Airline pilots fly jet and turboprop-powered aircraft to transport people from one location to another. These individuals are highly trained professionals: first officers (also known as "copilots" or "FOs") must hold at least a commercial pilot certificate and an aircraft type rating, while captains must hold an airline transport pilot certificate with a type rating. Although many have the impression that airline pilots receive high salaries, that is usually not the case.
Regional airlines, also known as "commuter" or "connector" airlines, act as feeders for the major airlines, taking passengers from smaller cities and ferrying them to major hubs. Pilots typically begin their careers at the regionals before advancing to the major airlines. Average starting regional airline pilot pay ranged from $17,000 to $26,000 per year, according to a June 2010 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Regional airline captains earned an average of $76,000 per year as of June 2009, according to Bloomberg.
Major airlines fly large passenger aircraft between major hubs, both domestic and international. These carriers employ pilots with upward of 5,000 hours of total flight time. Although these carriers pay more on average than the regionals, regional airline captains often take a pay cut to move into a major airline FO position. According to The Wall Street Journal, the average starting salary at major airlines was $36,283 per year, while the average top airline captain annual salary was $165,278 as of June 2009.
Although average salaries reflect the mid-point of pilot earnings, airline pilot annual salaries cover a wide range, from as little as $16,000 per year (equivalent to a full-time minimum-wage job) to over $200,000 as of 2010. The biggest influence on pilot salary is seniority. Both regional and major airline pilots receive yearly pay raises. However, if a pilot leaves her airline for any reason, she will move to the bottom of the seniority scale, taking a pay cut.
In addition to seniority, other factors have an influence on pilot pay. Pilots at large cargo airlines such as UPS, FedEx and DHL earn the highest salaries in the industry (over $200,000 per year as of June 2009), while pilots flying for low-cost major air carriers see the lowest top salaries in the industry. Additionally, aircraft type plays a role in pay, with pilots of smaller, less-prestigious aircraft earning significantly less than those flying large aircraft capable of crossing oceans.