Today I’m going to share with you how long it takes to become an airline captain.
People ask us this question every single day.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t exactly straightforward.
I’ll go deeper into every step along the way but I want to start off by noting that your timeline largely depends on the overall aviation industry.
How Long Does it Take to Become an Airline Captain – The Short Answer
If they are desperate for pilots, you may be able to move a little more quickly through a regional airline and into a major airline.
If the industry has slowed down it’s hiring, you could be sitting at any one of these steps for months to years.
Traditional Pathway to Becoming an Airline Pilot
Here’s a look at the traditional path a career-seeking pilot might take if they keep their eyes on the end goal—becoming a captain at a major airline.
A four-year degree is understood to be a minimum requirement for most major airlines. There are plenty of pilot jobs that you can do without a degree requirement, but a four-year degree helps keep your application at the top of the stack when applying to pilot jobs.
But here’s a little talked about fact—your degree doesn’t need to be in aviation.
Many professionals in all sorts of careers went to school for something and then decided to practice something else later on.
A four-year university degree is more about completing the task and having the broad skill-set of an educated person. It’s not about the on-the-job skills that an employer is going to teach you.
If aviation is your passion, then an aviation degree makes sense. But if you are changing careers and have an English degree, for example, please excuse the comma usage in this article and go ahead–apply to those pilot jobs!
If you’re going to school and aren’t sure what you want to do, a generic liberal arts degree is nothing to dismiss. As far as the airlines are concerned, a four-year degree is a four-year degree.
Most aviation programs have some serious advantages for those looking to get into the left seat quickly, though. They often have connections with airlines—and some even have agreements that can hook you up with an interview.
A four-year flight program can also hook you up with a Restricted ATP license. That shaves 250 flight hours off of your time-building requirements.
You Don’t Have to Get a Degree Before Flight Training
If your goal is to get to the airlines as quickly as possible, I recommend starting your flight training first. Most regional airlines don’t require a degree to get a job (in fact even the majors are becoming more lenient on this requirement).
So you can instead go through your flight training and then, once you get a job at a regional, enroll in a degree program and get it while you work. Then when it’s time to move up to the majors you’ll be ready.
The typical course of flight training for a career pilot goes something like this.
Each one of these programs is a significant undertaking in terms of learning and accumulating flight hours.
You can choose a professional pilot training center licensed under FAA Part 141 or any FBO or instructor that conducts training under FAR Part 61.
Either one ends at the same place—getting your ATP at 1,500 hours.
But 141 programs are often designed from the ground up to move fast and provide airline-style training—a great way to start the career of your choice.
Getting those 1,500 hours to be eligible for the ATP (or 1,250 for the Restricted ATP) means that every pilot will have to plan for their time building. At the end of the commercial pilot checkride, most pilots have about 250 hours total time.
So how long does it take to get 1,500 flight hours? That all depends on how you build your hours. Most people find a pilot job that they can do with only a commercial pilot license, and the most common choice is to become a flight instructor.
Flight instructor training is more bookwork than flying, and most students can complete the course in a few weeks. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got the power to log pilot-in-command time while teaching students and getting paid. At a busy school, you can put 100 to 150 hours per month in your logbook.
At that rate, you could expect to work as a CFI for about a year before you’re eligible to move on to your ATP training and applying for your first airline job.
Most CFIs do not fly that much, however.
The average CFI works in flight training for two to three years.
They earn their flight instructor-instrument and flight instructor multi-engine ratings, gaining more experience teaching advanced students and sometimes building more than the minimum required hours for the airline.
If the industry is in a downturn, it’s sometimes preferable to build up more hours before applying.
First Commercial Pilot Jobs
When a pilot begins applying for their first airline jobs depends a lot on the jobs they’re looking at and the health of the airline industry as a whole.
For example, during economic downturns, airlines may go through a period of low hiring for a year or two.
During these times, competition for jobs is fierce, and new pilots with low hours will generally be passed up for more experienced pilots.
During periods of boom and growth, however, airlines become almost desperate for pilots.
The minimum hours you need to apply goes down, and they may even offer signing bonuses to encourage you to leave your CFI job sooner rather than later.
The cyclical nature of the airline industry is one reason why it’s so hard to estimate how long it takes to become a captain at a major airline.
Once hired by a small charter company or regional flying bigger equipment, your next move is to work hard until you are eligible for an upgrade.
Turbine PIC Time
Moving from a small carrier to a major requires turbine time.
This is a requirement you won’t find in many other pilot jobs, but it makes the candidate pool and the majors a little more exclusive.
You’ve got to be a captain of something at your company, which means you need to work to get your upgrade as soon as possible before you can apply to the majors.
Upgrade times at smaller operators are usually short. These companies have high turnover since their pilots are constantly moving through the system.
All the copilots are becoming captains, and all the captains are moving on to the majors, so the process repeats.
If the economy is slowing down and the majors stop hiring, you might be in the right seat longer than you expect. But then, the guy next to you will be in the left seat longer than they expect, too.
On the other hand, if the majors are hungry and hiring pilots left and right, you might get lucky and upgrade in a matter of months.
Apply to the Majors
Once you’ve collected enough turbine PIC time, you start applying to first office positions for the majors. How many of those hours do you need?
Again, it all depends on how desperate the majors are for pilots. At a minimum, expect to work as a captain for an entire year before you begin to apply for bigger and better jobs.
Seniority Perks and Staying in the Right Seat
Once you’re working at one of the big guys, you may find that your career goals begin to change.
Many pilots enjoy their time being first officers. They’re learning from the most senior and experienced pilots in the world. And the longer they stay a first officer, the easier it is to build seniority.
Money concerns start to wane at this point in your career, and you’ll place more value on your free time and getting a great schedule. Your seniority controls these things.
If you upgrade to captain, you’ll be low on the list again. If you stay in the right seat for a few years, you can be on the top of the list.
Like all other factors up to this point, how long it takes to go from first officer to captain depends more on the airline you work for and the condition of the industry. You could be working away for anywhere from one to five years before you’re eligible to upgrade.
You may choose to switch bases or upgrade to bigger equipment before you make the upgrade to captain. There are simply many factors at play, and every pilot makes different choices at this point in their career.
But one thing is clear—by the time you’re on the payroll and working the line at a major carrier, you are there.
You’ve put an incredible amount of time, money, and effort into getting there, and the perks are well worth the price of the journey.
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Liz Brassaw is a first officer for a regional airline and the former Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Operations Officer for Thrust Flight. She holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, AMEL, ASES with over 2,500 hours of flight instruction given. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences. She’s passionate about flying and enjoys instilling that love in the instructors on her team and the new students she trains.