How Much Do Airline Pilots Get Paid?

How Much Do Airline Pilots Get Paid?

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Ever wondered how much airline pilots get paid, especially in light of the current pilot shortage? In this post I wanted to highlight a resource that more or less spells it out, for anyone who is curious (either because they’re considering a career as an airline pilot, or because they’re just plain nosy).

As a kid I dreamed of becoming an airline pilot

I have huge respect for airline pilots. Back in the day I wanted to be a pilot more than anything else in life, given how much I love flying. Until my early teens, I was absolutely convinced I wanted that to be my career.

Then one day to the next, a bit after 9/11, I decided I didn’t want to be a pilot anymore, at least not as my career. I loved flying every bit as much as the day before, and I feel like the act of actually flying planes never gets old, yet I figured it would be really demotivating. Why?

  • At most major US airlines, all that matters is your seniority number, and I don’t think I’d like having a job where the most significant metric of my performance is the date I was hired
  • It’s hard to switch between airlines without a huge pay decrease or quality of life sacrifice, so you’re very much at the mercy of whatever management team is running the airline at the time, and I wouldn’t sleep well knowing that
  • Training to become a pilot is a huge investment (in terms of time and money), and really you’re at the mercy of whatever point the industry is at when you’re sufficiently qualified; suffice it to say that this is an amazing time to be looking for a pilot job
  • As much as I like travel, I’m not sure I’d want to commit to spending a large portion of my life away from home
I’m kind of sad this isn’t my “office,” but I really can’t complain

How much airline pilots earn

If you’ve ever been curious how much airline pilots earn, there’s a fantastic resource that will tell you — airlinepilotcentral.com lists the pay scales for many airlines, including legacy US airlines, regional US airlines, cargo airlines, and many international airlines.

Generally speaking airlines pay pilots in one of two ways:

  • On an hourly basis (most common at US airlines) — pilots are paid based on how many flight hours they rack up (when the door is closed), with some guaranteed minimum number of monthly hours, though this doesn’t include some additional pay if they pick up trips, for per diem while away from base, etc.
  • On a monthly basis with some additional hourly pay (most common at foreign airlines) — pilots are paid a base monthly amount, and then get a smaller variable amount that reflects the hours they fly, how long they’re away from home, etc.

Regardless of the scale, pay typically varies based on whether you’re a captain or first officer, which aircraft type you’re flying, and how long you’ve been in that position (with the pay scale increasing every year, up to a certain cap).

In the United States, airline pilots can fly up to 1,000 hours per year, so that comes out to roughly 80 hours per month. Those hours will rack up very differently depending on the types of planes and routes you’re flying:

  • A United pilot flying the San Francisco to Singapore route wouldn’t even be able to operate that trip three times in a month
  • Meanwhile if you’re operating regional routes, hours rack up much more slowly, given all the time between flights, during boarding, etc.

For example, below is American Airlines’ hourly pilot pay scale.

American Airlines captain pay
American Airlines first officer pay

If you want to very roughly calculate annual take home pay, just add three zeroes to the end (since pilots can fly up to 1,000 hours per year — in reality they’ll fly a bit less, but they get additional pay in some other ways). In other words, a first year American Airlines first officer could earn ~$90,000, while a senior wide body captain could earn ~$342,000.

Senior captains at American are the best paid

Regional pilots used to be paid horribly, but are seeing huge pay increases, amid the current pilot shortage. For example, below is Envoy Air’s hourly pilot pay scale.

Envoy Air captain pay
Envoy Air first officer pay

In other words, a first year Envoy Air first officer could be making ~$90,000, while a senior captain could be making ~$213,000 (though most pilots will go to a legacy before being at a regional airline for that long).

Regional pilots are paid much better than in the past

To take a look at a different kind of pay model, below is Emirates’ monthly pilot pay scale.

Emirates captain pay
Emirates first officer pay

Pay is the same regardless of whether you fly the 777 or A380. As you can tell, the most senior captain would earn $126,576 per year. However, this doesn’t include:

  • Flight time pay, where a captain earns another $16.26 per hour for every hour they’re flying, so figure that’s another ~$16,000 per year
  • A per diem, which is based on the cost of three local meals a day at the destination you’re flying to (so for a ~24 hour trip to New York, that’s an extra $100)
  • Living in the UAE is tax free, unless you’re a US citizen, in which case you’ll be taxed on part of your income (though the first ~$100,000 isn’t taxed, so that’s still significant savings)
  • A very generous housing allowance
Emirates pilots are paid monthly

Let me of course note that I can’t personally vouch for the above numbers. It’s possible they’re not all totally up to date, but it does give you a general sense of what pilot pay is like, and the different models used to pay pilots.

