How To Become an Airline Pilot: Steps and Requirements
Updated June 30, 2023
Whether you already have a private pilot certificate or you’re researching this career path, becoming an airline pilot requires various levels of certification and flight training that must be earned before you can apply for a position with a regional or commercial airline.
In this article, we explain the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements to become an airline pilot and provide step-by-step details about the career of a professional pilot.
Airline pilots are responsible for transporting cargo and passengers from one location to another, which involves using specialized navigational equipment to determine the flight's path and communicating with the crew and the first officer to ensure a safe flight for the entire duration.
Becoming an airline pilot involves earning a bachelor's degree in aviation or a related field from an FAA-approved institution, acquiring a commercial pilot's license and instrument and multi-engine ratings, logging flight hours and gaining an airline transport pilot certification.
There are a few career paths available to people who aren't interested in a traditional degree program but still want to become a pilot, which might include joining an airline cadet program, completing military training or attending a Part 61 or Part 141 flight school.
What does an airline pilot do?
An airline pilot is responsible for flying passengers and other crew members from one destination to another. They are required to navigate the flight path of the aircraft using specialized equipment and control all other aspects of the plane's movement. In the cockpit, the captain (pilot in command) and the first officer (second in command) work as a team to ensure a safe flight from vehicle inspection and flight logs to precise coordination for takeoff and landing.
Airline pilots operate multi-engine aircraft, which requires a great deal of technical knowledge. They are responsible for handling the plane through inclement weather and must react to any mechanical problems that occur while in flight. Airline pilots have to communicate with air traffic controllers and use radar to understand their flight path.
How to become an airline pilot
To become an airline pilot, these steps outline the most common path to complete the proper training and gain experience:
1. Earn an FAA-approved bachelor's degree
Most major airline companies require a bachelor’s degree in aviation or a related field when applying for jobs as an airline pilot. If you plan to follow an airline pilot career path, the most common step students take is to go to an FAA-authorized institution where you will take aviation-related coursework to earn a degree and receive pilot training at the same time.
This path can help guide you directly to your end goal of becoming an airline pilot. An important benefit of attending an FAA-approved college or university is the pilot training that is usually included as part of their aviation program. They can provide students with a wide variety of training aids, dedicated facilities and more flexibility in scheduling flight hours.
2. Obtain a private pilot license
To earn a private pilot certificate or pilot's license, you'll need to learn basic flight methods, aircraft maneuvers, navigation, flight planning and emergency training. Once you have this certification, you are legally allowed to fly a plane. Pilots earning this certificate learn to fly small aircraft on their own.
3. Acquire an instrument rating
Flying for an airline requires reading and using instruments. Once you earn a basic pilot certificate, you'll need to train to use sophisticated instruments that guide a plane through different weather conditions and altitudes. This certification also teaches pilots to interact with air traffic control and the National Airspace System.
4. Obtain a commercial pilot license
A commercial pilot license allows pilots to fly goods or people to earn money. Once a pilot has this designation, they can take jobs in search and rescue, passenger flights (such as tourism or corporate) and cargo deliveries. Under this category, a pilot takes additional training to obtain ratings for each class of airplane they want to fly. For example, they can add a multi-engine rating to their single-engine commercial pilot certificate.
5. Get a flight instructor certificate
In order to gain experience and flight hours, many pilots choose to become flight instructors. Pilots can earn a wage and log hours at the same time. Most airlines require a minimum of flight hours before you can even apply to be a first officer. Working as a flight instructor is a recommended way of quickly accumulating the flight hours and experience you need to work as an airline pilot.
6. Add a multi-engine rating
In order to fly the planes used by passenger airlines, pilots are required to earn an additional rating to their commercial license. Pilots must prove that they are able to fly large planes with multiple engines. Training for this certification involves learning what to do in the case of a single-engine failure and handling these large planes in all areas of flight.
7. Gain experience and flight hours
To become an airline pilot, you have to log a lot of hours in the air. The minimum number of total flight hours required by the FAA is 1,500. You can do this through training classes, flight instruction and working as a commercial pilot.
8. Earn an airline transport pilot certification
An airline transport pilot (ATP) certification is the highest licensing the FAA issues. To earn this certification, pilots need more than the minimum requirement of 1,500 hours of flight experience. Pilots must also have specific flight hours logged, including pilot in command (PIC), nighttime flying and cross country PIC.
To earn an ATP certification, prospective airline pilots must also pass medical examinations. Pilots must have a first-class medical exam to act as a pilot in command and a second-class medical exam to be second in command.
