Airline pilots work for companies that fly passengers and freight on fixed schedules. Commercial pilots fly planes for crop-dusting, charter transportation, firefighting and aerial photography. Pilots with major airlines earn higher wages than commercial or regional pilots because they have more experience. Many pilots begin their careers at smaller, commercial or regional operations before advancing to larger planes and companies.
Airline pilots in the U.S. earned a median yearly salary of $105,580 in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bottom 10 percent of earners averaged $57,420, while the top 10 percent averaged $140,650. The best-paying industries for airline pilots' average wages included scheduled air transportation into and out of airports, at $119,180, and management, scientific and technical consulting services, at $99,240. The federal executive branch paid pilots an average of $96,920, while nonscheduled air transportation companies paid $90,480. Support activities for air transportation rounded out the five top-paying fields, at $89,370.
Pilots based in Hawaii had the highest average pay, $146,040. New York ranked second, at $145,080. Kentucky landed third on the list, offering an average salary of $142,870. Texas pilots averaged $137,430, while those in Washington ranked fifth for wages, at $135,780.
Commercial pilots earned a median income of $70,000. The bottom 10 percent of earners averaged $36,240, while the top 10 percent averaged $124,850. The top industry for commercial-pilot pay was aerospace product and parts manufacturing, with an average wage of $102,850. The spectator-sports field paid $99,970, while securities and commodity brokerages offered $96,810. Machinery manufacturers paid $96,380. Management, scientific and technical-consulting services rounded out the top five industries for pilot wages, paying an average of $95,760.
Commercial pilots based in Connecticut earned the highest average wage, $112,990. Pilots from Delaware ranked second, at $98,690. Those in New Jersey took home $92,590, while Maryland pilots earned $90,190. Georgia completed the top five states for commercial pilot pay, at $89,310.
Most airline pilots earn about $20,000 a year to start, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, International. Pay grows annually until they have the experience to become captains, or first officers. The average captain at a smaller, regional airline earns $55,000 a year, while a captain at a major airline averages $135,000.
Pilots earn benefits including coverage for health and eye care, loss of pilot's license, and life insurance. Airline pilots also receive an expense allowance for every hour they're away from home. They may also earn extra pay for international flights. More than 60 percent of pilots belong to labor unions. In the airline industry, 95 percent of pilots belong to unions.