What’s a Contract Pilot Worth Anyway? Featured

As a CEO of XLPilotStaffing.Com, a contract pilot referral service, I am often asked by pilots as well as operators, what are the going rates for contract pilots.  As you might expect, that depends.

aving been on all sides of the equation, contract pilot, user of contract pilots and referrer of contract pilots, and on multiple types of jets, I can share with you some general rules of thumb.

The best way to figure out what the average rate for a contract pilot by type jet can be easily be determined by first consulting the most recent Professional Pilot Magazine Salary Study.   Click here to see one from 2013:

Generally speaking, the average daily rate for a contract pilot comes out to around .9% of the annual salary for the type of jet being contracted on. 

From the table below you can see that in 2013 the average annual salary for a Citation Excel Captain was $84,000.  Multiply that by .009 and you come up with an average daily rate of $756.   This figure can serve as a “benchmark” and a starting point for negotiating the rate for a particular trip.




Now that we have a starting point there are several other factors that may determine what a contract pilot is worth.  Key among those are: Region, Supply and Demand, Urgency, Domestic or International.

As with annual salaries, pay for contractors tends to vary by region of the country.  Workers in the Northeast are typically paid a higher salary than those in the South and the same holds true for contract pilots.  The highest paying contract jobs tend to be around major cities such as New York, Los Angels, Houston and Chicago while the lower paying are in the rural areas.

Supply and demand is another important factor.  This can vary by season and region.  For example let’s say a contract pilot is needed out of Orlando.  While there are very few Excels based there, (meaning few actively working Excel pilots to draw from), there are a dozen or so Flight Safety Instructors who are rated and current (at least in the sim anyway.)  This makes the supply relatively good in the Central Florida area.   On the other hand, Flight Safety in Orlando is a very busy training center and during certain times of the year or month, they cannot spare a single instructor.  Think of that in the bigger picture.  Flight Safety is running 3 Excel simulators on a full schedule meaning not only are all the instructors unavailable to contract but also the pilots in training are not able to fly.  This makes for a high demand and a short supply.  These are the times I usually get a call with an operator in desperate need of a pilot.

That brings us to the next factor that may determine the contract pilot’s rate, urgency.  I once had The Home Depot desperately offer me double the going daily rate if I could just fly a day trip with them.  As bad luck would have it, Flight Safety wouldn’t let me off no matter how much I begged.  Companies have jets because they need to be a certain place at a certain time.  When opportunities present themselves companies have to be ready to strike and the cost of a contract pilot, while important, is somewhat insignificant to them in the big picture.  This means that companies are willing to pay, (and contract pilots able to ask for), a higher than normal daily rate  in certain situations.

The last major factor in determining the value of a contract pilot is domestic or international.  I recently flew a trip in a Citation X from Milan to Barcelona.  The other pilot and I didn’t have a chance to catch our breath for the entire flight.  Europe can have some busy airspace and the workload can include several airports with multiple pages of airport notes for the crew to be familiar and comply with if the trip is to come off without a hitch.  Contractor’s get paid more on international flights and they will earn it!

A couple of other less important factors in determining rates are, duration of the trip and total payout.  It can be hard to find a contract pilot for a trip over a day or two.  Most have regular full time jobs and eventually run out of vacation days to burn.  The solution is finding someone who only makes their living as a contract pilot.  These rugged individuals pay their normal bills along with health insurance and recurrent training while competing against a sea of pilots on salaries.  Sure, they can be gone for extended periods but they take a financial risk in doing so.  For a full time contract pilot, your skill in doing the job and your availability are two of your greatest assets.  When a full time contractor takes him or herself out of the pool for a week or longer, their availability suffers.  I have found no matter how skilled you are as a contractor, you only get to turn down an operator a couple of times before you go to the bottom of their call list.   Herein lies one of the benefits of XLPilotStaffing.Com.   When an operator calls needing a pilot, I send an email or text out to everyone.  If you jump on it first then you get the trip but if you are unavailable operators never know so you stay high on their speed dial.

When a contractor is needed for an extended trip, both the contract pilot and aircraft operator should determine if the aircraft needs to be crewed for the duration.  If so then is seems fair that the full daily rate be paid for all days.  On the other hand, if it turns out the operator does not need the pilots to be ready to fly everyday, that’s a different story.  In this case it may be reasonable for the aircraft operator to offer a lower daily rate for non-flying days or allow the contractor the option to reposition.  This way the operator can save on expense and the contractor can take a full paying trip or finally make that overdue doctors appointment.

Another factor to look at is the total payout of a trip.  I have had contract pilots tell me they would not take a trip for any less than $750 a day.  So I get a call where an operator needs a pilot for 10 days but will only pay $600 a day.  That’s $6,000 in the bank and still  leaves 20 other days in a month for the contractor to make even more money!  The pilot who passed up the job because he would not work for less than $750 a day would have to get other trips for 8 out of those same 10 days to make the same $6,000   Highly unlikely.  What that means is sometimes it is acceptable for a company to pay or a contractor to accept a lower daily rate on extended trips.

In conclusion, we can use the Pro Pilot Wage Survey as a starting point for what a contract pilot’s daily rate should be.  From there many other factors come into the mix.  So many factors that daily rates for contract pilots are something that is well served by negotiation.  Without negotiation there is likely to be a winner and a loser whereas the goal of any good negation is win-win and a good deal for both parties. 

At XLPilotStaffing.Com I do the negotiating so you don’t have to.  When an operator calls me with a trip, tells me the type of pilot he is looking for and what he would like to pay, I reach out to every qualified pilot I know.  If I have one who is a perfect match then it is a done deal.  While that happens often, other times a little give and take is required.  That’s where I come in because it’s my job is to find a way to make sure every operator who needs a qualified pilot has one.

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Mark Mealey

components, K2 User Groups

Website: www.xlpilotstaffing.com

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Pilot-ol-ogy is the magazine of  XLPilotStaffing, a company created by Mark Mealey in 2013 to take the hassle out of finding a contract pilot for your flight operation.  Whether you need a contractor to fill in for vacations, training, illness, or personal reasons, XLPilotStaffing is here to help.