U.S. Commercial Airline Pilot
Being an airline pilot is a challenging, rewarding career with great travel benefits. This is not your average 9-to-5 job. Airline operations run 24/7, and pilots fly fixed-schedule routes both domestically and internationally. Pilots flying within the United States typically take off and land at several different airports in a work shift, while long-haul pilots (i.e., those flying transcontinental or oceanic flights between continents) often fly a single long flight. Many pilots have variable schedules and spend a considerable amount of time away from home on overnight layovers.
Pay, benefits, and work rules (e.g., the number of days off work each month) vary depending upon the airline a pilot works for and are determined through negotiated agreements between the airline and the pilots’ union; these contracts must also be in accordance with federal government rules and regulations. Learn More >
Commercial pilots fly and navigate aircraft for airlines, transporting people and cargo safely and securely to destinations around the world. They work primarily on the flight deck (aka cockpit) of an aircraft. They must also spend time preparing for the flight and conducting preflight safety checks to ensure that the aircraft is in a safe operating condition. Learn More >
In order to fly for an airline, you must obtain and maintain the skills required to possess an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) or Restricted Airline Transport Pilot (R-ATP) certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Pilots must also maintain a current first-class medical certificate. In addition, they are required to successfully complete recurring practical and academic examinations in order to be able to maintain their job. Captains must have a full ATP and first officers (aka copilots) may have an R-ATP.
Full ATP certificate applicants must
- Be at least 23 years old,
- Have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, and
- Pass written and practical flight exams.
R-ATP certificate applicants must
- Be at least 21 years old and
- Have one of the following
- A minimum of 750 hours logged and documented by a Department of Defense official,
- 1,000 hours’ total flight time and a bachelor’s degree from an accredited aviation program, or
- 1,250 hours’ total flight time and an associate’s degree from an accredited aviation program.
- All of the above R-ATP hour options require that the pilot be able to demonstrate the same flight checks and knowledge examinations as a full ATP-qualified pilot.
Additionally, an aircraft-type rating—in-depth training to a specific type of aircraft (e.g., Boeing 737)—is required for any aircraft flown, and airlines will provide their pilots with the necessary training. Learn More >
Airline Pilot Positions
The positions in the airline piloting profession include captain and first officer. Both work as a team to fly a commercial jet. The captain is the pilot-in-command and ultimately responsible for the aircraft and decisions on the flightdeck. The first officer operates as the copilot. Both pilots are fully qualified to fly the aircraft.
At most airlines, a pilot begins as a first officer and moves into the captain’s position—the highest rank of ultimate authority and responsibility—through experience.
You can tell the captain and first officer apart by the stripes on their uniforms: The captain will have four stripes and the first officer will have three.
Training Paths to the Flight Deck
The three most common paths to becoming a professional airline pilot are:
- Aviation university
- Flight training academy
Aspiring aviators typically get their licenses and ratings in the following order:
- Student Pilot Certificate
- Private Pilot License
- Instrument Rating
- Commercial Pilot License
- Multi-Engine Rating
- Restricted-Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
- Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
Each of the above certificates and ratings require that you pass a written exam on the ground and a practical flying exam (usually called a “check ride”) in an appropriate aircraft.
To qualify for a commercial pilot license, you must be at least 18 years old and meet certain flight-hour requirements.
Depending on the training track and accumulation of flight experience, you could qualify for an R-ATP and begin flying as a commercial pilot in 18 to 36 months.
You may also consider obtaining a Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) rating after you earn your commercial pilot license. The CFI rating allows you to teach students how to fly, further refining your knowledge and experience in all aspects of flying. Flight instruction and operations, such as scenic flights, aerial photography, and tow-banner, also help you build flight time and experience more quickly while earning income. Current licensing regulations can be found in the Federal Aviation Regulations. Learn More >
Pilots must pass periodic physical examinations with an aviation medical examiner. The physical exam confirms that the pilot’s vision is correctable to 20/20 and that no physical handicaps exist that could impair the pilot’s performance. Learn More >
The FAA oversees the training and certification of pilots, as well as general operating and flight rules.