how much do airline pilots earnNo doubt you’ve heard that there is a pilot shortage, which may leave you wondering how much do airline pilots earn? Demand for airline travel is expected to grow dramatically over the next few years, and with the current generation of airline pilots coming up for retirement, now might be a great time to consider becoming an airline pilot.

If you have a love for flying and have considered making a career out of flying, or if you’re thinking about changing career read on to find out more about what a career as an airline pilot might look like.

How are airline pilot salaries calculated?

Unlike many careers, airline pilots don’t get paid a salary, which can make it hard to figure out how much do airline pilots earn. Instead, they are paid by the flight hour: the time starting when the doors on the airplane are closed at the beginning of the flight to the time they are opened at the end. In addition to the time spent at the controls of the airplane, pilots are expected to review flight plans, participate in preflight briefings and check aircraft before flight.
Because airline pilots can’t work a typical 8-hour work schedule like most people, the FAA limits the number of hours an airline pilot can fly to 1,000 per year. This is to make sure that pilots are well-rested and not flying long flights back-to-back that might jeopardize the safety of them and their passengers. Most airlines advertise a minimum of 75-hours per month, limited by regulation to a maximum of 100-hours in one month.
As of December 2021, the average pilot salary in the United States was $108,822. Because of the 1,000 hour annual limitation imposed by the FAA, you can calculate what your maximum earning potential at any given airline. In addition to your take home pay, there are other benefits that come from flying for an airline. 

What other factors determine an airline pilot salary?

The amount and kind of experience you have

While individual airlines negotiate their own contracts with pilots, one common element that affects how much you will be paid is your experience. Your experience can come in many forms, including the types of professional flying you have completed, and the variety of aircraft you have flown. 
When it comes to figuring out how much airline pilots earn, a pilot with five years  flying turbine-powered airplanes for a corporate flight department will likely receive a higher offer than a pilot with five years flying a single-engine Cessna performing pipeline patrol work in good weather.

The number of hours you log 

Since pilots are paid by the flight hour, the more hours a pilot logs each month, the more they are able to earn. However, since the FAA caps the number of hours a pilot can fly professionally each year, there is a maximum amount you can get paid, based on your hourly flight pay.

The type of aircraft you fly 

From the earliest days of flying, the bigger the aircraft, the more complex the systems and the number of passengers they could carry. While that used to mean things like retractable landing gear, multiple engines, and pressurization, today most airlines recognize that pilots flying larger aircraft fly longer distances and are responsible for more passenger.
The more time you spend with an airline, the higher your seniority. In addition to earning a higher hourly rate flying larger aircraft, you will likely get to have first pick of your schedule each month.

How much do airline pilots earn: All airlines are different

As passengers, we might think that one airline is much like another. Airline pilots though, know that there are big differences between the regionals, and the majors, and that can affect how much airline pilots earn.

Regional airlines

Regional airlines are those airlines that fly between the hubs and smaller destinations. Some like American Eagle and Delta Connection you may be familiar with. Others, like SkyWest you may have never of even though they are large airlines in their own right and operate flights for Delta Connection, American Airlines, United Express, and Alaska Airlines.
Other regional airlines include Mesa Airlines, a subsidiary of American Airlines, Endeavor Air, Envoy Air, Horizon Airlines, Piedmont Airlines, PSA Airlines, and Compass Airlines, which is the only surviving part of the former Northwest Airlines. Most airline pilots start their careers at a regional airline, expecting to transition from the captain’s seat in a regional jet to the first officer’s seat at a major airline. Many majors have an established career path with the regionals so you can expect to rise from the regional to the major as you build time and experience.

Low-cost carriers 

Low cost carriers, such as Southwest and Spirit upended the traditional hub-and-spoke model when they introduced first regional services. With the deregulation of the airlines, they became more competitive than the legacy carriers by offering no-frills service.
Today the low-cost carriers provide pilots with the opportunity to stay with one company for their entire career. Although their starting pay is lower than the majors, the earnings of a career pilot at a low-cost carrier competes with pay-scale of captains at the legacy carriers flying domestic routes.

