Commercial airline pilots fly passenger flights on international and domestic routes. The senior pilot is referred to as the captain, while the co-pilot is called the first officer. In general, captains are paid substantially more than first officers, and salaries tend to rise as pilots gain experience. Many airline pilots begin as commercial pilots, flying planes and helicopters in industries other than commercial air transportation.

National Pay Scale:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS, reports that airline pilots earned an average of $118,070 per year in 2011. The majority were employed by the scheduled air transportation industry and averaged $119,180 per year. This is far more than most commercial pilots, who reported an average income of $76,050 in the same year. For example, pilots employed by the agricultural industry made an average of $61,010 in 2011, while life-flight pilots averaged $68,090 per year.

First Officers:

According to a 2009 salary survey conducted by airline industry website FltOps, average entry-level salaries for first officers ranged from a low of $21,600 at U.S. Airways to a high of $49,572 at Southwest. Continental and United also paid relatively low entry-level salaries of between $26,000 and $28,000, while among large carriers, Delta distinguished itself with an average starting salary of $40,630. With five years of experience, average first officer salaries ranged from a low of $60,488 at AirTran to a high of $108,847 at Southwest.


Senior pilots, called captains, earn considerably more than first officers. According to the 2009 FltOps salary survey, the average maximum pay for a captain across the airline industry was $165,278. JetBlue has the lowest maximum captain's salary, $123,400. Southwest once again tops the list, with a maximum captain salary of $181,270. Among major carriers, U.S. Airways reported a maximum captain salary of $138,240, Delta $156,538, and United $159,508. Captain salaries at Continental Airlines were reported as $166,882, while those at American earned $167,125.

Job Outlook:

The employment of airline pilots is projected to grow at a rate of about 6 percent between 2010 and 2020, significantly slower than the projected average employment growth rate of 14 percent across all U.S. occupations. This rate of growth is expected to generate about 4,500 new jobs for airline pilots by 2020. Other job openings will be available as current airline pilots reach the forced retirement age of 65. While openings will likely be best at regional airlines, applicants should expect strong competition for these high-paying jobs.

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