Starting Salary + Debt Load + Pilot Shortage = What Gives?

I have been doing a lot of research for myself and my younger brother on flight schools. We are both interested in ATP and the aviation industry overall. While he is more idealistic, I am more realistic and have many concerns and reservations about the airline industry.

After reading many threads on this website, the stories all seem to follow the same narrative: jump into ATP, secure a job at regional, and work your way up. Stay focused and work hard.

That is realistic and seems to be the nature of attaining a long and stable career. My concerns are this: How does one justify a very small starting salary, coupled with an immense debt load for training, all under the guise that there is a very large pilot shortage on the horizon? How has this effected your overall quality of life for the first few years as pilot? How can you afford to live on that salary, re-pay the debt that financed your career, and enjoy yourself? Aside from wanting to fly, what other factors contribute to selecting aviation as a career?

The Airline Pilots Association, International posted this brief regarding starting salaries:

Within this brief, it states that few regional airlines are taking steps to address low starting salaries. The brief also states that the FAA has data suggesting that there are tens of thousands of ATP certificate toting pilots in the US but are not actively seeking employment, possibly as a result of these low salaries. Does ATP, the school, discuss this during its enrollment process, if so, what are some of the counter arguments?

I am very concerned of entering into a profession that has such high barriers to entry–meaning debt, and pathways to advancement (aka seniority). It seems that aviation, while personally rewarding, may not be as professionally rewarding in terms of the time versus skill/work relationship. In other words, time and seniority are much more of a determining factor of how far you can advance versus how much work you put in, or how good of a pilot you are.

I look forward to hearing from active pilots on these points.



Welcome to the forums and thanks for your questions, they are very well thought out.

Your summary of the pilot narrative is pretty spot on, but that really is the summary of any job. Nobody starts out at the top of their profession. The top surgeons in the world started out looking at sore throats and broken bones, with hard work and dedication they worked their way up. The top lawyers in the country were at some point a clerk in somebody else’s office. What those top surgeons, lawyers and pilots all have in common is that they worked hard and stayed dedicated to get to where they are now.

I will say that I have been an ALPA member my entire career and generally subscribe to their stances on matters that pertain to the profession. However, it is important to remember when reading a document from a pilot’s union that it is published with one very clear goal in mind, and that is to increase pilot salaries (which is a good thing). ALPA of course published the lowest salaries that they could find and were sure to leave out the signing bonuses that many of the airlines are now offering. I would redirect you to this site for a much more realistic picture of first year pilot salaries: While no, those salaries will not make you rich, they are a lot better than what ALPA is presenting and are certainly livable wages.

As to the number of pilots with ATPs, that article assumes that every pilot wants to be an airline pilot, many do not. There are tens of thousands of corporate pilots (who mostly all hold ATPs) who have no desire to enter the airlines. Just Net Jets alone employs over 3,000 pilots,all of whom hold ATPs and very few of whom want to join the airlines. Then there are the thousands of pilots who simply fly for fun and acquired the ATP under the old rules when it was much easier to do so simply because they wanted to say that they had it. Again, these pilots have no desire to fly for the airlines. I think that ALPA is using some ver faulty math here to try and stretch to prove their point, it really falls flat when one looks at it objectively.

While we do talk about the pilot shortage here we do not do so as a promise of great things to come. The shortage means that you will be able to get a job sooner rather than later at a regional, but advancements to the majors were here long before the shortage and have always been the goal of most pilots. Adam and I both got hired on at the majors well before the shortage really started to affect the regional airlines.

Sure, when I was a new hire regional pilot things were tight financially, but I was able to buckle down, repay the debt and move on to better things. It just depends on what your standard of living is and how you chose to enjoy yourself. You must keep in mind that even at the new higher pay rates a job as a regional FO is very much an apprentice job, you simply cannot expect to enter it and make what the experienced pilots do. Any profession is like this, look at what doctors make when they are doing their residencies, being a regional FO is essentially like doing your residency. The pay does get better, but it takes a few years.

While I do enjoy flying that is not why I got into aviation. I saw that my father (a US Airways pilot) was able to provide us with a very comfortable standard of living while having a great deal of time off. I became interested in the job for those reasons and then later grew to like it. So far my decision has paid dividends, I have a great schedule and make a rather good living while doing it.

I actually like that seniority is what drives advancement in the airlines. Seniority is a great way tone absolutely fair, it completely circumvents favoritism and makes sure that everybody has the chance to advance in turn, not just when the boss decides that they like the individual. Pilots are not evaluated on their skills because we all have to be excellent pilots if we want to work at the airlines. The airlines do not hire mediocre pilots, we all pass the same check rides that hold us to exacting standards. That is how we can say that any flight will be safe, regardless of who is flying it.

All of these points aside, at some point you will have to look within yourself and see if this is something that you really want to do. I can make arguments for the career all day long, but at some point you are going to have to make that leap of faith and decide if this is something that you are willing to take a bit of a risk on. Remember though, that other than working an entry level clerk position for the rest of your life and career will require a bit of a leap of faith.

Please let me know what other questions you have or if I can clarify any of this further.


