Right now is the perfect time to build towards a career in aviation, especially with the airlines.
A pilot’s salary can vary just as they do with any other job. Experience plays a big role as far as what a pilot makes, mainly because the different companies and positions available depend on the experience of a pilot. First, if we look at what the different types of jobs there are for pilots, then we can begin to narrow down the pilot salary range. Then when we look inside each job, we can see what affects the pay of the pilot at that point, whether it be experience within that company, the state of the economy, or other factors.
There are many opportunities for a pilot such as flight instruction, agriculture (crop dusting), regional and mainline airlines, corporate, shared operations and even tour guides. Jobs such as flight instructing, tour guides and even regional airlines tend to be on the lower end of the pilot salary scale. The instructing and touring jobs are generally for newer pilots to build their time while making some money. Hourly, they usually make what seems to be good money, anywhere from $15 to $40 dollars an hour, depending on where they work and level of experience. However, although that sounds like a good amount of money, an instructor or even a tour guide makes money when the propeller of the aircraft is moving. So, for every hour in the plane or helicopter, there is probably at least another hour to two hours spent preparing for that flight. For 8 hours of pay, at least 15 to 16 hours is actually worked. It is generally too expensive for most pilots to build flight hours on their own dime, so these types of jobs allow for them to work while reaching that goal.
If pursuing an airline career, regional airlines are generally the next step. And though pilots have to have a specific number of flight hours to be hired on, they are on the lower end of the pilot salary scale. In many cases, they have been known to pay less than flight instructing. Although regionals have been increasing their initial pay from what it once was, it can still be difficult for a pilot. Depending on the airline, starting pay can range from $22,000 to $38,000 annually. The pay does increase as more time is put in as well as upgrades and a captain can potentially make $80,000 a year flying for regional airlines.
Once a person builds their time and experience within a regional airline and is able to get on with a major airline such as Delta, American or United, the pay increases. For a pilot who has dreams of flying the big commercial airlines, working their way up to the majors is a long and hard process but if they get there, it’s generally very worth it. Major airlines set starting pay for first officers at around $60,000 to $80,000 yearly. Pay here will also continue to increase over time, of course, and a captain could make over $150,000 a year, depending on the airline. Another job on the higher end of the pilot salary scale is flying for UPS or FedEx or one of the major cargo companies. They tend to choose experienced pilots, who are paid well, and don’t have to deal with the passenger side of aviation. The average pay for a cargo pilot is in the neighborhood of $150,000. These positions, though they come with long hours and other considerations, tend to be desired due to the pay and passenger-less element.
Airlines and cargo are not the only opportunities for a higher pilot salary. Many large companies have their own aircraft and pilots can fly on the corporate side of things. The flying is different in that they do not necessarily have a set schedule and many times are on call. Salaries can range widely within this type of flying, based on the company and type of aircraft, but with the right set-up, pilots can make a good amount. The downside with corporate flying is there is usually very little room to grow. Once a person has reached captain, they have maxed out their potential within that company. So with each job, it really depends on where a person is at in their life as far as meeting their expectations and desires. A large part of this is the company and how much they value their employees. There are many corporate type operations where pilots make $40,000 to $50,000, with no real chance of an increase. Those operations tend to have a revolving door and don’t care as much about keeping the same pilots. Other companies can pay $80,000 to $120,000 and possibly as much as $190,000 for a Gulfstream 650 pilot, according to a 2014 survey conducted by Professional Pilot magazine. They value their pilots, but also rely on them heavily and fly them often. And with more money can come longer flights and more time away from home, though it can also mean more time off and more opportunity to travel outside of work. So just like aviation in general, the choice is up to each person with the effort they want to apply and the sacrifice they want to make as they tackle a new position.
As with any other job, aviation is affected by the economy. When the economy is booming, airlines are branching out, more flying is being done, and more people are learning to fly. When the economy begins to suffer, so does the flying. The price of everything goes up except for pilot salaries. So where “X” amount of money was once a great income, it may now be just enough to live off with no extras. Pilots begin to weigh the benefits to the negatives and decide if flying is really for them in those types of situations. If a pilot has a true passion for the skies, then the pay might not be the most important thing to them. However, everyone has to be able to survive off the income they make working so it is up to each individual person to figure out what their limits and desires are and head down that path.
