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Summer 2007 Vol. 51, Number 2

Sky-high careers:
Jobs related to airlines

Tamara Dillon

Would you like to tour the world? Meet people on the go and keep them safe? Fix some of the world’s largest and most complex machinery? If any of these scenarios sound exciting, a career in air travel might be for you.

Air transportation is surging, which in turn should lead to an expansion of the industry. In 2006, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a record 741 million passengers traveled by airplane—and FAA forecasts show that that number could reach 1 billion by 2015.

This increase in passengers should lead to lots of jobs for the people who ensure that air travelers arrive safely at their destinations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an increase in wage and salary jobs over the 2004-14 decade. And most of these air-travel jobs come with an adventurous perk: the chance to fly for free or at substantially reduced rates.

But a career in the skies begins with solid training on the ground. Among other abilities, workers in air travel need technical skills, clear thinking, and the maturity to deal well with the unexpected.

Get started now by reading about occupations unique to air travel. Learn about the duties, earnings, training, and ups and downs of working in the air transportation industry. A few other occupations related to air travel are described in the box on page 10. And resources listed at the article’s end can help you learn more.

Flight work

The business of air travel requires a variety of workers, from service-oriented ticket agents to business-savvy logistics managers. But when most people think of airline careers, they think of the workers in highly technical jobs that include airline pilots, air-traffic controllers, flight attendants, and mechanics.

Airline pilots and flight engineers

Pilots working as captains are in command of the aircraft and everyone on it. They supervise the work of the crew, give instructions, and make decisions aboard the plane. An airline pilot might oversee a twin-engine DC-3 on a 100-mile hop, a 4-engine Boeing 747 jet crossing the ocean, or a variety of aircraft in between.

Duties. Airline pilots plan each flight with the airline’s flight dispatcher and meteorologist. Pilots brief the crew, check takeoff procedures, ascertain that the plane is operating normally, fly the plane over the designated route, land the plane, and file a trip report at the final destination.

But there’s much more involved in flying. Before the flight, pilots must check the latest safety notices to determine, for example, if volcanic activity along the flight path might affect routing. They plan alternative routes and safety procedures. They also check to make sure that the necessary paperwork is aboard. The copilot usually carries out a visual inspection of the aircraft to ensure that the fuel lines, tires, and engine turbine blades are all in good condition.

When the air traffic controller approves takeoff, the pilot gets ready to fly.

Takeoff, when engines are at maximum power, is one of the most critical stages of a flight. The aircraft of major airlines often weigh about 280 tons and have about 2 miles of runway to attain liftoff. During takeoff, the pilot releases the brakes and applies power to accelerate down the runway. When the aircraft reaches a certain speed, the pilot gently pulls the control column back to lift the plane off the ground

Larger aircraft climb at an airspeed of about 370 miles per hour and rise at a rate averaging 1,500 feet per minute to reach their cruising altitude. The pilot switches on the weather radar and other systems to detect aircraft that might accidentally fly into the flight path.

During flight, pilots normally follow designated airways—highways in the sky—marked on flight maps. Most planes have a Global Positioning System onboard that helps the pilot to navigate.

When cruising on a flight path, airline aircraft are usually on autopilot, under the control of an onboard computer. The pilot manages the systems by reporting the plane’s location to air traffic control, keeping an eye on all the engine instruments to ensure that they are within limits, and, if necessary, taking over control of the aircraft from autopilot. On long-distance flights, most aircraft issue routine reminders to help the captain and copilot stay vigilant.

But the routine of autopilot is never completely routine. Pilots watch for turbulence on the weather radar screen inside the cockpit and attempt to avoid it. They monitor conditions during the flight and prepare for emergency diversion, if needed. And they plan safe alternative routes—ones that avoid mountainous terrain, for example—in case an unplanned descent becomes necessary.

When the plane nears its destination, the pilot checks the weather and other conditions. Unfavorable conditions might require a diversion.

