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I always thought pilots were paid well. I am currently watching the movie "Capitalism, A love Story," and Michael Moore interviews some pilots, in which the pilots say they make around $19,000 - $25,000 per year as their starting salary flying commercial airline passenger flights. Some say they even worked second jobs.

Do they make such little money? Are there any concrete data for this?

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    I think the question is too vague. are you talking a major airline commercial pilot with 30 years of experience, or a bush pilot who flies a 4-seat Cessna in the wilds of Alaska/Australia? – fred Jun 24 '11 at 16:15
  • edited slightly for clarity (specified "commercial airline passenger flights") and a couple of grammar tweaks. – Hendy Jun 24 '11 at 16:23
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    "commercial airline passenger flight" could be an airbus a380 with 500+ passengers or a piper cub carrying 2 passengers, but both could be commercial flights. – fred Jun 24 '11 at 16:55
  • Here's a related Huffington Post article: huffingtonpost.com/michael-moore/… that indicates that some pilots can take home around $405 a week and need second jobs to make ends meet. – Brian M. Hunt Jun 24 '11 at 17:09
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    I remember him making this claim just after 9/11, and speculating that there may be a connection between low pilot wages, and the event. Classy. – Andrew Grimm Jun 27 '11 at 11:45
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The pay of pilots covers a huge spectrum. Experienced plots for major airlines are well paid. However the pilots of regional airlines and commuter lines are sometimes paid much much less. This is partly because there is a glut of pilots right now, and also because pilots use these jobs as a way to gain the experience they need to be hired by the major airlines.

This site (thanks erekalper) gives ranges of salaries. Note that some of them (hello United) go down to $21,000! Delta goes down to $35,000 and SkyWest to $45,000, neither a lot of money for someone who has had to undergo years of training and qualification and who literally has your life in their hands. The difference from airline to airline is also huge.

This Wall Street Journal article (thanks fred) points out that the starting salary for US Airways is $21,000. Since they haven't been hiring for years there are no pilots on 'starting salary', but that's what they would get. The pilots of the Colgan Air plane that crashed into Buffalo were on about $24,000.

So in short:Yes, it is perfectly possible that the guy piloting your plane could be earning a poverty wage. Make of that what you will.

Non-airline commercial piloting jobs are paid even less, because they are the stepping stone to the junior airline positions (there is, incidentally, a licensing difference between an 'airline pilot' and a 'commercial pilot' - any reference to 'airline pilots' should exclude the guy flying a Piper Cub, even for money).

(Technically some of the salaries in the first survey could be for a flight engineer, but flight engineers are a vanishing breed in these days of two-person cockpits.)

EDIT: jwenting says that the low figures for United may be because pilots working their regional subsidiaries list "United" as their employer. Looking for confirmation of that. And of course it still means there are low-paid pilots out there.

  • All the pilots I know who fly for BA, Virgin, Singapore etc would disagree. They earn less than £50,000 a year. Not sure where you got the extremely well paid quote from. – Rory Alsop Jun 25 '11 at 17:28
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    I've removed 'extremely'; most people would consider £50,000 at least 'well paid'. – DJClayworth Jun 27 '11 at 1:14
  • 2 things to consider: 1) FedEx only hires high hour pilots, who everywhere get paid more and 2) different airlines operate different fleets, and pilot pay depends greatly on the aircraft type and operating environment (larger aircraft and longer average routes typically pay better). – jwenting Jun 27 '11 at 6:39
  • Actually, even a bus or taxi driver has my life in their hands. – gerrit Jan 28 '13 at 22:21
  • @gerrit only to some extent. It's not that easy in most situations, and you still have some chances. – o0'. Aug 15 '14 at 20:45
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Update: @DJClayworth pointed out that the primary question is whether any pilots make between $19k - $25k per year. I more took the question to be whether pilots, in general, are being paid these amounts. I dug a bit more and tracked down a survey by FltOps, an aviation professional assistance company, whose reports on lowest and highest reported salaries for various pilots is found HERE:

pilot wages

US Airways is definitely in this range with their lowest reported figure of $21,600. United airlines is also close at $27,392, with American Airlines coming in at 3rd with $30,984.

Based on this survey, YES, some pilots are being paid in the range that Moore reports.


Here is data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics for "Aircraft pilots and flight engineers" (SOURCE):

       Both Sexes              Men                Women
    Number    Median     Number    Median     Number   Median 
    of        weekly     of        weekly     of       weekly 
    workers   earnings   workers   earnings   workers  earnings
    82        1,365      79        1,360      3        (1) 

Translating into yearly rates, we have:

  • Both sexes: $1,365 * 52 = $70,980
  • Men: $1,360 * 52 = $70,720

We would need more statistics to figure out the distribution of pilot earnings, but the data above supports that pilots tend to earn quite a bit more than the values reported by Moore.


I also just found about the coolest site ever while digging around for this. Laborista (LINK) allows you to select any country and view available data for it's wage rates by occupation! They list their sources and methodology for each country HERE.

