Show me the money

Ask any airline pilot what he is getting paid, and the answer will be, “Not enough.” The degree of kidding in the answer will depend upon that particular pilot’s position, airline, and experience. But it’s a fair one, especially if you are new to the industry. And, to be honest, too many pilots simply aren’t getting paid what they should be.

Keep in mind that as a pilot you can only fly 1,000 hours in a January-to-December calendar year, or 83.3 hours a month (flight time starts when the door of the airplane closes and ends when it is opened). Depending on what airline you work for, this might be relatively easy to do, but most of the time it’s pretty difficult to achieve. Within that twelve month period, you will have vacation built in (usually at least two weeks, and while most airlines allow you to fly for extra money during your vacation, not all do); recurrent training of some sort that will usually eat up at least four days of work; and some number of canceled flights. It doesn’t take long until you only have ten or eleven months to crack that 1,000 hour threshold.

As for pay, one of the best websites for basic airline information is, which has (rounded) hourly pay rates for nearly every US air carrier. When available, it will also tell you the monthly reserve and line holder hourly minimum that you can expect to get paid (or fly), and current projections for the critical upgrade to captain.

Typical reserve pay starts at seventy to seventy-five hours a month, while line-holders get more. APC will also show you what the carrier pays for per diem, which is the money you get for food and incidentals (the airline picks up your hotels). The per diem pay usually starts from the minute the trip begins to the minute it ends. If the trip has one or more overnights, it is tax free. If it is one day out-and-back, you’ll pay tax on the money; some airlines don’t pay per diem for out-and-backs, since you can bring your own food. You can also bring as much food as you can on regular trips, spend as little as possible, and pocket the difference, which might be worth several hundred dollars a month—of which Uncle Sam won’t see a nickel.

The round-number rule of thumb is to take the hourly rates on APC and multiply by 1,000 or even 1,100 to get your annual pay for a line holder. For reserves, multiply the reserve guarantee of seventy or seventy-five times the hourly pay times twelve.

But some of the important details may not be on every website. If you can network with a pilot from your prospective airline, you will want to find out about such things as cancellation pay, diversion pay, what you’ll get paid if the flight runs late (that is, will get the scheduled block time, or will you get paid for the actual flight time), pay for various training events, vacation pay, etc. Also, get the details on any bonus programs, 401(k) matches, overtime pay, what you’ll get paid if the company makes you fly on a day off (trust me, it will happen at some time). If you move up the ranks into management, or have to go there because you have temporarily lost your medical, the pay formula will be different, and it may be harder to get a straight answer.

Insurance is another important consideration, especially when you consider that losing your medical, even for a short period of time, can be a devastating event financially. Your employer will consider your insurance plan a part of your overall compensation package, and you should too. It is perfectly reasonable to request information about the various plans you will have available to you.

One way to become well-versed on compensation is to get your hands on PDF files of various union contracts (by the way, you will lose two percent of your pay to the union in the way of dues) and compare the details across the board. While we all love to fly, and claim we’d do it for free, the fact is we all have bills to pay and (often) have families to feed. Knowing what you will earn before you start will help you plan your living expenses and budget, and will go a long ways toward avoiding any unwanted surprises.

–Chip Wright

  • Patrick Shaub

    Typical of Chip Wright, he tells it like it is when it comes to flying, or in this case working as a commercial pilot. And he speaks from experience as an airline captain. This is really valuable information for pilots who are considering a career in the airlines. Thaks Chip!