How to Become an Airline Pilot

Once you get your pilot's license, the sky's the limit.

How to Become an Airline Pilot

Many airline pilots get their start as commercial pilots.

You've probably heard optimists evoke the phrase: "The sky's the limit!" For airline pilots, it's not just a saying, it's a reality. When you learn how to become an airline pilot, you gain the necessary skills to steer your way through the turbulence without losing control under pressure.

Whether you're an aspiring pilot or a commercial pilot looking to shift gears, you'll find a career as an airline pilot to be a rewarding one. Once you reach your landing place, you can expect a six-figure income and a break from the standard 9–5 schedule. Here's how to propel yourself to your first airline pilot job.

What Is an Airline Pilot?

An airline pilot is a skilled professional who navigates, operates, and maintains aircraft. Airline pilots are employed by passenger and cargo airlines that operate on fixed schedules. In contrast, commercial airline pilots work for airlines that operate unscheduled flights such as aerial tours, chartered flights, and aerial application.

Airline pilot ranks are often based on a pilot's role and level of experience:

  • Captain: The captain sits to the left of the co-pilot and is the commander of the aircraft.
  • Senior first officer: The senior first officer is the co-pilot and second in command who sits to the right of the captain. In the event the captain is unable to fly, the senior first officer takes over.
  • First officer: Like the senior first officer, the first officer is a co-pilot. First officers generally have less experience than senior first officers.
  • Second officer: Some airlines hire second officers to sit at the controls while an aircraft is in cruise mode. With the second officer at the helm, the captain and co-pilot rest up for landing.

What Does an Airline Pilot Do?

Being an airline pilot isn't an average 9–5 job. When you're an airline pilot, life is divided between the air and the ground: A typical airline pilot schedule involves 75 hours of flying per month. They spend another 150 hours performing other tasks such as planning flights and checking weather conditions. Unlike most other professions, airline pilots have some days on and some days off in between flights.

The typical responsibilities of an airline pilot include:

  • Inspecting aircraft before and after each flight.
  • Keeping aircraft cargo below its weight limit and balanced across the plane.
  • Ensuring that aircraft have adequate fuel supply.
  • Ensuring that weather conditions are safe before each flight.
  • Preparing and submitting flight plans to air traffic control.
  • Using aircraft radio equipment to communicate with air traffic control.
  • Controlling aircraft during takeoff, landing, and cruising on planned routes.
  • Monitoring fuel intake, engines, and the positions of other aircraft during the flight.
  • Responding to inclement weather conditions and mechanical issues.
  • Utilizing cockpit instruments and visual references to navigate aircraft.
  • Coordinating with co-pilots, flight engineers, air traffic control, and ground personnel during takeoff and landing.
  • Documenting flights and aircraft statuses.

How to Become an Airline Pilot

If you want to become an airline pilot, requirements include a post-secondary degree and, of course, thousands of hours in the air. In contrast, you only need a high school diploma to start training to become a commercial pilot. Many airline pilots get their start as commercial pilots, flight instructors, charter pilots, or military pilots, where they gain flight experience.

Step One: Go to Flight Training School

You must complete flight training school to learn how to become an airline pilot. Airline pilot school is often integrated into 2- to 4-year aviation degrees offered by many colleges. An aviation degree will cover many different areas, including technical aircraft operations, aircraft maintenance, and laws and regulations.

Step Two: Obtain Your Pilot's License

After completing airline pilot school, you must obtain a pilot's license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to earn your wings. Airline pilots must obtain the FAA-issued Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. To be eligible for ATP certification, you must:

  • Be at least 23 years old.
  • Hold a commercial pilot certificate.
  • Have an adequate instrument rating (the ability to fly during low visibility).
  • Pass the required tests.
  • Complete a minimum of 1,500 flight hours.

Step Three: Get Through Employment Screening

Airlines may conduct psychological and aptitude tests to find out if you're able to make decisions and solve problems under pressure. Employers also look for strong communication skills, keen observational skills, and the ability to react quickly in emergency situations.

Step Four: Complete On-The-Job Airline Pilot Training

Newly hired airline and commercial pilots must complete on-the-job training in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Both commercial and airline pilots must demonstrate proficiency in specific maneuvers, flight procedures, and medical responses.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Airline Pilot?

Expect to complete up to four years of aviation school to learn how to become an airline pilot. Once you've met the educational requirements, you must complete the required licensure courses and pass written and practical flight exams, which can take about three months. Once you've completed the licensure program, the required 1,500 hours of flight time may take about two years to complete.

How Much Do Airline Pilots Make?

The average airline pilot salary is $160,970 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The top 10% of airline pilots earn less than $80,920, while the highest 10% earn more than $208,000.

Pay often fluctuates by industry. For example, airline pilots who work in scheduled air transportation, generally earn $173,780 per year, while those who work for the federal government earn $111,460.

How Much Do Commercial Airline Pilots Make?

Commercial pilots earn around $93,300 per year. Those who work as both airline and commercial pilots earn an average of $130,440.

You can look up the average salary for airline and commercial pilots in your location by using the Monster Salary Guide.

How to Find Airline Pilot Jobs

We've prepped you on how to become an airline pilot. Are you ready to take off in a rewarding career? Steer your airline pilot career in the right direction by following our tips on how to write a solid resume. Then, come in for a smooth landing with a well-written cover letter.

Once you're ready to take to the skies, search Monster's airline pilot jobs for airlines hiring pilots in your area. Pilots are needed all over the country—and the world. Check out these top five states with the most airline pilot jobs:

More specifically, these are the top five U.S. metro areas with the most airline pilot jobs:

Get Onboard With Monster to Land Your First Pilot Job

Now that we've navigated through the basics of how to become an airline pilot, what's your next destination? A cruise through the friendly job search skies with Monster. When you sign up with us for free, you'll get job notifications, interview tips, and other essential tools to help you land your first pilot job.