Bottom line

If you’ve ever been curious how much airline pilots make, the above is a very simplified rundown of how pay works and how much pilots earn. Pay comes down to whether you’re captain or first officer, the plane you’re flying, and how long you’ve been flying in that position.

Nowadays pilots are really well paid, and I’m especially happy to see that pay has increased considerably at regional airlines (a few years back, regional pilots were hardly paid a livable wage).

On the high end, senior captains at US airlines may be raking in close to $400K per year, and they’re about to get even more pay raises. However, keep in mind that it took a very long time to get there, there have been lots of ups and downs, and they’ve spent a lot of time away from their families.

How does this compare to what you were expecting pilots earn?

Conversations (17)
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  1. Frank Guest

    If you really want to become a pilot and can't self-finance that training, you can join the military. That is a common flight training route followed by many commercial pilots. The military often offers sizeable salary bonuses to train their pilots, having invested heavily to train them.

  2. Gravelly Point Guy Guest

    Great job Ben!! Excellent work and top notch research. Congratulations! Brief, direct and to the point.

  3. DCharlie Guest

    Wow - I didn't realize that airline pilots make so little. Making $342K after 12 years is really not much.

    1. dillpickles New Member

      I hope you mean subjectively, ie "not much relative to the kind of responsibility their job entails". Because objectively, ie "most individuals make $340k/yr by the age of 40" would be an absurd statement.

  4. RealTaylor Member

    Great article! How does an airline like American determine which pilots will be assigned to the 737 / 320 vs. the 777 / 787? Given the significant difference between narrowbody and widebody pilot pay, do experienced pilots ever switch airplane types within their airline? If so, do they have to start over with 1 year of seniority on that aircraft type or does their seniority carry-over? What happens if your airline stops flying the aircraft...

    Great article! How does an airline like American determine which pilots will be assigned to the 737 / 320 vs. the 777 / 787? Given the significant difference between narrowbody and widebody pilot pay, do experienced pilots ever switch airplane types within their airline? If so, do they have to start over with 1 year of seniority on that aircraft type or does their seniority carry-over? What happens if your airline stops flying the aircraft you fly?

    Thanks in advance to Lucky or anyone else for any insight on this!

    1. A320capt Guest

      Everything from aircraft type to seat position (captain or first officer) is seniority based. When there are vacancies/open positions the airline will publish what’s known as a vacancy bid that all pilots can bid on. For example, the vacancy bid may be for 30 737 captains in LAX. Any pilot at the company who wants that position will put in their bid based on seniority. When the bid closes, the 30 most senior pilots to...

      Everything from aircraft type to seat position (captain or first officer) is seniority based. When there are vacancies/open positions the airline will publish what’s known as a vacancy bid that all pilots can bid on. For example, the vacancy bid may be for 30 737 captains in LAX. Any pilot at the company who wants that position will put in their bid based on seniority. When the bid closes, the 30 most senior pilots to bid the open vacancies will be awarded them. For new hires, it is also based on seniority. The class will be given a list of all open vacancies and they will bid on the positions they want and will be awarded what their new seniority (typically determined by age) will hold.

      Pilots choose to bid different aircraft or positions for a variety of reasons. Typically the more money something pays, the more senior it is. Widebody positions don’t typically go senior because it takes an experienced pilot to handle the aircraft… It typically goes senior simply because it pays more. There are always exceptions to every rule though. For instance, at United pilots are currently being awarded captain positions in the most junior domiciles after only one year with the airline and new hire pilots are getting awarded first officer positions on the 787 and 777. Due to reserve rules for the more junior pilots on the fleet and seat, current company pilots are not bidding for those spots. Therefore, those positions are left vacant and will be filled with new hires or very, very junior people. Current company pilots are choosing to hold off on those positions until they would have more seniority for increased quality of life when they do finally bid over. Someone’s seniority number is someone’s seniority number and it will never change. Let’s say that pilot A is senior to pilot B and they are both first officers. Pilot B gets awarded a captain vacancy. The more junior pilot B is now a captain while pilot A, although still more senior, is still a first officer. When pilot A decides to eventually take an upgrade award to captain, they will still be senior to pilot B and have preference in schedules, vacation spots, etc. to pilot B, even though pilot B has been a captain longer than pilot A. This is a pretty common occurrence. It’s not uncommon for me to have a first officer who’s senior to me. They just choose to stay a first officer for quality of life reasons.

