Similar to most other careers, pilots must start at the bottom and then slowly work their way up. As a pilot climbs the ranks they enjoy far more benefits and perks than other employees in other industries that aren’t just limited to a higher salary.

Commercial Pilot Ranks

Captain

The highest-ranking member of a flight crew and the commander of the aircraft is the captain. The captain usually has at least 3,000 hours of flying experience, sits in the left-hand seat, and is responsible for the aircraft, its crew, and all other occupants.

A captain wears 4 stripes on their uniform. Major airlines pay captains upwards of $300,000 a year.

Senior First Officer

A senior first officer (SFO) acts as a “co-pilot”. After the captain, they are second in command of the aircraft. An SFO is highly experienced and can sit in the left-hand seat when the captain takes a break. While it can vary between airlines, they are expected to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience.

A senior first officer wears 3 stripes on their uniform and can expect to make six figures.

First Officer

A first officer also acts as a co-pilot. They usually have less experience than a senior first officer, though this is not true in every case, as some airlines issue all new pilots the rank of FO regardless of how experienced they are.

A first officer wears 2 stripes on their uniform. Typically, they start off with pay between $50,000-100,000 in their first year. After six years, a salary of $150,000 is the standard.

Second Officer

A second officer isn’t found on every flight, but when they are it is usually on international or long haul flights to ensure that the captain, senior first officer, and first officer can get adequate rest.

A second officer wears 2 stripes on their uniform. In some airlines, the second officer acts as a first officer.

The Relationship Between Seniority & Pilot Ranks

There is no other factor that is more important to a pilot’s career than seniority.

Seniority determines everything from a pilot’s schedule, the routes they fly, which days off they can take, when they can take a vacation, how much they earn, who gets furloughed, how quickly they can progress to Captain, as well as where a pilot is based, and what aircraft they can fly.

Here’s the thing about seniority, though. It starts from the very first day a pilot is hired by an airline and doesn’t transfer. Unlike other careers, if a pilot with 20 years of experience moves airlines they will be treated as a junior pilot with none of the benefits they may have been accustomed to and enjoyed with the previous airline they worked for.

A pilot can move up the seniority list as other pilots working for the airline retire. An airline pilot must retire at 65 years old.