Nearly all pilots choose the career because of their love for flying- but the pay is a nice bonus.
Airline pilots don’t necessarily get paid a “salary”. Pilots are paid hourly. As of August 2020, the average airline pilot salary in the United States was $102,851, but if you’re researching this as a possible career there is a lot more to consider than just the national average.
Factors That Determine Pilot Salary
Just like any other career, each individual pilot’s salary varies depending on multiple factors. Each airline sets its pay rates based on the contracts it signs. These rates may be based on many different inputs.
Resume- Years of experience is a key factor in the hiring of all pilots, not just airline pilots. While the hiring at the airlines is based on experience, the offers for compensation are set by the contracts the airline has signed with their pilots. In relation to other pilot opportunities, experience may dictate the amount of pay you are offered. For example: A small corporation is looking to hire a pilot for their multi-engine aircraft and has two pilots pursuing the same job. One flew 5 years for a banner tow company in a Citabria, and the other was a contractor for 5 years and has flown a variety of single-engine and multi-engine aircraft. The contractor will likely receive a higher offer as he/she has flown in a wider variety of aircraft and has more overall experience.
Hours- As mentioned earlier airline pilots are paid on an hourly basis. Logically this means that pilots who fly monthly schedules with higher flight times are going to get paid a larger amount.
Aircraft Type- The airlines pay their pilots different hourly rates depending on which aircraft they fly. As a general rule, the larger the aircraft, the higher the hourly rate.
You get to pick your monthly schedule of hours as well as the airplane you fly based on your seniority number (which is a very important aspect of being an airline pilot, as we have discussed in other blog posts.) As your seniority number improves, you have more say in which aircraft and schedule you fly.
First Officer (Year 1)
Salaries posted above do not include sign-on bonuses or other benefits.
Pilot Salary- A Timeline
It goes without saying- you earn the least at the beginning of your career and the most towards the end. Before beginning your path towards a career as an airline pilot, it’s important to understand how much you will be making throughout your entire career.
The figures above are based on averages across different airlines but can give you a good idea of the pay you can be expecting as your career progresses. It's also worth noting that the timeline above is stretched out a little longer than what some would experience. For example, prior to Covid many regional airline pilots made it to the majors after only 3-5 years.
You probably noticed that at a couple of spots on the graph, the bar line drops. This does not necessarily mean you get a drop in pay. As an incentive for pilots to start at a new airline, sign-on bonuses are sometimes distributed. You would technically earn more money during your first year due to that sign-on bonus.
Pilots enjoy plenty of benefits aside from the pay. Especially during times when the industry is strong and, airlines are struggling to compete with the other airlines to bring qualified pilots to their airline.
Free Travel- Most airlines allow their pilots free travel on flights that have empty seats, including a seat for a friend or family member.
Per Diem- Pilot’s receive a very attractive per diem on top of their hourly wage. This amount is to cover your expenses while on trips. Often times the amount is larger than what you spend so could add to your annual income.
Healthcare and insurance- To remain competitive with the other airlines, most companies have very attractive healthcare and life insurance benefits for their pilots.
Bonuses- While bonuses are not guaranteed in any business, in the good times airlines will offer sign on bonuses to be competitive in hiring. Others offer yearly profit sharing based on the airlines income as well as other contractional agreed upon amounts.
Other Types of Pilot Jobs and How Much They Pay
In terms of pay, this is probably the most competitive with commercial airlines. Cargo Carriers. The pay structure is almost identical to the one outlined above.
Many will opt to instruct as their method of gaining their FAA required minimum ours, but some love it so much they choose to become a career instructor. A career instructor can expect to earn anywhere from $40,000 to $75,000 annually.
Like instructing, most who tow banners are using the job as a method of collecting hours. The pay is similar to instructing and can range from $20-$50 an hour.
The job of a tour guide could be for you if you enjoy small groups and consider yourself a people person. The job is location-dependent and can vary greatly in hours. You could be doing a lot of hours during peak-season, and be earning very little during the off-season, so this gig isn’t for everyone. Average earnings are around $52,000 annually.
For the extreme thrill-seekers, aerobatics might be a fun career for you. Aerobatic pilots, or stunt pilots, perform in aerial shows, compete with other aerobatic pilots, and train pilots in aerobatic flight. The pay of stun pilots varies tremendously, but the median earnings of this job pay between $50,000 and $70,000. It is a very difficult career to break into, and you will need to be passionate about the job in order to break out.
Charter services offer private flights to businesses or individuals. A charter pilot needs to have a professional attitude as they will be dealing with clients even more directly than pilots flying for airlines. The salary is higher than most time-building jobs, with the average charter pilot in the US earning ~$75,000.
A career as a corporate pilot is similar to a career as an airline pilot in many ways. It is a very competitive job, you will likely need a high number of hours to be considered, and you are typically flying larger turbine aircraft. The differences are of course the number of passengers, type of aircraft you are flying, and where you will be flying. Many may consider corporate pilot as more attractive than airline pilot due to the more consistent schedule and locations. You will likely not be required to move like you would early in your career as an airline pilot. A corporate pilot may start out around $60,000 annually (first officer) but has the potential to earn $180,000 or more as they gain more experience and stay with a corporation longer.
One of the more unique and niche jobs on this list, a crop duster (also known as “Aerial Applicator” or “Agricultural Pilot”) is a pilot that uses aircraft to aid in agricultural care. They may apply pesticides, fertilizers, or even plant seed using their aircraft. This job requires not only aviation training (commercial rating) but agricultural knowledge. You will need to be knowledgeable on different types of pesticides and fertilizers, and familiar with agricultural practices. If you are able to overcome this knowledge hurdle, you are rewarded with a job that can pay higher than $100,000.