      To answer your other question about pay, no. A pilot doesn’t go back to “year 1” pay with a new position. If they have been with an airline for 5 years and they upgrade to captain or switch aircraft type, they will be paid the 5 year rate for their new seat/position.

      In the end, widebody vs. narrowbody, domestic vs. international, captain vs. first officer… None of it has anything to do with merit, experience, or skill. It all comes down to company seniority and a pilot’s personal preference. A pilot may change their position or aircraft type many times throughout their career depending on their personal circumstances, desires, and what their seniority can hold.

      This is a long, but pretty basic explanation of the system. Hope it helped!

    2. A320capt Guest

      Also, to answer your question about if an airline stops flying a particular fleet type - That is when things can get messy. A displacement bid will be published. It depends on a particular airlines contract with the pilots, but typically a pilot displaced off of a fleet type will be able to transfer to whatever position/aircraft that their seniority can hold. Unfortunately, if there aren’t any vacancies in that pilots desired position, it will...

      Also, to answer your question about if an airline stops flying a particular fleet type - That is when things can get messy. A displacement bid will be published. It depends on a particular airlines contract with the pilots, but typically a pilot displaced off of a fleet type will be able to transfer to whatever position/aircraft that their seniority can hold. Unfortunately, if there aren’t any vacancies in that pilots desired position, it will result in that pilot moving into that spot, but since there isn’t a vacancy, the most junior pilot in that position will now be forced out. Now leaving that junior displaced pilot to displace someplace new that their seniority can hold, thus possibly forcing the displacement of another more junior pilot. It can cause quite the cascade effect and lead to many unhappy pilots.

  5. iamhere Guest

    Interesting about the different models and that the totals come up around the same by the time you're through.

  6. Klaus Guest

    Hi Lucky,
    There are two full crews on transpacific flights. On the 16h flight SINSFO, each crew would have 8 hours of duty time. Would the pilots still get paid the full 16 hours?

    Hourly wages (highest seniority): USD/h 342 + USD/h 234=USD/h 576
    -> 4 Crews, 16 h Flight Time -> USD 18,432 / 350 passengers -> USD56 per passenger per direction

    1. D Pilit Guest

      Yes they get the hourly pay for the entire trip even though they are in rest for part of the flight.

  7. Ben Dover Guest

    I would say, as a retired 777/787 Captain, your figures are a little high on an annual basis. You have computed your figures using 1000 hours/year. A line captain will never see that. Even credit hours won't come close. You would hard pressed to get to 900 hours so 800 would be a more realistic cap.

    1. Syd Downe Guest

      I’ll push switches on them bitches and get us high af. Cruising altitude 40,000 ft. $15 an hour plus health insurance and holiday pay.

      You only need one pilot in the cockpit. Auto pilot for a 30 min power nap during an ultra long haul and drink some Red Bull. If you need a 90 second bathroom brake the purser can monitor the flight deck. You can sleep at the hotel when you arrive at your destination. :))

    2. dillpickles New Member

      Syd. But why even drink a red bull though?
      Just let the autopilot run things, head back to a vacant seat in First/Biz, get a glass or two of red wine and pass out. Have a flight attendant wake you up when you're 2 hours out so you can get some breakfast, have a bathroom visit or two, and head back up to the flight deck to relieve the overworked autopilot? That gives you...

      Syd. But why even drink a red bull though?
      Just let the autopilot run things, head back to a vacant seat in First/Biz, get a glass or two of red wine and pass out. Have a flight attendant wake you up when you're 2 hours out so you can get some breakfast, have a bathroom visit or two, and head back up to the flight deck to relieve the overworked autopilot? That gives you an hour to make a long drawn out announcement, put the flaps and landing gear down, and land that sucker.

      If you're on the flight deck for more than 3 hours, you're wasting your time.

  8. YYZ Fan Guest

    Lucky, I feel like I'm in the same boat as you.....as a child, wanted nothing more than to be a pilot. Then life catches up, and for one reason or another, that's not the path chosen.

