Airline pilots enjoy what may be the most glamorous position of all airline jobs, and it is a reputation that is deserved. Pilots must comply with some of the strictest employment requirements of all industry workers, including extensive training, rigid physical and health conditions, and continuous retraining and testing. Once you land a job as a pilot, you’ll enjoy the rewards that you’ve earned from your years of training. Pilots are responsible for the operation of the aircraft, the safety of the passengers and crew, and all flight decisions once in the air. They must maintain a highly professional image in both conduct and personal appearance, and communicate with the passengers and crew during flights. Pilots typically report to work an hour before departure in order to meet with flight crew and review weather and airport conditions. The captain then goes through a series of safety checklists with the first officer. In addition, the captain communicates with the ground traffic controller and the ground crew in preparation for takeoff. During takeoff, landing, and during the flight, the pilots continue to communicate with one another as well as with air traffic control.
More than any other job in the airline industry, pilots are responsible for the very lives of travelers. Pilots must have a high degree of knowledge when it comes to weather patterns, navigation, and the operation of the many instruments in any aircraft’s cockpit. In the event of an emergency, it is the pilot’s job to land the plane safely. Weather can change and equipment can malfunction, but it is the ultimate responsibility of the pilot to ensure a safe flight, so he or she must be prepared to handle rapidly changing situations. Another challenging aspect of working as a pilot is the schedule. Like flight attendants, pilots must spend extended periods away from home.
The most critical qualification for airline pilots is FAA or Transport Canada licensing and certification. An Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate is required to be the pilot-in-command of a commercial aircraft making scheduled flights. That license is in addition to a commercial license required for anyone flying for hire. In Canada, a night rating is also required to obtain a commercial license. Depending on the aircraft that you’ll fly, additional ratings may be necessary such as multi-engine, floatplane, and instrument. All required licenses, permits, ratings, endorsements, and medical certifications must be valid and current. Larger airlines may require candidates to have a minimum of 5,000 total hours of logged flight time. Smaller airlines may not require that many hours of total time but will have a minimum for multi-engine time or some other rating, depending on their fleet.
The route to an airline pilot position can be long and difficult, requiring countless hours of flying time, training, and testing. Training for pilots generally takes two distinct paths. The first is the civilian route, starting with flight instruction at FAA or Transport Canada-certified flight schools, then progressing through a series of certifications to finally earn an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate which is required for airline pilots. This is a process that can take years because it requires thousands of hours of flight time as pilot-in-command even after earning a commercial pilot’s license. Many commercial pilots accrue flight hours toward an ATP by working as a flight instructor, charter pilot, or crop duster. In addition, most major airlines now require a college degree, so many civilian pilots now attend colleges that offer flight training along with a degree program.
The second route to certification is through military service. This training is free, but it entails years of military service in exchange.
Even after you’re hired as an airline pilot, there’s a lot of work involved to keep your currency and license validity. Captains and first officers go through extensive retraining at least once a year to hone all the skills required to fly safely. They also have a check ride every year. If you don’t do well, there’s more training before you can fly again. Every six months, Airline Transport Pilots must pass a thorough physical. Depending on the pilot’s age, holders of a Commercial Pilot’s license must pass a physical every six or twelve months. The health standards are high. So if your health or proficiency deteriorates, your license will be revoked.
The FAA and Transport Canada restrict the total number of hours an airline pilot can fly to 100 hours per month or 1,000 hours per year. Regulations also require that a pilot rests for at least eight hours in the 24 hours before finishing their flight duty. On average, airline pilots fly 75 hours per month and spend an additional 75 hours per month performing non-flying work. Work schedules can change from month to month, but typically, a pilot will work for several days in a row and then have several consecutive days off. Airline pilots spend many nights away from home because most flights require an overnight layover. Airlines compensate pilots for the cost of meals, hotel, and transportation when working away from home. As with other crewmembers, pilots with the most seniority get the choice flight assignments. The more years one has in any given job, the more seniority they achieve. This is why some first officers do not choose to move up to a captain’s job. After years of accruing seniority as a first officer, they have to start all over again when they take a captain’s position. Because they may have families or other obligations by then, they may be reluctant to take the less than choice assignments.
Pilot Salary and Benefits
Benefits usually include paid vacation, dental and life insurance, sick leave, retirement plan, free or reduced airfare for employees and immediate family members.