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Major Airline Pilots: Training Cost vs. Salary Return

Like the engines of an airplane, pilots are the driving force behind the commercial aviation industry – and flying airliners is undoubtedly one of the best jobs in the world. Major airlines often invest significant amounts of money to recruit and train pilots, with the expectation that they will provide reliable and safe flights for passengers. But, in today’s aerial landscape, with the rise of low-cost carriers and a growing pilot shortage, the relationship between training costs and expected salary returns has become more complex. As such, it’s important to explore the training costs and expected salary returns for a position at the airlines, as well as the challenges and opportunities that pilots face in navigating the ever-evolving world of aviation. This way, you can know for sure whether pursuing your airline transport license (ATP) license is worth it. Let’s take a look!

What Is A Major Airline Pilot’s Salary?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean salary of an airline pilot is $230,740. This is one of the highest paid positions among pilots working for compensation, and generally higher than regional counterparts. salaries for pilots at major airlines are typically much higher than those at regional airlines. This salary level also varies by position. Typically, a co-pilot and a pilot have shared responsibilities but earn different salaries. A captain, who has invested more time and has more experience, generally earns a higher salary than a co-pilot. However, the specific salary amounts for each position can vary greatly depending on the airline and factors such as aircraft type and seniority. In addition to their base salary, major airline pilots also typically receive a range of benefits and perks, such as health insurance, retirement plans, and travel benefits. As pilots move up the ladder, they’ll earn more and more, reaching $300,000 or more for those in top positions. And, in response to the ongoing pilot shortage, many major airlines are now offering more competitive pay packages to attract and retain pilots. Let’s zoom in on some of major airlines and the salaries that pilots can expect to earn when working for them. 

Delta Airlines

Delta Airlines is the largest and most successful airline in the United States, with a history dating back to the 20s. The Atlanta-based carrier operates over 5,000 daily flights to more than 300 destinations in 52 countries, making it a major player in the global aviation industry. Delta’s extensive route network spans North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.As the first major carrier to address pay concerns among pilots, the company recently announced new salary commitments to train, recruit, hire and retain qualified airmen. The new contract covers over 13,000 Delta pilots and offers pay increases of 34 percent over the life of the contract, for a total increase of $7 billion. In addition, pilots will receive a signing bonus and profit-sharing payments based on the airline’s financial performance. Even without the renegotiated contract, pilots at Delta currently make an average salary of over $217,000 a year according to data from Indeed. The agreement also includes several other important additions, such as improved scheduling flexibility, increased job security and enhanced retirement benefits. The new contract is expected to help Delta attract top talent, and is seen as a positive development for both the airline and its pilots, as other companies follow suit.

American Airlines

Another large domestic carrier, American Airlines, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, operates a global network of flights to over 350 destinations in more than 50 countries. American Airlines is a founding member of the Oneworld airline alliance and has codeshare agreements with many other airlines around the world. The airline operates a modern fleet of over 850 aircraft, including planes from Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer. Currently, those flying for American Airlines can expect to make an average annual salary of over $128,000 a year, according to Indeed. However, since Delta has enacted a new contract for employees, it has put the pressure on American to do the same. Recently, the carrier’s pilots voted overwhelmingly to allow their labor union to call a strike while the carrier said talks for a new contract are getting close to a conclusion.As per a recent contract proposal, American Airlines is offering its pilots significant pay raises that include higher 401k contributions. At the end of a potential four-year agreement, a captain who flies narrow-body planes could earn up to $475,000 at the top of the pay scale, while the most experienced captains who fly wide-body planes could make up to $590,000 per year. In other words, it may be a good time to start applying for a position at this airline.

United Airlines

Based out of Chicago, Illinois and operating a vast network of flights to over 330 destinations around the world, United Airlines is another big player in the global airline industry. As a founding member of the Star Alliance, which is the world’s largest airline alliance. The airline operates a modern fleet of over 800 aircraft, including planes from Boeing and Airbus, and has a strong focus on customer service and innovation. According to Indeed, the average United Airlines Pilot yearly pay in the United States is approximately $145,049, which is 125 percent above the national average. Airmen receive great benefits, including health, dental and vision insurance, retirement plans and generous paid time off. While the other two major domestic carriers have completed or are working toward a new contract with their pilots, United seems to be lagging behind. That’s not to say things aren’t in the works. United has stated in the past month, “We are continuing to work with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) to reach an industry-leading labor agreement for our world-class aviators soon.”  Last year, negotiators tentatively agreed to a 14 percent pay increase, however, that was deemed far too low, considering Delta increased pay by over 30 percent. If we’re using history as a guide, United Airlines’ pilots are due their fair compensation, and will likely win in the end as other carriers jump on board.

