How much do pilots get paid?
Future aviators often ask us how much they should expect to get paid upon graduation. The answer is not as simple as a single number and it will usually sound like this: “it depends”!
As you can imagine, there are lots of job opportunities upon graduation. Your career will likely be divided into four main categories: time building, small aircraft operators, regional airlines, and major airlines. This list is not exhaustive by any mean but will provide a good idea of how much pilots get paid.
Before you can start flying commercially and carry passengers or cargo, you will need to build your total flight time. Most students graduate with approximately 200 hours. Most entry-level commercial jobs require 500 hours. To be considered by a regional airline, you will need between 1,000 and 1,500 hours depending on whether you have an Associates or Bachelors degree.
Options for building flight time include banner towing, crop dustin, flight instructing, or simply renting an aircraft. Flight instructing should be the preferred method of building flight time since it involves increasing your knowledge and skills while getting paid. Flight instructing is a difficult job. Most instructors work 6 days per week, early morning and sometimes late afternoon. Expect to get paid approximately $20/hour as a flight instructor and if you have enough students, approximately $30,000-$40,000/year (source). As you acquire more experience, you will likely get a bump in pay.
Small Air Carrier Pilot
Air Carrier companies that operate under Part 135 or small Part 91 operators do not require the 1,000-1,500 hours that regional and major airlines do. This means they will likely hire you with approximately 500 hours. These jobs give you access to larger aircraft, sometimes with turbine engine, which helps boost your resume if you plan on becoming an airline pilot. The pay is extremely scattered and depends on whether you are a first officer or captain. As a result, it is difficult to pinpoint an average but it is usually higher than “time building” jobs. As an example, Ameriflight pays a pilot salary of $44,629 on average per year (2016 data). On the other hand, companies such as Mesa Airlines or Great Lakes offer much lower wages with an average of about $20,000/year.
The life of a corporate pilot is different than the one of an airline pilot. Corporate pilots fly aircraft owned by business and industrial firms, transporting company executives on cross-country flights to business conferences. They arrange for in-flight passenger meals and ground transportation at destinations, and are responsible for supervising the servicing and maintenance of the aircraft and keeping aircraft records.
Like many other pilot jobs, the pay depends greatly on the type of aircraft flown, experience, and whether you are a captain or first officer. The average pilot salary for a captain in a midsize jet such as a Gulfstream G100 is approximately $92,000 per year (source). A first officer on the same jet makes approximately $57,000 per year.
Regional Airlines Pilot
Regional pilots jobs are a stepping stone for pilots who are looking to become captains at major airlines. The pay has historically been fairly low but has improved drastically in recent years with the upcoming pilot shortage facing the aviation industry.
The average pilot salary for regional pilots is $40-45,000 per year for first officers and $80-85,000 per year for captains (source).
Pilots who fly for regional carrier with turboprop aircraft should expect lower wages.
Major Airlines/Cargo Pilot
Getting hired by a major airlines is the goal for most pilots. While the pay at the end of the career can reach over $200,000 per year for 80-85 hrs of work per month, the first year pay as a first officer is often much lower than that.
For example, a first officer at Delta should expect approximately $56,000 per year during the first year with a significant increase by year 5 to approximately $109,000. A captain on a Boeing 747 at Delta should expect approximately $216,000 per year (source).
Pilot Career Earnings
The cost of education versus the potential career earnings is often mentioned as a deterrent to young aspiring pilots. When comparing the return-on-investment for four big careers, pilots continue to outrank doctors, lawyers and teachers with $33 made for ever $1 invested in education.
Brown Aviation Lease designed a great infographic summarizing the return on investment for those four careers. The first graphic shows the total cost to obtain the required education with approximately $137,000 total for the pilot career.
When comparing the median annual salaries with the number of possible career earning years, the pilot career fared well with $111,680 per year on average for 42 years.
While a career as a doctor seems to provide higher median salaries, the overall cost of education and the limited career earning years make the return-on-investment much lower than a lawyer or even a teacher. Pilots still came on top with an average return on investment of $33 for every $1 invested in education.
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