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I found your post very interesting since most of the posts we receive are in reference to the “how” and not so much the “why”. I’ll do my best to address some of the questions you pose I will not however try and convince you of anything. Personally believe if you’re not sure you probably shouldn’t.

Chris addressed most of your post but as he stated I’m not aware of any career where you don’t have to begin at an entry level position? Whether you go to Baruch for business, Harvard for law, MIT for engineering etc all with leave you with significant debt (some 3-4 times that of ATPs) all with no guarantee you’ll be successful or even have the opportunity to put those degrees to good use. Aviation however is unique in that your first "entry level " position at a Regional you will in fact be an airline pilot (vs working as a clerk in a law firm).

As for the “very large pilot shortage on the horizon” I can assure that is false since the pilot shortage is in fact upon us. The Regionals can’t fill newhire classes and have had to cancel flights due to not having sufficient pilots to fill they’re cockpits. In response many have literally doubled their salaries, offered hiring bonuses and tuition reimbursement making those first few lean not nearly so lean. The Majors as well are scrambling, lowering mins and offering flow-thru agreements for their Regional partners. This is possibly the best time in history to pursue this career. That said it could change tomorrow so none of those reasons should influence your decision.

As for the ATPs Alpa quotes first you need to understand that Alpa is the largest pilot union in the country. Their priority is to support it’s members, part of which is to help convince the airlines it’s time to up the salaries in light of their record profits. As Chris said there are thousands flying corporate PLUS flying overseas, without medicals, DUIs, criminal records etc etc. Not sure what your point is but what I can tell you is if they so desired (and of course are “hirable”) they could be flying for an airline tomorrow.

Finally I’m not really sure where you get the “barriers to advancement”? While the average pilot advances through his career with the aid and help of seniority (and most are quite content with that), those who wish to advance and excel can and do by taking advantage of other positions, all without ever sacrificing their seniority and rank as pilots. There are instructor positions, fleet Capt, Check Airman, Chief pilot, Asst Chief pilot and many others available. While many jobs require you to surrender tenure and seniority when you make such a move the airlines do not. I can also assure you that if you’re the pilot who doesn’t work hard or perform very well you’ll never get anywhere near any of those. That aside I find the fact that thousands of people literally put their lives in my hands and trust me to deliver them safely through what can sometimes be less than ideal conditions infinitely more “professionally rewarding” than a raise or job title.

That all said you are correct. There will be some sacrifice and you may not ever reach all your goals. I have so obviously in my mind it was all worth the risk. Would I feel the same if I hadn’t? Well when I was 18 I thought I was going to be a rock star (seriously). I quit school, moved to England to “make it” and failed miserably but in my heart I know I tried and I’ll never regret it BUT all of that is because I had a passion for it. I also thought I might want to be a lawyer (and majored in Poly Sci in college). Well I never got my law degree but really could care less. Why? Because to me that was just going to be a job and I was looking for more. Life is short my friend :slight_smile:


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Chris and Adam’s posts already clarified a lot for i believe, I want to add my personal experience in the decision making process.

After finishing my 3 year military service in the IDF at 21, I found myself “postponing” my education because I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I traveled a lot, worked odd jobs, tried to learn electronic music production with the hopes of being a successful DJ (Adam, I also failed horribly :slight_smile: ), bartended, learned to cook, and more, just so I wouldn’t have to make the decision to go study some random subject that I didn’t really care for.
Now just to make things clear, aviation in Israel is not available as it is here in the States. You either become a pilot in the Air Force, and transition to an airline after your service, or you don’t fly. Not much GA going on over there.
After 3 years of procrastination, I finally decided that I have to do something and I started searching the internet for information on different degrees and job opportunities etc. I narrowed the options down to Physics, Industrial Engineering and Mathematics. All three options were chosen based pretty much solely on the potential money I would make when I am done. My passion for the topic didn’t have much significance in the decision making process, because I literally couldn’t find anything that interested me.
At some point in this process I was searching for something online and I came across an ad for ATP on Google (one of those ads that come up on the side bar during a search, the ones that I usually ignore). It basically said ‘come to us and you will be an airline pilot in 2 years’. I immediately called and got some extra information on the programs, but the decision was already made. It took me about 3 months to narrow down my degree options to 3 ‘meh’ options, and about 10 minutes to decide that I was ditching all of that and going to pursue my dream of flying.

What I am saying is that the choice has to be made from within, and not based on a bunch of numbers and statistics. It seems to me like you are very ambitious and any ambitious job will require you to acquire some debt initially. Like Adam and Chris said, pretty much all jobs have an ‘entry level’ where you won’t be making a whole lot of money and the QOL will be a little bit lower, that is part of a career. But in my opinion, with the rising pay at regionals and also at flight schools (especially ATP), your entry-level salary is significantly higher than a lot of other places.


Yarden, Adam, & Chris,

Thank you for your responses. I cautioned raising my concerns as they may have come across as unwarranted or would perhaps display a notion of false anxiety. Your responses have addressed them well and validated many as legitimate, yet navigable. Thank you.