The Cost Of Major Airline Pilot Training

If you want to occupy the highest-paying pilot positions, you’ll need to have the proper training and an high level of flying experience. You’ll be required to undergo some of the most rigorous training processes in order to fulfill the stringent requirements laid out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and domestic carriers. In order to fly for an airline like Delta, American or United, among others, you’ll need to obtain an airline transport pilot (ATP) license. There is one way around this for those who haven’t built up the mandatory hour minimums required to obtain an ATP license (1,500 hours), with a restricted airline transport pilot (R-ATP) license. An R-ATP certificate allows you to serve as a co-pilot until you obtain the necessary 1,500 hours. However, when applying for jobs at an airline, already having your regular ATP license will set you apart in that you are ready for the job on day one.

Before you can even think about restricted vs. non-restricted ATP licenses, however, there are several other certifications and ratings that you will need to obtain, each with their own unique costs and requirements.

Do You Need A Bachelor’s Degree To Fly For Major Airlines?

Although major airlines used to almost universally require pilots to hold a bachelor’s degree, that is no longer the case. For instance, Delta has recently announced that it is making a four-year college degree “preferred” rather than mandatory for its pilot candidates. United Airlines has also adopted a similar approach. However, other major carriers such as American Airlines and FedEx still require their candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree. So, while some major airlines do require a college degree, others have relaxed this requirement, making it a preferred qualification. 

Obtaining Your Private Pilot License (PPL)

To become a major airline pilot, you must obtain various certifications and ratings along the way before being able to apply for a position. The first step is to obtain a private pilot license (PPL), which involves learning the basics of flying via a single-engine airplane, going through ground school, and passing written and practical exams. This typically takes a few weeks to a few months and costs anywhere from $12,000 to $18,000 on average. Following this, most newly minted pilots choose to pursue their instrument rating, which allows the pilot to navigate in low-visibility conditions by way of avionics, and is a crucial component of safe flight. You can expect costs for this rating to range between $8,000 to $12,000.

Obtaining Your Commercial Pilot License (CPL)

To qualify for a commercial pilot license (CPL), a minimum of 250 flight hours is required, including 100 hours as pilot-in-command and 50 hours of cross-country flight time. This phase of training is critical as it provides valuable experience in handling different types of aircraft and weather conditions. The cost of accumulating these necessary hours can range from $10,000 to $15,000, assuming the pilot has already completed the flight time required for their PPL and instrument rating.  At this stage, you’ll likely go directly into the multi-engine training portion of the certification process. A multi-engine rating requires additional flight training in a relevant type of aircraft. The cost of obtaining a multi-engine rating can vary depending on the type of aircraft used for training and the fees charged by the flight school. However, on average, you can expect to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 for this part.

Becoming A Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)

With a certified flight instructor (CFI) and certified flight instructor-instrument (CFII) certificates, you can teach others how to fly and contribute those hours toward ATP requirements. Many pilots use this portion of their training to gain flight experience while making money by teaching others how to fly. This is a great way to build flight hours and experience while working towards your ultimate goal of becoming a major airline pilot. To become a CFI, you need to be at least 18 years old, hold a commercial pilot certificate and have logged at least 250 hours of flight time. The training for a CFI certificate typically involves both ground school and flight training, and the cost can vary depending on the flight school and the aircraft used for training. Generally, you can expect to spend between $6,000 and $10,000 to obtain your CFI certificate. To obtain your CFII certificate, it’s generally recommended to already have completed a CFI course, along with obtaining a mandatory instrument rating. The training for a CFII certificate involves both ground school and flight training, with a focus on teaching instrument flight procedures and techniques. The cost of obtaining a CFII certificate is inline with the cost of becoming a CFI.

ATP License Cost

As a pilot for a major airline, you must hold an ATP certificate in order to fly larger commercial aircraft. After completing the steps above, you’ll be required to accumulate at least 1,500 hours before you can obtain an ATP license.

The process of obtaining an ATP certificate can take several years and although the cost of ATP training is lower, around $5,000 to $8,000, that fee only covers the cost of the training, exams, and tests – not the hours of flight time needed to qualify for the license. This is where your CPL, multi-engine rating and CFI certificate come in handy, as these allow you to earn money while building up flight hours. You may find yourself flying charter planes, cropdusters, instructing students or flying for law enforcement, among other fun jobs. This makes the costs of the whole process more manageable.

Become A Major Airline Pilot With The Help Of Inflight Pilot Training

As the midwest’s top private flight school, we’ve helped countless students fulfill their aspirations of becoming professional pilots. Whether you want to teach others on single-engine airplanes, fly for a charter organization or make it to the top of the roster at a major airline, we have licensing capabilities to set you on a path toward success. With the best training rates in the Twin Cities, as well as scholarship, grant and financing assistance, anyone who wants to learn how to fly can do so – if you’re interested in finding out more about Inflight training programs, contact us today or call (952) 698-3000.