Legacy airlines

 The legacy airlines, American and United, are now almost 100-years-old. They pick pilots from the pool of regional airline pilots they work with and for pilots flying International routes, offer the highest pay for career captains.
While the salaries at the top end are generous, the path from regional airline first officer to the captain’s seat at a major airline can take fifteen or more years, depending on the economy and other variables. Desirable International routes with their top-end pay and choice of aircraft can take many years more.

How much do airline pilots earn: What factors affect my pay?

Why is airline pilot starting pay so low? 

When a regional airline hires a flight instructor to become an airline pilot, they must invest a lot of time and money into the new pilot’s training. While the pilot may have a lot of hours, most of it is probably flying small single-engine piston-engine aircraft as a flight instructor.
By the team an airline transitions a new-hire into the right seat of a jet, they need to have learned about turbine systems, pressurization, flying at high altitudes in very different types of weather, and be completely familiar with more complex systems. Oh, they also need to be able to work and communicate as a crew, instead of being the sole-operator they are familiar with.

That training takes time. Time during which the pilot is not earning money for the airline by carrying paying passengers. Starting salaries at most airlines factor-in the cost of this additional training.

Do airlines require pilot applicants to have a college degree?  

Although most airlines don’t require a college degree, when the market is competitive and the pool of applications is great, a potential new-hire with a degree will earn points over one without. Airlines feel that a college degree demonstrates an ability to study and self-motivate, both of which will be important when the airline invests in pilot training.

Do airline pilots receive signing bonuses? 

When there is a shortage of airline pilots, regional airlines will commonly offer signing bonuses to attract new pilots. The amount of the bonus depends on how badly the airlines need pilots, and typically ranges from ten percent of base pay at the low end, to 100 percent of base pay at the top end.

As an airline pilot, am I guaranteed a minimum number of flight hours?

 Most airlines will offer a minimum flight hour guarantee. The way this is structured will often depend on the agreement the airline has with the pilot union, although it is typically 75-80 hours monthly. Some airlines guarantee a daily minimum guarantee, which can be better since it will guarantee you are paid when you show up for work even if your flight is grounded for mechanical or weather problems.

Can airline pilots make more with overtime? 

Yes! Pilots can double or triple their income by working on their days off. This can happen when airlines pay an hourly premium to call in a replacement pilot on their day off to complete a flight that would otherwise be canceled. However the FAA maximum duty time rules still exist, so you can’t fly more than the regulations allow.

What kind of benefits can I expect as an airline pilots? 

Most airline pilots are unionized and can expect excellent employment benefits from the airlines, including health, life, dental, and vision insurance as well as retirement plans. Airline pilots can also expect paid vacation time, sick days, holidays and other personal time off. You will remember that the FAA limits total duty time to 1,000 flight hours a year, which averages about twenty-hours a week compared to the forty-plus-hours most employees work, so this additional paid time off is on top of a very reasonable work schedule and plenty of leisure time.

In addition, pilots can expect to receive a per diem allowance to cover food costs while traveling, as well as the opportunity to travel to some great locations as part of their job. Other benefits include free-travel on available jumpseats, which is a perk that is often extended to other family members depending on your seniority.

How do I improve my chances of getting hired as an airline pilot?

Does networking improve my chance of getting hired? 

Aviation is a small community. While your hours and experience may ultimately determine whether you get the job you want as a pilot, often your chance to get the interview can depend on who you know.
Most of the instructors you fly with are planning to have a career at the airlines, which means that everyone, sometimes including the chief pilot, can be a useful contact to have when they move up the ladder. Other people may get you a job as a corporate pilot, or building time working an unusual position that may give you the edge on experience you need to land your dream job.

Do airline pilots belong to unions? 

