With a worldwide shortage of pilots creating ample job opportunities and increasing salaries at airlines, airline pilot salaries are a topic of major interest. Understanding how pay works for pilots can help you decide whether this career is right for you.
Pilots don’t earn a flat annual salary like some professions. Instead, they’re paid an hourly wage for each flight hour flown, along with per diem. Most airlines guarantee a minimum number of hours per month, so that pilots can count on at least a minimum amount of monthly income.
A regional airline pilots in the U.S. typically starts out making an hourly rate of $20 – $50 per hour, or about $20,000-$40,000 per year, depending on the airline, type of aircraft, and the pilot’s experience level. And although prospective pilots may imagine a lifetime in the air, the reality is that pilots spend just as much time on the ground as they do in the airplane. The average airline pilot logs 75 hours a month in the air and sometimes up to 150 hours per month performing ground duties like simulator training, maintaining records, performing pre-flight inspections, flight planning and traveling to and from hotels and airports.
In addition to the pilot’s hourly wage, he or she often receives a pay stipend during the training period, as well as a per diem rate when away from home. This allowance covers meals and other incidentals the pilots may accrue. And airlines typically pay for lodging when a pilot has to stay away from home overnight.
Pilot salaries vary according the type of aircraft that they’re flying and how long they’ve been at an airline. The median annual salary for the pilot of a large jet is an impressive $121,408. For a small jet, the median annual salary is $104,219.
Non-jet aircraft pilots make significantly less. The pilot of a large non-jet aircraft earns a median annual salary of just $79,106. For a small non-jet, the median annual salary is $85,418. Pilots undergo different training for each type of aircraft that they’re certified to fly, so it’s worth considering these facts before you begin your education.
Each airline has its own pay schedule, but nearly all offer standard raises annually. Thanks to this steady increase, airline and commercial pilots can expect to work their way up to a median annual wage of about $117,290 and higher. Pilots experience the biggest salary increase in their first five years. This increase is often larger for first officers than for captains, and the largest jump in salary often occurs after a one-year probationary period. Nearly all first officers go on to become captains after several years of experience.
Legacy carriers – the largest and oldest carriers in the U.S. – have some of the highest pay rates for pilots. A first officer in a Boeing 757 at Delta Air Lines, for example, starts out at $70 per hour the first year, and second-year pay is substantially more. After 10 years a first officer at Delta will earn $151 per hour. At the 65-hour minimum guarantee, a Boeing 757 first officer starts out making at least $55,000 per year and by year 10 will be making more than $120,000 per year, not including per diem.
By comparison, a captain at Delta in the same airplane starts at $206 per hour year one, and by year 10 makes $222 per hour. This equates to about $160,000 the first year and $173,000 by year 10, not including per diem.
For the major airline Southwest, first officers begin with an hourly wage of $57 their first year. By year five, this has more than doubled to $130 an hour. By year 10, a first officer’s hourly wage is $148 with Southwest. In the first year, a captain for Southwest makes $191 an hour. By year five he earns $200 an hour, and by year 10 $212 hourly.
Regional airlines pay less, and pilots fly smaller aircraft. Flying for a regional airline is the most common way to gain experience required for the major airlines, so it’s a necessary step for most up-and-coming pilots.
On Island Air, for example, a first officer makes $43 per hour the first year, and $58 per hour the fifth year. Captains for the same airline earn $67 per hour the first year, and $97 per hour by year five.
The good news is that with today’s pilot shortage in full force, regional airlines are forced to make themselves more competitive when it comes to hiring pilots, and many are offering paid training, relocation expenses, sign-on bonuses and bridge programs to their major airline partners, and better benefits for pilots. Island Air is currently offering a $12,000 joining bonus with $5,000 toward relocation expenses. Piedmont Airlines is offering a $15,000 joining bonus and according to their website, guaranteed employment with American Airlines.
Prospective pilots who are dedicated to this career have great potential to earn impressive salaries with less than a decade on the job. Those who take to the skies for their entire career can enjoy a very comfortable salary by the time they reach retirement.
The following infographic will help you visualize the current airline pilot salaries:
*This pilot salary information is to be used for those considering a career as a pilot actual airline pilot salaries may vary based on individual airlines and economic conditions. This information was based on a 2015 data.