How much do commercial pilots make in 2024?

Are you thinking about becoming a pilot and want to know how much money commercial pilots make? Find out how much you’ll be paid at each stage of your career.

I remember watching Catch me if you can and seeing Leo DiCaprio breaking hearts and busting checks as an airline pilot and I always thought “Damn, pilots must make bank…” Like anything coming out of Hollywood, the reality is more complicated, so just how much money do commercial pilots make?

Being a pilot is one of the best jobs in the world. I’m a pilot, so I might be slightly biased, however, the problem with having one of the most awesome jobs in the world, is that a lot of people want the job too. With all that competition, wages can take a hit, especially when you’re starting out. Even after getting picked up by a regional airline, the money you make isn’t amazing. Once you’ve got the skills and the experience, there are opportunities to make decent money in the ‘majors’ (major airlines). Sometimes it just takes the right opportunity to get a well-paying job as a commercial pilot.

With the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a median salary of $148,900 for commercial pilots it’s clear to see there is a lot of money to be made as a pilot. However, it is crucial to remember that your salary can range from anywhere from $60,000 to $700,000+ depending on your airline and level of experience.

That said, there are other ways of making more money as a pilot that you can use to increase your cash flow and get you through those first few years. I’ll go through some of my favorite ways of making extra money as a pilot outside the airlines down the track but for now, let’s answer the question, how much do pilots make?

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graduate pilot and light aircraft
Starting out as a regional pilot can be a great way to get into the industry

Graduate Pilot Salary

Guess what, in 99% of cases, you’re starting pay as a pilot sucks. I don’t say this to discourage you, but to keep your expectations realistic as it’s important to consider this when deciding whether to become a pilot. How much money do Graduate Airline Pilots make? Typically up to $60,000 per year. The main problem is that there are so many other pilots at the junior level competing for work that there is no incentive for airlines or other aviation companies to pay well.

There are strict rules regarding flight duty times and limitations to ensure fatigue is managed, in accordance with safety regulations. For example, airline pilots are typically limited to no more than 1000 flight hours per year.

An easy metric then is to multiply the pilot’s hourly rate by 1000 to get their approximate airline pilot salary. This would also be supplemented by travel and meal allowances, to compensate for the unique nature of the job and often being away from home.

There is a general relationship between the complexity of your aircraft and operations, and how much a commercial pilot makes. Pilots unions have worked hard with industry to determine an acceptable award rate – how many commercial pilots should get paid.

Pilots are typically ranked by their experience or flight hours, the qualifications they possess (such as an instrument or instructor ratings), and the complexity of the aircraft they have flown. Whilst gaining experience (referred to as building hours) pilots may work several jobs, gradually building up their experience as they progress through ever more complex aircraft.

Self-funded pilots can expect, once qualified as a commercial pilot to fly small, single or twin-engine aircraft such as a Cessna 210 or Beechcraft Baron in rural areas. Whilst the pay is meager and often not the same as major airlines, the lifestyle experienced and lessons learned are invaluable.

Typically a larger company will progress junior pilots through the increasing complexity of types, from single to twin-piston operated under the visual flight rules, into single-engine turbine aircraft, and finally, twin-engine turbine and pressurized aircraft operated instrument flight rules.

Starting wages may be in the order of $20 per hour, meaning that pilots building hours would need to supplement their flying wages with local part-time work such as waiting tables or bartending. This rate increases with experience, generally up to about $70 to $90 per hour.

American airlines commercial aircraft, how much do commercial pilots make
Working for major airlines will result in a higher pay rate

Airline First Officer (Co-Pilot) Salary

The day I graduated to co-pilot was one of the proudest of my life. Becoming a First Officer marks a significant increase in pay and respect, it’s a mark of trust by an airline and gives you a lot more sway with company management and the rest of the aviation community.

Regional airlines have entry requirements of around 1500hrs and include airlines such as Air Wisconsin, and Horizon Air which operate aircraft like the Q400, E175, and Emb145. Entry-level salaries for cadets or first officers in regional airlines can be as low as $60,000 per year getting up to an average of $115,000 after many years of experience.

Established or premium international airlines will generally pay a higher wage, in order to attract the highest skilled pilots to their operation. Major airlines generally require upwards of 3000 hours. Examples of major airlines are the mainliners;

These companies operate a range of complex and highly sophisticated aircraft such as the Boeing 737,767,787, and 747, and Airbus A380, A330 and A340.

Airline First Officers in major airlines typically start around $80,000 on average and can earn around $190,000 but up to $240,000 per year once experienced. In addition, should you wish to move to another airline or get a different job as a pilot, your prospects are much better.

Remember though, if your airline has paid for your flight training through a cadetship, it’s likely your first officer (copilot) wage will be garnished to repay the cost of your flight training, which can take a number of years to pay off.

