Becoming a Pilot & Airline Pilot Career FAQs

Common Questions & Answers for Aspiring Aviators


Airline Pay & Life

Pilot Pay

Pilot pay is something the general public often has a lot of misconceptions about. The general 'glamorization' of the career leads many people to think that airline pilots make $250-300K+ a year and that they work two weeks or less a month. While there are a select few captains at the major carriers with 25+ years of tenure may have a life close to that, they are by far the minority. According to the Air Line Pilots Association, their average major* airline member Captain is 50 years old, with 18 years seniority and makes $182,000 a year. A non-major airline Captain is 41 years old with 10 years of seniority and makes $70,000 a year. The average ALPA First Officer member at a major airline is 43 years old with 10 years of seniority and makes $121,000 per year, while an ALPA non major First Officer is age 35 with 3 years of service and makes $33,000.

*A major airline is a carrier with more than a billion in sales annually. American, Delta, Northwest, United, Continental, US Airways, Southwest, Alaska (and even several 'regional' carriers) are considered majors by that definition. However, not all major carriers pilots are members of the ALPA union, notably AA & SWA who have their own in house unions.

Factors affecting pilot pay:

  • Time with the company (seniority)
  • Aircraft flown
  • Whether they are a Captain or First Officer (seat)
  • The hours in their monthly schedule
  • The pay scale at their specific airline

A pilots pay is figured upon the hourly rate for their seat and their equipment based upon the pay grade for their seniority. Each company also has a set 'minimum guarantee' flight hour pay in their pilot contract. This is generally about 75 hours per month but varies slightly by airline. (A few majors guarantee is only 65!) However, in no case will the pilot earn less than the 'minimum guarantee' every month. They may fly less than 75 actual flight hours, but they will still be paid for the 75 per their guarantee. If they get a flight schedule that is scheduled for more flight hours than the minimum guarantee, they will then get paid for the greater amount of time flown instead, plus "per diem". Flight crew make about $1-3 per hour in 'per diem' for every hour they are away from their domicile on a trip to cover expenses. This generally adds a few hundred dollars to their pay check.

A general comparison of new hire/first year monthly First Officer pay by airline*:
American - $2,555
Continental - $2,232
Delta - $3,920
Fed Ex - $4,514
Frontier - $2,775
JetBlue - $3,535
Southwest - $4,424
United - $2,310
US Airways - $1,800
UPS - $3,078
Virgin America - $3,300
Here is a Captain pay comparison at 12 years of seniority (tenure), in the largest type in fleet (best paying)*:
American 777 - $14,527
Continental 777 - $13,896
Delta 777 - $15,190
Fed EX widebody $18,722
Frontier A318/319 - $11,400
JetBlue A320 - $11,925
Southwest 737 - $16,590
United 747/777 - $13,300
US Airways A330 - $11,520
UPS (all a/c) $20,412
Virgin America A319/320 - $9,310
*Hourly pay rates calculated from from APC as of July 2011 based on minimum monthly guarantee without per diem. Figure = monthly guarantee for a reserve pilot x the hourly rate. To find out what the specific base pay is for each major, cargo or charter operator by seat & seniority visit-  Airline Pilot Central

Additionally, each airlines minimum hiring requirements, fleet information and domiciles are detailed at this site above.

The Regional Pay Scales

Many are surprised at the fact expressed in this 2001 billboard. Although annual pay has gone up a few thousand dollars in the last decade, it still is quite low. In the civilian career path progression, a pilot will usually work at a regional carrier before moving on to a major airline. While some regionals pay $30K after 2-3 years or so, it takes several years at other to make that much. Starting out in this career one must expect to make some very low wages until they begin to build seniority with their airline and move up the pay scale.

Largest connection carrier, "Express" or regional affiliate airlines gross monthly pay for new hires and top out pay for captains:

American Eagle - $1,875 / $7,560
Atlantic Southeast - $1,725 / $8,025
Colgan - $1,950 / $7,950
Comair - $1,650 / $7425
Express Jet- $1,725 / $7275
Horizon - $2,175 / $9,075
- $1,444 / $7,904
Mesaba✈ - $1,950 / $7,950
Pinnacle✈ $1,950 / $7,950
✈* - $1,725 / $8,925
Skywest $1,650 / $7,950
Trans States $1,540 / $5,740
*Republic Airways Holdings includes Chautauqua, Shuttle America & Republic Airways
All figures based on minimum monthly guarantee, without per diem, first year pay in smallest fleet type/18 year pay in largest fleet type. Top out pay is generally 18 years tenure/seniority. ✈ = a 20 year top out scale. Hourly pay rates current as of July 2011. Per diem can add $300-400 per month to compensation depending on the numbers of hours spent away from domicile. The Captain rates are not listed as they vary by fleet type and carrier. Again, to find out what the specific base pay is for these carriers by seat & seniority use the online calculator at-


