In 2010, about 100 U.S. airlines flew more than 630 million passengers, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The Wall Street Journal," in a November 2012 article, reported that the largest U.S. airlines collectively employed nearly 51,000 pilots. Altogether, U.S. airlines have nearly 100,000 pilots flying the skies. Airline pilots are highly trained, professional and skilled at what they do and their jobs are both demanding and rewarding, frequently at the same time.
Pilot Training Costs
Training and education-wise, it can be very expensive to become an airline pilot. The "The Truth About the Profession" airline pilot website says that a pilot education can run to the high five or even low six figures, including the cost of college. A four-year college degree isn't necessary to become an airline pilot, but the majority of applicants have them, making career entry very competitive. Non-university flight schools offer all-in-one training, including certificates and licensure, for about $60,000.
Airline Pilot Salaries
Most airline pilots are paid on an hourly basis and many pilots start out making about $20 per hour. However, an airline pilot is only paid while his or her plane is considered officially "in flight." The pay for an airline pilot begins when an airliner's parking brakes are released at departure time and ends when they're re-applied at its destination gate. While an airline pilot may spend 12 hours per day at work, total pay may be for only six hours.
Airline Pilot Advantages
While the typical starting pay for an airline pilot is relatively low, over time, annual pay at a large airline can exceed $100,000 quite easily. Airline pilots all work on programmed schedules, with maximum monthly flight hours limited by the Federal Aviation Administration. Mid-career airline pilots may have as many as 18 days off per month, in fact. Airline pilots also have numerous travel opportunities with their own airlines and "space available" discounted or even free travel on other airlines.
Airline Pilot Disadvantages
The airline pilot profession tends to be highly unionized and seniority rules govern all aspects of pilot work lives. It can take years for an airline pilot to advance up the seniority ladder at his or her airline and receive the best routes and best days off. Unlike their more-senior brethren, low-seniority airline pilots must frequently work weekends, holidays and as "on call" or reserve backfill pilots. New airline pilots are lucky to make $20,000 annually and they occasionally suffer layoffs or furloughs.
Airline Pilot Growth
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 11 percent growth in airline pilot jobs through 2020, which compares to a predicted average growth rate of 14 percent for all U.S. jobs in the same period. The BLS also says median pay for U.S. airline pilots is around $92,000 annually. A study by the University of North Dakota's Aviation Department predicts U.S. airlines will need to hire 65,000 airline pilots by 2025 to cover retirements and expansion.
2016 Salary Information for Airline and Commercial Pilots
Airline and commercial pilots earned a median annual salary of $111,270 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, airline and commercial pilots earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,450, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $166,140, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 124,800 people were employed in the U.S. as airline and commercial pilots.