American Airlines pilot salaries: How to land the world’s “dream job”

Is becoming a pilot your dream career? You’re not alone, according to a study of Google search trends.

Remitly, a financial services provider, conducted an analysis of Google searches between October 2021 and October 2022 by examining keywords such as “dream job” or “dream career” and found that, in more than 100 countries, pilot was the most searched-for profession. (Writer, dancer, YouTuber, and entrepreneur rounded out the top five.)

Fortunately, for thousands of aspiring aviators, the dream of flying for a major airline has quickly become a reality in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and travel restrictions caused airlines to lose billions, and they cut costs by offering their most senior pilots early retirement packages — or pausing hiring altogether.

Now that demand for travel has rebounded, airlines have been on hiring sprees, adding thousands of new pilots a year to fill their empty cockpits, and according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook ahead seems like more blue skies: The industry is expected to continue to grow by 6% per year through 2031.

In order to entice aspiring aviators into putting in the hours to earn their wings, major airlines, like American Airlines (AAL) have even waived the four-year college degree requirement, focusing instead on flight training — and several, including American, have launched their own flight schools, admitting cadets with zero experience along with the promise of income potential in as little as 12 months.

American Airlines pays its top pilots salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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What is happening with American Airlines today?

American Airlines, one of the world’s oldest and largest airlines, offers some of the industry’s top salaries to the 15,000 pilots commanding its flight decks. 

After the company posted record revenues in 2023, its pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association, successfully negotiated a $1.1 billion pay increase, which included an immediate 21% raise and successive increases amounting to 46% by 2027. Pilots also received perks in the form of greater vacation pay and increased life insurance, disability insurance, and retirement benefits.

American says it has hired and trained more pilots post-pandemic than at any other time in its history, welcoming 2,500 new pilots in 2022 and another 2,300 pilots in 2023. In addition, it expects around 850 pilots to retire each year through 2028, thus creating even more urgency.

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But in 2024, American Airlines expects to hire just 1,300 pilots — not because demand is slackening but rather due to delays from its aircraft manufacturer, Boeing (BA) , as it undergoes a federal safety investigation. 

American has long been regarded for its strong safety record, and in April 2024, its pilots union again made headlines by reporting an increase in safety and maintenance-related issues it had been tracking, urging all of its pilots to remain vigilant.

The jetliner that made global air travel a reality for millions: American Airlines’ Boeing 707 Astrojet

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What is American Airlines? A brief history

Basically, American Airlines’ history begins with the advent of commercial flight. In 1926, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh took off from St. Louis, Mo. in a DH-4 biplane, carrying mail bound for Chicago. Lindbergh represented Robertson Airlines, which in 1929 would join forces with Colonial Air Transport and be renamed American Airlines.

American played a pivotal role in the development of early propeller liners like the Douglas DC-3, and on January 25, 1959, American launched the first transcontinental passenger flight on a Boeing 707 Astrojet from Los Angeles to New York. This ushered in the “jet age” of commercial travel and made flying safer, faster, and more affordable for millions of people.

Today, American and its regional carrier, American Eagle, employ over 103,000 people and operate 6,800 flights per day to 350 destinations worldwide. Its headquarters are in Dallas/Fort Worth, which is also a pilot base. It has nine additional pilot bases in Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington, DC.

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How much do American Airlines pilots make?

There are at least two pilots in the cockpit of every commercial aircraft: The captain, or pilot in command, sits on the left, while the first officer sits on the right. The first officer navigates, and both may fly the plane and communicate with air traffic control; ultimately, the captain is the final authority, responsible for the safety of everyone on board.

According to American Airlines’ flight school, the Cadet Academy, pay for new pilots starts off low as they begin to accrue experience in the flight deck. Within four years, they are making six figures, often serving as first officers with one of their regional carriers. 

Senior captains with over a dozen years in the cockpit can earn more than $250,000, while other online sources report that American’s top pilots make as much as $469,000 per year.

As pilots gain experience, their pay increases substantially.

American Airlines

What benefits do American Airlines’ pilots get?

According to employee surveys compiled by Indeed, pilots at American Airlines enjoy flexible schedules, good people to work with, and well-maintained equipment.

Benefits include health, dental, and vision insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan with a 5.5% company match, paid time off, wellness programs, and — perhaps most alluring — free standby travel.

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Does American Airlines offer pilot training?

American Airlines’ Cadet Academy is a full-time flight training program for high school graduates who wish to become pilots. The program includes private pilot training certification, instrument rating certification, and multi-engine flight certification, and it takes about three years to complete.

American Airlines has its own federal credit union, which provides cadets with student loans that have low fixed or variable rates. Repayment begins after their program is completed.

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Cadets graduate as certified flight instructors with instrument (CFII) ratings. They receive a conditional job offer with one of American’s regional carriers, Envoy, Piedmont, or PSA, and their salary begins at $35,000. 

There, they build up their FAA-required 1,500 flight hours to become a regional first officer, with a starting salary of $50,000. Pilots advance to the helm of regional captain via a “flow-through” agreement, which allows pilots to transfer directly to positions as a first officer at American Airlines with a starting salary of $90,000. 

Captain compensation continues to grow with each year at the yoke, with salaries in the $300,000 range not uncommon.

How do I become an American Airlines pilot?

Qualified candidates are encouraged to submit a profile on American Airlines’ Pilot Hiring page. They must be authorized to work in the U.S. and write and speak fluently in English. Candidates must be between the ages of 23 and 65 years (the current maximum age mandated by the FAA) and be authorized to travel unrestricted to all of the countries where American Airlines flies. They must also be able to pass a FAA physical.

Candidates must also be willing to work a flexible schedule that includes overnight and weekend shifts as well as relocate to one of American Airlines’ pilot bases. In addition, they must pass comprehensive background check including a drug screening.

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