Have you ever wonder how much an airline pilot makes at a major airline in the United States? Below is a breakdown of how much a pilot makes at a major airline such as Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, FedEx Express, United Parcel Service and United Airlines.
Something to keep in mind when looking over the graphs and chart below is that there are a lot of variables pertaining to the data below. For example, a pilot could work at minimum guaranteed hours to obtain better quality of life such as spending time with the family, taking leisure travels all over the world, work on side gigs or career etc. Vice versa, a pilot can work a lot(maybe on average of 120 hours per month) to save up and reap the benefits of working all the time. So if a pilot makes $160 per hour and work 120 hours per month for one year, the difference could be over $84,000 per year when compared to another pilot who makes the same hourly rate at minimum guaranteed hours of 76. The guaranteed hours will depend on individual airlines as well.
The graph above shows the pay comparison for different major airlines at First Officer pay from year 1 to year 10 on one aircraft pay rate. Typically, individual airline has multiple different types of aircrafts that they operate. The pay rates could be different on multiple narrowbody aircrafts and widebody aircrafts. The seat that you occupied, First Officer or Captain, will also have different rates. As a junior or new pilot to the company, you would start at lower end of the pay. You typically fly single-aisle aircrafts such as a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 variants. As a junior first officer, your guranteed hours typically kept at a minimum. Sometimes that is by choice and other times it is due to being junior in senority. In the airlines, the higher your senority is, another word, the longer you have been with the company, the better your pay will be. Schedule becomes more flexible as well. You can free up your schedule by reducing your flight hours to focus on other things in life, or you can pick up more and better trips at premium rate.
Once you have accumulated enough years in the company, your seniority allows you to step up to another aircraft with better pay. A widebody aircraft pilot, typically, will have better pay within an individual airlines. Figure 2 shows pay comparison for First Officer starting at year 5 to year 10. Normally, your senority would not be able to hold widebody aircrafts until roughly year 5 and up. Once you can hold another aircraft type, you would have the opportunity to qualify on that aircraft. This graph is based on pilot pay at minimum guranteed hours on a widebody aircraft such as a Boeing 777, Boeing 787, Airbus 330 etc. These aircrafts are sought after aircrafts due to much higher pay, more experienced crew, newer and better destinations, better schedule, less cancelations and many other factors. Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines are not on this list because they only operate narrowbody aircrafts such as a Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 variants.
Generally, you would spend sometime on the right seat of airliner until your seniority can hold a left seat, which will then allow you to the opportunity to qualify for a Captain upgrade. It takes several years to be able to hold seniority on the left seat in a major airline. Although that time has been closer to 20 years in the past. Most recently, Captain upgrade has been taken only a few years to hold. Figure 3 shows your pay progression and comparison starting at Captain upgrade at year 5 pay at minimum guaranteed hours. The time frame to upgrade to the left seat will vary by individual airlines and of course individual pilot.
With longevity comes higher seniority within the company. This will allow you more career progression such as upgrading from a left seat of a narrow body aircraft to a left seat on a widebody aircraft. Figure 4 shows the Pay Progression of an Airline Captain of a widebody aircraft calculated at minimum hours. As an Airline Captain on a widebody aircraft of a major airline, you are one of the highest pay pilots in the company. However, UPS, has combined aircraft pay for their pilot. United Parcel Service is a major cargo carrier. Their aircrafts(Boeing 747, Boeing 757, Airbus 300 etc) are larger than your narrowbody aircrafts. Figure 5 shows annual pay for Captains on a widebody aircraft at minimum guaranteed hours. With the exception of FedEx and UPS, the airline pay increase maxed at year 12. The two major cargo companies has max pay at year 15. Something to keep in mind is that just because year 12 or 15 is the max pay year, because the graph is calculated based on minimum guaranteed hours, a pilot can make much more by flying more trips. A pilot who works at the minimum guaranteed hours, as a “schedule-holder” aka “lineholder”, can pick up a lot of trips each month. Individual pilot group negotiated contract can dictates whether or not a pilot can pick up trips. The federal regulation Part 117 can also be a limiting factor.
