How much do airline pilots make? That’s the real question, isn’t it? You’re trying to decide whether it’s worth taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for your own flight training, sell your soul to the military for the next decade, or just give up on flying and become an accountant. I’m about to show you exactly how much we make, and I think you’ll see that it’s worth doing whatever it takes. Do you want to know the kicker? The money isn’t even the best part of the job!
Table of Contents
- Background – A Look at the Industry
- But Seriously, How Much Do Airline Pilots Make?
- Beyond Money
Background – A Look at the Industry
Before we get started, we need to be clear on one thing: not all airlines are created equal. First, you have the “Legacy” airlines: Delta, United, and American. These are the three remaining US airlines that do significant international flying. Some people also use the term “Major” airlines to discuss this group, adding in Southwest. Southwest only flies one kind of airplane (Boeing 737) and only does limited international flying, but it’s nearly as large as any of these other three and as profitable as American or United. When we talk about “the majors” here, we’ll be thinking about these four companies.
There are also two major cargo carriers: FedEx and UPS. They’re in a class of their own, but I’d forgive you for grouping them with the Big 4 majors. It’s these 4 or 6 major airlines that we’re all shooting for. They have the best pay, the best work rules, and the best Quality of Life. In my opinion, you cannot go wrong working for any one of these companies. These are the forever jobs of the airline industry.
The three legacy carriers all utilize regional airlines to help serve their smaller markets. These airlines fly aircraft with 76 or fewer seats. The smaller aircraft serve smaller markets. Several times a day, great waves of these smaller regional jets (“RJs” for short) fly from small-to-medium sized towns like Boise, Spokane, Huntsville, Appleton, etc. to the big hub airports of the major airlines they serve. In most cases, the passengers switch planes to the larger “mainline” jets of the parent company and fly elsewhere. Those RJs then turn around and take a new set of passengers from the hub back to the small towns from which they just arrived.
The major airline execs who created the regional airline concept were geniuses. They realized that by structuring these operations as separate companies, they could pay the pilots flying these small jets far less than they paid their major airline pilots. Actually, this was the only way to make it work because the smaller RJs are extremely inefficient and cost a lot to operate. As a result, regional airline pilot pay was embarrassingly bad for many years. Starting salaries were around $18,000 per year and stayed that low for a long time.
Thankfully, a looming wave of pilot retirements has reduced the pilot supply available to the regionals. They’ve been forced to start paying a lot more money to attract pilots, and I don’t think we’ve even seen these pay rates top-out yet. We’ll take a look at the range of regional airline pilot pay here, but don’t get discouraged. A pilot who works hard and flies a lot should only be at the regionals for a few years before moving on to the majors. A military pilot who ends up doing a regional airline touch & go should only be at a regional for somewhere between a few weeks and about a year, assuming an otherwise competitive application.
There’s also a middle tier of airlines that fly exclusively narrow body aircraft, though they do serve some international locations. In the US these include JetBlue, Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, and some others. They are smaller companies. In some cases, their pay rates are equivalent to those for pilots flying similar aircraft at the majors, but the overall scope of these airlines’ operations is just less. Some of these are still good companies to work for, especially if you want to live in a specific location. They could be a forever airline or a stepping stone, depending on your circumstances.
So with that, let’s look at the types of pay an airline pilot gets. We’re going to choose a couple of specific airlines for this discussion, but you can get up-to-date information for most airlines at a fantastic website called Airline Pilot Central (APC).
But Seriously, How Much Do Airline Pilots Make?
Hourly Pay Rate
When you look up airline pilot pay, the big number that you’ll notice is an hourly rate. This rate is based on the type of aircraft you fly, the number of years you’ve been at your company, and your seat (Captain vs First Officer).
A Year 1 CRJ200 First Officer (FO) at a regional like SkyWest makes $45 per hour while a Year 1 B717 FO at Delta makes $92 per hour. Rates for Captains increase to just over $100 per hour at most regionals to $354 per hour for a 12+ year A350 Captain at Delta.