Airline Captain Salary

For a commercial airline pilot, getting captaincy is usually the pinnacle of their career. Airline Captain Salary is up to $300,000+ per year. Sure there’s a difference between captaining a small regional passenger aircraft vs being in command of a trans-Atlantic A380 flight, but it’s a huge milestone none-the-less.

Regional airline captains of aircraft like the Q400, E175, and Emb145 can expect to typically earn upwards of $130,000.

For a Captain of a wide-body double-deck airliner such as the Boeing 747-800, the typical hourly rate is $285 per hour. The salary is highly dependent on who you work for, and in which country you work. Considering all travel allowances and overtime, some of the highest-paid airline captains in the US, Canada, and Australia make around $350,000-$450,000 per year. Whilst impressive, this is about mid-range of other international carriers in the Middle East such as Emirates, and premium Asian carriers such as Cathay Pacific with salaries of up to $700,000 recorded. With a global shortage of experienced pilots and an expected growth rate in demand of 4% annually, these figures are sure to increase in the coming years.

It’s not an easy slog to become an airline captain. It may be possible to progress from First Officer to Captain in some junior airlines within 4-6 years or around 5,000 flight hours. More senior airlines, however, such as Qantas and Emirates have very strict progression schedules. In these airlines, it isn’t unusual for it to take around ten to fifteen years to progress to captaincy on aircraft such as the Boeing 747-800 and Airbus A-380 double-deck wide-body long haul international airliners. This might even mean changing types a number of times to progress to a command role.

Meeting the company experience and hour requirements are only the start of the process. Your performance over your career will be critically analyzed to determine whether you have what it takes to be a captain and command some of the most technologically sophisticated aircraft to have ever taken to the skies. After a paper board, you will likely have multiple interviews and simulator checks to progress onto a command course.

Passing the command course is certainly not assured, and the unfortunate reality for some is that they are not cut out for the responsibility of becoming an aircraft captain – they are not ‘the right stuff’ or ‘captain material’. Just like your first interview with the company, just because you are a qualified pilot didn’t mean you were going to get the job – you need to be a suitable candidate and perform accordingly.

Other ways to make more money as a pilot

There are more ways to make money as a commercial pilot than just working in the airlines. When I first started flying, a great source of income for me was teaching students to fly. I loved the opportunity to pass on my experience, and the extra money certainly helped!

Flight instruction

As a flying instructor, I was paid $50 per hour teaching new students to fly, in accordance with the pilot’s award rate for single aircraft operations below 1350kg. Whilst teaching students to fly multi-engine aircraft, I was paid a higher rate of $100 per hour, which exceeded the award rate of $85 per hour for multi-engine aircraft below 3500kg.

commercial pilot flying instructor in cockpit
Teaching can be a great source of income and a rewarding career

Corporate jet pilot

Corporate jet companies require their pilots to have decent experience. Lower tier operators flying single or twin light turboprops such as King Airs may have reduced minimums, but established Jet companies will often require around 3000 Flight hours, and experience on Type. These jobs can command attractive remuneration packages exceeding $200,000, but the time pressure and on-call nature can be too demanding for some. Others relish the opportunity to jet-set all over the globe and travel on the company’s dime whilst they are on call. Aircraft include Learjet 45, Phenom 300, and Bombardier Global Express.

On our podcast with Rowan Hickey, we discuss his experience flying for both corporate and commercial airlines and see what he has to say.

Even more ways of making money

  • 200hrs-500hrs experience: Low hour and First pilot jobs include single-engine piston VFR charter, sightseeing joy flights, fire spotting, shark spotting, Cessna 172/180/210
  • 500hrs-1500hrs experience: single and twin-engine piston charter, flight instruction, IFR, and night flying
  • 1500-3000hrs+ experience: single and multi-engine turboprop VFR and IFR jobs like an air ambulance, police, corporate charter
scenic flight in light aircraft
Sightseeing joy flights can be a great place to start your pilot career

Conclusion

Choosing a career in aviation, especially as a pilot, is not just about the allure of the skies but also about understanding the financial nuances of the profession. Whether you’re embarking on this journey inspired by Hollywood or a lifelong passion, it’s crucial to be well-informed.

The road to becoming an airline captain is long and sometimes challenging, but with dedication and the right choices, it can be financially rewarding. The first step is to decide where you want to begin your pilot journey and to find a flight school near you. Remember, each pilot’s journey is unique, but understanding the industry standards can help set the right expectations and guide your career decisions.


What’s your experience of working in the airlines? Have you worked in any unique jobs as a commercial pilot that helped pay the bills? Let us know in the comments below.

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ken johnson

Ken

Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 17 years of flight experience across hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way. Find out more.

Ken has 124 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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