Schedules vary greatly by airline. They are very dependent on what carrier a pilot flies for, the kind of schedules needed operationally, a pilots seniority (schedules are bid according to seniority) and what aircraft they fly. Some pilots chose schedules that are away a lot to get more per diem, other like "day trips" so they finish in their domicile every night. Some bid schedules according to which have the most flight hours (90+) so they get paid the most and while other look for the ones that offer the most days off. The maximum number of hours an airline pilot may fly per month is 100 (or 1,000 hours in a year). While others may bid lines that fly the least to be off as much as possible. Pilots are based in a certain city or 'domicile' and their trips begin and end there. A pilot can chose to live in another city if they want to, but commuting to/from work is not part of their scheduled duty day and it is on their own time. Time spent commuting (including overnight stays if necessary) is also unpaid.

A typical months schedule or a 'line' could have several 'flight sequences' consisting of day trips (out & back to domicile every day), two to four day trips away from base with overnights in various cities in the route system or a combination of any of these. Some schedules fly certain 'routes' or city pairs repeatedly within a region, while others may go all over the airlines route system only occasionally returning to the same city.

A generalization: a pilot who holds a line can expect to fly about 80 hours a month with 160 hours on duty, be away from home for approx 250 hours and work about 15 days per month.

As a new hire a pilot can expect to be 'on reserve' (unless the airline is growing rapidly). Being on 'reserve' means that you do not have a set monthly flight schedule or a 'line' (aka a 'hard line'), but instead are called as needed to cover flights where the originally scheduled crew member is absent. Only days off are specified on a reserve line and you get 10-12 off a month (it varies by airline). A reserve pilot can be on 'ready reserve', aka 'airport standby', or be a 'home reserve'. A home reserve pilot is on call for a specific time period during their assigned work day and must be able to report to the airport to cover a flight (usually within 2 hours) if paged or called by crew scheduling. A ready reserve pilot will sit at the airport, in uniform, for a specified period each day they are assigned to work ready so they can cover a flight at a moments notice if called. While 'ready reserve' is a very junior schedule, there are some pilots who are fairly senior on the seniority list that chose to take a reserve schedule. Reserve pilots often do not fly the minimum guarantee each month and sit around waiting to be called for a flight. The still get paid their minimum guarantee even if they fly zero hours that month. Because of that, some senior pilots who live in domicile bid reserve as they are hoping crew scheduling will not call them and they can spend the day doing other things and get paid.

How Long will it take to "upgrade" or make Captain?

The answer varies quite a bit based on numerous factors like attrition, aircraft deliveries, route expansion ect. As of July 2011 here is a standing of the most junior captain (by aircraft type / domicile) hired by regional airline (* indicates number of pilots that airline has pilots on furlough and captain downgrades to F/O may have occurred at some airlines):

American Eagle (*20) - Oct 2006  (ERJ/LGA)
ASA - Mar 2006 (CRJ/IAD)
Colgan - Aug 2009 (Q400/-)
Comair - (*147) - Dec 2000 (CRJ/JFK)
Compass - July 2008 (E175/DTW,MEM,MSP)
Express Jet - Jan 2006 (EMB/ORD,CLE,EWR)
Horizon - Oct 2000 (Q200/SEA)
Mesa (*480) - Apr 2004 (CRJ/HNL)
Mesaba - Jun 2007 (SF3/MEM);
Pinnacle - Mar 2007 (CRJ/JFK)
Republic - Jan 2007 (ERJ/-); Aug 2006 (E170/-)
Skywest - Apr 2007 (EMB/FAT); July 2006 (ORD/CRJ)
Trans States (*129) - Apr 2004 (ERJ/RIC)

Note: Republic Airlines, Chautauqua Airlines, and Shuttle America are all Republic Holdings
Stats compiled from The major airlines can take much longer to upgrade.
For the most junior upgrade at the majors, see the source link above.

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