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A pilot does a preflight check of a plane
A Southwest Airlines pilot does a preflight walk around of a 737-800 before departure at Charleston International Airport on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Charleston, South Carolina. (Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning 첥Ƶ/TNS)
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Alexandra Skores | (TNS) The Dallas Morning 첥Ƶ

based on recent pilot contracts that passed over the last year.

That’s just the best of the best when it comes to being a commercial airline pilot — a career that comes with years of high-earning salaries and benefits. But to get there, pilots need to invest into training and flying hours, which can often come with mounds of debt.  it costs $108,995 to become a pilot when starting with no previous experience or $86,995 when starting with a private pilot certificate.

So what are the top commercial airlines for pilots to earn the big bucks? Here’s a list of a few.

American Airlines

At American, first-year pilots are at a flat rate, Tajer said. A first-year, first officer at American would be paid $116 an hour in 2024 under the new contract. Depending on how often that new commercial airline pilot would fly, that could mean an average $114,180 annual salary starting out, Darby said.

On average a major airline first officer in their first year flying the smallest aircraft may bring home $98,616, according to Darby.

Pay scales are based on a variety of factors, including each year of service, the type of aircraft the pilot flies and the rank of the pilot.

“It’s a good job,” Tajer said. “Each year you’ll get a pay raise because of the length of service and that goes out to 12 years. If you stay as a first officer, you’ll get an annual increase for your longevity up to 12 years and then you’ll cap out your pay per flight hour.”

Southwest Airlines

At Southwest, it is the only airline that pays per trip and a formula is used to calculate how much the pilot makes.

Southwest also only flies Boeing 737 airplanes — a difference in how other airlines get paid. First officers or captains at other major airlines, like American, can see pay bumps if they upgrade to larger airplanes.

A first-year, first officer would make approximately $133.76 an hour at Southwest, under the union’s calculations. Darby estimates that to be about $11,370 a month on average.

Top-of-scale captains at Southwest make $364.52 an hour, but Southwest believes this to be closer to $368.01. That would mean about $371,808 on average per year, Darby said.

Pilots are not paid during boarding or getting to their flight. Pilots sometimes work 10 to 12 hours a day but are only paid for when they are flying.

“What it boils down to is everybody’s competing for the best pilots, the most experienced pilots and that experience translates to safety,” Southwest Airlines Pilot Association president Casey Murray said. “When customers purchase tickets, that’s what they’re buying.”

Delta Air Lines

At Delta Air Lines, the Atlanta-based airline which nailed down its contract before all other airlines early last year, a first officer flying its smallest aircraft can make an average of $109,212 annually, according to Darby.

Pilots at Delta are represented by . The deal raised their pay by more than 30% over four years. The union of about 15,000 pilots voted in the contract in March.

Flying their largest aircraft, a captain can make $420,876 a year on average.

United Airlines

United’s pilots who are first officers in their first year on the smallest aircraft can bring home a similar salary — $114,696, according to Darby’s estimate.

In July, United Airlines pilots for a new four-year contract, .

On the other side of the scale, senior-most captains flying United’s largest aircraft can make a salary of $424,920.

Other commercial airlines

At JetBlue Airways, a first-year pilot can make $99,000. Top of the line, a captain at JetBlue flying its largest planes will make $303,840 on average.

At Allegiant Air, a first-year pilot might make around $55,356. A senior captain on average makes $222,696 flying its largest airplanes.

Spirit Airlines’ first officers starting out on the smallest aircraft make $92,868 a year. For captains flying the largest aircraft, that’s an average of $297,876 a year on average at Spirit.

Alaska Airlines pilots flying the smallest aircraft in their first year make $107,844 in the first year. As a senior captain, they can bring home $326,640 on average flying the largest airplanes at Alaska.

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