope. There sure won't. And let's not forget that with a kid, and him having to pay for health insurance (I didn't) and so on, it makes it a hell of a lot more difficult.
That club sandwich and bowl of soup does look yummy there...