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.
That said, there are other ways of making more money as a pilot which 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.
Graduate Pilot – up to $60,000 per year
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. The main problem is that there are so many other pilots in 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, 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 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 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 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 waitressing or bartending. This rate increases with experience, generally up to about $70 to $90 per hour.
Airline First Officer (co-pilot) up to $190,000 per year
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. In addition, should you wish to move to another airline or get a different job as a pilot, your prospects are much better.
Regional airlines have entry requirements of around 1500 hrs and include airlines such as air Wisconsin, horizon air which operate aircraft like the Q400, E175, Emb145
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 Delta, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Cathay pacific, air china, Qantas, and United. These companies operate a range of complex and highly sophisticated aircraft such as the B737/767/787/747 A380 A330 A340
Airline Captain – up to $300,000+ per year
For most commercial pilots, getting captaincy is the pinnacle of their career. 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.
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, the highest-paid airline captains make around $350,000-$450,000 per year. Whilst impressive, this is about mid-range of international carriers such as Emirates and Cathay Pacific
Its not an easy slog becoming 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.
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!
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.
Corporate jet pilot
Corporate jets 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 companies dime whilst they are on call. Aircraft include learjet45, phenom300, global express.
Even more ways of making money
- 200hrs-500hrs experience: 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
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.