How Much Is An Airline Pilot’s Salary?

Airline Pilot Salary
Epic Flight Academy students put in a lot of effort to become airline pilots. They make connections while at flight school that will stay with them throughout their careers. But the real question is… how much will they earn?

People choose an airline pilot career for a variety of reasons, first and foremost being their love of flying and sense of adventure while seeing the world. However, with the growing demand for commercial airline pilots worldwide, airline pilots’ salaries have become an excellent reason to consider a career in aviation. If you have been thinking about becoming a pilot but are concerned with how much pilots are paid, you can be assured that for the relatively small investment you make in flight training, the financial rewards of a pilot’s paycheck are more than sufficient. With an annual income in 2019 ranging from $42,000 to $270,000 in the U.S., it is important to understand how pilot salaries are calculated.

How much do pilots make?

Like other professions, pilot salary is not equal across the board. Pilot salaries vary among types of airlines, the size of aircraft, and even flying routes. Salary also depends on other factors, such as a pilot’s credentials and experience, the specific job title (Captain or First Officer), and pilot union agreements. Also, most people don’t realize that pilots are paid by the hour – not an annual salary. In 2019, according to GlassDoor, a website where people self-report their earnings, the average airline pilot salaries were respectable. GlassDoor reported the average base pilot annual pay in the U.S. was $113,709 (based on 235 pilots who reported salaries). One 2018 report showed the median annual commercial pilot salary at $130,059, and the 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report put the median U.S. pilot salary at $140,340. (This means that half of all pilots earned less than this amount, and half earned more.) There are pilots working for major airlines making close to $300,000 per year. However, with so many factors impacting pilot salaries, it’s important to look at multiple perspectives and examples to have a real understanding of how much pilots earn, and, more importantly, how much you can expect to earn. How much do pilots make is a simple question with a multi-faceted answer. We’ve even created a video to help explain.

A very short answer is the median airline pilot salary for 2018 is $140,340, but keep reading to learn how to earn at the very top!

How is a pilot’s salary calculated?

First of all, remember that airline pilots are paid by the hour for actual hours flown. Federal law requires that airline pilots are to fly no more than 1,000 hours per year. This is to ensure they are well rested and ready to fly each time they enter the cockpit. Compare this to an average job where workers are expected to work 40 hours per week. Taking two weeks off for vacation, the average person works 2,000 hours per year – double that of a commercial pilot. A pilot’s hourly rate increases for each year he or she has worked for an airline. The range in hourly rate also changes by airline and by type of aircraft. For example, a senior Captain flying a B777 for Delta can expect to earn $330 per hour, whereas a junior First Officer on the same plane could expect to be paid $86 per hour. Flying the same plane for United Airlines, a senior Captain would earn $328, the junior First Officer $85.

Remember that these ranges are on a continuum from lowest to highest pay, which changes incrementally depending on the pilot’s experience with the airline. If you’d rather fly cargo planes instead of passenger planes, you’ll find similar ranges in pay. A junior First Officer at FedEx will be paid $74 per hour, and senior Captain will earn $296. The range at UPS is even greater, with junior First Officers starting at $45 per hour and senior Captains earning $300. You can see by these wide ranges among a handful of examples that many factors impact actual salary calculations. Regional airlines typically start at around $35 per hour. Your starting pay is determined by various factors, such as your flight experience and type ratings. Although a college degree is not a requirement for most airlines, many do assign value to having a college degree during the hiring process using a point system to determine the best candidate and rate of pay.

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How do international pilot salaries compare to U.S. airline pilot salaries?

The airline pilot shortage is not just a U.S. problem. Many international airlines are offering premium pilot salaries to entice American pilots to work for them. For instance, Emirates Airlines pays a Captain an annual average salary of $192,000 and an additional $50,000+ to pay for housing each year. This is on the high side. Most international airlines pay pilots similarly to U.S. airlines. Piloting the larger jets pays approximately $121,000, while flying smaller jets internationally pays around $104,000. This is why many international flight students attend flight schools in the U.S. Training in the U.S. is usually more available and affordable than in their home countries, and their FAA-approved licenses and ratings will transfer to any country. To properly compare pay rates between airlines, it is always advisable to review their hiring requirements.

What is a pilot’s starting pay?

