How to Become an Airline Pilot

Do you dream of taking to the skies as a qualified airline pilot?

Whether you're looking for a career change or pursuing a lifelong dream, in this guide we'll walk you through all of the requirements you'll need to fulfill to become a commercial airline pilot.

Use the navigation to skip down to navigate to any specific section you'd like to learn about first.

The Pilot Shortage

Right now is perhaps one of the best times to become an airline pilot.

Currently, there is a massive shortage of qualified pilots, and airlines all over the world are looking to hire talent. In most cases, the companies are desperate for you to join their flight team.

The demand for pilots is largely being driven by the ever growing demand for air travel.

According to research by Boeing, the industry will need more than 804,000 new pilots by 2037. Airbus also shows an analysis that states it requires over 450,000 new airline pilots by 2035.

Every airline is feeling the pilot pinch.

According to 2017 data from the FAA, there were 609,000 active pilots in the industry. That number slipped from 827,000 pilots taking to the skies in 1987, for a 30-percent reduction in active pilots.

Retirements and tightening industry regulations are to blame for the current pilot crisis.

two pilots sitting in the cockpit

However, it means that there’s plenty of opportunities if you want to become an airline pilot. And you won’t struggle to find work once you've met all the requirements.

The current pilot shortage stretches around the globe. Markets in the Middle-East and the Asia-Pacific region in particular present enormous opportunities for airline pilots. Almost every company offers competitive and attractive packages for pilots that are willing to join their team.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Commercial Airline Pilot?

It may surprise you to learn that it only takes 2-3 months for you to obtain your private pilot certificate. After that it usually takes about 2-years to gain the flight time you need to qualify to become a commercial airline pilot.

During those two years of flying you'll gain more certificates (detailed below) and slowly build up your hours.

Every pilot in the USA must have 1,500-hours of flight time in their logbooks before they get the chance to become an airline pilot.

What are the Medical Requirements to Become an Airline Pilot?

Before you take the necessary steps to become an airline pilot, you’ll need to ensure you’re medically fit to take on the responsibility. Here is a list of the qualifying medical criteria you’ll need to meet.

FAA Medical Ratings

The Federal Aviation Authority awards first, second, and third-class medical certificates to pilots.

The first-class certification is the highest rating. 

Qualifications for a First-Class FAA Medical Certificate

  • Pilots must pass a voice test requiring them to hear an average conversation from a distance of 6-feet.
  • Prospective pilots must have 20/20 vision, or eyesight corrected to 20/20 with glasses or contacts.
  • Pilots must meet medical standards for cardiovascular and neurological health.
  • Pilots also can't be colorblind
Looking out an airplane window at the wing of a plane

FAA Qualification Disqualifying Conditions

The FAA has a list of 15-disqualifying criteria for a medical certificate. Prospective pilots with a history of heart attack, other heart issues such as a valve replacement, and any history of drug abuse disqualify you from certification.

If you have more than 3-DUIs on your driving record, then you void your chances of receiving certification.

Is a College Degree Required to become an Airline Pilot?

To become a commercial airline pilot, you do not need a college degree. It's a bonus that many airlines look favorably upon, and if the job opportunities do decrease, having a college degree may give you a leg up.

Some common degrees pilots pursue include:

  •  Airport Management
  • Aviation Management
  • Aeronautical Engineering
  • Aeronautical Science

If you decide to go to college while also pursuing your pilot credentials, it’s a good idea to join the Air Line Pilots Association International, (ALPA) ACE club. Joining helps you start to build your network, giving you further insight into the industry, while making it easier for you to find a good job after graduation.

How Much Do Airline Pilots Earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the average airline pilot earns $115,670 in 2018.

Airline pilots will typically begin their career at a regional airline as a First Officer. After a few years of work experience you can expect to become a Captain at a regional airline. Your salary will increase each year with a larger jump once you become a captain.

If you decide to make the jump from a captain at a regional airline to a first officer at a major airline you can expect to see a small pay cut your first year or two but that will quickly recover.

International airline pilots are the highest paid pilots.