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When packing a backpack for a camp-out, Boy Scouts keep in mind the motto “Be Prepared.” It’s a good motto for a pilot career too.
Do you want to know who makes good pilots? Mechanics. They know aircraft systems inside and out and, as pilots, often pull a rabbit out of a hat in an emergency. They know the nuances and intricacies of systems beyond the level of many pilots. Pilots responsibly grind through emergency checklists until the last item is completed. When the checklist is done, that’s it. The End. But a mechanic knows all those little weird-isms of valves, solenoids, doohickeys, thingamabobs and thingamajigs. When a checklist hasn’t fixed a problem they tap into their knowledge from back in their troubleshooting days “working the floor” and, as pilots faced with inflight emergencies they sometimes devise impromptu procedures that can make them heroes.
Pilots make extraordinarily good instructors. Don’t waste my time with a teacher who’s never “been there, done that.” They’re good because they are calm and confident about their abilities. They’re knowledgeable because they’ve flown, over and over, the scenarios they’re teaching. Weak instructors get rattled (“Ohmygosh!Ohmygosh!Ohmygosh!”) and can make a big deal big deals out of nothing. Experienced pilots can separate the wheat from the chaff and impart to students the important stuff patiently, in real-world terms and in an orderly fashion.
Many dispatchers (also called flight controllers) are pilots, either private or possess some degree of commercial training. This provides them with perceptions, common sense and judgment that is worth a lot in the planning and decision-making they do. Dispatchers are unsung heroes. It’s dispatchers who respond to unplanned crises and quickly respond with safe and legal alternatives for a flight crew. When pilots radio them with some problem, the pilots look to the dispatchers for solutions often requiring a bucket-load of calculation and research. You can’t do that if you don’t know your stuff and know it well.
Maybe you can see where I am going here. The more talents you have, the better you will be at your job and the more your window of opportunities will expand, too. Pilots who have non-aviation schooling in professions dealing with numbers are outstanding with performance charts. Flight attendants who have a background in elementary education handle the broad spectrum of passenger personalities and problems on an airplane well.
The Unpredictable “What If?” of a Pilot Career
There’s another very important reason to be dualistic, the unknown. What if you train as a pilot, immerse yourself in your pilot career and then, wham-o…you lose your medical and can no longer fly. Or what if you train to be a mechanic and your airline is gobbled up by a bigger airline and closes your maintenance base? You’ve got 9 kids in school, a house you love that you paid-off last week and your wife bursts into tears at any suggestion of leaving the community. What’s more, you’re only 3 years from being fully vested in the airline’s retirement plan and you really want to stay with the company rather than lose those benefits.
Or maybe you became an engineer and after a few years have grown to be bored by it and would like to try something else. Defining yourself by one job classification is the same as backing yourself into a corner. Pilots are taught to always have a back-up plan which is sound thinking whether you’re a pilot or in any other career. One of the best aviation ground schools I have ever been in was taught by a pilot who had lost his medical but had a degree in law. Not having a medical did not preclude him from teaching in the simulator but, holy cow his presentations in ground school interpreting the regulations were academy award winning.
Spirit of St. Louis aviator Charles Lindbergh was once asked by his son what career field he should choose. Lindbergh’s answer was to do something no one else was doing. This tangential strategy can be applied to one’s own career by preparing for your chosen pilot career but also working on something else perhaps unrelated to it. It’s not uncommon to find mechanics who are also real estate agents or pilots who are accountants. If you are training in any field of aviation and your school is affiliated with a college it is worth looking into a degree in something else while finishing your aviation training. You’ll have the added benefit of accumulating college credit toward your degree for your aviation training. For pilots it’s worth mentioning here that most airlines don’t care what your college major is, they just want a degree.