Figure 5 shows pilot annual pay at minimum guaranteed hours based on a pilot’s career progression over the course of 30 years. Now you may wonder what a pilot career progression look like. At a major airline, you typically would see a big pay jump from year 1 to year 2. Then the pay increase follows a steady rise up to the max pay year(year 12 or 15). However, a pilot may choose to switch from a narrowbody aircraft to a widebody aircraft. This typically happens around year 5 with the company. After 10 years with a major airline, a pilot may choose to upgrade to Captain which rewards a pilot with a pretty decent pay bump. Airlines such as Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and FedEx have different pay scales for narrow body aircrafts versus widebody aircrafts. Again, widebody aircrafts are better sought after. Therefore, to hold a widebody aircraft position, either on the left seat or the right seat, more seniority is required. Please keep in mind that a pilot must qualify on any type of aircraft prior to being able to operate on one. Figure 6 shows a big pay bump at year 20. This was adjusted for pilots who have been narrow body Captains from year 11 to year 19, and then decided and able to take the upgrade to a Captain on a widebody aircraft. Again, UPS has single aircraft pay scale, so once you have upgraded to Captain and after year 15, you will have reached your max pay. This is assumed that you continue to fly at minimum guaranteed hours.
Figure 6 shows a more realistic career progression at a major airline. A pilot typically spends 5 years as a First Officer on a narrow body aircraft prior to stepping up to as a First Officer on a widebody aircraft. The first coupel of years at a major airlines(while there is a lot of variables), the pay is calculated at minimum hours. After the first couple of years, the hours are calculated at 90 hours per month. This is a very realistic number for most pilots at all airlines at that seniority. Once a First Officer upgrades to a widebody position, the first couple of years in that position is calculated at minimum hours. This is based on the first slot available for that pilot at his seniority to switch seat. Then the pay is calculated at 90 hours. After roughly 10 years in the airline, that pilot can upgrade to the left seat on a narrow body aircraft. Again, the first couple of years in the new position, the pay is calculated at minimum hours. Year 3 of each position is calculated at 90 hours. Then the pilot spends another 10 years in that seat, prior to upgrading to the left seat on a widebody aircraft. The first couple of years as a Captain on a widebody aircraft, the pay is calculated at minimum hours. After that, the pay is calculated at 90 hours again. At 90 hours per month on the left seat of a widebody aircraft at a major airline, you are one of the top pay pilots. Most recently, pilots can get to a major airline in their early 30’s(although this time line has been reduced dramatically prior to the coronavirus pandemic). Based on the federal mandatory retirement age of 65, that pilot would have over 30 years of flying at a major airline.
Figure 7 is derived from a more realistic pilot career progression of figure 6. It shows the average annual pay for a pilot over a 30 year career for each major airline. Interestingly, UPS has the highest average annual pay for their pilots. Alaska has the lowest average annual pay for pilots over the course of 30 years.
This data is calculated based on just hourly compensation. It does not adjust for the company 401k contribution(typically over 15%), profit sharing and any other benefits. Each individual pilot group for each airline has negotiated contracts with their airlines that can allow the pilot more flexibility with their schedule. The overal pay for pilot can vary by a lot of factors, whether it’d be reducing their flying minimum below guaranteed hours(which of course will lower a pilot’s pay), or picking up open trips at a premium rate or other beneficial languages in their contracts. Individual pilot will also have a lot of variables that could effect their schedule and their pay. The pay alone does not mean that any one airline is more sought after than the others. There are a lot of variables. Generally, at the major airline, compensation is a priority. But more so, is quality of life. The ability to live in base, the flexibility to adjust your schedule, the career progression within an individual airilnes, company balance sheet, reputation etc can all be contributing factors to choosing an airline that you want to work for. Another article on why it is a good time to be an airline pilot will be releasing soon.
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