Are Pilots Underpaid?

Being a pilot is held up as a pretty glamorous career, but it seems the reality of the job is perhaps not so high-flying.

One of the main issues for pilots is that the majority are forced to cover the cost of their training fees, which already puts many pilots in a negative financial position from the off. 

Then comes the second hurdle: many inexperienced pilots struggle to find a permanent job with an airline, which can land many of them in growing debt, with many owing amounts of up to $172,000 and more.

Pilot pay is an ongoing issue, and historically entry-level pilot jobs have paid poorly.

But this is a vicious circle: the number of applicants applying to roles with regional airlines is decreasing due to the low salaries, and fewer pilots mean more canceled flights due to lack of crews. However, as the candidate pool of pilots decreases, there is increasing pressure on the pay scales.

It can be very difficult to assess pilot pay as it varies depending on the airline and the stage of the pilot’s career. In the U.S. the median salary for commercial pilots in 2017 was around $78,000, however, the lowest 10 percent were earning below $43,000, and the top 10 percent were earning more than $152,000, indicating a huge gap.

The lowest-paid are often entry-level pilots, who are more likely to make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

So the answer is, some pilots are underpaid, certainly when you consider the level of education and experience required to become a pilot. The fact that all pilots go through this same process also begs the question of why there is such a disparity in pilot pay within the aviation industry.

Are pilots overpaid?

Those earning lower salaries will be entry-level pilots, while those earning upwards of $100,000 will be experienced pilots who have climbed their way up the ranks from a first officer to a captain at a major airline over a period of roughly 10 years.

While some pilots do earn a high salary, they’re not overpaid when you consider the amount of stress they endure, and the responsibility that comes with the job.

Pilots are responsible for safely transporting hundreds of passengers during a flight, and this role does not come without stress. In fact, there is general consensus that being a pilot is a stressful career, and airline pilots were listed as one of Forbes’ 10 Most Stressful Jobs in 2017.

While many pilots are passionate about flying, the job does come with some negative aspects to bear in mind. Flying can be physically and mentally draining, and this is coupled with the constant crossing over of time zones, the inconsistent hours, and the long stretches of time spent away from family and friends.

Are pilots poor?

While it might be a stretch to call pilots ‘poor’, there are certainly issues with pay in the aviation industry, as explained above.

The pay problem can be particularly rife among young pilots. Some entry-level pilots, who have already passed their theoretical examinations and have practical experience in simulators or small private aircraft, are increasingly having to pay to fly on commercial aircraft just to sit in the co-pilot's seat. This is often the only way they can obtain the necessary certification required to become a commercial airline pilot.

Some insiders have also found evidence of similar "pay-to-fly" principles at budget airlines such as Ryanair. Young pilots are having to pay to simply sit in the cockpit, which is also how many are generating vast amounts of debt in the early stages of their careers and during training. This, coupled with the low salaries for entry-level pilots can cause financial trouble for many.

Final Verdict

It’s not easy to say whether pilots are under or overpaid, as the reality is that the aviation industry is constantly changing, and there is a huge disparity in pilot pay which is largely determined by the airline, a pilot’s level of experience and rank, the location of the airline and the situation with the global economy.

It is clear that the cost of becoming a pilot is one of the biggest financial burdens for aspiring pilots, and seen as most have to cover the cost themselves, only those who have the support from family or savings will be able to do so. Even then, evidence suggests that many young pilots fall into debt due to the extortionate cost of flight school and training.

This is coupled with the issue of fewer pilots entering the aviation industry due to low pay, and, as a result, flights having to be canceled. The only hope is that if the candidate pool narrows, airlines will realize their only real option is to pay their pilots fairly.