There are things that can happen short of a catastrophe that having experience in or knowledge about other areas might prove to be a lifesaver to get you over a rough patch. I know an airline pilot who broke his arm and couldn’t fly. It wasn’t permanent but he’d be out for several months so he took a temporary assignment in crew scheduling. Another pilot was furloughed and worked on the ramp. When he was recalled to flying status he told me he’d have to renew his gym membership because he’d never been in that good of shape. One pilot with whom I have worked had a degree in education and worked as a substitute teacher on days off. If things went sour in his pilot career he could always return to the classroom full time. Cockpits are full of real estate agents, lawyers, building contractors, writers, radio announcers, you name it. Captain Jim Tilmon spent 29 years with American Airlines. On his days off for over 25 years he “moonlighted” on Chicago television as an on-camera meteorologist. His degree was in music.1
Whether you want to do something to fulfill personal or professional initiatives on your days off or just want something to keep in your back pocket as a hedge against unemployment, it’s not a bad idea to be thinking about back-ups.
As a flight attendant your airline experience would be appealing in any hospitality career field, restaurants, hotels et cetera.. And mechanics often use their skills in automobile repair. Although it’s nice to rake in a little extra “funny money” in a sideline, if the bottom should fall out of your airline job there’s peace of mind knowing you can do something else.
Up until now we’ve been gloomily musing about alternatives in the event that your chosen pilot career interest is taken from you. But there are other reasons for a back up plan that are not necessarily due to misfortune. A colleague of mine was looking to hire a manager of standards for his airline. He was inundated with applications from pilots who had passed retirement age. In spite of the accepted hyperbole that seems to surround any discussion about retirement, retired airline jocks no longer allowed to fly begged him to “get me out of the house.” “I can’t stand the boredom.” “I miss the airlines.” Retirement isn’t for everybody and while some employees dream of the day their lives become filled up with fishing poles, rocking chairs and motor homes, others don’t. A former pilot with 30 years and 30,000 hours of Part 121 experience is perfectly suited to set and supervise the technical intricacies of airline standards and one of them ended up being his choice. The airline benefited by filling the position with someone of vast experience while an ex- pilot no longer felt cut adrift and is able to keep his juices flowing.
Let’s talk about moonlighting. Some airlines have strict policies prohibiting outside employment. You certainly don’t want to jeopardize a solid high $$$ job by picking up (what may amount to) loose change on days off.
Two cautions should be mentioned here. Aside from most airlines prohibiting its pilots from outside flying for compensation there’s other risks. Under FAA Part 121 you are limited to flying 100 hours per month and 1,000 hours per year. Any flying you do outside of the airline must be reported and included in those maximums or you are violating the regs. Airline do not look kindly on pilots running up against the 30 hours in 7 days regulations either. Say you fly for a local company on your day off and earlier this week you flew 3 hours one day. The next trip sequence that begins tomorrow on your airline schedule is built to 28 hours. Legally you must drop some portion of your schedule to be legal. With your outside flying, you’d end up flying 31 hours in 7 days and that’s a no-no. In airline vernacular not being able to fly because you’ve flown the legal limit is known as “timing out.” Sometimes “timing out” is unavoidable such as when delays bloat the legal schedule and 28 hours becomes more. In those cases the airline must remove you from finishing your trip schedule. They do not like doing this but they recognize it as being just one of those unavoidable things that can be caused by weather, ramp delays and so forth. However your outside flying would not be received by your employer with the same yielding attitude.
Another risk of outside flying is involvement in an incident, accident or violation. The serious ramifications to your airline job should be obvious. What a sorry situation you’d create for yourself to get caught-up in some violation that puts a substantial airline job on the chopping block.
Naturally a potential injury is something no one wants but becoming injured on a second job is probably worse because it is avoidable. One pilot for a major airline (with a strict policy against outside flying) was moonlighting as a fill-in pilot on a private corporation’s jet. After completing a short trip the pilot was helping the tug driver hook-up the tow bar to push the jet into the hangar. Long story/short…the pilot’s hand got jammed while fastening the tow bar to the tug and was crushed. After re-constructive surgeries and a year of physical therapy the pilot got his medical back but the airline fired him. In this same vein, a mechanic who gets hurt working part time on somebody’s car is taking a chances. So, although many airline employees do have gigs on the side, most are careful about risk-taking and stay comfortably far away from any window of vulnerability. There is no reason to be too scared to get out of bed in the morning; just use common sense and be careful. It is something to keep in mind.
There are no guarantees, assurances or absolutes in a pilot career. Even as you are preparing for what hopefully will be a successful pilot career it’s a good idea to keep a backup plan in mind just in case your career needs that first aid kit that is found in the Boy Scout’s backpack.
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