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Commercial Airline Pilot Jobs: Salary and Career Facts

Research what it takes to become a commercial airline pilot. Learn about education, licensing requirements, median annual wages and job growth to find out if this is the career for you.

What Is a Commercial Airline Pilot?

A commercial airline pilot operates an aircraft to perform activities such as aerial photography, aerial tours, or private flights or to apply protective chemicals to crops. They may also work as air ambulance pilots or air firefighting pilots. They are responsible for performing maintenance checks on their aircraft. Prior to their flight they ensure the engine, instruments and aircraft systems are working properly. They also monitor the aircraft's operation in flight, including the aircraft's instruments and systems, to ensure everything continues to work properly. They use instruments to navigate when weather conditions are poor. Commercial airline pilots adhere to their flight plan, communicate with air traffic control towers and follow proper procedures at all points during take off, flight and landing. They navigate the aircraft and may have to make arrangements to adjust their altitude or alter their course in the event of poor weather.

Degree Required Associate's degree is the typical minimum requirement; bachelor's degree preferred
Education Field of Study Aviation, aerospace engineering
Licensure Required Commercial pilot's license, air transport license
Training Required 250 hours flying time for commercial pilot's license
1,500 hours flying time air transport license
Job Growth (2018-2028) 8% (Commercial pilots)*
Median Annual Salary (May 2018) $82,240*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Skills Do I Need to Become a Commercial Airline Pilot?

As a commercial airline pilot you need to be able to fly in several stressful situations and know the federal regulations and procedures when it comes to transporting people and freight. Ground skills are just as important as your flying expertise, and you'll need to be familiar with your crew, passengers and cargo, as well as the guidelines of each airport you fly through.

What Education Do I Need?

Although there is no specific degree requirement to fly an airplane, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stated that most airlines require you to have at least two years of college, though some prefer a bachelor's degree (www.bls.gov). Some higher learning institutions offer undergraduate programs at the associate and bachelor's degree levels in aviation or aerospace engineering that offer you the training to become a pilot.

Bachelor's degree programs in aviation cover airline safety and procedures, air carrier operations and air traffic control. Through many of these programs, you'll have the option of taking a professional pilot concentration that includes flying instruction. Bachelor's degree programs in aerospace engineering also include courses on aerodynamics, instrumentation, computer applications and engineering thermodynamics. Some programs offer internships or seminars that allow you to observe how airlines and airports operate, providing you with insight when you look for postgraduate employment.

What About Licensing?

In order to fly commercially, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires you to obtain a commercial pilot's license (www.faa.gov). To qualify for a commercial pilot's license, you must be at least 18 years old, have a minimum of 250 flying hours, pass a stringent physical examination and successfully complete written and practical tests. During your training, you'll need to acquire a medical certification and student's license in order to fly on your own. After you've completed your instruction and logged sufficient local, cross-country and other specialized, required flight time, you can apply to the FAA for a commercial pilot's license.

To fly passenger and cargo planes for an airline, you'll need to meet stricter eligibility requirements to obtain an FAA air transport license. You can qualify for the license after your 23rd birthday and once you've logged at least 1,500 hours of flight time that includes cross-country, night flying and low-visibility flights that require you to rely on instrumentation. A second series of written and practical testing is required to earn the transport license and any instrumentation ratings required by the airline.

What Salary Could I Expect?

Compensation for commercial airline pilots varies based on your level of experience, location and employer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for commercial pilots as of May 2018 was $82,240, with the highest-paid working for employment services. However, as a new pilot, you could be required to put in longer hours for less compensation working for a regional carrier. You might consider starting with a small airline and being open to relocating and offering your services as a stand-by pilot in order to earn your wings as a full-time commercial pilot.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Air traffic controllers and flight attendants share some common duties with commercial airline pilots. Air traffic controllers are responsible for monitoring planes and giving pilots directions related to takeoff, landing and their cruising altitude. Their objective is to ensure the planes are operated safely and that they maintain a safe distance from other aircraft or objects. These professionals need an associate's degree to work. Flight attendants address the needs of the passengers on an aircraft. They need a high school diploma or GED, and they also need to be trained in the safety protocols for the aircraft, like pilots. Flight attendants communicate with pilots to inform them of any concerns or to relay impertinent information to passengers, such as the reason for a delay or for altering course.