It’s not just pilots who keep jumbo jets flying from New York to L.A. Air traffic controllers guide such flights so they don’t run into the cargo planes rushing from San Francisco to Miami, or slam into the corporate jets speeding from Dallas to Chicago. Both types of professionals earn their high pay by making sure passengers stay safe in the air.
Pilots averaged $128,760 per year, as of May 2012, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The big earners made over $187,199, while the lowest paid got less than $66,970. To make their money, pilots fly jet and propeller planes that carry people and freight. Most planes, unless they’re small, need two pilots -- a captain and a copilot. They check out their vehicle before the flight, start the engines and operate controls, and handle the plane so it takes off and lands in one piece. Pilots need a commercial pilot's license from the Federal Aviation Administration and many have college degrees.
Air traffic controllers made a mean $118,430 a year, with a low under $64,930 and a high above $171,340. From control centers at airports or throughout the country, they tell pilots where and when to take off, land, and navigate with their planes. They give weather reports and approve changes to flight paths. Because they usually look after a bunch of flights at the same time, they need to think fast and work with other controllers. Controllers need to be U.S. citizens, earn an FAA-approved air traffic management degree and finish training at the FAA Academy.
Most pilots work for scheduled air transportation, such as passenger airlines. They also earn their highest pay there, averaging $130,410 yearly in 2012. Most air traffic controllers work for the federal government, where in 2012 they made their best salaries at a mean $121,470. The top-paying state for pilots was New York, at a mean $164,610, while the top among cities belonged to Dallas, averaging $184,230. For controllers, the best pay was in the District of Columbia, which the BLS considers a state. Salaries averaged $142,020. In cities, Anchorage, Alaska, was number one at a mean $114,830.
For both pilots and air traffic controllers, unions call most of the shots with pay. According to the BLS, about 62 percent of all pilots and 95 percent of all airline pilots are members of such unions as the Air Line Pilots Association, International. About 90 percent of air traffic controllers are members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Because both jobs are highly stressful and require quick physical responses, both have mandatory retirement ages: 65 for pilots and 56 for controllers.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Wages for Airline Pilots, Copilots and Flight Engineers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: What Airline and Commercial Pilots Do
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become an Airline or Commercial Pilot
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Wages for Air Traffic Controllers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: What Air Traffic Controllers Do
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become an Air Traffic Controller
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Work Environment for Airline Pilots, Copilots and Flight Engineers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Work Environment for Air Traffic Controllers
Aurelio Locsin has been writing professionally since 1982. He published his first book in 1996 and is a frequent contributor to many online publications, specializing in consumer, business and technical topics. Locsin holds a Bachelor of Arts in scientific and technical communications from the University of Washington.