Become an airline pilot and fly planes like this one

What are the Steps to becoming an Airline Pilot?

Step 1 - Earn Your Private Pilot Certification

The first step on your path to becoming a professional pilot is to earn your Private Pilot certificate. You'll start in a single-engine aircraft, and your training focuses on learning the fundamentals. You'll spend many hours on the ground and in the air with an instructor who will properly train you in becoming a pilot.

You'll need to earn a minimum of 40 hours of flight time and pass an exam with an FAA examiner. It's important to note while 40 is the minimum required, most pilots will need to fly more than that to be ready for their checkride.

Step 2 - Add the Instrument Rating Qualification

After earning your private pilot certification, you’ll need to qualify for your instrument rating certification. This qualification permits you to fly under all types of weather, and under the Instrument Flight Rules, (IFR).

You'll need to achieve an additional 40 hours of flight time on top of the 40 to obtained for your private.

Step 3 - Earn Your Commercial Pilot Certificate

A commercial pilot certificate increases your knowledge and experience with handling an aircraft and maintaining flight procedures.

It also allows you to start earning an income as a pilot. There are a number of rules around promoting yourself as a pilot so be sure to study the rules carefully before you decide to break out on your own.

Step 4 - Earn Your Flight Instructor Certificate

After earning a  CFI (certified flight  instructor) certificate, you’re legal to train other pilots. This qualification allows you to make a living from your vocation, while you log flight time to qualify as a commercial airline pilot.

To obtain your CFI you'll need to attend a CFI academy where you'll learn how to teach other pilots.

Step 5 - Add the Multi-Engine Rating

As the name suggests, you'll need a multi-engine rating to fly airplanes with more than one engine. Since airlines all fly jets with more than one engine you'll need this rating along with a decent number of hours.

Small airplane

Step 6 - Gain Your Flight-time Experience

All that’s left is for you to log 1,500-hours of flight time, and you’re ready to apply for your first airline pilot job.

What Is an Airline Transport Certificate?

The Airline Transport Pilot Multi-Engine certificate is the holy grail of pilot ratings. You’ll need this certification to fly cargo or passengers, as per the Part 121 and some Part 135 operations requirements.

Pilots who obtain the ATP certification fly at a higher safety standard than other commercial pilots and are in much higher demand by the airlines. You only need this certification to fly Part 121 and 135 operations, but it is now the benchmark for the majority of professional flight departments. 

Jet Rating

Before you can begin actually flying with the airlines you'll also need a type rating in the jet you're going to fly. These ratings are done in simulators and can cost thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, you won't actually pursue this rating until you're hired by an airline and they'll foot the bill.

How Much Does It Cost to Become an Airline Pilot?

Becoming an airline pilot is not a cheap endeavor. You’ll have to shell out a significant amount of money for your training and certification, with the majority of the expense occurring while you're collecting ratings and time before you receive your CFI certificate. 

Studies suggest that it takes pilots anywhere between eight to ten years to recover the funds they spend on their education, training, and certification, once they start working.

Female pilot sitting in the cockpit

Some flight schools offer programs that take you through every step of the certification and training program.

These schools typically cost anywhere between $70,000 to $80,000. Most of these schools provide you with 250-hours of flight time toward your 1,500-hour goal. 

However, by this stage, you’ll be able to operate as a qualified flight instructor. You'll be able to earn an income while gaining experience, and building hours. 

At Thrust Flight we offer a Zero Time to Airline program that gives you a direct path to one of our airline partners. 

We partnered with Meritize to provide financing which allows you to train full time. By jumping in with both feet and training full time you'll progress quickly through your ratings and the hours you need to be airline ready. 

With our program you'll be able to start your first job at the airlines only two years from the day you begin your journey.

