Do Pilots Make A Lot Of Money? The Salary And Career Of Airline Pilots

Have you ever gazed up at a passing airplane and wondered – just how much do pilots get paid to fly those big jets across the sky? If you’re looking for a quick answer, commercial airline pilots in the United States generally make a very good living, with senior captains at major airlines averaging around $200,000 per year.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at pilot salaries, career paths, job outlook and more. By the end, you’ll have a detailed understanding of what it takes to become a commercial pilot, the earning potential, and whether piloting airliners really pays as lucratively as many people imagine.

Pilot Salaries at Major Airlines

Captain Salaries

Being a captain is the pinnacle of a pilot’s career and comes with a corresponding increase in salary. Captains at major airlines typically earn a substantial income. On average, the annual salary for a captain can range from $150,000 to $250,000, depending on factors such as seniority, experience, and the size of the airline.

Some captains at top-tier airlines can even earn upwards of $300,000 per year.

First Officer Salaries

First officers, also known as co-pilots, are the second in command in the cockpit. While their salaries are generally lower than those of captains, they still earn a respectable income. The annual salary for a first officer at a major airline can range from $80,000 to $150,000.

Similar to captains, factors such as experience and seniority play a significant role in determining a first officer’s salary.

Regional Airline Pilot Pay

Regional airlines serve as feeder airlines to major carriers and often offer lower salaries compared to their counterparts. However, they provide valuable experience for pilots looking to advance their careers.

The average salary for a regional airline pilot can range from $40,000 to $80,000 per year. It’s important to note that regional pilots may have the opportunity to transition to major airlines after gaining sufficient flight hours and experience.

It’s worth mentioning that pilot salaries can vary significantly depending on the airline, location, and type of aircraft flown. Additionally, these figures are average estimates and may not reflect the exact salaries of individual pilots.

For more specific and up-to-date information, it’s advisable to refer to reputable aviation industry sources, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) or industry publications like the Air Line Pilots Association (www.alpa.org).

Pilot Salary Factors and Details

Pay Scale Based on Seniority

One of the major factors that determine a pilot’s salary is their level of seniority within an airline. As pilots gain more experience and log more flight hours, their salary tends to increase. Airlines often have a structured pay scale that is based on years of service or the number of flight hours accumulated.

For example, a pilot with 5 years of experience may earn a higher salary than a pilot with only 2 years of experience.

Effect of Airline and Aircraft Type

The airline and the type of aircraft that a pilot flies can also have an impact on their salary. Larger airlines generally offer higher salaries compared to smaller regional airlines. Additionally, pilots who fly larger, more advanced aircraft such as wide-body jets may earn higher salaries compared to those flying smaller regional jets.

The complexity and responsibility associated with flying larger aircraft often come with greater compensation.

It’s worth noting that some airlines may have different pay scales based on the specific aircraft type or fleet. For instance, a pilot flying a Boeing 737 might have a different salary than a pilot flying an Airbus A320.

Salary vs. Flight Hours Worked

Pilot salaries are often calculated based on flight hours worked rather than a fixed monthly salary. This means that the more hours a pilot flies, the higher their earnings will be. However, it’s important to note that not all flight hours are paid equally.

Some airlines may have different pay rates for flight hours during different times of the day or for flights on weekends or holidays.

Moreover, factors such as layovers, overnight stays, and international flights can also affect a pilot’s total income. Pilots may receive additional allowances or per diems for these situations, which can increase their overall earnings.

According to a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $147,220 in May 2020. The highest 10% earned more than $208,000, while the lowest 10% earned less than $74,100.

For more details on pilot salaries and career prospects, you can visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics website or refer to industry-specific resources.

The Career Path to Becoming an Airline Pilot

Becoming an airline pilot is a dream for many aviation enthusiasts. However, this career path requires dedication, hard work, and a significant investment of time and money. Let’s take a closer look at the steps involved in the journey to becoming an airline pilot.

Earning Your Pilot Certificates and Ratings

The first step in becoming an airline pilot is obtaining the necessary pilot certificates and ratings. This typically starts with obtaining a private pilot certificate, which allows you to fly single-engine aircraft.

From there, you will work towards earning your instrument rating, which allows you to fly in poor weather conditions relying solely on your instruments.

Next, you’ll pursue your commercial pilot certificate, which allows you to fly for compensation or hire. This is a crucial step in the process, as it opens up opportunities for you to start building flight hours and gaining experience.

Building Flight Hours as a Flight Instructor

One common path for aspiring airline pilots is to gain flight experience by working as a flight instructor. By becoming a flight instructor, you not only build valuable flight hours but also have the opportunity to share your knowledge and passion for flying with others.

This experience can be invaluable when it comes to landing a job with an airline.

During this phase of your career, you’ll also have the opportunity to earn additional ratings and endorsements, such as a multi-engine rating or a flight instructor instrument rating. These additional qualifications can make you a more attractive candidate to potential employers.

Joining a Regional Airline

After gaining the necessary flight experience, many pilots start their careers by joining a regional airline. Regional airlines typically operate smaller aircraft and serve as a feeder system for major airlines.

While the pay at regional airlines may not be as high as at major airlines, it provides an opportunity to gain further flight experience and build your reputation as a competent and reliable pilot.

Working at a regional airline also allows you to familiarize yourself with the operations and procedures of a larger airline, which can be beneficial when you eventually make the jump to a major carrier.

