What Income Do Pilots Really Earn?

When considering a potential career there are many factors to look at. One of the most important factors is of course: earnings potential.

Trying to determine the salary of an airline pilot can be confusing, as there are so many different numbers floating around the internet. Pay varies widely by company and experience level and can range anywhere from $28,000 per year to several hundred thousand per year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median pay for airline pilots of $114,200, but does not show the range of salaries. Payscale.com shows a median of $100,191 and a range of $37,774 to $273,010. These numbers only give us a glimpse of how much a pilot earns and how those earnings change over a career. In the coming paragraphs we will discuss how pilots get paid and why some pilots earn so much more than others.

The airlines are basically divided into two categories: regional airlines and major airlines. Regional airlines typically fly under the banner of a major airline but are not actually part of that airline; an example of this would be Envoy Air operating under the name “American Eagle.” Regional airlines usually fly smaller jets ranging from 50 to 75 passengers and are where most civilian pilots get their first airline job. Pay at the regional airlines is significantly less than at the major airlines. While some pilots choose to stay at the regionals, most use them as a stepping stone to the major airlines. Examples of regional airlines are Envoy Air, Compass Airlines, Mesa Airlines and Trans States Airlines.

Major airlines consist of the names we all know, such as American, Delta and United, along with the cargo carriers FedEx and UPS. Pilots work many years to get hired by a major airline and almost never leave one to work at another. Pilots at the major airlines enjoy strong salaries and good benefits.

Pilots are hourly employees, there are some other ways in which pilots earn money, but for the most part they get paid by the flight hour. Due to the constraints placed on pilots by the FAA, most of us fly about 85 hours per month. There are more work hours involved, such as preflight planning, but time in the cockpit, and thus the pay, is usually about 85 hours monthly. In addition to flight time pilots are also paid per diem, which serves to reimburse pilots for the food and beverage expenses that they incur on the road. For this discussion, we will add in $4,000 per year to every annual salary to reflect per diem.

Using this formula of 85 hours per month and the hourly pay rates found at www.PilotJobs.com first officers at Compass Airlines earn between $45,820 their first year (plus a $17,500 first year bonus) to $52,960 their fifth year. A captain at Compass earns between $90,700 in their sixth year of work (six years with the airline, not as a captain) to $125,380 in their eighteenth year.

Once a pilot has worked at a regional for a few years they typically try to make the leap to the major airlines.

New hire pilots at United Airlines make $90,700 their first year of employment, while second-year pay jumps dramatically to $137,620. From there the pay can vary depending upon what equipment the pilot is on, but most fifth-year first officers at United are earning at least $168,220. A tenth-year first officer can easily break $200,000 if they want to pick up a few extra hours here and there.

The payoff in aviation comes when one becomes a captain for a major airline. A new captain at United makes $269,200 per year on the 737 while a senior captain on the 777 earns $338,560 per year. Again, these pilots can make more if they are willing to work harder, some as much as $400,000 or more per year.

In addition to the annual earnings quoted above pilots take part in company health insurance, life insurance and retirement plans. In many cases, these plans exceed what employees in other fields receive.

To summarize, pilots can expect to make between $45,820 and $125,380 while at the regionals and between $90,700 and $400,000 at the major airlines. That is excellent pay for a job that so many of us love doing.

Note: these numbers are approximations and are not promises of future earnings.