Going to College to Become an Airline Pilot

Go to college to become an airline pilot

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?

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.

AirlinesDegree Requirements
American AirlinesNone
SouthwestPreferred
DeltaRequired
United AirlinesPreferred
Curious about how much each airline pays? Check out our post on airline pilot salaries.

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.

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.

Studying for aviation college test

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:

5-6 years

Pros:

• Obtain degree alongside your flight training

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finance flight training with Sallie Mae

• 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

Cons:

• Expensive

• 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

Best for:

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

Train at a flight school instead of going to an aviation college

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:

6-7 years

Pros:

• 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

Cons:

• 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.

Best for:

• 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.

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 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.

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become an airline pilot with Zero Time to Airline training

Liberty University and Purdue University are two popular online aviation programs that allow you to do exactly this.

Timeline to Airline Job:

2-3 years

Pros:

• Most cost-effective

• Quickest method to get a seniority number

• Reduced required hours if obtaining an aviation degree

Cons:

• 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 (There are, however, Sallie Mae flight school loans that can pay for flight training)

• Very demanding schedule

Best for:

• 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.

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.

4 comments

  1. What would you recommend being the best path for a high schooler that will be graduating with their AA degree? Also, wouldn’t you think an airline would prefer an aeronautics degree over, for example, a marketing degree?

    1. We encourage most recent high school grads to consider jumping right into flight training instead of delaying training and pursuing a degree. At this point, every regional and major airline has dropped their degree requirement because they need pilots so badly. Instead of delaying your airline career by two more years to pursue a bachelor’s degree, you can complete your flight training and hour building in that same amount of time and start working at a regional airline and building your seniority. Of course, if you’re after the college experience and really want the degree then go for it!

      Many of our Zero Time to Airline students will go through all of their flight training and then, once they start working at a regional airline, will get a degree doing online classes. So that’s another route you could consider.

      In our experience, airlines don’t prefer aviation degrees over any other specific field of study. They’re more concerned with the flight hours and your competence as a pilot. If you want to talk with a member of our team to help you decide feel free to reach out to us.

  2. I want my daughter to enrol in a 4yr university that offers commercial pilot training and certificate, could you recommend one.

    1. Hi Desmond, I’ll send you an email with some tips on selecting a college if that’s the route she wants to go.

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