Landing is the most critical phase of a flight, and it can be tricky. During the manual landing for large aircraft, the flight crew start to slow down with several quick actions: pulling back on the throttles; raising another set of controls, known as the spoilers, to disrupt airflow over the wings; and reversing the thrust of the engines while applying the brakes. During autopilot landings, all landing actions are automatic except for selecting reverse thrust and taxiing to the parking bay.

Passengers appreciate a smooth landing. Pilots try to oblige by gradually slowing the plane using their skill and experience in operating the controls. But even on autopilot landings, pilots make choices. If the runway is wet, for example, pilots may opt to hit the brakes as soon as possible, choosing a jerky stop over the risk of overshooting the runway.

Pilots use their skill and experience to perform preflight checks and to operate aircraft during flights.

Most airline pilots start their careers as copilots with regional carriers. When they join major airlines, their first positions may be as flight engineers. Flight engineers inspect the aircraft and oversee fueling operations before flight. During the flight, these engineers monitor engine performance, cabin pressurization, air conditioning, and other systems.

The position of flight engineer exists only on some large jet planes. Smaller airliners, as well as the newer large aircraft, have only a 2-person flight crew that consists of the pilot and copilot.

Most pilots and flight engineers say they love their jobs. They like the thrill of flight and the science of mastering complex instruments. The opportunity to do respected work is another element that draws people to this career: Pilots have ultimate responsibility for the safety of passengers and crew.

Employment and earnings. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers held about 102,930 jobs in May 2006, according to BLS. Of those, about 75,810 worked as airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers; the rest worked as commercial pilots. Other jobs include flight instructor and corporate, charter, test, or agricultural pilot.

Earnings of airline pilots and flight engineers are among the highest in the Nation and depend on factors such as the aircraft’s type, size, and maximum speed and the pilot’s number of hours and miles flown. According to BLS, salaries of aircraft pilots and flight engineers vary, depending on whether they work as airline or commercial pilots. Pay for flight engineers can be low, but earnings increase significantly as workers advance to copilot and pilot positions.

In May 2006, BLS data show that median annual salaries of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers were $141,090. Median annual salaries of commercial pilots were $57,480 in May 2006, according to BLS.

Qualifications and training. All pilots must have a high school diploma or equivalent. However, most airline pilots have a bachelor’s degree. In fact, some colleges and universities offer FAA-approved flight training. These programs combine flight training with regular college coursework.

Pilots learn their flying skills in one of three ways: by attending a flight school approved by the FAA, taking private lessons from an FAA-licensed instructor, or training to fly in the military.

Initial training for pilots includes classes, simulator training, and actual flight with instructors. After students gain experience and flight time, they fly alone to practice specific skills. Next, to earn a private certificate, students must pass a written examination and a flight test with an FAA flight examiner.

Before pilots can earn pay for flying, they must have a commercial certificate and an instrument rating. To qualify for the commercial certificate, pilots need to complete at least 250 hours of flight time and must pass another exam and flight test. In addition to the required instrument rating, most of these pilots have one or more advanced ratings—including those for multi-engine operation and aircraft type, depending on job requirements.

Most airline pilots also need significant paid flying experience. They gain flying experience either in the military or in other types of civilian piloting jobs, such as flying packages for a courier.

Pilots are tested throughout their careers, taking "check rides" twice a year. Check rides include a written and oral exam and flight tests given by an FAA instructor. Pilots are also expected to stay current on new techniques and procedures.

Aircraft pilots also must undergo frequent physical examinations and meet medical standards, which vary by licenses. A Class I medical certificate requires the highest standards for vision, hearing, equilibrium, and general physical condition: Pilots must have an exceptional health history. Class II and Class III certificates have less rigid requirements but still demand a high degree of physical health.

All three classes of medical certificates allow the pilot to wear glasses, provided that the correction is within prescribed limits of vision. Drug addiction or alcoholism disqualifies any applicant.

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007