Aviation Careers – How to Become an Airline Pilot

Have you always dreamed of being an airline pilot? The glamor and romance of flying big iron to exciting, far-away destinations appeals to many but becomes reality to a select few. The road to a career as an airline pilot is long and it takes years to reap any significant financial rewards. Like any professional career, it requires a substantial financial investment, hard work, and dedication.

When you think of flying for an airline, you probably picture yourself as a captain on a jumbo jet. There are a few unique things about airline careers that you should know. First, it will take years to make captain at a major airline. Depending on your age and fluctuations in the industry, you may never get there before you reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. Many pilots reach retirement as a first officer rather than as a captain.

Second, life is centered around seniority. Schedules, pay, base location, layoffs (furloughs) and return to work after a furlough, equipment flown, and the opportunity to upgrade to a captain position are typically based entirely on seniority rather than merit.

Third is the usual route to flying for a major airline. More than likely your first paid flying job will be as a flight instructor, then as a first officer at a regional (commuter) airline, then upgrading to captain at the same regional. Once you log the required number of hours as pilot-in-command (PIC), you may land your first job at a major airline, either as a flight engineer or second or first officer, depending on the aircraft.


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all US certified pilots to be able to read, speak, and understand the English language. Additionally, all pilots must possess a valid and current medical certificate. Since an airline captain must hold a First Class medical, you should make sure you meet those standards early in your flying career.

Most major airlines require a four-year college degree while regional airlines require at least a two-year degree (some regionals want to see a four-year). Your education does not need to be related to aviation. Completing your pilot training means you have learned (theoretically, at least) all the required aviation knowledge for the job. An unrelated degree gives you a wider range of job possibilities in the event you encounter a medical disqualification at some point during your career.

Where to Start

There are several types of flight schools, ranging from the fixed-base operator (FBO) at your local airport to a degree program at a college or university. Regardless of your ultimate training choice, it may be wise to take your first few lessons at a local FBO. The advantages are many, the biggest being that you can find out if you actually like flying before investing your life savings. You might discover that you get violently airsick or that you simply lack an aptitude for flying. Once you earn your flight instructor certificate, you might find yourself seeking employment at the local flight school; your chances of getting hired will be much greater if the owner and staff know you.

I encourage interested fliers to earn at least their private pilot license close to home. If you need to keep your current day job while pursuing flight training, most if not all of your training can be completed at your local flight school. If you feel you would benefit from a full-time program, look for a school that is a good fit for you and your budget. Most big flight schools are in sunny locales like Arizona and Florida where time in the air is easy to come by. Visit several before you choose one. Interview instructors, students, and former students if possible to get their take on the quality of the training provided.

Step by Step

You will accumulate a series of licenses and ratings along the path to your first airline job, starting with a private license, followed by an instrument rating, commercial license, multi-engine rating, and at least a basic and instrument flight instructor certificate. Training from hour zero through multi-engine instructor can take as little as a year if you jump in with both feet and make flight training a full-time endeavor. On the other hand, it can take several years if you can only commit a few hours a month.

The First Job

A flying career is a Catch 22: you have to have experience before you can get a job, but it’s hard to gain said experience without a job. Unless you are independently wealthy, your first job after completing training will likely be as a flight instructor. Other options exist-banner towing, glider towing, flying skydivers up to altitude, and the occasional but rare corporate or charter job that requires very little experience. But teaching others to fly is the most widely available path and airlines view flight instruction as quality flight time. While some of the other jobs enable you to log time, instructing adds knowledge and skill to your arsenal as well as the requisite number of hours.

The number of hours required to land your first regional airline job varies greatly, both by airline and with the economy and the cycle of the industry. When pilots are in demand, airlines lower their minimum requirements; when pilots are in excess, the standards go up. When deciding which airlines to apply to, you should consider the airlines’ domiciles or bases, pay and benefits, work rules, and time to upgrade. You may not care where you live or how little you’ll earn if you can make captain in six months, get your time, and move on. Or, if you have a family to provide for, you may care more about where you’ll be based, the starting pay, and insurance benefits.

Moving Up

Some pilots make a career out of flying for a regional airline. Many regionals fly jets and pay fairly well toward the upper end of the scale. But many pilots dream of flying the “big iron” on long domestic or international flights. If this is your goal, by now you will have thought about which airline you want to fly for. Remember that seniority is everything, so job-hopping is not a viable option. Where you start is likely where you’ll end up, so do your research. Considerations include domiciles, pay, benefits, scheduling, work rules, and equipment among other things. While commuting is common among airline pilots, you want to make sure that your commute is manageable for you. Your choices may be limited by the state of the industry and which airlines are hiring at the time.

After years of hard work, diligence, patience, and luck, you have finally achieved your goal of flying the friendly skies at a major airline. Finally, you reap the benefits of a comfortable salary, a flexible schedule, and extensive travel benefits to share with your family and friends.

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