How Much Do Airline Pilots Get Paid?

Yesterday I posted about the letter that American’s pilot union sent to the airline’s CEO, Doug Parker. The conversation eventually switched to pilot pay, and just how much some pilots make.

Back in the day I wanted to be a pilot more than anything else in life, given how much I love flying. So until I was about 12, I was convinced I’d be a pilot.

And then one day to the next 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, but I figured it would be really demotivating. Why? Because all that matters at an airline is your seniority number. And I’d hate for having my most significant metric be the date I was hired.

The other thing is that after 9/11 there were huge layoffs, and when you’re a pilot and laid off, it can be difficult to land a comparable job elsewhere. So it’s not like other jobs, where switching companies can advance you. Instead, you’re basically locked into one company for most of your life, and if things don’t go as planned, that could be bad news.

In addition to huge layoffs, pilots at the various US carriers received huge pay cuts when the airlines went through bankruptcy, though fortunately most pay is back closer to where it was before bankruptcy now.

With that in mind, how much do airline pilots make? If you’ve always been curious, airlinepilotcentral.com is a great website which has the pay scales for many airlines.

They publish pay scales for all kinds of airlines, from US legacies like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, to international carriers like Cathay Pacific and Emirates, to cargo airlines like Fedex and UPS.

For example, here’s what American Airlines captains make on an hourly basis:

American-Pilot-Pay

Pilots at US carriers can work up to 100 hours per month and up to 1,000 hours per year, though in practice most pilots are going to fly closer to 900 hours per year.

For example, a 12th year captain on the 777, 787, or A330, is making $293 per hour. At 900 hours per year, that’s ~$264,000 per year. That doesn’t include things like their flight benefits and per diem pay (~$2.80 for every hour they’re gone on an international trip).

American-787

Of course that’s the absolute max they can make, and that’s after you’ve been at the airline for 20+ years. Meanwhile a third year first officer on the 737 would make $136 per hour, which is closer to ~$122,000 per year. That’s still really good money, but the point is not every pilot at American is making $250,000+ per year.

American-Pilot

On the other end of the spectrum, your first year first officer at Mesa Airlines (a US regional carrier) is making $22 per hour, so you can expect they’re making under $20,000 per year.

How about at our beloved Emirates? Their pilots get paid the same regardless of which planes they fly (A330, 777, or A380), so all that matters is whether they’re captain or first officer, and how many years they’ve been at the airline.

They actually get paid monthly, as follows (below numbers are in USD):

Emirates-Captain-Pay

So the most senior captain would make $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
  • A housing allowance

Emirates-A380-First-Class-01

Bottom line

This post isn’t intended for those looking to become pilots, but rather just as a general primer on how pilot pay works (at some airlines it’s hourly, and at others a monthly salary) and what it’s based on (years at the airline, position as captain or first officer, etc.).

Overall pilots are very well paid, though it’s worth keeping in mind that for the past couple of decades promotions at US carriers have been really slow, so the people making the truly big bucks have been at their respective airlines for a long time.

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

Comments

  1. You may have a mistake there, 900 hours per month is 10800 hours per year, which is 3 million per year. It should be 900 hours per year.

  2. Also wanted to be a professional pilot – then I learned about the seniority system and lack of meritocracy. No thanks!

  3. Lucky–let me fix that last paragraph for you….

    “Overall SENIOR pilots are very well paid,…”

    It is depressing and somewhat scary to think many pilots that we trust our lives to that fly regional jets are making effectively only a little more than minimum wage on an annual basis.

  4. Remember also that they have the lives of 100-900 hundred people in their lives during each flight, and that the studies are long and difficult.

    One of my friends who worked in ATC on one of the corridors in France said that in the business, they like to remind people of this fact: “An ATC will have more lives in his hands during one shift than most surgeons throughout their career”.

  5. AA hired many of the pilots from the retired military. So those pilots also got retired pension.

  6. I am in the process of become an airline pilot, already have a contract with Envoy (American’s regional carrier). The pay is pretty poor at the start. Regional carriers pay next to nothing, though that will be changing over the coming years. You start getting paid a lot more when you upgrade to a major carrier, especially the legacy carriers. I hope to fly for Cathay Pacific after I finish my two year contract at Envoy, though American is probably where I will in fact go.

  7. ELAL – (recently published numbers) – $9,000 to $40,000 / month + employer pension contribution and other benefits.

  8. @ Lucky:
    Any idea why the pay scale for American Airlines includes B747s and A380s? While the 747s are long retired, I don’t ever see them operating A380s.

  9. I’m interested in how one even becomes a pilot. I know most come from the military, but is there a way for a civilian to become a pilot?

  10. Interesting read. I had heard that the regional express carriers pilots & FO’s made considerably less than the majors. Sad. Especially since so many of us fly and rely on the little puddle jumpers. Also, noticed your chart for American Airlines has an A380 column – funny in that AA doesn’t have A380s in their fleet !

  11. @ Sean.

    I don’t think those numbers are actually low at all. Not paying taxes makes a huge difference. Especially for Europeans who don’t pay any taxes back to their home country, 120K in Dubai is probably worth 180K-200K on the continent. Also, the housing allowance probably adds another 10K-20K in value to the contract.

