NBAA Convention News

How much do pilots make?

 - November 13, 2006, 8:04 AM

According to recent salary surveys by NBAA and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), the pilots who fly the biggest jets for the biggest companies bring home the biggest paychecks–no surprise there. And while seasoned business jet captains usually earn six-figure salaries, it takes years of earning little while spending lots on training to achieve that coveted spot in the left seat. The good news is, pilots of all experience levels are gradually seeing more quality of life benefits included as part of their overall compensation packages–things like flexible work schedules and guaranteed time off.

“It mirrors what I would say is generally true in the broader economy,” said Steve Brown, NBAA senior vice president of operations. The 2006 NBAA Compensation & Benchmark Survey encompasses responses from 904 flight departments of varying sizes, representing 853 aircraft and 3,571 employees, including 2,274 pilots, 87 flight attendants, 352 maintenance technicians and other flight department staff. More than half of the 461 chief pilots who responded said they fly a small to midsize jet, bringing home an average base salary of $105,520 and an average total compensation package worth $113,726. The 213 copilots who responded earned an average base salary of $59,196 with an average total compensation package worth $62,662.

By grouping the results based on a company’s annual sales, assets, industry and geographic location, the NBAA study attempts to provide a snapshot of what a typical flight department with particular characteristics looks like, rather than an aggregation of all flight department activity. Pilots working for the smallest companies–defined as having less than $100 million in corporate sales, less than $500 million in assets and only one aircraft–actually received the largest percentage increase in salary from 2004 to 2005. Brown said this relationship varies from year to year, and is largely a reflection of how competitive the job market is at the time.

According to the NBAA survey, the lowest reported base salary for a copilot with less than two years of experience in that position was just over $21,000, with the average being $52,762. More than half of the copilots who responded were fairly new on the job, while those with more experience pulled in as much as $75,000 a year. Most of the pilots who responded identified themselves as captains (1,324) and among those there was a wide gap between the lowest reported base salary for a midsize jet captain ($30,000) and the highest ($200,000) with an average reported base salary of about $90,000 in this size jet. Multi-engine turbine helicopter pilots, meanwhile, reported earning an average base salary of $105,580 per year.

“The charter business is staying stronger and getting stronger,” said Alan Darrow, NATA vice president and chief financial officer. “That was initially surprising, mostly because of fuel prices. Where is that point obtained when people will stop flying because of operating costs? We haven’t reached that point. That’s good news. Anecdotally, we’re finding and hearing that charter business is strong as commercial airlines become more and more problematic to fly.”

The NATA survey of general aviation service employee compensation includes salaries and benefits for pilots, line-service personnel and maintenance technicians based upon data collected from 290 companies employing nearly 10,000 people. Like the NBAA survey, the NATA survey breaks down the results by geographic region, company gross sales and by the number of employees in the company. However, the NATA study includes more detailed information about the types of compensation and benefits offered to employees.

According to NATA, the top three benefits offered to employees were cellphones (56.2 percent of all respondents), mechanics’ uniforms (53.8 percent) and line service uniforms (52.8 percent). More than half had a Section 125 Flexible Spending Account or adopted a 401(k) plan, similar to the numbers from last year. However, health insurance coverage for line service personnel and mechanics continued to shrink, offered by only 3.1 percent of companies this year versus 5.5 percent last year.

Darrow said that, overall, pilots are much better off today than they were five years ago. He noted that previous NATA survey data shows the average salary of a heavy jet captain rose from about $6,200 a month in 2002 to nearly $8,200 a month in 2005. The NBAA survey indicated that in 2005, heavy jet captains earned an average of more than $13,000 per month, but Darrow acknowledged that NATA survey respondents include many smaller Part 91 operations and flight schools that are not represented in the NBAA study. Nearly 80 percent of the companies responding to the NATA survey reported annual sales of less than $20 million, whereas about 53 percent of the companies responding to the NBAA survey reported annual sales of more than $100 million.