How to Become an Airline Pilot

Discover the 7 Exciting Ways Airline Pilots Are Paid

Airline Pilot Standing in Door of Airline

As you go into research mode on becoming an airline pilot you will probably notice vast differences in what people say airline pilots are paid. In this post, we will try to explain the concepts of just how an airline pilot gets compensated. Like any profession, how an airline pilot gets paid might seem complex at first, but with a little explanation, it will become clear. At its core, an airline pilot’s salary often comprises a base pay, per diem, and sometimes bonuses.

Base Pay

Base pay is they main component of an airline pilot’s salary. Airlines pay an hourly rate which typically goes up each year until you reach the top of the pay scale. The hourly rate combined with a minimum guaranteed hours is considered the base pay. 

But before diving too deep, it’s essential to understand the two main categories pilots fall into when it comes to scheduling: reserve pilots and line holders.

Reserve Pilots:

  • New pilots or those with less seniority usually begin as reserve pilots. These aviators are essentially “on-call”. They have designated periods when they must be available to fly, replacing other pilots on short notice due to sickness, delays, or other unforeseen circumstances.

Although reserve pilots might not fly as regularly as line holders, they are guaranteed a minimum number of paid hours per month (usually 70-75 hours). This ensures a stable income even if they aren’t in the skies frequently. Keep in mind while that may not sound like much, most regional airlines first year pay is $85-$95 per hour.

Line Holders:

  • As pilots gain seniority or as positions open up, they more often are awarded a line. Airline Pilots bid lines each month. Lines are awarded to the pilots with the highest seniority. Line holders have fixed schedules, knowing their routes and destinations well in advance. Their pay is based on these scheduled hours, which usually exceeds the minimum guaranteed to reserve pilots.

Bonus Pay

Airline pilots have opportunities to earn bonus pay, further enhancing their compensation package. Some common forms of bonuses include:

Sign-on Bonuses 

To attract skilled pilots, especially in times of pilot shortages, airlines often offer lucrative sign-on bonuses. These can be substantial, sometimes as much as $100,000!

Retention Bonuses

Loyalty pays! Some airlines reward pilots for their continued service with yearly bonuses. This is in addition to yearly hourly pay increases.

Performance Bonuses

Exceptional performance doesn’t go unnoticed. Airlines often reward pilots for maintaining impeccable safety records, completing training programs ahead of time, or taking on challenging routes.

Profit Sharing

Some airlines offer profit sharing bonuses, which means when the company has a great year the employees get rewarded with a portion of the profits. 

Per Diem

Now, onto one of the more overlooked part of a pilot’s compensation package: per diem. This term, which translates to “per day”, is an allowance given to pilots to cover expenses while they’re away from home. Think meals, and other incidental expenses incurred during trips.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Per diem is often paid based on the total number of hours a pilot is away from their home base, not just flight hours. From the moment they check-in for their flight, during the entire time they are away until they sign off back at their home base, the clock is ticking.

The rate of per diem varies between airlines and regions. For instance, international trips might have a higher per diem rate due to the potentially higher costs in overseas cities. Over time, and especially for pilots flying longer routes, this allowance can add up to a significant amount of income.

Another perk? During overnight stays, per diem is tax-free, since it’s a reimbursement for expenses rather than earned income.

Health, Retirement, and Insurance Benefits

Most airlines offer a variety of medical plans and options, including vision, dental, long-term disability and life insurance. Given the nature of their job, it’s crucial for pilots to be in their best health, and airlines invest in ensuring just that. From regular medical check-ups to covering medical emergencies, pilots are well taken care of.

Several major airlines are consistently in the ranks of the best 401K plans in the U.S. With some of highest paying retirement plans airline pilots can be ensured that they will have a comfortable life once they hang up their hat. 

Travel Benefits

One of the most well known perks of being a pilot is the access to free travel for themselves and their immediate family. These benefits can sometimes extend to retired pilots as well, making travel a significant part of their life even after their active flying days. Exploring the world, experiencing different cultures, or simply visiting family becomes easier and more affordable.

With this benefit you can fly for free on your airline or partner airlines as a standby passenger. So when a flight isn’t full you get to take a seat and fly for free. If you prefer to have a confirmed seat many airlines offer large discounts for purchased tickets as well!

Career Progression and Training

Airlines invest heavily in their pilots’ training, ensuring they are equipped with the latest knowledge and skills. As technology evolves and newer aircraft models emerge, pilots undergo training programs, which are paid for by the airline. This continuous learning not only enhances their skills but also paves the way for increased pay throughout their career.

For instance, starting as a First Officer or co-pilot, one can aspire to become a Captain and subsequently take on managerial responsibilities,  or one could step up to become a Check Airman and take on training new first officers within the airline. Each progression comes with  financial rewards, making the long-term career trajectory for a pilot quite lucrative.

Flexibility and Time Off

Pilots enjoy a unique work schedule. Unlike typical 9-5 jobs, pilots might work intensively for a set number of days and then enjoy extended periods off. This pattern allows them to pursue hobbies, spend quality time with families, or even venture into side businesses or investments. This flexibility can translate into additional earnings or savings, depending on how a pilot chooses to spend their free time.

Final Thoughts

When we look at the entire package – from base pay to per diems, from bonuses to benefits – it’s evident that an airline pilot’s compensation is not just about the monthly paycheck. It’s a well-rounded package that caters to their professional demands, personal well-being, and long-term security.

Being an airline pilot is not just about the thrill of flying or visiting exotic destinations; it’s a career that offers financial stability, growth, and numerous benefits.

If you’ve ever dreamt of taking to the skies, remember that the rewards are multifaceted. Not only do you get to pursue a passion, but you’re also stepping into a career that values and compensates its professionals generously. The skies, with all their allure, hold promises of adventures and a prosperous future. Safe flying!

Anthony Fowler | Co-Founder of US Flight Co. Avatar

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