Upgrading to a Major Airline

Once you have accumulated a significant amount of flight experience and built a solid reputation in the industry, you may have the opportunity to upgrade to a major airline. Major airlines typically operate larger aircraft and offer more desirable routes and schedules.

The competition for positions at major airlines can be fierce, so it’s important to continue building your experience and networking within the industry. Many pilots pursue additional ratings and qualifications to make themselves stand out as exceptional candidates.

It’s worth noting that the salary and benefits at major airlines are typically more lucrative than at regional airlines. However, the exact figures can vary depending on factors such as seniority, aircraft type, and the airline itself.

Job Outlook and Opportunities for Airline Pilots

Increased Airline Hiring

Are you considering a career as an airline pilot? Well, you’re in luck! The job outlook for airline pilots is looking extremely promising. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in airline hiring due to the booming aviation industry.

With the global economy on the rise and more people traveling by air than ever before, airlines are expanding their fleets and routes, creating a high demand for skilled pilots.

This increase in airline hiring is not only limited to major commercial airlines but also extends to regional and cargo carriers. These airlines are actively recruiting new pilots to meet the growing demand and to replace retiring pilots.

So, if you have dreams of flying the friendly skies, now is a great time to pursue a career as an airline pilot.

Mandatory Retirements

Another factor contributing to the excellent job outlook for airline pilots is the mandatory retirement age. In many countries, including the United States, pilots are required to retire at a certain age, usually around 65.

This means that as older pilots retire, there is a constant need for new pilots to fill their positions.

This mandatory retirement age, combined with the increasing number of flights and routes, creates a continuous demand for qualified pilots. If you’re passionate about aviation and have the necessary skills and qualifications, you can look forward to a long and fulfilling career as an airline pilot.

Strong Long-Term Growth

When considering a career as an airline pilot, it’s essential to look at the long-term growth prospects. According to industry experts, the aviation industry is projected to experience strong growth in the coming years.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that air travel will double by 2037, with Asia leading the way in terms of passenger demand. This growth in air travel translates to a higher demand for pilots to operate the increasing number of flights.

As a result, the long-term prospects for airline pilots are incredibly promising, with plenty of opportunities for career advancement and job security.

So, if you’re passionate about flying and have the dedication to pursue a career as an airline pilot, the future looks bright. Increased airline hiring, mandatory retirements, and strong long-term growth in the aviation industry all point to a rewarding and financially lucrative career as an airline pilot.

Challenges and Downsides of an Airline Pilot Career

Significant Upfront Training Costs

Becoming a pilot is a dream for many, but it comes with significant upfront training costs. Aspiring pilots must invest in flight school, which can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 or more. This includes the cost of flight hours, instructor fees, ground school, and examinations.

Additionally, obtaining a commercial pilot license requires additional training and certification, which can add to the overall expenses.

While these training costs may seem daunting, it’s important to remember that they are an investment in a future career with the potential for high earnings and job security. Many pilots find ways to finance their training through loans, scholarships, or sponsorships offered by airlines or aviation organizations.

Intensive Ongoing Training

Once pilots complete their initial training and start flying for an airline, the learning doesn’t stop. Pilots are required to undergo regular and intensive ongoing training to ensure they stay up to date with the latest aviation regulations, procedures, and technological advancements.

This includes simulator sessions, recurrent training, and proficiency checks.

The continuous training is necessary to maintain a high level of safety and professionalism in the aviation industry. However, it can also be demanding and time-consuming, requiring pilots to balance their work and personal lives effectively.

Despite the challenges, many pilots find the ongoing training to be an exciting opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Family and Lifestyle Sacrifices

Being an airline pilot often involves making significant sacrifices in terms of family and lifestyle. Due to the nature of the job, pilots may have irregular schedules, including overnight layovers and long periods away from home.

This can put a strain on relationships and make it challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Additionally, the demanding nature of the job can lead to fatigue and jet lag, which can affect the overall well-being of pilots. It’s important for pilots to prioritize self-care and find ways to cope with the challenges of their profession.

Support from family and understanding from loved ones can make a significant difference in managing the sacrifices associated with being an airline pilot.

Pay Reductions at Regional Airlines

While airline pilots generally have the potential to earn a substantial income, especially as they gain experience and move up in rank, it’s essential to recognize that not all pilots start their careers at major airlines.

Many pilots begin their journey at regional airlines, which typically offer lower salaries compared to their major counterparts.

Starting out at a regional airline can mean lower pay and longer periods of time before reaching the higher earning potential of a major airline. However, it’s important to note that regional airlines often provide valuable experience and the opportunity to build flight hours, which are crucial for career progression in the aviation industry.

It’s worth mentioning that the pay scale for pilots can vary depending on factors such as the airline, aircraft type, years of experience, and seniority within the company. Therefore, it’s crucial for aspiring pilots to research and understand the salary structure of the airlines they are considering before making career decisions.


Becoming an airline pilot takes significant commitment – both financially and in terms of lifestyle and career dedication. However, senior pilots at major airlines are very well compensated, with the potential to earn $200,000+ annually during the peak of their career.

With strong airline industry growth forecast over the next two decades, being a commercial pilot can be a lucrative long-term career choice for those willing to put in the hard work to complete the rigorous training and certification steps.

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