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Are pilots paid when not flying?

Whether pilots get paid when they are not actively flying the airplane is a common question for those outside of the aviation industry. The short answer is yes, pilots do receive compensation even when they are not in the air. However, the details of pilot pay and work schedules are quite complex.

Pilot Salaries

Most airline pilots are paid an annual salary, which covers both their flight hours and ground time. This means they receive consistent pay year-round, regardless of how many hours they work each day or week. Their salaries are based on factors like:

  • Years of experience
  • Rank (Captain vs First Officer)
  • Aircraft size
  • Domestic vs international routes

The average annual salary for pilots in the U.S. is about $120,000, though senior captains at major airlines can earn $200,000 or more. Salaries at regional airlines tend to be lower, with new first officers sometimes earning around $30,000 to start.

Minimum Guarantees

Most airline pilots have a guaranteed minimum number of paid hours each month. For example, a pilot contract may specify a minimum guarantee of 75 hours per month. If a pilot ends up flying less than 75 hours in a given month, they still receive pay as if they had flown the full 75 hours.

These minimum hour guarantees were negotiated by pilot unions to ensure a consistent income. Airlines must abide by the guarantees in the union contract. The guaranteed minimum provides a base level of pay should a pilot’s flights be reduced due to things like weather cancellations or lower demand.

Per Diem Pay

When pilots are away from their home base, they receive per diem pay to cover meals and other travel expenses. This per diem rate is in addition to their salary.

Per diem rates vary by airline, but typically range from $1.50-$2.50 per hour from the time the pilot leaves home until they return. For a 4-day trip with 12 hours of per diem pay each day, a pilot could earn an extra $100 or more to supplement their salary.

Premium Pay

Airline pilots also earn additional pay for certain working conditions beyond their normal salary:

  • Holidays – Pilots earn an extra 150% pay for working on major holidays.
  • Overtime – Hours beyond certain thresholds are paid at 150% normal pay.
  • Red-eye flights – Working overnight “red-eye” flights typically earns an extra 50% pay.

For example, a pilot may fly a 10-hour overnight trip on Christmas Eve. They would earn premium pay of 1.5x their salary for the holiday, plus the extra 50% for overnight hours.

Pay for Standby Reserve

Most airlines also have pilots on “reserve” duty to cover unplanned absences or get crews to cities where they are needed. Reserve pilots receive a percentage of their normal monthly pay, usually around 50%, to be on call ready to fly if needed.

If reserves do get called to fly a trip on short notice, they receive 100% pay for the added flight time beyond their reserve guarantee.

Training Pay

When pilots undergo initial training on a new aircraft type, or recurrent training required by the FAA, they receive full pay. Airlines cannot deduct from pilot pay for time spent in training.

If training requires travel to a simulator facility on a pilot’s day off, they also earn pay at a reduced hourly rate. Any training done away from home will also generate per diem pay to cover expenses.

Pay for Delays or Cancellations

If a pilot’s flight is substantially delayed or cancelled due to weather, mechanical issues, or other operational problems, they still receive 100% of their hourly pay. Airlines cannot deduct pay because of delays or cancellations outside a pilot’s control.

Pay During Medical Leave

If a pilot takes medical leave due to illness or injury, they can use accumulated sick time or workers compensation benefits to continue earning income while they recover.

To help protect their salaries, most pilots purchase individual disability insurance in case they are unable to fly for an extended period due to medical reasons.

Retirement Benefits

The major airlines provide pilots with retirement plans, including defined benefit pension plans in many cases. Retiree medical coverage is also typically provided once a pilot reaches age 65.

Retirement income combined with social security benefits mean pilots can earn a reasonable fixed income once they complete their flying careers, even when they are no longer actively working.

Union Contracts

All of these pilot pay policies are mandated in legally binding union contracts negotiated by organizations like the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

The unions aim to provide pilots with stable salaries, guards against unpaid time, and benefits like retirement income. Airlines must abide by the terms in pilot contracts or risk legal action by the unions.

Flight Attendant and Gate Agent Pay

Unlike pilots, flight attendants and gate agents are typically paid only for flight hours or gate hours worked. When they are not actively working aboard a flight or covering a gate shift, they do not earn wages.

However, airlines may provide monthly pay guarantees for flight attendants and customer service agents similar to pilot minimums. When not flying or working gates, these employees can be assigned ground duties around the airport to supplement their incomes.

Salary vs. Hourly Pay

The difference between pilot salaries and flight attendant/agent hourly wages is a source of friction between the work groups. Pilots argue that their training and licensing requirements, plus the great responsibility in operating expensive aircraft, justify higher uniform pay.

However, airline labor groups counter that the flexibility of only paying workers for hours actively worked provides savings that keep ticket prices lower. Having some employees exempt from duty limits also gives airlines more options for covering flights.

Expenses Covered

In addition to providing base pay, airlines also cover expenses related to pilots’ duties that are incurred while not flying. These include:

  • Hotel accommodations on layovers
  • Airport parking fees
  • Lounge fees
  • Uniform costs
  • Flight kit supplies
  • Medical exams required by FAA
  • Drug testing fees
  • Licensing and certification fees

Having these costs covered ensures pilots can dedicate their salary to everyday living expenses.

Pay for Standbys Not Used

When reserve pilots on standby are not ultimately used to cover a flight, they still receive 10-25% of their minimum pay guarantee. So they are compensated to some degree for their time on call even if not utilized.

Salary Compared to Revenue

Overall, pilot salaries account for a relatively small percentage of an airline’s total operating costs. At most carriers, pilot pay consumes about 25-30% of total expenses. The remaining majority covers fuel, aircraft ownership/leasing, maintenance, passenger service, marketing and other overhead costs.

Some analysts argue that pilot salaries could be increased without a major impact on ticket prices. However they face resistance from airline executives seeking to control labor costs.

Pay for Re-Routing

When pilots are reassigned to fly a different route due to operational needs, they still receive their original pay as planned. Only if re-routing increases their total flight time do pilots earn additional compensation.

Deadheading Pay

When pilots need to reposition (“deadhead”) to cover an assignment away from their base airport, they receive reduced pay for that travel time – usually around 50% of their regular hourly wage.

Deadheading as a Passenger

Deadheading pilots flying as passengers on their own or a partner airline are guaranteed to reach their assignment location so they can operate their scheduled flight.

Deadheading on the Flight Deck

For long domestic or international repositioning, pilots may deadhead on the actual flight deck to get to their assignment location. This allows an airline to utilize a flight without needing to pay for full pilot crews to operate it.

Pay for Delayed Boarding

If pilots are delayed getting to the aircraft due to late arrival of the inbound flight, long security lines, or other impediments outside their control, they still get 100% of their scheduled pay. Airlines cannot reduce pilot pay because of delayed boarding time.


While pilot salaries are a significant expense for airlines, the carriers recognize the importance of fully compensating the crews responsible for expensive equipment and passenger lives. Complex union contracts guarantee pilot pay is protected for all time worked and most time on standby.

The combination of base salary, per diem, premiums and expense reimbursement provides airline pilots with stable incomes even when time in the air fluctuates month to month. This system of pilot compensation helps attract and retain the highly trained and licensed staff essential for airline operations.