9. Interview for a position as an airline pilot
Once you meet all the FAA requirements, you can seek employment with a major airline. Since airlines are based on seniority, you'll start work as a first officer and move to captain after at least two years of work with the airline.
Related: Pilot: The Job Outlook
How much do airline pilots make?
The salary of an airplane pilot varies based on the size of the company, type of aircraft and seniority. Airline pilots are paid according to the number of hours flown, with a maximum of 1,000 hours per year. Hourly rate is a determining factor in calculating how much a pilot makes.
The national average base salary for a first officer is $53,325 per year. The captain of a commercial airplane can make an average salary starting at $55,362 per year. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on each salary link.
Besides a base salary, airline pilots often earn benefits such as free air travel, medical insurance, paid vacation time and airline-employee discounts. Some companies offer “buddy passes” for airline tickets that are free or reduced in price for family members.
Read more: How Much Do Airline Pilots Make?
What is the work environment for an airline pilot?
An airline pilot will spend most of their time in a small, enclosed cockpit with one or two other crew members in close proximity. Their hours on the job will vary depending on the length and number of flights in their schedule. Pilots will work from a location they consider their base but will often travel for many days at a time before returning home. They may need to work overnight, on holidays and for extended hours at a time.
Airline pilots also act as leaders. Whether they are in the role of captain or first officer, pilots are responsible for the aircraft and all passengers and crew members on their flight. They must be comfortable making quick decisions if a situation occurs that needs immediate action in order to maintain the safety of the flight.
Pilots need to appreciate travel as their work can take them across many different locations both in and out of their own country. Airline pilots often have a sense of adventure and appreciate the mechanics of flight as well as air travel. Their work can truly allow them to see the world.
What is the best career path to become an airline pilot?
You can pursue several different methods of education and training to become an airline pilot. Here are the four typical career paths:
Train at a flight school
A Part 61 or Part 141 flight school, which refers to the amount of regulation from the FAA, will provide the basic training you'll need in flight and navigation. These flight schools often offer flexible programs that vary in pace and schedule. However, a Part 141 school has a highly regulated instruction process while a Part 61 training program can be more flexible in its methods.
Earn a college degree from an FAA-authorized aviation program
An aviation college will provide training alongside a bachelor’s degree or associate degree program. With coursework in fields that pertain to aviation, you'll also gain practical training in flight mechanics, piloting and navigation as part of your education.
Attend an airline cadet program
Aviation academies also offer specialized training for airline pilots. They are often affiliated with a specific airline and offer a streamlined career path to work for the company. After an initial training period, those who train with the academy may have to fulfill certain roles within the airline or an affiliated airline before they are automatically moved into a position as an airline pilot.
Join the military
Some individuals choose to become a pilot through opportunities to serve in the military. Each branch of the U.S. armed services has its own aviation unit to train pilots, including the Army and the Air Force. The Marines have the most extensive pilot training program. The Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard all have naval aviator programs for commissioned officers.
In this path, training is paid for because of your military service and long-term commitment. Pilots who train in the military receive an extra degree of precise tactical and emergency response expertise. Airline programs often highly value candidates who have prior experience flying for the military.
Airline pilots vs. commercial pilots
Typically, airline pilots begin their career as commercial pilots accruing flight time as a flight instructor or charter pilot. The difference between an airline pilot and a commercial pilot is the services they are hired to do. Airline pilots often work for a specific regional airline while commercial pilots fly passengers and cargo, perform reconnaissance and fulfill other flight needs related to their job title. A pilot with a commercial pilot license would need further training and more flight hours to meet all of the requirements to become certified as an airline transport pilot.
Airline pilot frequently asked questions
If you are interested in becoming an airline pilot, here are answers to some commonly asked questions:
How long does it take to become an airline pilot?
Most training programs allow you to earn your certifications to become an airline pilot in two years. However, additional time may be needed to gain the flight hours and experience necessary to be considered for a position as an airline pilot.
How old do you have to be to earn a license to fly as an airline pilot?
To earn an airline transport pilot (ATP) certification, you must be at least 23 years old. However, you could be eligible for a restricted airline transport pilot (R-ATP) certification at 21 years old if you have an aviation degree from an FAA-approved college program with flight training or if you have a military pilot background.
Do you need perfect vision to become an airline pilot?
While you don't need to have perfect vision to work as an airline pilot, you must wear corrective lenses that make your vision 20/20.
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