Demystifying Airline Pilot Pay

TASA ID: 9740

In a crowded plane, passengers look at their watches (and cell phones), as the scheduled departure time comes and goes. Finally, an announcement is made by the flight crew that the plane has a mechanical issue and will require 30 more minutes to be repaired. The passengers are frustrated, but they are not the only ones. The crew is also irritated – because they are not being paid for any part of this schedule disruption. While the flight attendants work hard to appease the passengers, the pilots are on the phone, in the books, and busy speaking with the maintenance crew about the issue – and they are doing it all for free! Sky-dive in as we discuss the strange and imperfect world of flight crew, and more specifically, pilot pay.

Pilots, like attorneys, bill by the hour but it’s not quite as simple. Flight crews, pilots and flight attendants, are paid by the flight hour at most U.S. airlines and cargo carriers. Flight hours, known officially as block time, are recorded from the time an airplane leaves the gate, to the time the airplane arrives at a gate. (At most airlines, releasing the parking brake prior to pushing from the gate are considered to be leaving the gate, even if the actual pushback is delayed due to traffic congestion.)

Airlines rely on block time to determine pilots pay, required aircraft servicing, crew schedule legalities, and mandatory times related to passenger rights. This differs from general aviation, which typically uses engine tach hours, or hobbs time (engine hours) to determine required maintenance, pilot flight time, and aircraft billing. The use of block time is significant for several reasons.

First, block time starts when a plane leaves the gate, as opposed to engine start, which usually occurs after the plane is pushed clear of the gate by a ground crew. Using engine time in this instance would short the crew on pay, and not properly account for crew time for purposes of FAA and/or contractual limits.
Second, block time is more appropriate for situations involving ground delays, prior to departure or after arrival. At times, planes are delayed departing, due to weather or traffic congestion, and in some cases, planes are delayed at the destination due to a lack of gate space. In these cases, pilots will often shut down all of the thrust producing engines and rely on the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to provide electricity, heat, and air conditioning. In these cases, the time spent on the ground with the engines off is still counting towards crew flight time limits and ground delay rules related to passengers. Use of block time properly accounts for these limitations.

If pilots are paid by the flight hour, what about the time spent in the terminal between flights, or the time spent in the cockpit prior to pushback? In general, that time is unpaid. Some airlines compensate pilots for significantly long times between flights (usually two hours or more), but this time is only partially paid. The 30-45 minutes spent in the cockpit prior to push is not usually paid, which has a significant effect on the overall pay of pilots who operate short flights.

How many hours do pilots fly in a month? Airlines pilots with a regular schedule, referred to as a line, are typically scheduled for 70-90 hours per month. This may seem low compared to the 170 hours per month of a normal, nine to five job. However, as explained above, flight hours only account for a portion of the time pilots spend at work. A rough rule-of-thumb is 2 to 1. For every hour a pilot is paid for, they will spend two hours at work (one flying, and one on the ground.) This makes a typical pilot schedule equivalent to that of a non-aviation office job.

Chart: Pilot Pay by Position and Years of Service
Captains are labeled “Capt” and First Officers are “F/O”. (First Officer is the modern technical term for co-pilot.)

Pay rates are typically negotiated by way of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), and vary from airline to airline. Notice the large increase in pay rates in the second year of employment. Airlines typically pay lower rates in the first year to help defer the cost of training a new pilot and to discourage pilots from company hopping. (In recent years, many regional airlines have increased first-year pay, and even added hiring bonuses, in order to attract more pilots.)

What if an airline does not have enough flying for a pilot? Fortunately, most pilot employment contracts and CBAs include a monthly hour minimum. This minimum requires the company to pay its pilots for a minimum number of flight hours, regardless of whether those hours are flown. This is particularly important for pilots who fly for on demand cargo companies, and for reserve pilots, which we will talk about shortly. The minimum is different from company to company but generally lands between 60 and 80 hours per month, with schedule passenger airlines usually between 70 and 75 hours.

What happens if a pilot’s schedule is changed by the airline, or a flight is canceled? Luckily, for pilots, canceled flights are usually pay protected. Pay protection requires the airline to pay the pilot (and in most cases – the flight attendants) for the flight hours that would have occurred if the flight had not canceled. The same holds true for situations where the crew is reassigned from their original flight to a shorter flight. Where the scheduled has been changed, crews are typically paid the greater of the scheduled flight or the new schedule.

Of course, anyone who has taken an airline flight knows that they rarely arrive at the exact scheduled time. Interestingly, most flights which depart on-time – arrive several minutes early. This is because airlines over-schedule flights times (by about 10 minutes) to provide a buffer for delays. This often creates a disparity between the number of hours a pilot is scheduled to fly and the number of hours actually flown. Most airlines pay pilots for the greater of the scheduled flight or the actual flight time. This is done to be fair to the crews but also to discourage pilots from intentionally flying slow (to make more money).

Yet, not every pilot flies a regular schedule. Almost all scheduled air carriers have extra pilots to cover sick calls, schedule disruptions, and other unscheduled events. These pilots are called reserve pilots and are usually selected on a monthly basis. The percentage of pilots who fly a reserve schedule depends on the company, with some on-demand cargo carriers placing all of their pilots in reserve status every month.

As mentioned above, most carriers pay a minimum number of hours per month, and this applies to reserve pilots as well. In some cases, the minimum number of hours paid to a reserve pilot is higher than the minimum for a pilot with a regular schedule. For example, the minimum hours for a line pilot might be 72, while the minimum for a reserve pilot is 75. The reason for this difference is that a line pilot can trade trips or add additional flights to achieve more flight hours, whereas reserve pilots rarely reach or exceed the minimum hours and may have fewer options for picking up overtime.

The system for pilot pay, and crew pay in general, is not perfect but it provides a reasonable basis for setting schedules, assigning trips, and compensating crews for their time and efforts. Minimum hour rules allow crews to have stable paychecks and encourage airlines to make efficient use of their employees, while pay protection makes sure pilots and flight attendants are not directly harmed by unexpected events and operational decisions. When it comes to pay, there is more to the plan than just winging it.

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author (TASA ID#: 9740). Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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