Cargo Pilot vs. Airline Pilot: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published August 4, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Pilots are essential in providing safe, rapid transportation for people and products. Cargo and airline pilots both work in the commercial sector and have many similar duties, but several aspects of their jobs differ. Comparing the two positions can help you decide which career path best suits your interests and allows you to achieve your professional goals. In this article, we discuss what a cargo pilot is, what an airline pilot is and the differences and similarities between the two positions.

Related: How Long Does It Take To Become a Pilot? (And What To Consider)

What is a cargo pilot?

A cargo pilot is a professional aircraft operator who flies commercial planes from one location to another, carrying shipments containing such items as mail or packages from private courier services. Cargo pilots use advanced technology to follow planned routes and ensure adherence to correct loading and unloading procedures to protect the integrity of the goods they transport. These professionals operate different types of aircraft depending on the company for which they work, the size of the cargo load and the distances they travel. Cargo pilots may also clean and maintain the planes they fly, as well.

Related: How To Write a Pilot Resume

What is an airline pilot?

An airline pilot is a commercial aircraft operator who flies planes that carry passengers from one location to another. Airline pilots plan their routes before takeoff and consider circumstances that could affect the trip, such as weather conditions and air traffic. They also maintain safety protocols, work with copilots to manage tasks during a flight and communicate with passengers throughout the flight's duration. Airline pilots typically only fly one type of plane that depends on their route length, such as large aircraft for international flights or small planes for regional travel.

Related: How To Become an Airline Pilot: Steps and Requirements

Differences and similarities between cargo pilots and airline pilots

Cargo pilots and airline pilots both fly planes, but their jobs serve different purposes. If you're considering becoming a pilot, it may be beneficial to consider the similarities and differences between the two professions to help you make an informed decision about your career path. Here are a few categories that can help you compare cargo and airline pilots:

Job duties

Cargo pilots carry many types of freight for their employers. Some common tasks cargo pilots complete before, during and after flights include:

  • Reviewing official flight documentation to ensure preparedness

  • Performing an external inspection of their aircraft and reporting any problems to maintenance personnel

  • Ensuring the proper functioning of their aircraft's systems

  • Controlling and monitoring the performance of the aircraft during a flight

  • Communicating with air traffic controllers

  • Completing and filing paperwork regarding flight details after landing

  • Recording maintenance issues if they arise

  • Performing post-flight aircraft inspections

  • Completing customs paperwork for freight if required by law

Airline pilots carry passengers who purchase tickets through commercial airlines. Some pilots fly planes with hundreds of passengers, while others may take fewer to their destinations. Regardless of the number of passengers they transport, airline pilots have many common job duties, including:

  • Performing basic inspections of flight systems prior to takeoff

  • Ensuring the safety and feasibility of planned travel routes

  • Maintaining flight records throughout a trip

  • Coordinating with the copilot to delegate specific in-flight duties

  • Ensuring the safety of the crew and passengers

  • Keeping flight crew and passengers informed of the flight's status

  • Communicating with air traffic control personnel during each stage of a flight

  • Completing post-flight reports regarding the status of the flight and the aircraft

Education and training

Some airlines and companies require pilots to have a bachelor's degree in aviation or a related field, and many pilots choose to receive a bachelor's degree before pursuing a career in the field. However, airlines have become increasingly flexible about degree requirements, and many hire pilots who choose only to complete flight school. Before becoming a commercial pilot, cargo and airline pilots receive a private pilot's license. This licensure requires candidates to:

  • Be at least 17 years of age

  • Hold a student pilot certificate

  • Be fluent in English

  • Receive 35 hours of flight training with an authorized instructor

  • Meet the requirements for the type of aircraft they want to fly

  • Pass the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) knowledge test

Private pilots then pass commercial flight school and the FAA written and practical tests to become a cargo or airline pilot. Many private facilities around the country offer accredited flight programs. Candidates acquire 250 hours of flight training to become certified as commercial pilots. The FAA usually requires commercial pilots who want to become airline pilots to acquire 1,500 hours of in-flight training, while cargo pilot candidates typically acquire at least 3,000 hours.

Related: FAQ: Do You Need a College Degree To Be a Pilot?

Job outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) airline and commercial pilot jobs may grow by 5% from 2019 to 2029, which is faster than the average growth rate for all occupations. New airlines and job opportunities arise frequently for pilots, who may work in several sectors of aviation.

Health requirements

Cargo and airline pilots often receive specific medical certifications based on their roles. Cargo pilots abide by second-class commercial pilot standards, while airline pilots abide by first-class airline transport pilots. The FAA carries nearly the same requirements for both types of pilots. They include:

  • 20/20 or better distance vision in each eye with or without corrective lenses

  • 20/40 or better near-sighted vision in each eye with or without corrective lenses

  • 20/40 or better immediate vision in each eye with or without corrective lenses

  • Ability to perceive colors

  • Ability to pass hearing and speech tests

The FAA also maintains disqualifying conditions for cargo and airline pilots, which include:

  • Certain heart diseases

  • Mental illnesses such as bipolar disease, psychosis or severe personality disorder

  • Substance abuse or dependence

  • Diabetes that requires the use of insulin

  • Epilepsy or disturbances of consciousness without explanation

Work environments

The job of a cargo pilot may involve manual labor, such as aircraft maintenance and freight loading. Cargo pilots often fly during nighttime hours, and they may work weekends and holidays. Both types of pilots may work long hours and spend extended periods away from home, but the FAA has restrictions on how many hours they can fly during set time periods. Both can fly up to 30 hours per week or 100 hours per month, and they also complete pre-flight planning and post-flight duties during working hours. Airline pilots spend more time interacting with large groups of people than cargo pilots.

Please note that none of the organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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