This is great information to have, but to put it into context you need to know how many hours a pilot flies. Airlines quote what is called a “reserve guarantee.” This is the number of hours they pay a pilot assigned to reserve duty each month. The industry average reserve guarantee is somewhere in the range of 72-75 hours per month. At most airlines, most pilots have an assigned schedule and fly at least 5-10 hours above the reserve guarantee.
It’s also worth noting that most airlines pay a little extra for international flying. In our example below, we’ll be adding $6.50 per hour to the A350 Captain’s pay because that aircraft almost exclusively flies internationally.
Using this information, we can project out monthly and annual earnings for pilots in the categories we just mentioned. We’ll assume each pilot earns 85 hours of pay per month.
Airline Pilot Pay Rate Examples
|Category||Hourly Rate||Monthly Pay||Annual Pay|
|SkyWest CRJ 200 FO||$45||$3,600||$43,200|
|SkyWest CRJ 900 CA||$125||$10,000||$120,000|
|Delta B717 FO||$92||$7,360||$88,320|
|Delta A350 CA||$360.50||$28,840||$346,080|
This is a decent amount of money for a regional pilot and an amazing sum for the widebody captain, but it gets even better from here!
To start off, most airlines pay a per diem to help cover the cost of food and incidentals while you’re on the road. It’s usually in the range of a couple of dollars per hour for domestic flying and a few more dollars per hour for international flying. This isn’t hours flown, this is “Time Away From Base.” On a 4-day trip, that’s usually about 80 hours for me. I find that per diem tends to be $500-700 per month for domestic flying. The value could easily double for international pilots.
Airline Pilot Per Diem Pay Rate Examples
|Category||Monthly Per Diem||Monthly Income Sub-Total||Annual Income Sub-Total|
|SkyWest CRJ 200 FO||$500||$4100||$49,200|
|SkyWest CRJ 900 CA||$500||$10,500||$126,000|
|Delta B717 FO||$500||$7,860||$94,320|
|Delta A350 CA||$750||$29,590||$355,080|
The next category of pay is retirement contributions. Airlines used to offer pension plans, but those are all but gone. Instead, most airlines have 401K plans where you can contribute up to $19,000 per year of pre-tax dollars. Most companies will either match your contributions to that account, up to a certain percentage, or they just contribute a fixed amount of money whether you contribute or not. If your company has a match, you’d be a fool to not contribute at least enough to get the full match. The total annual contribution limit for a 401K plan is $56,000. This sounds like a lot of money, but your goal should be to reach that level of annual savings as soon as possible.
Continuing our examples from earlier, SkyWest does a 4-12% match, depending on how many years you’ve been with the company, while Delta does an automatic 16% contribution. (Note that the percentage applies to your pay, but not to your per diem.) Here’s the effect that has on total earnings:
Airline Pilot Retirement Contribution Rate Examples
|Category||401K Contribution Percentage||401K Contribution Monthly Value||Monthly Income Sub-Total||Annual Income Sub-Total|
|SkyWest CRJ 200 FO||4%||$144||$4,244||$50,928|
|SkyWest CRJ 900 CA||12%||$1,200||$11,700||$140,400|
|Delta B717 FO||16%||$1,178||$9,038||$108,451|
|Delta A350 CA||16%||$4,614||$34,204||$410,453|
Many airlines also pay profit sharing. The amounts vary from company to company and year to year. Most regionals don’t offer this, but at least the four majors do. Profit sharing at Delta has ranged from 15.1% to over 21% during the past few years. If a company offers a 401K match or contribution, they generally apply that to profit sharing as well. Here’s an example of what this could look like for annual earnings:
Airline Pilot Profit Sharing Rate Examples
|Category||Profit Sharing||Annual Profit Sharing Range||Annual Income Sub-Total|
|SkyWest CRJ 200 FO||0-5%||$0-2,246||$53,174|
|SkyWest CRJ 900 CA||0-5%||$0-6,720||$147,120|
|Delta B717 FO||~10%||$0-10,245||$118,696|
|Delta A350 CA||~10%||$0-40,145||$450,598|
The last major category of airline pilot compensation is bonuses. Many airlines have small performance incentive bonuses. These will represent a maximum of a few hundred dollars per month based on the company’s percentage of on-time arrivals and other statistics. While these are nice, I argue that they aren’t awarded consistently enough to count on them.