Most airline pilots belong to unions. The largest pilots union is the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) representing about 65,000 pilots worldwide. Other pilots’ unions include the Allied Pilots Association and sometimes individual unions representing pilots for a single airline, such as the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

What is seniority at an airline? 

Seniority refers to the number of years you have been working for an airline. Pay usually jumps after your first year at an airline, and it will continue to increase the more time you spend at the airline. If you decide to switch to a different airline you lose your seniority and you will have to start again at the bottom, regardless of your hours.

Seniority also applies when you switch from the right seat to the captain’s seat. For this reason, some first officers choose to spend their career in the right seat, even if it means they ultimately earn less pay, because they get to choose their own schedules, get more free time, and can spend most nights at home with their families. 

How long can I work as an airline pilot? 

Under the current FAA regulations, airline pilots must retire at age 65. This regulation is partly responsible for the current pilot shortage as older pilots are forced to stop flying for the airlines.

There is no age limit for other flying jobs. Many pilots who have retired from the airlines continue to work as a corporate pilot or in other flying jobs long after they leave the left seat of an airliner.

What is the path to becoming an airline pilot?

The journey to the right seat of an airliner is long and expensive. You will need to earn an Airline Transport License, and although you could simply pay for hours of training necessary while skipping all of the other steps, it doesn’t make sense to. Here’s why.

The first step should take is to earn your private pilot license. This will allow you to fly an airplane by yourself, without having to pay for an instructor to fly with you every time you fly. 

The next step on your path is to earn your instrument rating, which you can do soon after completing your private license. Flying by yourself and getting experience in the air traffic control system will help you build the minimum hours you need to start training for your Commercial certificate.

Once you have your commercial pilot certificate, you can start getting paid to fly. You can also start working toward your flight instructor certificate, which is the job most career airline pilots pursue while building time for the airlines.

As a certificated flight instructor, you will earn money for each hour you fly, as well as building hours in your logbook that will count toward your goal of the airline transport certificate. You should now plan to earn your multi-engine rating, since the airlines will expect you to have multi-engine time in your logbook by the time you apply for a job.

Now you have to pay your dues while you build the hours you need to get hired by the airlines. In order to do this, you need to have a regular supply of customers who are looking to learn to fly. This is why at FlightRepublic, we feel it is so important for flight schools to focus on client retention. Without a steady stream of clients looking for instruction, flight instructors would find it much harder and take much longer to build the time they need to become airline pilots. The best way to do this is to make sure existing students don’t drop out of training!

Eventually, with enough time you’ll be ready to apply for your airline job at the regionals. 

What are the top five things I can do to be a top earning pilot?

  1. Be a good pilot. It should go without saying, but if you can’t fly safely, an airline won’t hire you. Since you’ll be required to pass a physical exam to earn your medical every six months, staying healthy and avoiding unhealthy habits is important too.
  2. Do your research before you apply. Once you start building a career and seniority at an airline you’ll be reluctant to change jobs. Spend time finding out not just which legacy airlines pay the most, but which have the benefits that most closely match your goals, and which regionals offer feeder programs into the airlines you want to work for.
  3. Be prepared. Once you go into your interviews, be prepared and rested. Depending on the stage of the hiring process, you’ll be expected not just to answer questions, but to demonstrate your ability in the simulator. You’ll want to be at the top of your game and ready to make the best impression.
  4. Be ready to negotiate. While you may not be able to negotiate higher pay, you may be able to compromise and negotiate on benefits. Figure out what you really want, whether its salary or time-off and be willing to prioritize.
  5. Be a reliable employee. Having the right attitude and being flexible are good traits in any job, but especially when you are spending so much time working in close proximity with other pilots. Earn and maintain a good reputation since the community is small and news travels quickly!

Conclusion

Being an airline pilot is a rewarding career that pays well, and provides great benefits that allow you to take plenty of time off, travel and see the world. The road to the cockpit is long and hard, but for someone who loves flying, and is willing to put in the hard work, discipline, and determination to succeed there is no better choice.