Thank you for pointing out APAI’s aim. However, the low starting salaries still are worrisome. As a 28 year old who has a slight debt load from undergrad education, and is accustomed to a higher salary range (I’m self-employed exploring a career change), these numbers raise a valid concern. I have done some additional research and the sign-on bonuses are appealing, but I assume most people are quoting the higher range of sign on bonuses, is this the case? What have you seen? Bloomberg has a great article here highlighting some of these points:

My statement on career advancement was perhaps taken out of context and perhaps I had not stated my concern correctly, or do not have the proper understanding as to how pilots advance. I understand that all careers begin at an ‘entry level,’ but most conventional careers (marketing, sales) aside from highly technical or structured professions (lawyering, being a doctor, pilot, etc) you can differentiate yourself based on your attitude, dedication and skill and are not subject to such rigid advancement structures or timelines. I am not discounting these attributes in being a successful pilot–Chris made a great point regarding the standards that must be adhered by any pilot to assure every flight is completed safely–and his argument resonates with me as being sound and valid.

Perhaps a hypothetical situation would better frame my questions/concerns regarding advancement: I’m 28. I want to fly as much as I possibly can to advance as quick as I can, in the dictates of industry safety and training (and union) standards. My goal is to fly international. What does this look like? Are pilots able to fly seven days a week? Are they limited to number of hours per week based on safety standards? Are pilots not flying at their full capacity per week/month/quarter due to certain factors? Ultimately, is there a ceiling of how much you can fly per week?

I believe that flying offers an incredible opportunity to fulfill a worthwhile career both personally and professionally, and fill a gap that is increasingly emptying out, there are just questions that someone who is not familiar with the ins-and-outs of the industry that still linger. I hope you understand.

Thank you all for your thoughtful replies!



The regulated limitations on flight duty times can get complex, definitely for explaining here on this thread. But just to give you a general idea, airline pilots are limited to 100hrs of flight time per month and 1000hrs per year. You can take a look at Adam’s and Chris’s schedules to get an idea of what a normal schedule looks like.



Please do not ever be cautious about bringing your concerns to this forum. We are here to help, all three of us are more than willing to answer your questions to help you decide if this is the right career for you. At the end of the day our goal is not to make you a pilot, it is to give you the information that you are looking for in a straight forward, unbiased manner.

Sign on and retention bonuses, like everything else in the industry, are determined contractually by the union an d the company. To my knowledge every pilot is receiving the full sign on or retention bonuses. In the airlines there is no favoritism amongst the line pilots, everybody is treated the same.

As Adam pointed out you can differentiate yourself by moving into management or instructing other pilots. You can also volunteer with the union as a way of standing out. But, you cannot differentiate yourself as far as your seniority number is concerned. If you get hired at United you cannot jump right to Captain or to a widebody airplane because your skills are better or because you fly more. Those types of things are determined strictly by seniority and is really the only fair way to do it.

Now let’s get to your question, you are 28 and want to become a pilot for a major US airline flying international routes, how do you do that? The first step is to find a flight school that can train you properly and quickly, for a fair price. After you finish training you will need to then flight instruct until you have 1,500 hours of flight time. After that you can get hired by a regional airline where you will start to build your airline experience. While you can only fly 100 hours per month I think you will find that is a lot of flying. However, make sure that you are one of the guys that flies a lot. Upgrade to Captain at the first possible opportunity as it is Captain jet time that the major airlines really want to see. While you are building your airline time you can differentiate yourself by the various methods that are mentioned above, this will make you more attractive to the majors.

Once you get hired by a major airline it really becomes a strict function of seniority until you can hold international flights. It took me about three years to do so at United/Continental, some people take more and some take less.

I hope this helps clear things up a bit, I appreciate your well thought out questions.



You make a valid point when it comes to the higher end of salaries and bonuses particularly when it comes to availability. With all due respect, I think a question you might want to be asking is what happens if/when I apply to the airline with the highest pay, bonus whatever and they don’t hire me? I’m really not trying to challenge you here, but have you ever actually flown an airplane? I’m honestly very curious as to what it is that makes you believe you will possess those superior skills to all the other pilots out there, that if the industry was more performance based, you’d be the one who excells? You’re obviously a smart guy but flying encompasses skills which much be learned and frankly some (regardless of effort and intelligence) are just better than others. There are many pilots who bust checkrides and those busts stay on your record forever. Some just don’t interview well.

The fact you make the statement you “want to fly as much as possible/can I fly 7 days a week?” clearly demonstrates you really don’t understand what we do. That’s not a dig. How would you know? BUT I do believe your questions seem to be solely concerned with the financial/professional aspects vs the responsibility of the career when it comes to making your decision. If you just drove 8hrs in snow and sleet would you want to get right back in the car and drive another 8? Would that be safe? Would you want the pilot who’s flying you family to fly as much as possible to advance his career with no regard to the people sitting in the back? That’s what we try and do here on this forum. We try and give people a window into what this job entails which goes far beyond a paycheck.

I appreciate this is a Major decision and you want as much info as possible and that’s a very good idea. But as long as we’re being honest I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that your biggest concern should be the reality there are ZERO guarantees you’ll ever even see inside the cockpit of a commercial jet. Again the choice is yours whether it’s worth the risk but yes there definitely are many.


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