Skip to Content

Do pilots make good money?

Pilots have a reputation for making good money, but how much do they really earn? The answer is that pilot salaries vary widely depending on factors like experience level, airline, and aircraft type. However, most airline pilots in the U.S. do make a comfortable living.

Pilot Pay Basics

There are a few key things to understand about how pilots get paid:

  • Pilots are usually paid an hourly rate plus per diem (expenses) when traveling.
  • Salaries increase based on experience and rank. First officers make less than captains.
  • Pay depends on the airline and aircraft size. Major airline pilots fly larger jets and earn higher wages.
  • Salaries are usually determined by union contracts between airlines and pilot labor groups.

Pay by Airline Type

There are large differences in pay between major airlines, regional carriers, and cargo operators:

Airline Type Typical Pay Range
Major Airlines $80,000 – $200,000+ per year
Regional Airlines $30,000 – $80,000 per year
Cargo Carriers $50,000 – $120,000 per year

As shown, major airline pilot pay is significantly higher. This is because they fly larger aircraft on longer routes. Regional airline pay is lower but can serve as a pathway to the majors.

Major Airline Pilot Pay

At major airlines like Delta, United, and American, pilot salaries have increased substantially in recent years thanks to new union contracts. Here are some average wages:

  • Delta Airlines first officers: $100,000 per year
  • United Airlines captains: $200,000 per year
  • American Airlines 777 first officers: $150,000 per year

Keep in mind that major airline pilots receive bonuses on top of their guaranteed minimum pay. They also get nice benefits like 401(k) contributions.

Regional Airline Pay

For those just starting out, regional airlines offer lower pay but faster advancement opportunities. Here are some typical regional pilot salaries:

  • First year first officers at SkyWest: $43 per hour
  • Third year captains at Endeavor: $77 per hour
  • Fifth year first officers at Republic: $55 per hour

Regional pilots can make $30,000-60,000 per year, especially when starting out. But they quickly gain experience to advance.

Cargo and Charter Airline Pay

Cargo operators like FedEx and UPS pay very well for their pilots. Here are some sample salaries:

  • UPS 767 first officers: $120,000 per year
  • FedEx A300 captains: $210,000 per year
  • Atlas Air 747 first officers: $100,000 per year

Charter airline pay varies more widely, but averages around $70,000-90,000 for captains and $50,000-70,000 for first officers.

Highest Paid Pilot Jobs

The very top paying aviation jobs include:

  • Major airline widebody captains: $200,000 – $300,000+ per year
  • Corporate jet captains: $100,000 – $200,000+ per year
  • Agricultural pilots: $80,000 – $150,000 per year
  • Air ambulance pilots: $100,000 – $200,000 per year

Reaching the pinnacle of the profession by becoming a major airline captain or flying private jets represent the highest pilot salaries.

Entry Level Pilot Pay

For pilots just starting out, pay will be lower until gaining more skills and certifications. Some entry level pilot job pay rates include:

  • Flight instructors: $30,000 – $50,000 per year
  • Banner towing pilots: $30,000 – $40,000 per year
  • Tour pilots/sightseeing: $30,000 – $50,000 per year
  • Entry level corporate pilots: $40,000 – $60,000 per year

However, taking one of these jobs allows for relatively fast accumulation of flight hours to move on to better paying flying positions.

Highest Paid Commercial Pilots

The very top echelon of airline captains can earn salaries of $300,000 or more. Here are some of the highest paying pilot jobs in the commercial world:

  • Delta 777 Captain: $300,000+ per year
  • United 787 Captain: $275,000+ per year
  • FedEx 777 Captain: $275,000+ per year
  • Emirates A380 Captain: $300,000+ per year

Reaching this elite level requires many years and thousands of hours of experience. But the financial rewards can be substantial.

Private and Corporate Pilot Pay

Business aviation is another lucrative field. Here are some typical private and corporate pilot salaries:

  • Fractional ownership pilots: $80,000 – $150,000
  • Light jet pilots: $60,000 – $100,000
  • Midsize jet pilots: $100,000 – $180,000
  • Long range jet pilots: $120,000 – $200,000+

Corporate flying requires fewer flight hours but offers excellent wages flying high net worth individuals or executives.

Highest Paid Corporate Pilots

The most lucrative corporate pilot jobs include flying for elite individuals or large companies:

  • Global Express Captains: $200,000+ per year
  • Gulfstream G650 Captains: $180,000+ per year
  • Bombardier Challenger Captains: $150,000+ per year
  • Fortune 500 Flight Department Management: $250,000+ per year

These top tier corporate jobs require extensive experience but provide excellent salaries and work/life balance.

Military Pilot Pay

Military pilot compensation includes basic pay, allowances, and benefits. Annual salaries by rank are:

  • Air Force O-1 (2nd Lieutenant): $34,224 per year
  • Air Force O-3 (Captain): $61,467 per year
  • Air Force O-5 (Lieutenant Colonel): $105,369 per year
  • Reserve/Guard Pilots: $22,000 – $60,000 per year

In addition to basic pay, military pilots receive housing and food allowances along with free healthcare and other benefits.

Highest Paid Military Pilots

The highest paid military pilots are those who reach senior officer ranks and have many years of service. Annual salaries for top ranking officers are:

  • O-6 (Colonel): $118,000 per year
  • O-7 (Brigadier General): $160,000 per year
  • O-8 (Major General): $180,000 per year

After a full career, military pilots can retire with as much as 50-75% of their active duty pay.

Commercial vs Military vs Corporate Pay

Comparing pilot pay across different flying careers shows:

  • Airline captains earn the highest total compensation
  • Corporate pilots earn excellent wages with good work-life balance
  • Military pilots earn moderate salaries plus benefits during service

However, all three career paths can lead to over $100,000+ per year incomes after gaining substantial experience.

Factors That Affect Pilot Pay

Several key factors impact how much pilots get paid:

  • Flight Hours: More hours means higher pay as pilots advance in their careers.
  • Aircraft Type: Large jets pay the best, while small pistons pay the least.
  • Captain vs First Officer: Captains make 20-50% more than first officers.
  • Type of Flying: Airlines generally pay the best while flight instruction pays the least.
  • Union Contracts: Pilots at unionized airlines earn higher wages.

Gaining experience and certifications is key to unlocking higher wages over the course a pilot career.


In summary, pilot salaries offer comfortable incomes, especially for senior captains at major airlines who can earn $200,000+ a year. However, all pilots see their earnings rise substantially as they gain flight hours and progress through the ranks. While starting wages may be more modest, pilots overall are compensated very well relative to the education required and enjoy good job security and benefits.