With 2,000hrs of flight time, a commercial ticket for ASEL and AMEL, CFI, CFII, MEI, and a Master's in Aeronautical Science I could easily qualify to fly right seat for a regional airline, but I just can't compete with pilots willing to work for \$17k/yr. For comparison, federal minimum wage is currently just over $15K/yr.

Why are the starting salaries at US Regional Airlines so low?
It seems odd that pilots go through extensive training which takes a great deal of time and expense, but they have to be prepared to work for what is a very low salary compared to other jobs that require a high level of skill and education.

Supply and demand is one explanation, but I really don't understand how there is so much competition for flying jobs but at the same time there is a supposed "pilot shortage".
Are there really so many pilots out there that the competition for jobs drives down starting salaries so low?

I am hoping to understand why it is that well-qualified pilots appear to have so little earning power in the marketplace.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that meaningful cost-of-living increases seem to have gone by the wayside sometime in the last 20 or 30 years. It's likely that the unions' concessions following deregulation in the mid 1980s (and their relative weakness since) were a factor. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Jan 9, 2014 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ There are some other ways some airlines choose to save money on new pilots. For example, do they pick up the cost of lodging during training, and do they pay during training. Of the four airlines I worked for, none of them paid during initial training, and only one paid for lodging during initial training. Also, none of them paid for travel expenses to get to the initial ground school. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 10, 2014 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ This seems to be a simple problem of supply and demand. Q: Wouldn't everyone love to get paid to fly around in planes, instead of doing some crappy desk job? A: Yeah. lots of pilots + limited positions = low wages $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2014 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ You have a TON of Baby Boomer pilots beginning to retire over the last few years. And there aren't any younger guys in line behind them to fill the ranks. Add to that the fact that the regs have recently changed to add significant time to be a 121 First Officer, and there's absolutely about to be a very visible shortage of qualified pilots. The pilot shortage has been here for a long time. It's just been camouflaged. If you have enough pilots to go around at all levels, then you never have to worry about "pilot fatigue" being an issue. Ask any regional pilot if that's the case. $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Jan 27, 2014 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ @p1l0t There are more than a few factors involved there, and plenty of fault on all sides. Passengers, airline management and pilots are all culpable. But I do imagine that will begin changing a little bit here soon. It's more expensive for a pilot to be an airline pilot, and hopefully they'll be less willing to take the crappy pay and conditions when they realize they don't have to. Airlines will have to pay more to entice people to be pilots, especially in the US. And passengers will have to pay more to get from A to B safely. The whole industry is about 30 years behind schedule. $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Jan 27, 2014 at 23:49

3 Answers 3


Well, the short version is: The airlines pay what they have to pay in a free market. They can get away with it because pilots are willing to accept it. Like any other business they are in it to make money and keeping costs down is just as good as making extra money, so they aren't going to volunteer anything extra.

Now, why do pilots do it? Because of the promise of better things down the road. It isn't as good as it used to be, but after being at the airlines for a few years, you can make a livable wage and as you get further into your career at a major airline, you still get paid pretty well for a "part time" job. As I've heard other pilots say before: It's better than a "real" job!

Other pilots do it just because they love it and can't imagine doing anything else!

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, I see - your position is that, market permitting, they'd pay even less. Yep, can't disagree with that. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Jan 9, 2014 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ It's too bad down the road is so far away (especially with furloughs moving people backwards) that it still makes it a terrible 'investment.' I couldn't imagine moving halfway across the country for a 60+% paycut. I would have to sell my house and I wouldn't even be able to get a new mortgage with that salary. Maybe I should be thankful I can't compete with this. $\endgroup$
    – p1l0t
    Jan 9, 2014 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ @p1l0t: I agree, although hiring actually is turning around with so many people retiring... I still think it's a dumb way to handle things.... $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Jan 9, 2014 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ I left the airline industry largely because of the bad pay and bad working conditions required to even get your foot in the door. Even today, I don't know that I could recommend an airline career to anyone. Things haven't changed a lot in the last decade. Other than the old guys kept getting older. Do I love flying? Absolutely. Is a wide-body Captain job at FedEx a good job? Absolutely there too. Is it worth it to spend over a decade working a high-skill, very-low-paying job in an industry that is incredibly cutthroat and willing to lay you off or replace you in a heartbeat? It wasn't for me. $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Jan 27, 2014 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger Hopefully the airlines figure it out before a serious pilot shortage actually hits. Good pilots aren't exactly something you can drum up in a few weeks. $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Feb 4, 2014 at 16:43

You need to look at turn-of-the-century early industrial age history for your answer. Factories were filled with skilled workers who could weave or smith or do some other specialty with great speed. These were not unskilled workers by modern standards, but their skills were common in those days. The efficient factories lowered prices for those products, making those skills less valuable. The workers were dependent on that factory for their livelihood, they could not easily find work outside the factory. If they grew up in that factory town, they likely had no other skills. There were few factories of their kind they could work in, and no unions or labor laws.

Airline pilots are in a similar situation. While airline mechanics can quit and maintain power plants or trucks with a little training, pilots are stuck with now three major airlines and a handful of regional airlines. They have no skills that can cross over to another industry. Their unions cannot strike or even hint at a job action expressing their discontent. But the airlines can outsource their jobs to cheaper pilots, and have done so with over half their pilot jobs over the past decade.