Most commercial pilots in the U.S. begin their professional careers as Certified Flight Instructors after they have completed their initial flight training: private pilot, instrument rating, commercial pilot, and instructor training. This is mainly because of the FAA’s “1,500-hour rule” that was established in 2013. The rule requires all first officers flying for commercial airlines to have accrued a minimum of 1,500 hours to qualify for their Air Transport Pilot (ATP) license. In order to log these required hours, flight training offers an excellent opportunity to “build time” in their logbooks, hone their aviation skills, teach new pilots, and earn a paycheck. Although most CFIs are paid a modest $30-40 per hour, depending on the flight school, the critical component for U.S. pilots is that they can build their hours without having to rent the use of an airplane, which could be costly. Once they have earned their ATPL, pilots can expect to be hired as a junior First Officer with a regional airline at an hourly rate of $30-60, again, depending on the company. 

One example comes from Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of American Airlines. In 2019 this U.S. regional airline announced first officer starting pay of $50-55 per hour and captains at $76-96 per hour. Pilots flying for international airlines earn their ATP with different minimums depending on the country. For example, flight students from Colombia, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia know that when they train in the U.S. and return home to begin their flying careers, they only need to have logged 250 hours instead of 1,500, and most have logged these required hours before leaving the U.S. Therefore, most international flight students can begin their airline pilot careers without first becoming instructors. To fully understand the number of hours needed to fly in your country, check with the Civil Aviation Authority there.

Do pilots ever receive signing bonuses?

Yes, regional airlines frequently offer signing bonuses. For example, in 2018, Envoy Air offered a $45,000 signing bonus for qualifying pilots, Air Wisconsin $31,000. Envoy Air, Silver Airways, and GoJet Airlines offered signing bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $12,000. Trans States offered a $44,000 first officer signing bonus. In 2019, Piedmont Airlines announced an $18,000 bonus. Signing bonuses have become more common due to the pilot shortage, especially with regional airlines. This is good news for pilots who have recently completed flight school and want to begin their aviation careers. Most begin their commercial pilot careers as Certified Flight Instructors (CFI) to build the 1,500 hours needed to work for the airlines. The pay range for CFIs is typically $30,000 – 40,000. Flight instructing is the most common employment before taking the next step to the regional airlines where it is not uncommon to be offered a signing bonus. In addition to signing bonuses, some airlines pay annual bonuses to employees. For instance, in 2019, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air workers shared $120 million in bonuses due to outstanding performances in 2018.

Does networking help in the hiring process?

Yes, we see this again and again. Although your qualifications will ultimately carry you across the finish line to the pilot job you are seeking, we know of hundreds of instances where pilots who became friends in flight school were instrumental in leading former classmates to new positions. We frequently hear from our graduates who bump into each other at terminals around the country, sharing their new positions and other career information. They network through social media after graduating from flight school and continue to support each other once they launch their aviation careers. Another type of networking that can help from getting your foot in the door to being hired at your dream job is the networking provided by your flight school. Here at Epic we frequently host events for our students where they meet representatives from our partner airlines. The airlines appreciate these opportunities, because they get to meet students early in their training and nurture a relationship with them. All of this leads to strong connections that help our flight students on their career paths. Never underestimate the power of networking.

What kinds of benefits do airline pilots receive?

Pilots typically receive excellent employment benefits, such as health insurance, life insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, and a retirement plan. Pilots also get paid vacation time, sick days, holidays, and other personal time off benefits. Most pilots also receive per diem to cover food expenses, etc. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits is the pilot’s schedule. Because a pilot can only fly 1,000 hours per year, this means that pilots often have as much as two weeks off every month, resulting in greater leisure time than most occupations. Free airfare via jumpseats is another benefit for pilots, which is typically extended to family members as well based on seniority and other factors. Pilots can also find themselves overnighting in some wonderful locations, resulting in spontaneous sight-seeing and memory-making. Employees in any field of work often forget about the value of benefits. These benefits cost employers real money, and when calculating your actual pay you should always remember to include your total benefits package to understand the real value of your compensation. In today’s gig economy where people are frequently contracted as freelancers and receive no benefits, no social security, etc., pilots remain fortunate considering the many benefits paid by their employers.

How many years can an airline pilot work?

In the U.S., airline pilots are required by the FAA to retire at the age of 65. However, they can still fly as private pilots for companies like NetJets, where the average pay is $111,800 per year. The mandatory retirement age in the U.S. is one of the main causes of the pilot shortage. Airline pilots must also maintain a healthy lifestyle to avoid losing their Class 1 Medical, which is required of all ATPs. This means pilots should not smoke or use drugs, limit alcoholic intake, exercise regularly, get plenty of rest, and take all steps necessary to maintain the healthiest lifestyle possible in order to avoid losing their Class 1 Medical.

What are some examples of an airline pilot’s salary?

