Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft.

Duties

Pilots typically do the following:

  • Check the overall condition of the aircraft before and after every flight
  • Ensure that the aircraft is balanced and below its weight limit
  • Verify that the fuel supply is adequate and that weather conditions are acceptable
  • Prepare and submit flight plans to air traffic control
  • Communicate with air traffic control over the aircraft’s radio system
  • Operate and control aircraft along planned routes and during takeoffs and landings
  • Monitor engines, fuel consumption, and other aircraft systems during flight
  • Respond to changing conditions, such as weather events and emergencies (for example, a mechanical malfunction)
  • Navigate the aircraft by using cockpit instruments and visual references

Pilots plan their flights by checking that the aircraft is operable and safe, that the cargo has been loaded correctly, and that weather conditions are acceptable. They file flight plans with air traffic control and may modify the plans in flight because of changing weather conditions or other factors.

Takeoff and landing can be the most demanding parts of a flight. They require close coordination among the pilot; copilot; flight engineer, if present; air traffic controllers; and ground personnel. Once in the air, the captain may have the first officer, if present, fly the aircraft, but the captain remains responsible for the aircraft. After landing, pilots fill out records that document their flight and the status of the aircraft.

Some pilots are also instructors using simulators and dual-controlled aircraft to teach students how to fly.

The following are examples of types of pilots:

Airline pilots work primarily for airlines that transport passengers and cargo on a fixed schedule. The captain or pilot in command, usually the most experienced pilot, supervises all other crew members and has primary responsibility for the flight. The copilot, often called the first officer or second in command, shares flight duties with the captain. Some older planes require a third pilot known as a flight engineer, who monitors instruments and operates controls. Technology has automated many of these tasks, and new aircraft do not require flight engineers.

Commercial pilots are involved in unscheduled flight activities, such as aerial application, charter flights, and aerial tours. Commercial pilots may have additional nonflight duties. Some commercial pilots schedule flights, arrange for maintenance of the aircraft, and load luggage themselves. Pilots who transport company executives, also known as corporate pilots, greet their passengers before embarking on the flight.

Agricultural pilots typically handle agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides, and may be involved in other agricultural practices in addition to flying. Pilots, such as helicopter pilots, who fly at low levels must constantly look for trees, bridges, power lines, transmission towers, and other obstacles.

With proper training, airline pilots also may be deputized as federal law enforcement officers and be issued firearms to protect the cockpit.

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Work Environment

Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers held about 83,600 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers were as follows:

Scheduled air transportation 88%
Federal government 4
Nonscheduled air transportation                                                       2

Commercial pilots held about 40,700 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of commercial pilots were as follows:

Nonscheduled air transportation 31%
Technical and trade schools; private 11
Support activities for air transportation                                            10
Ambulance services 10
Manufacturing 4

Pilots assigned to long-distance routes may experience fatigue and jetlag. Weather conditions may result in turbulence, requiring pilots to change the flying altitude. Flights can be long and flight decks are often sealed, so pilots work in small teams for long periods in close proximity to one another.

Aerial applicators, also known as crop dusters, may be exposed to toxic chemicals, typically use unimproved landing strips, such as grass, dirt, or gravel surface, and may be at risk of collision with power lines. Helicopter pilots involved in rescue operations may fly at low levels during bad weather or at night, and land in areas surrounded by power lines, highways, and other obstacles. Pilots use hearing protection devices to prevent their exposure to engine noise.

The high level of concentration required to fly an aircraft and the mental stress of being responsible for the safety of passengers can be fatiguing. Pilots must be alert and quick to react if something goes wrong. Federal law requires pilots to retire at age 65.

Most pilots are based near large airports.

Injuries and Illnesses

Although fatalities are uncommon, commercial pilots experience one of the highest rates of occupational fatalities of all occupations.

Work Schedules

Federal regulations set the maximum work hours and minimum requirements for rest between flights for most pilots. Airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month and work an additional 150 hours per month performing other duties, such as checking weather conditions and preparing flight plans. Pilots have variable work schedules that may include some days of work followed by some days off. Flight assignments are based on seniority. Seniority enables pilots who have worked at a company for a long time to get preferred routes and schedules.

Airline pilots may spend several nights a week away from home because flight assignments often involve overnight layovers. When pilots are away from home, the airlines typically provide hotel accommodations, transportation to the airport, and an allowance for meals and other expenses.