What It's Like to Be an Airline Pilot

A day in the life of an average airline pilot at a regional airline looks a bit like this:

  1. Show up to flight operations at least an hour before the flight
  2. Meet with the flight crew and begin preflight operations
  3. In preflight you review the planned route and alternate routes prepared by the dispatcher. Also review weather along the route and make any necessary changes.
  4. Then head to the plane and review the airplanes log books.
  5. The first officer will normally preflight the plane and load the route into the flight management computer while the captain conducts a briefing with the crew.
  6. Captain and First Officer will again review the flight plan and everything in the flight management computer. Once that's complete and passengers are all on board they call for pushback.
  7. Throughout the flight monitor weather along the route and make any necessary adjustments.
  8.  Prepare for arrival by reviewing arrival routing and approach. Review any local rules (landing in other countries) and then land the plane.
  9. If it's a short route the crew may prepare for the flight back or, for longer flights, they'll head to their hotel to get some rest.

If you want more details read about a day in the life of an international airline pilot.

Two pilots in the cockpit

While the life of a commercial airline pilot will mean a significant amount of time away from home, you can still expect to get a reasonable amount of downtime each month.

When you reach a senior position with your company, you can expect plenty of flexibility with your schedule. However, as a brand new pilot, you’ll have to put in the hours to progress up the ranks. And you can expect to have to work some weekends and public holidays.

One of the best advantages of working as an airline pilot is traveling to new cities and countries. You get to broaden your world-view and experience the culture and people of new cities and countries.

As an airline pilot, you’ll get to feed your natural wanderlust and spend plenty of time exploring the nightlife and tourist attractions of the locations after touching down.

Regional Airlines Vs. Major Airlines

If you’re looking to make money and fly around the world, then working for a major airline is your goal. Regional airlines pay pilots less, but you get more flexibility in your schedule and more downtime.

It’s a personal decision. If you’re willing to put in the hours and don’t have an issue with flying into new time zones where you may experience jet-lag, then a major is your top choice. If you have a family and want to spend more time at home, then consider working for a regional company.

Becoming a Pilot through the Military

The skills developed in the military make it a smooth transition into the commercial pilot industry. Here's what you need to know about how to become an airline pilot after leaving the military.

Do Military Personnel Need to Go to Flight School?

If you have experience flying planes and helicopters with the military, then you probably can skip the flight school training.

However, many airlines recommend that you still attend a flight school to gain experience flying different types of aircraft. You can also use your flight-time logged with the military to count toward your 1,5000-hours.

Obtaining Your Commercial Pilot’s License

Military pilots already have some form of pilot’s license. However, you’ll need to achieve your commercial license for the FAA before you can work for the airlines.

Airplane on the tarmac waiting to takeoff

You’ll need to pass an exam at an FAA testing center, with questions surrounding the different types of aircraft, how to handle specific situations in the air and on the ground, as well as general knowledge on the industry and operations. Instructors will take you into the air to allow you to prove your skillset and knowledge.

What is the Difference between being a commercial pilot and an airline pilot.

A pilot must receive a commercial certificate in order to be paid to fly. To receive your commercial certificate you must have at least 250 hours of flight time. An airline pilot is a type of commercial pilot but one with stricter requirements.

As you may have noticed in the outline above, most pilots achieve their commercial certificate fairly early in their career. Once you achieve a commercial certificate you can officially be hired to fly an airplane. 

Prior to that you cannot be paid to fly.

Once you obtain a commercial certificate you can start looking for a job as a pilot. Unfortunately, most pilots still only have a few hundred hours by the time they obtain a commercial certificate so they'll start working as a flight instructor. Other common jobs for lower hour pilots is airplane tours, traffic flying, and occasionally oil pipeline flying.

The more hours you build, the more job opportunities you'll discover. Many commercial pilots will go their entire career without ever working as an airline pilot.

Wrapping Up – The Rewards Are Worth the Effort

If you dream of becoming an airline pilot, now you have the knowledge you need to start your journey. Put in the time and effort, and you’ll soon be taking to the skies as a qualified pilot.

If you're ready to pursue a career as an airline pilot check out our Zero Time to Airline program. With this unique program you'll start your job at the airlines in two short years.

We'll take you through all of the required certificates and help you build up your 1,500 hours of flight time.  Click the link above or give us a call to learn more about this incredible program. 469.480.2211

  • Updated October 30, 2019