The purpose of this article is not to convince you to become a pilot because of the excellent pay and job security. People who decide to become pilots do so for less tangible reasons than pay and perks; most pilots profess to having a “calling” to fly. Perhaps there are pilots in their family tree or stories of missions flown in the military. Perhaps the desire to fly is innate in humans, just stronger in some. No, we never try to talk anyone into becoming a pilot, because we understand the deeper reasons people choose this career path. We simply provide this information to help you understand the nuanced ways pilot salaries are determined and the factors that contribute to increases in salary. You have to make a living, after all, and isn’t it wonderful when you can get paid to do what you most love? Therefore, we have provided a snapshot of pilot salaries based on years employed with various companies to give you an idea of the range. Whether you fly for fractional, charter, regional, law enforcement, or major airlines, the bottom line is that starting pay is generous, and there is plenty of room for advancement.

Sample estimates of First Officer pilot salaries for major, regional, and charter airlines
Sample estimates of Captain pilot salaries for major, regional, and charter airlines

Are there trends in pilot wages?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles historical data on salaries airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers. In 2018, the Bureau reported the median salary at $140,340. Compare this to the median salary for all workers in the U.S., which was only $38,640. In 2017, the median salary for pilots was $137,330. And, in 2016, it was $127,820. Trends clearly show pilot wages on the rise.

Median Annual Pilot Salaries in the United States:

  • 2018: $140,340
  • 2017: $137,330
  • 2016: $127,820

Are pilot incomes expected to increase?

Yes, the upward trend in pilot salaries and bonuses shows no signs of abating. Southwest Airlines pilots’ salary will increase by nearly 30% in 2020 according to their new contract. An average Southwest pilot earned $230,626 in 2015, so their pay is certainly above average. Delta pilots voted for a similar deal. With the ongoing pilot shortage and increase in air travel, airline pilots can expect a steady rise in wages.

What can a pilot do to earn at the top?

  • First and foremost, be a good pilot. This means taking your currency requirements seriously and focusing on safety first. This includes maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, avoidance of tobacco products, and little to no alcohol use.
  • Second, be a good employee. This means being on time, being a good colleague, maintaining a positive attitude (especially when faced with challenges), and being flexible. Adhere to your corporate values, which likely emphasize customer satisfaction. Your work reputation follows you, so make sure it’s a good one.
  • Third, do your research. You may have reasons for wanting to live and work in a particular region, so bear all those considerations in mind when deciding to pursue a job at a different airline. Then, find out what the different airlines are paying a pilot with your credentials. Legacy airlines, such as Delta and United, are known for paying pilots at the top. However, with various signing bonuses and benefits packages, you may be surprised at what other airlines offer. This is a good time to assess your professional relationships to see if someone in your network can share relevant information.
  • Fourth, negotiate respectfully and confidently. You know your value, and the pilot shortage gives you something of an advantage. Decide what it is you really want in terms of salary and benefits, and be prepared to ask as well as to compromise. Refocusing your priorities from time to time is a good way to make sure you are asking for what you really want. A younger pilot may be more focused on salary, whereas someone with many years in the left seat may be looking for more personal time off. Know what you want before you ask.
  • Fifth, always prepare. Whether you’re going to your first job interview of your fifth, prepare yourself by following proven tips on how to get a job as a pilot. Prepared pilots are successful pilots.

Do pilots belong to labor unions?

Many pilots do join unions to advocate for their best interests, including wages and benefits. The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) is the largest union for pilots in the world, representing 63,000+ pilots from around the world including the U.S. and Canada ALPA is a member of the AFL-CIO and the Canadian Labour Congress.. Airline Pilots Association is the labor union that represents pilots from American Airlines.

News and trends regarding airline pilot salaries

  • January 20, 2020 – Delta Airlines’ profits were so high, they paid all 90,000 employees an extra two months’ salary as a bonus.
  • January 7, 2020 – CNBC has added airline pilot to its best paying jobs list of 2020, the first time the position has appeared on its list. They report a salary of $146,600.
  • December 26, 2019 – CNBC reported that airlines are set for their 10th consecutive year of profits. This is the longest streak of its kind in four decades, and airline employees are expecting raises in 2020.
  • December 16, 2019 – Dallas Morning News reported that American Airlines is leading the pilot hiring surge. The pilot shortage has a direct impact on airline pilot salary.
  • November 8, 2019 – The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) reported both seasoned and rookie pilots are in high demand. As 65-year old pilots are forced to retire from airline pilot jobs, they are increasingly sought after as Part 135 charter pilots.

Being an airline pilot has always offered a rewarding career and now more so than ever.