Here was my method:

  • I downloaded their data for all countries (click "O1: Download all countries" HERE)
  • I grabbed all data for job code 118, Air Transport Pilot and only the data for "Average earnings" and "Wages or salary rates"
  • I used the currency converter HERE to find values for all currencies in US Dollars
  • I then calculated wages based on payment time interval (per month/week/etc.) and currency conversion rate to come up with a yearly salary in USD
  • Once I had the values, I doubled checked for currency issues on any really, really oddball values (there were many!). In many cases, they had given a pre-euro value and some euro values, and this skyrocketed the apparent wage. In those cases, I deleted the euro values (there was often only 1) and went with the pre-euro conversion rates for the obsolete currency.
  • I pruned unnecessary country data (sometimes there were six various listings for a country), favoring the lower values that were present to make this on the safe side
  • Finally, I sorted the data and made the plot below
  • The final spreadsheet I ended up with is available for inspection HERE

So, here are the pilot wages for numerous countries (click to enlarge):

airline pilot wages


Based on the data... YES, there are pilots' in the US and world wide being paid values that track with what Moore reported; if the conversions and data collection techniques are accurate for the non-US countries, many make much less, in fact. (Though, we have no idea what the standard of living, economies, etc. are like in those countries, either.)

I don't think the question is particularly well phrased. Data supports some pilots making lower-than-expected amounts. We don't necessarily know their circumstances, size of the operations they work for, etc. Perhaps were Moore to interview only the top 10% of airline pilots we would be answering a question on this site about whether they really make $200,000 per year, as it seems so high.

Statistical analyses should sample randomly to create an accurate distribution; Moore probably does not have this aim, despite whatever good objectives he was trying to fulfill with his documentary. Just some things to consider about the type of source.

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    Why are several countries listed twice? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jun 25 '11 at 1:19
  • @BlueRaja: if you look at the Excel file, you'll see other columns. When I downloaded it, there were several listings for some countries based on whether it was for men, women, or both... and some listings said "Monthly" while others said "Monthly. Average." I guess I could just keep the values for both men and women, but it seemed nice to have the wages for each individual gender... I could update the chart to say "Country - Men/Women/Both" to make it more clear? – Hendy Jun 25 '11 at 2:32
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    This is a great piece of research, but the question wasn't really about median pay, but about the low end of the scale. – DJClayworth Jun 27 '11 at 1:40
  • @DJClayworth: Yeah... maybe I shouldn't have gone through all the effort. I touched on this at the end, admitting that there may very well be low-paid pilots. But then again, the question should perhaps be more specific -- "commercial" = for what airline? Is the only claim to disprove whether or not those who Moore interviewed really making what they said? We just need to find one who really is making that amount and the question is answered, then. – Hendy Jun 27 '11 at 3:18
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    On the first table, the women have a sample size of 3, which is not enough to base anything on. But if the median for both sexes is slightly higher than for men, then 2 or 3 (probably 2) of the women pilots earned more than $1360 a week – Henry Jun 27 '11 at 9:45
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I found a few good sites that do seem to confirm this, but on the whole captains, officers, and engineers seem to be very well compensated for the major airlines.

From PayScale.com, there's a decent chart displaying the average range of salaries of all positions of some major airlines, which shows that United might have a fairly low salary for certain positions. That said, the average seems to fall around $100,000, and some easily go above $200,000 (most likely for captains).

This is confirmed by this interactive chart, which is just pretty darn cool in its own right. If one chooses to look at United, it looks like their first officers in their first year don't make a whole lot, but that number quickly rises over the years to the average mentioned above. And captains, as I speculated, seem to be able to make just about $200,000 per year with enough experience.

So this is probably true in specific cases, and Moore was exemplifying that to make some point, I'm sure, but is widely false.

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    Major airlines pay this much. Lesser airlines pay much less. – DJClayworth Jun 24 '11 at 18:27
  • @DJClayworth: Well yes. I was assuming major airlines, especially given the context of the question. – erekalper Jun 25 '11 at 15:34
  • Did you notice that the 'United' range goes down to $20,000? – DJClayworth Jun 27 '11 at 1:15
  • @DJClayworth: I did indeed. I didn't mention that number explicitly, but it jumps out at you, which is why I singled out United as the immediate example for the lowest end of the given range. – erekalper Jun 27 '11 at 4:03
  • Low number for United is likely because of respondents working for thir regional subsidiaries choosing "United" as their employer where respondents working for other airlines didn't do that. Regional airlines pay less, as they typically employ less experienced pilots on smaller aircraft flying shorter routes, all reasons for lower pay. – jwenting Jun 27 '11 at 6:41
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I still think the question is too broad, but...

According to a Wall Street Journal report from 2009, a first year pilot at USAirways would earn a minimum of $21,600. Many factors can affect this, but that is the contractual minimum.

Also, USAirways is a fairly major carrier. There are regional airlines that go between a major hub city to smaller towns. These pilots would most likely earn less, since the company is smaller.

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Patrick Smith, the author of Salon's "Ask the Pilot" column, has done several exhaustively detailed pieces on pilot wages and working hours. Here are some examples:

http://www.salon.com/technology/ask_the_pilot/2006/02/17/askthepilot174/

http://www.salon.com/technology/ask_the_pilot/2009/03/20/askthepilot313/

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