a boy in a blue hat

Source: Mr. T in DC

Do airline pilots make a lot of money? Sort of. Some of them do. Maybe.

The median salary for airline pilots in America is about $98k per year, which looks pretty good. But there is a big income difference for pilots working for a major airline and those working for a regional one:

chart, bar chart

Data via Skift

Pilots for major airlines make over $85k per year (with the exception of US Airways). Meanwhile, many regional airline pilots- who tend to fly smaller aircraft- make well under $50k. You can see the drop-off in the middle of the graph. 

If the goal is to maximize earnings, then a pilot gig at a major airline is the way to go. But the road to a major airline is arduous. Many of them require extensive commercial flying experience, which might take a decade to rack up. The median age for new pilot hires for major airlines is about 35 years old. So in order to have enough hours, many ambitious pilots spend years at low-paying regional airlines:

chart, bar chart

Data via Skift

The difference in earnings between major and regional airline pilots is even more clear in the graph above. The starting salary for a first-year regional pilot is about half of what a pilot makes in his first year with a major airline. First-year pilots for some regional carriers actually make less per hour than airport window washers!

Now imagine spending years at a smaller airline in the hopes of finally moving up to the likes of Delta. Making the switch may require a pay cut– according to the Wall Street Journal, the average starting salary for new pilots at major airlines is about $36k. Which isn’t exactly a walk in the park for a mid-career professional working up to six flights a day. In 2009, the New York Times gave us a snapshot of a regional pilot’s schedule:

“Capt. Paul Nietz, 58, who recently retired from a regional airline, said his schedule wore him down and cost him three marriages. His workweek typically began with a 2:30 a.m. wake-up in northern Michigan and a 6 a.m. flight to his Chicago home bases. There, he would wait for his first assignment, a noon departure.”

And while pay for the lowest-earning pilots has slightly increased over the past decade, mean pilot salaries have noticeably dropped:

chart, line chart

Source: Wikimedia

If the promise land of eventual riches looks less and less enticing, what is keeping pilots on their grind? Despite the profession’s taxing nature (Career Cast named it the most stressful job in America), some pilots might just enjoy the thrill of flight. According to aviation consultant Kit Darby, “It’s sort of like a paid sport for people who love it.”

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