There’s a lot of conflicting information online about whether or not a 4-year college degree is required to become an airline pilot. But do you need a degree to be a pilot at the airlines?
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.
Do You Need a Degree to be a Pilot?
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.
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.
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.
Most major airlines have 4-year degrees as a “preferred” requirement. Updated as of 6.25.2020
As you weigh your options on becoming an airline pilot, you should also consider how much you’ll be paid based on the path you choose. Take a look at our pilot salary guide to get an idea of how much you could earn.
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, a route that 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:
• 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
Those that are 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
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.
• Those 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.
This way you get the aviation degree you need to take advantage of the 250-500 hour discount, while 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’s 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.
Liberty University and Purdue University are two popular online aviation programs that allow you to do exactly this.
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
• Very demanding schedule
• Those who want to get to the airlines as soon as possible
• People 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
Students ask us all the time, do you need a degree to be a pilot. As we’ve presented in this article, the answer isn’t so cut and dry.
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.
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Brian is an experienced digital marketer who joined Thrust Flight in 2022 as the Chief Marketing Officer. He discovered a passion for aviation at 10 when he went for his first flight in a Piper Cherokee and enjoys helping others discover a career path as a professional pilot. He is an experienced marketing consultant helping brands with a variety of marketing initiatives. Brian received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Brigham Young University.