Real Answers from Real Pilots

Earnings and income vs. Costs and time

Hello,

I’m a female 24 year old college student/professional. I’m a total newbie to pilot training, just starting to research the process. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of becoming a pilot since I was a kid, but I always thought it’d be out of reach, too expensive, and I’ve heard a lot of people say how they wanted to but it was unrealistic.

I have nothing to pay out of pocket, no real savings, and no help from family. I work a full time job to support myself and go to school part tim (majoring in international business).

So my question is, are these stories true for my case, or is it realistic to take out a loan and jump into it?

I understand after graduating I can expect to earn only about $40,000 annually for the first 5 to 10 years before I can make any real money. Am I going to be poor and drowning in debt? Also, is it plausible to do something else on the side to earn extra cash during those first years or will the job be totally time consuming?

Hi Ingrid,

You ask “are these stories true” but I’m not really sure what stories you’re referring to? I’ll make an assumption that you’re basically asking can you afford to be a pilot? The answer is that’s entirely up to you.

If you don’t have the funds then yes that will mean taking out a loan. The nice part is many Regionals are offering Tuition Reimbursement and/or hiring bonuses and that can take some of the bite out of the debt. First year pay is approx. $40k and will continue to creep into the mid to upper $40s until you upgrade in 3-5yrs where you’ll be in the $60-70k range. There you’ll stay until you hopefully make it to a Major where after a few years you’ll be well into the low 6 figures. The good news is after a few years widebody Capt can make up to $400k.

There’s no question the first few years will be tight and require some sacrifice. While I wouldn’t say “poor and drowning” everyone’s perception of “poor” is somewhat different so that again is up to you. As to can you work another job it would have to be something with very flexible hours. For the first few years at an airline your seniority will be low and it will be difficult to have any type of consistent schedule making side jobs difficult if not impossible.

That’s the reality and the reason many people look elsewhere. What I find curious is you start by saying “I’ve been obsessed with the idea od becoming a pilot since I was a kid”. There are people who do LITERALLY bury themselves in debt or spend their life savings to pursue their dreams ($60-70k in loans is not that scary). Others will study or train from childhood to pursue theirs. When I looked at that spending a few years with my belt a little snug (half the income the Regionals are paying now) it really didn’t seem that terrible a sacrifice to me. But again it’s your decision what’s worth what?

Adam

Thank you Adam, that answered my question exactly. What I meant by the stories is mostly the kind of, “wow that’s really not cheap, are you sure? Or yeah I would do that too if it weren’t so expensive,” types of responses I’ve come across when talking to others about pursuing a career as a pilot. It’s been hard for me to land on any solid figures but from what I was looking at, it doesn’t really seem much worse than any other bachelor’s degree so I was just trying to figure out why the people I’ve talked to so far seem to think it’s such an unrealistic goal.

Ingrid,

No flying is not cheap (never has been) and that unfortunately is one of the biggest obstacles people encounter. I completely agree (and that was EXACTLY my take) that it’s really no more expensive (in many cases less) than a degree and the returns can be significant. More important are the intangibles like job and personal satisfaction. I’m one of the only people I know (besides my pilot friends) who LOVES his job and actually looks forward to going to work. I hate to sound corny but that to me is the secret of life. Unless you’re last name is Kardashian most of us have to work for a living, that’s just a reality of life. I don’t care how much money you make, if you hate your job life is going to suck to some degree. BUT, if you can figure out a way to get PAID for doing something you would gladly PAY to do, well then that’s a HUGE part of your life that’s wonderful. That can really help make everything else fall into place. At least that’s been my experience.

It definitely wasn’t cheap but the rewards have far outweighed the price of admission.

Adam

Thanks Adam, your responses are really helpful and are helping me to put it all in perspective. Just curious, where do those figures come from? Is that your personal experience? I read in another topic on this site that said it’s likely that you’d be earning in the $40,000s annually for 5-10 years which had me a little worried.

Also, what makes a pilot successful? Why do some pilots stay with small airlines for so long and earn so much less than others? What is it that the successful pilots are doing differently?

And last question, can you tell me a little about a day in the life? Do you end up getting to spend a lot of time traveling that’s not all work? Actually getting to experience the places you travel to?

Ingrid,

Go to my “Flying the Line” section and look at an article titled “What Pilots Really Earn”, it will explain pilot pay and what you can expect to make at various stages of your career. While you are in that section you will see plenty of day in the life type stories that will address your questions.

The pilots that are successful in moving from the regionals to the majors have a college degree, work hard and get their name out there. This can mean attending job fairs, volunteering in the community, basically making connections any way possible.

