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It’s nice work, if you can get it: the 55-year-old captain of your airliner from New York to Tokyo is earning upwards of $300,000 per year. He’s flying this leg once per month, with a domestic trip or two wedged in. He’ll have many days off to play golf, hang out with his family or fly little planes for fun. Couple this with profit sharing, and this experienced airman will have banked millions of dollars in earnings by the time he retires in 10 years.

It’s a long road to get there, complete with industry mergers affecting seniority, the possibility of being furloughed, and starting salaries that are microscopic compared to the responsibility. You can bet your captain started her, or his, career with a steady diet of ramen noodles at a regional airline.

Today, a fresh-faced regional-airline first officer — the pilot sitting in the right seat — earns around $60,000 their first year. Most regionals pay similar rates, in a combination of hourly scale and standard industry bonuses. Endeavor, a Delta subsidiary, pays a $27,000 base salary, a $10,000 hiring bonus, and a $20,000 first-year anniversary bonus.

All pilots are paid a per diem, which can add $3,000 per year for the first officer. Air Wisconsin, at the top of the range, kicks in $5,000 for showing up to the first day, a $26,000 bonus upon completing the four-month initial training phase, and then $10,000 paid on the first anniversary. This brings the total pay to around $76,000, not including healthcare benefits and per diem. Pilots can also earn a few thousand by referring flight school buddies to the regional.

Five years ago, these same pilots would earn just $20,000 per year (and often less) to start. Salaries have gone up almost 100%. The reasons are simple, said Robert Mann, an industry expert and consultant to airlines.

“It’s supply and demand for qualified pilots, and increased competition for pilots between the regional airlines. The market tends to find the right rates for pilots,” he said.

An Upward Trend

During two decades when legacy airlines whipsawed regional airline contract rates, pilot salaries were stagnant. A young pilot with student debt or a family, or both, simply could not afford such a low salary; many left the industry. “Over time, a pilot shortage developed,” Mann said. Coupled with legislation that extended mandatory retirement for pilots to 65 years from 60 years, upward progression in the lower ranks tightened. Salaries now are trending upwards.

For pilots, the goal is bigger airplanes and advancement from the right seat to the left seat, the captain’s position, which comes with a significant pay raise. It’s musical chairs: from the right seat as a first officer to the left seat as a captain, still at the regional airline. Upon making the switch, the captain, with around 18 months under his belt at the regional, will earn $70,000 per year in the first year.

That same captain is looking to be called up to a mainline carrier, which can take between two and six years at the regional airline. When that happens, his or her base salary will be $80,000, topped up with bonuses and per diem into the low six figures.

But with that move, comes a demotion: the regional jet captain will shed the four stripes on the epaulets marking the top rank aboard the plane, and go back to the three stripes of a first officer. He’ll start on a larger plane, say a Boeing 757. And the pay? Around $85,000 per year, topped up to the low-to-mid $100,000.

Then there is profit sharing and a defined contribution plan. For example, Delta raised pilot hourly rates last year, contributed 16% to the defined contribution plan, and paid a profit share of around 18% of a pilot’s salary. For a pilot earning $120,000 per year, the profit sharing amounted to $21,600. That’s a nice perk.

The big money starts when the music stops next: from the right to the left seat again, at the mainline carrier. Once a captain, he or she will benefit from higher per diems, a higher hourly rate, and accordingly a bigger slice of the airlines’ profit sharing program. A Boeing 757 captain at United with 10 years on the type will earn around $240,000 per year, excluding per diem and other bonuses.

Not bad. But not like in Asia.

Chinese carriers can’t keep up with domestic demand. Boeing, which forecasts airline industry growth, predicts that over the next 20 years that Asia will require 248,000 new pilots, compared to 112,000 for North America and 104,000 for Europe.

“The big dollars are paid by the Chinese”

If you have 500 hours as a captain in a Boeing 737 or A320, Asia beckons. Salaries are far higher than in the US for the equivalent-time pilot.

“We’ve been sending Western captains to work at Japan Airlines for twenty years. Now the big dollars are paid by the Chinese airlines,” said David Ross, President of Wasinc, a US agency that places pilots worldwide.

A pilot with between 3,000 and 5,000 hours of total time sitting in the left seat at Jet Blue can go to China and earn $25,000 per month or roughly $300,000 per year. An end-of-contract bonus could pay out $80,000. These pilots pay their taxes in China, and offset their US taxes accordingly to remain virtually tax free at home. “And then you can work four weeks on, four weeks off, and fly home in first class. There’s a lot of flexibility,” said Ross.

Making the leap to a Chinese airline is not without pitfalls. Industry sources say that flying in China is a money-making opportunity for young, single pilots without families.

“The money is about the only thing that’s good about it,” said an airline pilot we spoke to on condition of anonymity, familiar with working in the US and abroad.

“There are good reasons they have to pay that money to get you over there. You might be living in a smaller city, where little English is spoken. It can be a culture shock, and pretty lonely,” he said.

Ross counters that many families are making the leap, and that quality of life, and work conditions have improved over the past years. Chinese airlines are not bringing over US first officers, however. One pilot must always be Chinese-speaking, so foreigners can’t be paired together. It is difficult to train and upgrade Western first officers, because of language barriers. The instructors may not speak English.

“‘Get me captains!’ all the airlines say,” said Ross.

Pilots are sitting pretty, no matter where they fly. A six-figure salary is guaranteed through a built-in career progression, as are 12 days off per month or more. And their bank accounts and retirement plans look solid.

That’s just one reason why your pilot greets deplaning passengers with a smile.

Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass, a New York-based lifestyle brand, and a private pilot.

Featured image (Airbus A380 flight deck) by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

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