Those cheaper pilots are disappearing, as the major airlines start hiring, and young people realize what the career of an airline pilot has become. This has been leading up to a pilot shortage for many years, and the efforts to stave off that shortage have resulted in fewer pilots getting trained every year. The result will certainly be a wave of much higher pay, but it won't change the underlying cause. The wave of young people who rush into the career when the pay skyrockets will certainly see their pay drop again, along with layoffs and working the bottom jobs, when the airlines have enough pilots and hit another down decade.

Oh, and $17k is a little more than Skywest, Republic, American Eagle, Great Lakes, and other entry-level carriers pay their new-hires for the first several years. Sorry.

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    $\begingroup$ Skywest is around $20k for the first year and increases thereafter, according to airlinepilotcentral.com $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Jan 9, 2014 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ You entire economic history is backwards. 1) Industrialization increased the percentage of skilled technicians in society. Blacksmiths became mechanics. loomers because loom technicians etc. The unskilled labor came in off the farms and their kids became technicians and information workers. 2) Before union and outside of unions, industrialization raised effective salaries, especially when measured against purchasing power for essentials like housing and food. Your unknowingly repeating Marx's long discredited concept of ever downward spiraling wages. It never happened. $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    May 14, 2014 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @egid and they probably charge you a good chunk of this in all kind of "fees" and "payback schemes" for training, lodging, supplies, etc. that in most any other industry the company would not charge to the employee. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Aug 19, 2014 at 9:41

There are probably several major effects.

1) Piloting is a "bikini inspector" job, one that people will do because they enjoy it and the social status it may convey. If you have a passion for a profession, you will work in it for less.

After all, people pay to pilot planes as a sport, so some percentage of pilots will work for relatively little pay just so they can fly. Those people making sub-optimum strictly economic decisions, pull down salaries in the field. You see that in other fields as well, such as Chefs.

2) Deregulation and globalization: From the early 1950s through the mid-1980s, airlines were run as government monopolies with government price fixing and protection from competition. Flying was a relatively high-margin business that catered to those flying on corporate money or who were individually wealthy ("the jet set.") People who chauffeur the rich tend to be better compensated.

The deregulation and opening of air travel to international markets drove down all costa as customers sought the best value. It has happened in every deregulated industry. Back when AT&T was a national government corporate monopoly, everyone, even down to the janitors, got above-market wages, unionized or not. After the monopoly broke up, wages went down.

In the past, airlines were semi-militarized and I know for some period back in the 50s and 60s, you had to be a US citizen to pilot commercial aircraft in the US.

3) As a field matures, its wages drop. Most technologies have a sideways-s growth curb where they start slow, have two to three decades of explosive growth and then plateau off. In the growth era, wages are high and then they regress relative to the general wage. In cars, it was 1920s-1960s; in computers, it was 1980s-now; in aviation, the explosive growth was 1930s-1970s. (WWII threw things off some.)

4) People who can be pilots are not as relatively rare as they used to be. My grandfather was a mail pilot in the 1930s and WWII. Pilots back then had to be physically strong, immune to fatigue and able to do a lot of math on the fly (so to speak.) They were very extraordinary people and were often paid accordingly (e.g. clipper plane pilots made ridiculous amounts of money in the 1930s).

As planes gained larger crews and have become progressively automated, the potential talent pool in the general population has expanded. It's not just that more people can become pilots, it's that existing pilots can fly longer. In the 1950s, you didn't see 60 year old pilots. Now you do.

It's easier to become a pilot these days. When I was in my teens circa 1980, I wanted to get a civil aviation license, but couldn't because I was blind in one eye. Today, I can. An expanded talent pool decreases prices.

5) Pilots and aircrew in general are not as key as they once were. Now they are part of a larger team, many of whom stay on the ground.

I would also speculate that pilots just aren't as skilled, relative to the rest of the population, as they used to be. It's not just that the job is more automated and team driven, but that other jobs have reason to and have surpassed the technical complexity of piloting. Compared to other professions out there now, pilots are not the elites they once were. Their pay has regressed accordingly.

If there is a "pilot" shortage, its likely that 1) airlines can't find pilots of a certain rating or pilots who can fulfill some regulation of training or flight time or 2) the margins in the industry are so slim that the industry has a very narrow compensation window.

I suspect its the latter. Flying is commodity now. People fly like they used to take the bus 30+ years ago. If you're working the same economic niche as a bus driver, well, you will get paid like one.

  • $\begingroup$ I disagree with number 5. It is more skilled than ever. I mean you're right that we don't have to hand calculate our wind correction but working all these highly automated systems and troubleshooting them when they go wrong makes it one of the most technical jobs around. Much more technical than a fast food worker. I do agree that the shortage is more of people willing to fly for that wage who have the hours because you would have to be taking a huge pay cut from what got you there or else be drowning in student debt. The cost alone of the training should warrant a step above a living wage. $\endgroup$
    – p1l0t
    May 15, 2014 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ The only thing I would add to this is the management view of pilots as a negotiable commodity combined with the fact that airline union CBAs never expire, they become amendable. With the status-quo wages locked in forever (until a new CBA is signed) there is little incentive for the company to negotiate in good faith to raise those wages -- pilot unions have no real access to self-help. To strike you first need years of negotiation under the NLMB, a declaration of an impasse and then a 30 day cooling off period before you can strike (until the president orders you back to work) $\endgroup$
    – casey
    Oct 1, 2014 at 14:40

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