There’s a lot of conflicting information online about whether or not a 4-year college degree is required to become an airline pilot.
Some sources claim it’s absolutely mandatory, while others say you don’t need one at all. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
The Bottom Line
To cut right to the chase - you do not need a degree to be an airline pilot, but by the time you move on to the majors it’s a good idea to have one.
Most majors list 4-year degrees as preferred and some even mandate them. Even during pilot shortages, the majors are very competitive when compared to the regional airline, so it’s always advisable to get whatever edge you can over your competition.
Most major airlines have 4-year degrees as a "preferred" requirement. Updated as of 6.25.2020
This is not necessarily the case at the regionals. Pilot demand always hits the regionals before the majors so they can’t afford to be as picky.
These regional airlines hire directly out of flight schools. Since the typical route for an airline pilot is to start at the regionals and work up to the majors, it's common for pilots to use their time at the regional airlines to complete their 4-year degree via online resources.
Alternatively, getting your degree prior to or in conjunction with your flight training offers you the option of reducing your required hours prior to being eligible for an airline pilot position. The FAA’s “1,500 hour rule” can be done in just 1,250 or 1,000 hours depending on what type of degree you obtain (see §61.160 for details.)
So the question becomes: how should you balance going to college with flight training?
There are a few different options and each one is going to work better for different individuals depending on their situation.
1. Attend a 4-year university that offers flight training
Many choose to get their flight training through a 4-year university that offers flight training. This route will have you flight training while following the traditional college timeline.
Typically you'll finish all of your ratings by the time you’ve completed your degree program (usually an aviation related degree to take advantage of the hour reductions mentioned above) and then you'll need to either instruct or find another job as a pilot to reach the rest of your required hours. If you're instructing this typically takes around a year.
Timeline to Airline Job:
• Obtain degree along-side your flight training
• Complete your degree and flight training in one location
• Reduced required hours if obtaining aviation degree
• Student loans are more readily available for individuals unable to finance their flight training on their own or with parents’ assistance
• More than 4 years to start flying for the airlines
• Training is not accelerated, meaning you spend more total time on flight training
• No fallback - an aviation degree is only good for aviation
• Students unable to finance without Title IV assistance
• Students who may want to wait a few years and enjoy the “college experience” before starting a job
2. Attend a 4-year university and flight train elsewhere
Although perhaps one of the least-traveled paths, some choose to begin their flight training after obtaining a 4-year degree. Typically those who take this path obtain a degree outside of aviation, and begin flight training at a pilot school shortly before or after graduating.
This is the longest and most expensive option, but it does give the student the most flexibility in their career pathway.
Timeline to Airline Job:
• Multiple career options after completing training
• Ultimately spend less on your flight training vs doing it at a University
• Degree offers security in the event of an industry downturn
• Most expensive, as you are paying for both a 4-year degree and flight training separately
• Takes 6+ years. As important as seniority is in the airlines, you will have to determine if this is a deal breaker for you.
• Students who aren’t 100% sure they want to be pilots
• Students who have the means to spend extra money on their education to have flexible career options later in life
3. Attend a flight school and finish your degree online
For those that know they want to be an airline pilot and want to get there as quickly as possible, this is the most attractive option.
Many online university programs will offer credit for the ratings you’ve obtained from flight schools, and you could use this to get up to 45 credit hours. This would reduce your bachelor program after flight training to about two years.
The most efficient way to do this is to attend a flight school with an accelerated airline pilot program (usually takes 8-10 months to complete) and once you obtain all your ratings, begin taking online classes while working as a flight instructor.
This way you are getting the aviation degree needed to take advantage of the 250-500 hour discount, and simultaneously instructing to start knocking those hours out.
Given the right circumstances, this pathway could get you through all of your ratings, all of your FAA required hours, AND your bachelor degree in just 3-4 years. You could even be flying for a regional during the end of that timeline if you fly enough to reach the required hours prior to obtaining your degree. This is attractive when considering seniority numbers in the airlines.
Timeline to Airline Job:
• Most cost effective
• Quickest method to get a seniority number
• Reduced required hours if obtaining an aviation degree
• No fallback - aviation is the only career an aviation degree will be useful in
• No “college experience”- if the college campus experience is important to you, then you’re going to be missing out (although Thrust Flight has a pretty similar atmosphere.)
• Title IV loans rarely available at flight schools
• Very demanding schedule
• Students who want to get to the airlines as soon as possible
• Students who can forego student loans in order to save more now and earn more in the long term
• Students who are positive they want this career
Do Your Research
Before making a decision on which path is right for you, make sure you understand the concepts of the 1,500 hour rule as well as seniority numbers in the regionals.
These factors may affect which path is best for you. Each student is different. We talk to people every day with different recommended paths, because accelerated flight training from zero time through all your ratings is not the best option for everyone. Do your research. Call different schools. Talk to pilots and student pilots. In the end, you want to make the decision that is best for YOU.