How Much Money Can Airline Pilots Really Earn?

Graduates of ATP’s Airline Career Pilot Program are flying for virtually every airline in the United States, as well as for airlines well beyond our borders. These graduates form an alumni group that we enjoy staying in touch with. One ATP graduate that we always look forward to hearing from is Chris Carey who flies for United Airlines. Chris has sent us several very interesting articles, and I would like to share his latest with you about how much an airline pilot can earn in his or her career, a confusing but important subject for people interested in becoming a professional pilot:

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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.

How Much Money Can Airline Pilots Really Earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for airline pilots and copilots is $117,290. The bottom 10 percent earned under $60,770, while the top 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

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 ExpressJet Airlines operating under the name “United Express.” 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 ExpressJet, Endeavour, Skywest, and Republic.

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 Skywest Airlines earn between $28,400 their first year to $48,880 their fifth year. A captain at Skywest earns between $81,520 in their sixth year of work (six years with the airline, not as a captain) to $121,300 in their twentieth year.

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

New hire pilots at United Airlines make $73,360 their first year of employment, while second-year pay jumps dramatically to $110,080. 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 $131,500. 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 $213,100 per year on the 737 while a senior captain on the 777 earns $264,100 per year. Again, these pilots can make more if they are willing to work harder, some as much as $350,000 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 $28,000 and $121,000 while at the regionals and between $73,000 and $350,000 at the major airlines. That is excellent pay for a job that so many of us love doing.