If you’re getting ready to enter the airline ranks, it’s natural to wonder exactly how and what you’ll get paid. I’ve covered the basics of the pay scales before, and the pay rates for most airlines are published on AirlinePilotCentral.com.
To figure out a rough annual income, multiply each wage by 1,000, since pilots average 1,000 hours a year of pay. If you want to guess low, multiply the wage by the number of reserve hours guaranteed in a month, and then multiply that number by 12.
But what about the day-to-day workings? You may hear about trip and duty rigs, and you may not understand them. Here’s a quick rundown of how you can expect to get paid.
Generally, you’ll get paid for what you fly, which won’t be more than eight hours a day and will average five to seven. There’s a minimum number of pay hours each day guaranteed, known as “min day,” but the airline will generally try to have you fly more than that. It can be as low as three, and as much as six, but five hours is typical.
The duty rig takes into account getting paid for your time at work on a given day. Not every airline has a duty rig (most regionals don’t), but when they do, it’s typically a 2:1 ratio, which means that for every two hours at work on a given day, you’re guaranteed one hour of pay. This is designed to prevent having the company schedule you for one flight at the beginning of the day and another at the end, with nothing to do for hours at a time in between. So, if you work a 10-hour day, you’ll be guaranteed at least five hours of pay. But if you fly more, you’ll get paid more.
Then there’s the trip rig. The trip starts the minute you check in, which is usually an hour before the first departure, and it ends shortly after the last leg blocks in (the exact time varies by company, usually 15 to 20 minutes, but it may be more after an international flight to take into account the need to clear Customs and Immigration). This time is known as time away from base, or TAFB. TAFB is also what is used to calculate your daily per-diem allowance, which is paid by the hour.
Depending on the airline, the TAFB ratio is usually somewhere between 3.5 to 4, meaning that for each 3.5 to 4 hours away from base, you’re guaranteed at least an hour of pay.
I recently flew a typical four-day trip that started at 8 a.m. on Day 1 and ended at 2:46 p.m. on Day 4, for a total TAFB of 78:46. The total flying time was 22:28. The formula for the rig is 3.5:1, which means that 78:46/3.5 guarantees me 22:30 of pay, a difference of only two minutes over the scheduled flight time.
There are times when the company can’t avoid long layovers—holidays, some international destinations, and charters are examples—so the trip rig is designed to ensure the pilot gets paid for time away from his or her family while giving the airline an incentive to fly you as much as possible while at work. The airline is “penalized” when it uses soft time. The system generally works.
At the end of the trip, the duty rig, flight time, and trip rig are examined, and the one that pays the highest is usually what you’ll get paid.
Most companies pay for cancelled flights, so the crew isn’t making decisions based on pay implications, and vacation and sick pay are different for each airline. Once you’ve become immersed in the industry for a while, you’ll understand the subtleties of the various rules, and which ones are most desirable.
There are always exceptions, and there are different rules specific to each company, but this gives you a feel for what you can expect in terms of calculating the various pay options.—Chip Wright