    That said, I'm now in a position to consider acquiring my private pilots license and build from there. Have you done the same? Any interest in pursuing the general aviation route for fun?

  9. Sam Guest

    Are Envoy captains having to take a pay cut when they go to American? Or to Envoy to American years of service carry over?

  10. Tim Dunn Diamond

    While airline labor wants to get big pay raises, let's keep in mind that there is considerable pushback against US airlines right now because of perceptions of how they spent tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money. Even if perceptions are wrong and some in Congress are trying to make airlines uncomfortable, airline management has to navigate that relationship. Similar things happened in many other countries.
    In addition, the US railroad industry is...

    While airline labor wants to get big pay raises, let's keep in mind that there is considerable pushback against US airlines right now because of perceptions of how they spent tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money. Even if perceptions are wrong and some in Congress are trying to make airlines uncomfortable, airline management has to navigate that relationship. Similar things happened in many other countries.
    In addition, the US railroad industry is bracing for a potential strike which could lead to devastating impacts to the economy - the same argument that could be used about potential labor actions at airlines; both railroads and airlines are covered by the US Railway Labor Act which has numerous "circuit breakers" that prevent unilateral actions by labor.
    bottom line is no one should count any pay raises in or out until the money is in one's personal bank account.

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Ben Dover Guest

I would say, as a retired 777/787 Captain, your figures are a little high on an annual basis. You have computed your figures using 1000 hours/year. A line captain will never see that. Even credit hours won't come close. You would hard pressed to get to 900 hours so 800 would be a more realistic cap.

5
A320capt Guest

Everything from aircraft type to seat position (captain or first officer) is seniority based. When there are vacancies/open positions the airline will publish what’s known as a vacancy bid that all pilots can bid on. For example, the vacancy bid may be for 30 737 captains in LAX. Any pilot at the company who wants that position will put in their bid based on seniority. When the bid closes, the 30 most senior pilots to bid the open vacancies will be awarded them. For new hires, it is also based on seniority. The class will be given a list of all open vacancies and they will bid on the positions they want and will be awarded what their new seniority (typically determined by age) will hold. Pilots choose to bid different aircraft or positions for a variety of reasons. Typically the more money something pays, the more senior it is. Widebody positions don’t typically go senior because it takes an experienced pilot to handle the aircraft… It typically goes senior simply because it pays more. There are always exceptions to every rule though. For instance, at United pilots are currently being awarded captain positions in the most junior domiciles after only one year with the airline and new hire pilots are getting awarded first officer positions on the 787 and 777. Due to reserve rules for the more junior pilots on the fleet and seat, current company pilots are not bidding for those spots. Therefore, those positions are left vacant and will be filled with new hires or very, very junior people. Current company pilots are choosing to hold off on those positions until they would have more seniority for increased quality of life when they do finally bid over. Someone’s seniority number is someone’s seniority number and it will never change. Let’s say that pilot A is senior to pilot B and they are both first officers. Pilot B gets awarded a captain vacancy. The more junior pilot B is now a captain while pilot A, although still more senior, is still a first officer. When pilot A decides to eventually take an upgrade award to captain, they will still be senior to pilot B and have preference in schedules, vacation spots, etc. to pilot B, even though pilot B has been a captain longer than pilot A. This is a pretty common occurrence. It’s not uncommon for me to have a first officer who’s senior to me. They just choose to stay a first officer for quality of life reasons. To answer your other question about pay, no. A pilot doesn’t go back to “year 1” pay with a new position. If they have been with an airline for 5 years and they upgrade to captain or switch aircraft type, they will be paid the 5 year rate for their new seat/position. In the end, widebody vs. narrowbody, domestic vs. international, captain vs. first officer… None of it has anything to do with merit, experience, or skill. It all comes down to company seniority and a pilot’s personal preference. A pilot may change their position or aircraft type many times throughout their career depending on their personal circumstances, desires, and what their seniority can hold. This is a long, but pretty basic explanation of the system. Hope it helped!

2
Syd Downe Guest

I’ll push switches on them bitches and get us high af. Cruising altitude 40,000 ft. $15 an hour plus health insurance and holiday pay. You only need one pilot in the cockpit. Auto pilot for a 30 min power nap during an ultra long haul and drink some Red Bull. If you need a 90 second bathroom brake the purser can monitor the flight deck. You can sleep at the hotel when you arrive at your destination. :))

2
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