Most regional airlines also offer referral bonuses to current employees who recommend other pilots. These are usually significant, ranging from $1,000-3,000. Some regional airlines boast about their compensation packages online by including an assumption that you’ll receive at least one of these referral bonuses. While I hope you get the opportunity, this is far from guaranteed. You should not assume that you’ll receive one of these bonuses when comparing compensation at more than one airline.
If you plan to apply to a regional airline please do the community a favor: find a pilot from your prospective company and let him or her refer you. Having this type of internal recommendation will help you get hired, and it makes life better for someone else without costing you anything. If you don’t know anyone at that airline, join the 25,000+ other pilots like yourself on The Pilot Network and ask there. I can almost guarantee you’ll get more than one response in under an hour.
Although these smaller bonuses can be nice, many regional airlines use very large signing or retention bonuses as a way to offer attractive starting pay without committing to higher overall pay rates in the long term. These bonuses are a good deal, and you should consider them when picking a company to work for.
It’s extremely important to look at the fine print though! Some bonuses pay out over several years. If you move on to another airline in that time, you won’t get any unpaid money. Most companies only pay these bonuses while you’re a First Officer. Once you upgrade to Captain your bonuses go away. Your significantly higher hourly pay rate will be much higher as a Captain, meaning your overall total compensation will probably stay about the same as when you got new-hire bonuses. At most regional airlines you should expect to upgrade within three years, though it’s possible to upgrade much sooner at many companies.
SkyWest’s bonus is somewhat miserly for the industry. They offer $7,500 to anyone who already has a type rating in a turbojet aircraft and up to $20,000 of tuition reimbursement. In contrast, Air Wisconsin’s bonuses top $57,000 over the first few years. Although not every pilot will qualify for every bonus Air Wisconsin offers, anyone should be eligible for at least $41,000 paid by the end of his or her first year at the airline. ATP Flight School has a great chart summarizing currently available bonuses.
If you include the value of what SkyWest offers, you could be looking at a total first-year compensation as high as $80,674. Unfortunately, your pay would decrease drastically in year 2 and stay much lower until you upgrade to captain.
We’ve looked at some specific examples, but you now know everything you need to calculate a likely annual pay figure for any given airline using the data available at APC.
The earning potential for a major airline pilot is pretty amazing right now. Don’t forget to pour a lot of what you make into savings in case the economy takes a hit, or you decide you’d like to retire before you’re too old to enjoy it. As long as you do, an airline career should set you up for long-term financial stability. If you save and plan well, it could even set your family up for generational wealth. We’ll talk about how that might work another day.
I hope your eyeballs did the cartoon pop-out-of-your-face thing then you looked at some of these charts and saw how much money airline pilots make. Honestly, the numbers I presented represent the very low end of what an airline pilot can make. Forgive me for the sham-wow line, “But wait, there’s more!”
I’m a lazy airline pilot. My earnings have basically kept pace with my military peers, yet I’ve worked an average of 11 days per month, for the last 2 years. Yes, I made that money spending less time at work than most military pilots get free from work. I have so much free time on my hands that I’ve picked up several fun side hustles and still get more time with my family than the average military pilot. I also received the equivalent of $100,000 of free travel by using my nonrev (standby) flying benefits during my first 18 months at my airline. I also live a life of much lower stress and greater flexibility than anything imaginable on Active Duty.
It isn’t necessarily an easy road getting to one of the majors, but once you do life is amazing. Thankfully, there’s a way to get the best of all worlds. If you’re already an Active Duty aviator, you absolutely need to consider the Ideal Military Pilot Career Path. If you aren’t a military pilot you have the potential to optimize that path even further.
No matter what path you choose, this is a great time to be a professional pilot. The military and the airlines are all hiring. Pay rates are at an all-time high, and there are benefits that go way beyond money. In this a not-very-humble pilot’s opinion, you can’t go wrong.