How to Become an Airline or Commercial Pilot
Airline and commercial pilots who are newly hired by airlines or on-demand air services companies must undergo on-the-job training.
Airline pilots typically begin their careers as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots must complete flight training, and some employers require or prefer applicants to have a bachelor's degree. Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree. All pilots who are paid to fly must have at least a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In addition, airline pilots must have the FAA-issued Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.
Interviews for positions with major and regional airlines may reflect the FAA exams for pilot licenses, certificates, and instrument ratings, and can be intense. Airlines frequently conduct their own psychological and aptitude tests to assess the candidates in critical thinking and decision-making processes under pressure.
Military pilots may transfer to civilian aviation and apply directly to airlines to become airline pilots.
Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree in any field, including transportation, engineering, or business. They also must have a commercial pilot’s license and an ATP certificate from the FAA. Airline pilots typically start their careers flying as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots usually accrue thousands of hours of flight experience in order to get a job with regional or major airlines.
Commercial pilots must have a commercial pilot’s license, and some employers require or prefer that they have a bachelor's degree. The most common path to becoming a commercial pilot is to complete flight training with independent FAA-certified flight instructors or at schools that offer flight training. Some flight schools are part of 2- and 4-year colleges and universities.
The FAA certifies hundreds of civilian flight schools, which range from small fixed base operators (FBO) to state universities. Some colleges and universities offer pilot training as part of a 2- or 4-year aviation degree.
Airline and commercial pilots who are newly hired by airlines or on-demand air services companies undergo on-the-job training in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). This training usually includes several weeks of ground school and flight training. Various types of ratings for specific aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 or Cessna Citation, typically are acquired through employer-based training and generally are earned by pilots who have at least a commercial license.
Besides initial training and licensing requirements, all pilots must maintain their experience in performing certain maneuvers. This requirement means that pilots must perform specific maneuvers and procedures a given number of times within a specified amount of time. Pilots also must undergo periodic training and medical examinations, generally every year or every other year.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Airline pilots typically begin their careers as commercial pilots. Pilots usually gain flight experience as commercial pilots or in the military to get a job with regional or major airlines.
Minimum time requirements to get a certificate or rating may not be enough to get some jobs. To make up the gap between paying for training and flying for the major airlines, many commercial pilots begin their careers as flight instructors and on-demand charter pilots. These positions typically require less experience than airline jobs require. When pilots have built enough flying hours, they can apply to the airlines.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Those who are seeking a career as a professional pilot typically get their licenses and ratings in the following order:
- Student pilot certificate
- Private pilot license
- Instrument rating
- Commercial pilot license
- Multi-engine rating
- Airline transport pilot certificate
Each certificate and rating requires that pilots pass a written exam on the ground and a practical flying exam, usually called a check ride, in an appropriate aircraft. In addition to earning these licenses, many pilots get a certified flight instructor (CFI) rating after they get their commercial pilot certificate. The CFI rating helps them build flight time and experience quickly and at less personal expense. Current licensing regulations can be found in FARs.
Commercial pilot license. To qualify for a commercial pilot license, applicants must meet age and flight-hour requirements. Student pilots use a logbook and keep detailed records of their flight time. The logbook must be endorsed by the flight instructor in order for the student to be able to take the FAA knowledge and practical exams. Specific requirements, including details on the types and quantities of flight experience and knowledge needed, are provided in FARs.
Applicants must pass the appropriate medical exam, meet all of the detailed flight experience and knowledge requirements, and pass a written exam and a practical flight exam in order to become commercially licensed. The medical exam confirms that the pilot’s vision is correctable to 20/20 and that no physical or mental conditions exist that could impair the pilot’s performance.
Commercial pilots must hold an instrument rating if they want to carry passengers for pay more than 50 miles from the point of origin of their flight, or at night.
Instrument rating. Pilots who earn an instrument rating can fly during periods of low visibility, also known as instrument meteorological conditions, or IMC. They may qualify for this rating by having at least 40 hours of instrument flight experience and 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command, and by meeting other requirements detailed in the FARs.
Airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate. All pilot crews of a scheduled commercial airliner must have ATP certificates. To earn the ATP certificate, applicants must meet certain requirements, such as for age, hours of flight, and written and practical exams. Airline pilots usually maintain one or more aircraft-type ratings, which allow them to fly aircraft that require specific training, depending on the requirements of their particular airline.
Pilots must pass periodic physical and practical flight examinations to be able to perform the duties granted by their certificate.
Commercial pilots may advance to airline pilots after completing a degree, accruing required flight time, and obtaining an ATP license.
Advancement for airline pilots depends on a system of seniority outlined in collective bargaining contracts.
Communication skills. Pilots must speak clearly when conveying information to air traffic controllers and other crew members. They must also listen carefully for instructions.
Observational skills. Pilots regularly watch over screens, gauges, and dials to make sure that all systems are in working order. They also need to maintain situational awareness by looking for other aircraft or obstacles. Pilots must be able to see clearly, be able to judge the distance between objects, and possess good color vision.
Problem-solving skills. Pilots must be able to identify complex problems and figure out appropriate solutions. When a plane encounters turbulence, for example, pilots assess the weather conditions and request a change in route or altitude from air traffic control.
Quick reaction time. Pilots must respond quickly, and with good judgment, to any impending danger.