Chris

Ingrid,

I have to be honest, you seem to be very focused on the financial returns of flying? I understand money is important but frankly if that’s your sole concern there are definitely easier careers. Take a look at the piece Chris recommends but yes as a Regional FO (as I said) you’ll be in the $40s, once you upgrade you’ll be in the $60-70k (maybe $80k) range. This isn’t just my personal experience, you can Google every airline and see what their current pay rates are. Right now the Regionals are hiring like crazy, actively recruiting and everyone is getting hired woohoo! The Majors can afford to be (and are) considerably more selective. There are many reasons people get stuck at a Regional. For some its choice. I have one good friend who’s been at his Regional for over 20yrs. He’s a check airman so he’s making around $100k but more important he’s a Quality of Life kinda guy. Being super senior he has a great schedule and it affords him a lifestyle he enjoys. While he’s far from wealthy he’s comfy. Others however have been trying for years and just don’t seem to make the cut. Some it’s blemishes on their records (DUIs, busted checkrides or some other “incident”), some simply don’t interview well or have gotten themselves a bad name in this very small industry. The thing is there are no guarantees. I was very happy at ExpressJet for many years. I didn’t leave for the money it was just my desire to advance. I was fortunate that when I decided to move on I was picked up quickly. Thing is if I wasn’t and I ended up spending my entire career at a Regional that honestly would be fine. It’s the people chasing the money that get frustrated when it doesn’t come.

As for the day in the life that’s really the greatest perk of the job. We get to travel, explore and see the world. Even when I was at the Regional I traveled the entire US and we have a very beautiful country. I went places I would probably never see (or chose to visit) and there are some really cool places out there. Now that I fly internationally it’s amazing! I wake up in Japan, Australia wherever and wander. Great food, people, scenery and I’m getting paid to do it all. Good times.

Adam

Ingrid,

You can find all the compensation packages for all the regionals at
http://www.airlinepilotcentral.com/airlines/regional/
or check the regional’s websites such as TSA:

http://www.transstates.net/careers/Pages/pilots.aspx

Trans State Airlines starts at $75,000 which include signing bonuses and other comp. That’s pretty good for someone with two years of training in any field if you ask me. I don’t know many 4 year degrees that pay that well to start and where you get 12 days off a month plus travel privileges. Regardless of pay, I wouldn’t do it unless you love flying. I always have but was shutdown from the military when I graduated college because I didn’t have 20/20. Then I was shutdown again when I tried in 2001 due to 911. The airlines are hiring. If it’s something you love, you need to go for it.

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Daniel,

Many of the Regionals are advertising very attractive starting salaries. But as you point out that includes signing bonuses and other incentives which do not continue. It’s amazing that they’re giving new pilots a leg up on the debt BUT you have to keep in mind year 2 you’re back down to the upper $30s low $40s.

Adam

Unless of course the pilot has upgraded to Captain by the end of year two.

How does one upgrade to captain, and what exactly does that entail?

Hey Adam,

Thanks again for your thorough responses. It’s really not just the money that I’m after, I have an insatiable passion for travel and love flying. Like I said, I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid. I just know that I’ve made some spur of the moment financial decisions as far as education in the past which have dug me into holes and I’m all on my own here so I just want to make sure I’m making responsible decisions and understand what I’m getting myself into.
Now I have one concern though, you mentioned DUIs, which I do have one. How severely will that impact my career as a pilot?

There is a lot of discussion in the industry on how much a DUI can impact one’s career, the answer is really multifaceted. If all you have is one DUI, it was several years ago and you have maintained a clean record since, then you will probably be alright, certainly at the regional level. If you have had several speeding tickets since then you will have a much more difficult time as you are showing a history of disregarding the law.

The majors will take a far dimmer view of a DUI. The majors have thousands of applicants and an infraction like a DUI is a good way to separate people out.

Chris

One upgrades to Captain by getting the appropriate seniority to hold it, bidding on a vacancy, and then going to several weeks of simulator and ground training for it. The training isn’t terribly different from First Officer training, there is just a lot more emphasis on decision making.

Ingrid,

DUIs can be sticky. As Chris said, you “should”(?) be fine at the Regional level provided it was some time ago AND you’ve had a clean record since. If that’s not the case it’s a problem. If it is the reason I emphasize the “should” is that it can entirely depend on who’s checking the resumes or on the hiring panel. I have a friend who’s brother was killed by a drunk driver. If he sees the letters DUI on an app he’s done. Now perhaps you could argue that he doesn’t have the right to make sweeping moral judgments? Problem is he’s got logistical backup. Canada will not allow someone with a DUI to cross their border. Many Regionals fly into Canada and now you’ve got a pilot that has limitations on their schedule. Again I believe you’ll be ok but as always there are no guarantees.

Adam

Chris,

I’ve had some traffic tickets over my life, mostly speeding I think, the last in 2008. Do you think that will reduce my chances of getting on with a regional? I am already 48 and will be about 50 when I finish up at ATP.

Dan

Dan,

If the last one was in 2008 than you should be fine. Just try to keep a clean record going forward.

Chris

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Thanks Chris.