Commercial pilots also may have irregular schedules. Although most commercial pilots remain near their home overnight, some may still work nonstandard hours.

Education and Training

Airline pilots typically begin their careers as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots usually need a high school diploma or equivalent. Airline pilots need a bachelor’s degree. All pilots who are paid to fly must have at least a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In addition, airline pilots must have the FAA-issued Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.

Interviews for positions with major and regional airlines may reflect the FAA exams for pilot licenses, certificates, and instrument ratings, and can be intense. Airlines frequently conduct their own psychological and aptitude tests to assess the candidates in critical thinking and decisionmaking processes under pressure.

Military pilots may transfer to civilian aviation and apply directly to airlines to become airline pilots.

Education

Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree in any subject, along with a commercial pilot’s license and an ATP certificate from the FAA. Airline pilots typically start their careers flying as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots usually accrue thousands of hours of flight experience in order to get a job with regional or major airlines.

Commercial pilots must have a commercial pilot’s license and usually need a high school diploma or equivalent. The most common path to becoming a commercial pilot is to complete flight training with independent FAA-certified flight instructors or at schools that offer flight training. Some flight schools are part of 2- and 4-year colleges and universities.

The FAA certifies hundreds of civilian flight schools, which range from small fixed base operators (FBO) to state universities. Some colleges and universities offer pilot training as part of a 2- or 4-year aviation degree.

Training

Airline and commercial pilots who are newly hired by airlines or on-demand air services companies undergo on-the-job training in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). This training usually includes 6–8 weeks of ground school. Various types of ratings for specific aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 or Cessna Citation, typically are acquired through employer-based training and generally are earned by pilots who have at least a commercial license.

Besides initial training and licensing requirements, all pilots must maintain their experience in performing certain maneuvers. This requirement means that pilots must perform specific maneuvers and procedures a given number of times within a specified amount of time. Pilots also must undergo periodic training and medical examinations, generally every year or every other year.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Airline pilots typically begin their careers as commercial pilots. Pilots usually accrue thousands of hours of flight experience as commercial pilots or in the military to get a job with regional or major airlines.

Minimum time requirements to get a certificate or rating may not be enough to get some jobs. To make up the gap between paying for training and flying for the major airlines, many commercial pilots begin their careers as flight instructors and on-demand charter pilots. These positions typically require less experience than airline jobs require. When pilots have built enough flying hours, they can apply to the airlines. Newly hired pilots at regional airlines are typically required to have about 1,500 hours of flight experience. Many commercial piloting jobs have minimum requirements of around 500 hours.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Those who are seeking a career as a professional pilot typically get their licenses and ratings in the following order:

  • Student pilot certificate
  • Private pilot license
  • Instrument rating
  • Commercial pilot license
  • Multi-engine rating
  • Airline transport pilot certificate

Each certificate and rating requires that pilots pass a written exam on the ground and a practical flying exam, usually called a check ride, in an appropriate aircraft. In addition to earning these licenses, many pilots get a certified flight instructor (CFI) rating after they get their commercial certificate. The CFI rating helps them build flight time and experience quickly and at less personal expense. Current licensing regulations can be found in FARs.

Commercial pilot license. To qualify for a commercial pilot license, applicants must be at least 18 years old and meet certain flight-hour requirements. Student pilots use a logbook and keep detailed records of their flight time. The logbook must be endorsed by the flight instructor in order for the student to be able to take the FAA knowledge and practical exams. For specific requirements, including details on the types and quantities of flight experience and knowledge requirements, see the FARs. Part 61 of Title 14 of the code of federal regulations (14 CFR part 61) covers the basic rules for the certification of pilots. Flight schools can train pilots in accordance with the rules from part 61 or the rules found in 14 CFR part 141.

Applicants must pass the appropriate medical exam, meet all of the detailed flight experience and knowledge requirements, and pass a written exam and a practical flight exam in order to become commercially licensed. The physical exam confirms that the pilot’s vision is correctable to 20/20 and that no physical handicaps exist that could impair the pilot’s performance.

Commercial pilots must hold an instrument rating if they want to carry passengers for pay more than 50 miles from the point of origin of their flight, or at night.

