I'm in the USA, and I was considering getting a pilots license with the idea that I could have like a small charter plane and make some money.

However, I learned that after getting the 'initial' license, it's prohibited to charge anyone for a flight. I've heard that pilots can sometimes do contract work teaching others to fly, but I'm not sure even that can be done with the first license people can obtain.

I'm not sure of the license expense that is required to be able to charter a small plane for someone, but maybe that's the only way to see any ROI on a pilot's license?

Is there any way to make any money without becoming a W2 pilot for some airline, or is being a pilot mostly just an expensive hobby unless you have fulltime pilot career aspirations?

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    $\begingroup$ I deleted the "passenger" tag and added "FAA Regulations" because I thought it was more appropriate, and you can't have more than 5. Roll it back if you disagree. $\endgroup$ Commented May 18, 2023 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ You can start a one-man charter service, but the hoops you have to jump through, and the expense, might take quite a while just to make your money back. Prolly the easiest route would be to get an instructor's rating and just freelance, but you have to really like teaching. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ This question reminds me of the old adage: Q: How do you make a small fortune running an airline? A: Start with a large fortune. $\endgroup$ Commented May 18, 2023 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @GregHewgill That applies to most things in life, not just airlines... $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 9:34
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    $\begingroup$ I want to answer "drug running" but I also don't want to be banned... $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 9:35

1 Answer 1


To answer your first question, there are five types of pilot certificate:

  • A Student Pilot certificate is the very first type of certificate you will get while you're learning to fly. With this type, you can't be compensated for flying, you can't carry passengers at all (regardless of if they're paying or not), and you must have your instructor's blessing to fly solo.

  • A Recreational Pilot certificate is the cheapest and easiest to obtain of the "real" (for lack of a better term) pilot certificates. With this certificate, you're limited to only flying certain aircraft, can't fly at night, can't be compensated for flying or use your plane for business, and are limited in where and how far you can fly.

  • A Private Pilot certificate removes a lot of the restrictions of the recreational cert. You're no longer restricted in where you can fly*, the number of passengers you can carry, can fly at night, and are even allowed some (very limited) business use. You still can't be compensated for being a pilot, though.

  • A Commercial Pilot certificate allows you to work as a pilot, and fly for compensation or hire.

  • An Airline Transport Pilot certificate allows you to fly as a captain on the big airlines.

To answer your second question, the costs associated with owning and operating your own charter company (insurance, licensing, airplane upkeep, etc.) means that doing so part-time will make it very difficult (though not impossible) to make your initial investment back. If you just want to make a little money by occasionally flying, your best bet is to get a part-time position at an existing charter company (and even then, it's going to be quite a while for you to make back the money you spent getting your commercial cert).

*Obviously, there are still some restrictions on where you can fly, but they apply to everyone and aren't based on the license you hold.

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    $\begingroup$ The money to be made with a fairly new Commercial certificate is limited by the fact that those jobs are in demand from many other pilots with similarly new Commercial certs who are seeking to build their hours and move up the ladder toward an airline job. Much of the total compensation of those jobs is the time itself, and the pay isn't great. The jobs get filled in expectation that the "big bucks" come later, and the low pay gets endured with the future goal in sight. Without that goal, the pay alone often won't look very attractive. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ Yea, I'm not looking for the big bucks necessarily. Just a potential small business or side-hustle opportunity to be able to make back the 10k of a pilots license expense. I notice that getting a Private Pilot costs 10k but it doesn't seem possible to make any money. Commercial costs 100k it seems. I wasn't sure if there was like a Air Uber, where you could charter a plane or jet whenever, make 2-3k a flight, and essentially pay back that 100k over 30 to 40 flights or something opportunity like that. Someone else mentioned package delivery may be an option too? $\endgroup$ Commented May 19, 2023 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ @TonyDiNitto No, there's no such Uber-like company for flying. Even companies like Flytenow, which just facilitate ride-sharing (i.e. the pilots would still pay their share of the flight expenses) are considered "common carriers" by the FAA and get shut down because the pilots don't have commercial licenses. Even package delivery requires a commercial license. If you want to make any money at all as a pilot, you're going to need a commercial license. $\endgroup$ Commented May 19, 2023 at 19:38

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