How Much Money Do Airline Pilots Really Earn?

Airline Pilot
Getty/Adastra

If you were to poll a group of random airline pilots about their salaries, you’d get a surprisingly vast range of numbers. One pilot makes only $24,000 per year while another makes over $200,000 per year. But interestingly, while airline pilot salaries vary wildly, they are pretty straightforward. So why the huge variation in pay between airline to airline or pilot to pilot when all pilots have to meet the same stringent requirements?

That answer is that pilots are paid based on different factors. Similar to a U.S. military pay scale, pilot pay is dependent on many things, like how long a pilot has been with the company, whether the pilot works for a regional airline or a major airline, the region or country in which the pilot works, his or her seniority, and whether he or she is a first officer or a captain. Oh, and let’s not forget the state of the aviation industry in general. Pilot pay is also linked to global economic health.

State of the Industry

The aviation industry is a cyclical industry. It goes up and down just like any other, but the very interesting thing about airline travel is that it’s both widely dependent on the economy and it acts as an independent economic force throughout the world. Aviation — specifically air travel — changes along with the global economic climate, but it also provides secondary economic benefits to other industries, like tourism and manufacturing.

A change in one can affect the other.

Today, air travel industry is healthy. After the economic recession in the early 2000s, airlines seem to be in a period of growth, especially in Asia. This means that airlines are hiring pilots again after years and years of instability resulting in airline mergers, bankruptcies, and employee furloughs.

Pilot hiring has reached a peak, and airlines are finding that they need to be competitive with their compensation and benefits offered to pilots, and subsequently keep them from moving on to other airlines, increasing pay and benefits for pilots.

As such, pilot salaries have increased in the last five years, along with the strengthening economy, and they are expected to continue to increase in the future. But the airline industry is volatile, and in time, pilot hiring will slow again, and ultimately stop, and furloughs will be necessary for airlines to keep operating. During these times, airline pilot jobs are in demand and airline pilot salaries suffer.

Today, though, the industry is healthy. And so is pilot pay. Still, airline pilots report vastly different earnings. Here’s why.

Factors that Affect Airline Pilot Salaries

In general, just like most industries, an inexperienced airline pilot just starting out in the industry will make much less than a pilot who has been flying for 10 or 20 years at the same airline. But there are other factors, as well.

Regional vs major airlines: In the air travel world, there are many types of airlines. There are regional airlines, low cost carriers, national carriers, major airlines and legacy airlines.

The pilot salaries at each of these categories, and even within them, can be vastly different. A regional airline like Cape Air, which flies routes in smaller airplanes like the Cessna 402 and the ATR42 from the East Coast and in the Pacific, pays a first-year first officer(FO) in the C-402 only $11/hour, while Horizon Air, another regional airline, pays a first-year FO $31/hour.

Jump up to a major legacy carrier like Delta or Alaska Airlines, and you’ll see pay scales climb sharply. A first-year FO at Delta makes about $86/hour and a first-year FO at Alaska makes $56/hour.

First Officer vs Captain: Remember that FO at Cape Air who makes $11/hour his first year? Well, compare that to a first-year captain at the same company, who might make $57/hour. And at Horizon, a first-year FO makes $31/hour, while a first-year CA earns $70/hour.

Time at company: Airline pilot pay scales are often determined by seniority and years at the company, so a pilot in his or her tenth year at a company will make significantly more than one in his or her second year.

Some notes: So by now you’re probably thinking, “That’s nice, but what do they really make per year?”  And this is where it really pays (pardon the pun) to compare in detail the other benefits offered by each airline. But to start with, you need to consider the monthly minimum hours at each airline, as well as per diem and other benefits. One airline might only guarantee 50 hours per month, while another will guarantee 80 hours of pay per month.

A new first officer at Alaska Airlines who makes $56/hour will fly a minimum of 75 hours per month. At this rate, he or she will earn $4,200 per month, plus per diem, which equates to at least $50,000 per year before taxes.

A captain at Alaska Airlines who has been employed for 10 years makes $138/hour, which equates to $125,000 per year plus per diem.

It should also be mentioned that when a pilot first starts at an airline, he’s usually on “reserve” status for a period of time. Reserve status requires a pilot to be on call either at the airport or within a certain range of the airport. He may find out he’s flying a few nights before a trip is assigned, or a few hours before. During this period, a pilot might be paid differently.

Also, pilots earn per diem while on trips, and different airlines have different per diem rates and have different rules for per diem.

When considering pilot pay and benefits, a pilot's quality of life is also an important consideration. As one of the benefits at an airline, a pilot may receive bonus pay, paid time off, vacation time, paternity or maternity leave, and other various benefits. A pilot must also consider how many nights he’ll be away from home, how many hours he’ll be required to work, and even the types of hotels and food offered while traveling. Jump-seat privileges are also a consideration, as some airline jobs offer privileges on many other airlines, while others don’t offer these privileges at all. Paying to commute to your job can be costly.

(source: airlinepilotcentral)

For all of these reasons, a pilot might report making $25,000 per year or $225,000 per year. But in general, newly trained, inexperienced pilots might make between $30,000-$50,000 per year, while an experienced pilot who has climbed his way up from first officer at a regional airline to first officer at a major airline and then finally, a captain at a major airline over a period of ten years will probably earn $100,000 or more.