It often takes two people to fly a plane in the United States: a first officer, usually referred to as the co-pilot, and a captain. The co-pilot helps the captain fly the plane, and is there for backup in case the captain experiences a sudden medical emergency. The ultimate responsibility for passenger safety rests with the captain, and it is she who is ultimately in charge. Airline pilots begin their careers as co-pilots and, with experience, step into the role of captain. The average pay for these distinct roles reflects the different levels of experience and responsibility.
Basic Pay Information
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, all airline pilots, regardless of specific role, earned an average of $118,070 per year as of May 2011. However, BLS data does not indicate the large pay difference between captains and co-pilots. In fact, it may take several years for a pilot to break $100,000 per year. The more hours a pilot flies each year, the more money he will make. Bonuses for international flights and overtime may also help boost pilot salaries, but one crucial factor is being promoted from co-pilot to captain. A 2009 salary survey conducted by FltOps.com illustrates the considerable salary disparities: co-pilots earned an average of $36,283 in their first year, while captains earned an average maximum salary of $165,278.
Airline Co-Pilot Salaries
According to a survey of the industry by FltOps.com, the lowest averaging starting pay for co-pilots as of 2009 was $21,600, and was reported by U.S. Airways. United and Continental also reported relatively low starting salaries of below $30,000, while American had a starting salary of $30,984. At the higher end of the pay scale, starting co-pilots at Delta earned $40,630; they earned $40,986 at Alaskan, $42,300 at JetBlue and $49,572 at Southwest. After five years of industry experience, average co-pilot pay ranged from a low of $60,488 at AirTran to a high of $108,847 per year at Southwest.
Airline Captain Salaries
Before taking into account extras such as overtime or bonuses for international flights, the maximum salaries for airline captains are well above the pay rates for co-pilots. As of 2009, the lowest max salary for captains was $123,400, reported by JetBlue. AirTran paid captains a max base salary of $128,159, while U.S. Airways paid $138,240. Delta captains could earn up to $156,538, although the highest maximum salary for airline captains - $181,270 - was paid by Southwest.
Co-Pilot and Captain Salaries for Mail Carriers
As of 2009, FltOps.com found that pilots flying for mail carriers tended to earn more than those working for commercial airlines. However, co-pilots still earned significantly less than captains. For instance, UPS paid first-year co-pilots an average of $31,824 and fifth-year co-pilots an average of $130,709, while captains could earn as much as $231,231 per year. At FedEx, co-pilots started out at $50,971 and averaged $106,796 after five years, while captains reported salaries of up to $210,825.