    Even for an American, you don’t pay any taxes on the first 95K or so. This represents a significant savings although not nearly as great as those realized by Europeans.

  12. For the record, you should do the same post but use republic air. What you posted is for 40-50yr old pilots with 20+years experience! The guy flying you arround in a CRJ has 500hrs total and the other has only a few years experience.

  13. @Hunter T: There are aviation schools that train students to become commercial pilots. I believe some of them start with an undergraduate curriculum and offer a BS in addition to technical certification, and other programs take people who already have an undergraduate degree.

  14. Which one is crazier, that regional pilot pay is closer to the $15 minimum wage, or that a restaurant worker in the city of Seattle, with tips and everything, may be paid almost the same as a regional airline pilot? Which pay scale is wrong?

  15. @Hunter T, Embry-Riddle University and my alma mater Florida Tech come to mind. Had several friends majoring in Aviation Management or Aviation Meteorology with a flight option. Of course graduating in 2004 there weren’t a whole lot of pilot jobs to go around…

  16. Dan Freeman – Sean is right in saying those numbers are totally inaccurate. They closer reflect FO pay.

    Housing allowance is ~$52000/year.

    There are also more than 10 pay steps.

    All figures are on the recruitment website to see if this idiot would actually do some research rather than lazily pasting the first shit he sees – which accounts for half of the ‘blog’ these days.

    Oh yeah, he has a ‘source’…

    How can you believe anything else on this site when drivel like this is being posted as fact?

  17. My brother is a retired military pilot (Australian Air Force & Royal (British) Air Force); he chose not to get into commercial aviation after his retirement because I don’t think there is the same thrill flying a commercial plane as a fighter jet 🙂

    The pay scale is in line with what I was expecting, and while compensation may be good after 20+ years, you are still responsible for all the lives on your plane each and every time you get into that cockpit – that has to be some kind of stress I couldn’t imagine.

    My son wanted to be a military pilot like his uncle when he was younger, but then decided he’d rather race Formula One cars 🙂

  18. The base pay scale for Emirates is largely correct. As others have pointed out though, there are elements missing though that raise the total compensation enormously. Housing allowance between 4-5k per month, schooling allowance 10-14k annually per child, utilities allowance $500 per month, company provided-chauffeur driven service to/from house to airport for flight duty. 12-15% company salary match, annual bonus typically 2-6 weeks of salary, duty pay, per diem, and annual confirmed (revenue) business class tickets home (upgradable to first subject to space available) for the family, plus flight benefits – both standby and confirmed for entire family. Most pilots I know there value the total package between 180k-260K net of tax, depending upon individual circumstances.

    When factoring tax into the equation, Americans (who pay tax on a portion of this) are broadly in a $200-350k range. Many Europeans at USD400k plus, when comparing apples to apples. I’m not saying it’s all great, but the EK total pay package is one of the very best out there all things considered. This is especially true for pilots who would be at the relative beginnings of the careers in their home countries. I know a guy who flew turboprops intra-Europe just 9 years ago, now an EK A380 captain. Another who flew Air Canada regional jets as a first officer just 4 years ago, now a 777 captain. Of course not everyone wants to live in Dubai. Lately, many people are leaving for Korean Air, which offers more flexibility.

  19. @Dan Freeman – I mean that those numbers do not remotely reflect pay scales for captains at EK. They make significantly more in take home pay AND it is tax free.

  20. @Ruben

    Thankfully for Engländers like me, BA offers a program where you go from no hours to first officer on the A320. You have to pay a large amount upfront (84k GPB?), but they offer a loan for people who cannot pay that AND you get the amount repaid in your salary.

    Lufthansa has a similar program, as do several other airlines.
    And if you want to go to Hong Kong for a few years, well, why not start on the 777 and use Cathay?

  21. @GuestA says:
    “AA hired many of the pilots from the retired military. So those pilots also got retired pension.”

    That is true for pilots that put in the full 20 years to get military retirement, but the vast majority do not stay that long. I personally stayed in 5 years almost exactly…you get no retirement for that.

    In a way it all balances out; a guy who gets out at 5 years will accrue a lot more seniority than a career military guy will who not get with an airline for another 15 years (minimum.) I’ve actually known guys who never made captain because of staying in the military as a career and then how the economy performed once they got on with an airline.

  22. I would also like to bring up the fact that many regional airline pilots only have 11 days off a month to be at home with Family or friends and work most holidays so if you take this all into account regional airline pilots get less than minimum wage !!!

  23. Another point that should be addresses for regional pilots is that often we will get released from duty around midnight have one day off then report for duty at 5 am, see how much you do at home besides sleep and laundry!!!,

  24. I don’t think comparing a pilot to a surgeon is really a fair comparison. If a pilot loses lives on a flight, he most likely loses his own life in the process. Getting paid less won’t change his desire to stay alive (at least that is what I tell myself!)

    That said, I do think the pay is low and after a pay cut (can’t remember the year), we have a friend making roughly just over 100K per year base salary after 20 years of service. He flies international 777 flights. No housing allowance.

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