Remuneration and long-term financial planning

Hello–a brief background on myself: I am 27 years old, university graduate, and have worked as a CPA/financial auditor for the past three years. Having worked at AA and YV prior to my corporate career, I have always had a strong passion and interest in the industry. My head is always turned up toward the sky as an aircraft flies overhead. I took an exploratory flight a couple years back and loved it–now exploring to make the dream into a reality.

From the research I’ve done and information sessions I’ve attended, the theme of a costly flight training is certainly a common one. It’s a significant investment. My questions are for those pilots who have gone through a civilian flight school training and either paid for the entire program out of pocket or via financing.

At the point you completed your training and perhaps working for a regional carrier, how did you manage your long-time financial planning and life events such as:

  1. Retirement–seems tricky to put away at least the recommended 12% of take-home pay and still have enough to pay for rent/food? Aside from 401-K matching that airlines typically (hopefully) offer, did you feel like you were able to contribute adequately to your retirement plan from day 1 in your career? Or was this placed on the backburner for a couple years?

  2. Housing–how did you feel about your prospects of home ownership? Presuming a significant amount of debt to be paid along with other expenses, how did you feel about your timeline of realistically owning a home?

  3. Cost of living–do airlines (either regional or mainline) compensate flight crew for cost of living adjustments (ie: a pilot based in costly SFO versus more affordable DFW?). Generally speaking, are bases in cities with lower cost of living more competitive domiciles for pilots to be based in? (can’t even imagine how junior CX pilots afford to live in HKG)

  4. What were some of the toughest parts of budgeting your life for the first 4-6 years in your carrier? What were your struggles like?

  5. Any other life goals (financial or non-financial) that had to be put aside as you embarked on the first 4-6 years of your career? At what point were you able to pick them up again and why?

Also curious to hear answers to the above as your career progressed transitioning after 4-6 years with a regional carrier to a mainline one. The current compensation in my profession is already in the range of a mainline pilot–I acknowledge I’d be taking a massive pay cut. I’m trying to get a feel for the scope and extent of “dues” needed to be paid until able to earn a more reasonable wage. It is definitely a passion-driven industry and one that excites me to no end, but best to have upfront knowledge of the costs of entering the profession.

Thanks in advance.



Welcome to the forums and thanks for bringing us your questions. I will be honest in that my experience was completely different from what your’s will be as I entered flight school right out of college. My career path (and compensation) has always been on an upward trend, so I has a different viewpoint than you will have. That being said, I can still provide some good insight into your questions.

  1. When I was hired at ExpressJet and the age of 24 I immediately began contributing 5% to my 401k, every time my salary increased I increased my 401k amount with it. When I came to Continental (now United) I did the same thing until I was maxing out my 401k. UAL puts an additional 16% of our pay into our retirement accounts, so that really helps as well. So retirement did take a bit of a back burner for a few years, but it wasn’t long.

  2. I bought a house my second year at Continental, but I would have been making the same or even more money as a Captain at ExpressJet at the time. I was married then and had her salary to help, but I carried most of the burden. It was tight, but I managed.

  3. Yes and no. United provides a cost of living adjustment for hose pilots based in Guam, but that is it. Other than that we are all paid the same, so your money goes a lot further in Houston than it does in New Jersey. What most pilots do is live a little further out from the airport where things are a bit cheaper (and usually nicer). Bases like DEN that are less expensive can go more senior, but that is also because it is a desirable place to live. I do believe that many of the cargo airlines that have overseas bases provide for cost of living adjustments, but I can’t say that with any certainty.

  4. I wouldn’t say it was “tough” but i definitely had to get in the mindset of thinking about every purchase before I made it, something that I have continued to do as I make more money. I sacrificed things like fancy meals out, but I don’t regret any of that now.

  5. Not really for me, because my career went in such a linear progression everything happened in order for me.

I think that the talk about “starving first officers” on the internet is a bit overdone. Sure, the salaries aren’t the greatest, but they are a lot better than they used to be and are inline with an entry level job, not to mention that pay increases exponentially at the majors. For you it will depend on your current standard of living and how many changes you need to make. I think that you will find that you can adapt rather quickly and in just a few years will be back to what you are earning in your current profession.