Instrument rating. Pilots who earn an instrument rating can fly during periods of low visibility, also known as instrument meteorological conditions, or IMC. They may qualify for this rating by having at least 40 hours of instrument flight experience and 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command, and by meeting other requirements detailed in the FARs.

Airline transport pilot (ATP) certification. All pilot crews of a scheduled commercial airliner must have ATP certificates. To earn the ATP certificate, applicants must be at least 23 years old, have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, and pass written and practical flight exams. Airline pilots usually maintain one or more aircraft-type ratings, which allow them to fly aircraft that require specific training, depending on the requirements of their particular airline. Some exceptions and alternative requirements are detailed in the FARs.

Pilots must pass periodic physical and practical flight examinations to be able to perform the duties granted by their certificate.

Advancement

Commercial pilots may advance to airline pilots after completing a degree, accruing required flight time, and obtaining an ATP license.

Advancement for airline pilots depends on a system of seniority outlined in collective bargaining contracts. Typically, after 1 to 5 years, flight engineers may advance to first officer positions and, after 5 to 15 years, first officers can become captains.

Personality and Interests

Airline pilots typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as an airline pilot, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Airline pilots should also possess the following specific qualities:

Communication skills. Pilots must speak clearly when conveying information to air traffic controllers. They must also listen carefully for instructions.

Observational skills. Pilots must regularly watch over screens, gauges, and dials to make sure that all systems are in working order. They also need to maintain situational awareness by looking for other aircraft or obstacles. Pilots must be able to see clearly and judge the distance between objects, and possess good color vision.

Problem-solving skills. Pilots must be able to identify complex problems and figure out appropriate solutions. When a plane encounters turbulence, for example, pilots may assess the weather conditions and request a route or altitude change from air traffic control.

Quick reaction time. Pilots must be able to respond quickly and with good judgment to any impending danger, because warning signals can appear with no notice.

Pay

The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $147,220 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $74,100, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

The median annual wage for commercial pilots was $86,080 in May 2019. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,480, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $179,440.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Scheduled air transportation $161,110
Nonscheduled air transportation                                                               114,510
Federal government 104,700

In May 2019, the median annual wages for commercial pilots in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Manufacturing $122,150
Nonscheduled air transportation 90,630
Ambulance services 79,830
Support activities for air transportation                                                    77,600
Technical and trade schools; private 76,670

Airline pilots usually begin their careers as first officers and receive wage increases as they accumulate experience and seniority.

In addition, airline pilots receive an expense allowance, or “per diem,” for every hour they are away from home, and they may earn extra pay for international flights. Airline pilots and their immediate families usually are entitled to free or reduced-fare flights.

Federal regulations set the maximum work hours and minimum requirements for rest between flights for most pilots. Airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month and work an additional 150 hours per month performing other duties, such as checking weather conditions and preparing flight plans. Pilots have variable work schedules that may include several days of work followed by some days off.

Airline pilots may spend several nights a week away from home because flight assignments often involve overnight layovers. When pilots are away from home, the airlines typically provide hotel accommodations, transportation to the airport, and an allowance for meals and other expenses.

Commercial pilots also may have irregular schedules. Although most commercial pilots remain near their home overnight, they may still work nonstandard hours.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of airline and commercial pilots is projected to grow 6 percent from 2018 to 2028, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Employment of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2018 to 2028, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment of commercial pilots is projected to grow 8 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations. The number of commercial pilot jobs is projected to increase in various industries, especially in ambulance services, where pilots will be needed to transfer patients to healthcare facilities.

Job Prospects

Most job opportunities will arise from the need to replace pilots who leave the occupation permanently over the projection period.

Job prospects may be best with regional airlines and nonscheduled aviation services because entry-level requirements are lower for regional and commercial jobs. There is typically less competition among applicants in these sectors than there is for major airlines.

Pilots seeking jobs at the major airlines will face strong competition because those firms tend to attract many more applicants than the number of job openings.

FAQ

Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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I think I have found an error or inaccurate information on this page. Who should I contact?

This information is taken directly from the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Truity does not editorialize the information, including changing information that our readers believe is inaccurate, because we consider the BLS to be the authority on occupational information. However, if you would like to correct a typo or other technical error, you can reach us at help@truity.com.

I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. On this site, you can take the Career Personality Profiler assessment, the Holland Code assessment, or the Photo Career Quiz.

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