BLS Data Shows Strong Salaries for Airline and Commercial Pilots

Median annual wages for airline pilots, first officers, and flight engineers in 2020 were nearly four times the national average. Kelly Lacy/Pexels

The US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issued their 2020 Occupational Outlook Handbook showing that “airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers” had a median annual wage of $160,970, nearly four times the median wage for all US workers, who earned $41,950 on average.

It is worth noting that in the handbook data, the BLS used the term “copilot” and stated that it refers to what is commonly known as a “first officer.” And while the occupation of “flight engineer” is included in the data, the handbook states that “some older planes require a third pilot known as a flight engineer, who monitors instruments and operates controls. Technology has automated many of these tasks, and new aircraft do not require flight engineers.”

In May 2020, the median annual wages for airline pilots, first officers, and flight engineers were highest in the category of “scheduled air transportation” at $173,780, while those in the “nonscheduled air transportation” category earned $117,030 on average. Not surprisingly, the largest employers of airline pilots, first officers, and flight engineers were in the “scheduled air transportation” category with 86 percent.

Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 data shows the highest paid “commercial pilots” made $200,920 or more. NBAA

The 2020 BLS data showed a median annual wage for “commercial pilots” at $93,300, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $47,570, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $200,920. The Handbook considers a commercial pilot as “being involved in unscheduled flight activities, such as aerial application, charter flights, and aerial tours. Commercial pilots may have additional non-flight duties such as maintenance of the aircraft and loading luggage.” While not specifically broken down into fixed-wing and rotorcraft categories, the handbook generally refers to helicopter pilots as being in the “commercial pilot” category.

A deeper dive into the data revealed a wide disparity between states when it comes to the median salaries of airline pilots, first officers, and flight engineers. California, Nevada, Washington, and Florida had the highest median salaries at $208,000 and higher, while Mississippi, Idaho, and Tennessee were lowest at $99,740.

In a description of the occupation of “airline pilot,” the handbook said, “Federal regulations set the maximum work hours and minimum requirements for rest between flights for most pilots. Airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month and work an additional 150 hours per month performing other duties, such as checking weather conditions and preparing flight plans.”

The handbook did not take into consideration any expense allowances or “per diem” pay airline pilots, first officers, or flight engineers receive, or additional pay for international flights. Because these pilots and their immediate families usually are entitled to free or reduced-fare flights, these “non-rev” flights were not included in the calculation of 2020 median salaries.

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and former airplane owner who has been flying since 1996. As an aviation journalist and photographer, he has covered all aspects of the general and business aviation communities for a long list of major aviation magazines, newspapers and websites. He has never met a flying machine that he didn’t like, and has written about his love of aviation for years on his Airplanista blog. For 10 years until 2019, he hosted the popular ‘Oshbash’ social media meetup events at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

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