Airline and Commercial Pilots

Summary

airline and commercial pilots image
Corporate pilots often have more duties than airline pilots, such as personally greeting passengers before a flight.
Quick Facts: Airline and Commercial Pilots
2012 Median Pay $98,410 per year
Entry-Level Education See How to Become One
Work Experience in a Related Occupation See How to Become One
On-the-job Training Moderate-term on-the-job training
Number of Jobs, 2012 104,100
Job Outlook, 2012-22 -1% (Little or no change)
Employment Change, 2012-22 -800

What Airline and Commercial Pilots Do

Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft. Airline pilots fly for airlines that transport people and cargo on a fixed schedule. Commercial pilots fly aircraft for other reasons, such as charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, and aerial application, also known as crop dusting.

Work Environment

Pilots work primarily in aircraft. They may spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of overnight layovers. Many pilots have variable schedules.

How to Become an Airline or Commercial Pilot

Most airline pilots begin their careers as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots typically need a high school diploma or equivalent. Airline pilots typically 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). Additionally, airline pilots must have the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Pilots may need instrument and other ratings.

Pay

In May 2012, the median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $114,200. The median annual wage for commercial pilots was $73,280 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of airline and commercial pilots is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022. Low-cost regional airlines and nonscheduled aviation services will provide the most job opportunities. Pilots seeking jobs at the major airlines will face strong competition.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of airline and commercial pilots with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about airline and commercial pilots by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Airline and Commercial Pilots Do

Airline and commercial pilots
Commercial pilots are involved in activities such as firefighting and crop dusting.

Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft. Airline pilots fly for airlines that transport people and cargo on a fixed schedule. Commercial pilots fly aircraft for other reasons, such as charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, and aerial application of agricultural materials.

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
  • Ensure fuel supply is adequate, weather conditions are acceptable, 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 and respond to any changes in weather or other events, such as engine failure
  • Navigate the aircraft by using cockpit instruments and visual references

Many aircraft used for hire use two pilots. The most experienced pilot, the captain or pilot in command, 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. New technology has automated many of these tasks, and new aircraft do not require flight engineers.

Pilots must have good teamwork skills because they must work closely with other pilots on the flight deck, as well as with air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers. They need to be able to coordinate actions and provide clear and honest feedback.

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

Takeoffs and landings can be the most difficult parts of the flight and require close coordination between the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer, if present. Once in the air, the captain and first officer usually alternate flying activities so each can rest. After landing, pilots must fill out records that document their flight and the status of the aircraft.

Many pilots will have some contact with passengers and customers. Charter and corporate pilots will often need to greet their passengers before embarking. Some airline pilots may have to help handle customer complaints.

Commercial pilots employed by charter companies usually have many more nonflight duties than airline pilots have. Commercial pilots may have to schedule flights, arrange for maintenance of the plane, and load luggage themselves.

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

Pilots who routinely fly at low levels must constantly look for trees, bridges, power lines, transmission towers, and other dangerous obstacles. This is a common danger to agricultural pilots and air ambulance helicopter pilots, who frequently land on or near highways and accident sites that do not have improved landing sites.

The following are examples of types of pilots:

Airline pilots are commercial pilots who primarily work for airlines that transport passengers and cargo on a fixed schedule.

Commercial pilots are involved in unscheduled flight activities, such as aerial application, charter flights, aerial photography, and aerial tours.

Flight instructors are commercial pilots who use simulators and dual-controlled aircraft to teach students how to fly.

Work Environment

Airline and commercial pilots
Some helicopter pilots work for the U.S. Coast Guard or other law enforcement agencies.

Pilots held about 104,100 jobs in 2012. About 64 percent worked as airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers. The remainder worked as commercial pilots.

In 2012, most airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers—about 87 percent—worked for scheduled air transportation providers, mainly the airlines.

The industries that employed the most commercial pilots in 2012 were as follows:

Nonscheduled air transportation35%
Technical and trade schools; private12
Scenic and sightseeing transportation and support activities9
Ambulance services7

About 4 percent of commercial pilots were self-employed in 2012.

Pilots must learn to cope with several work-related hazards. For example, airline pilots assigned to long-distance routes may experience fatigue and jetlag. Weather and the condition of the aircraft can also pose unique hazards. In addition, flights can be long and flight decks are often sealed, so pilots must be able to work in small teams for long periods in close proximity to one another.

Commercial pilots face other types of job hazards. Aerial applicators, also known as crop dusters, may be exposed to toxic chemicals, typically use unimproved landing strips, and are at a higher risk of collision with power lines and birds than many other pilots. Helicopter pilots involved in rescue operations regularly fly at low levels during bad weather or at night. These pilots also often land in areas surrounded by power lines and other obstacles, such as highways. Pilots also face the risk of hearing loss resulting from prolonged exposure to engine noise.

Although flying may not involve unusually high levels of physical effort, 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, particularly during takeoff and landing. As a result, federal law requires pilots to retire at age 65.

Pilots work all over the country, but most are based near large airports.

Work Schedules

For most pilots, federal regulations set maximum work hours and minimum requirements for rest between flights. Airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month and work an additional 150 hours per month performing other duties. Pilots have variable work schedules that may include some days of intense work followed by some days off. Flight assignments are based on seniority. In general, that means that pilots who have worked at a company for a long time get preferred routes and schedules.

Airline pilots spend a considerable amount of time away from home because flight assignments often involve overnight layovers—sometimes up to 3 nights a week. 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 have irregular schedules. They typically fly between 30 hours and 90 hours each month. Commercial pilots may have less free time than airline pilots because they frequently have more nonflight responsibilities than airline pilots. Although most commercial pilots remain near their home overnight, they may still work nonstandard hours.

How to Become an Airline or Commercial Pilot

Airline and commercial pilots
Pilots and copilots work together to fly complex aircraft.

Most airline pilots begin their careers as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots typically need a high school diploma or equivalent. Airline pilots typically 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). Additionally, airline pilots must have the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Ratings such as the ATP, instrument, or multi-engine ratings, expand the privileges granted by the commercial pilot’s license and may be required by certain employers.

Most pilots begin their flight training with independent instructors or through flight schools. Fixed base operators (FBO) usually provide a wide range of general aviation services, such as aircraft fueling, maintenance, and on-demand air transportation services, and they may also offer flight training. An FBO may call itself a school or call their training department a school. Some flight schools are parts of 2 and 4-year colleges and universities.

Education and Training

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

The military has traditionally been an important source of experienced pilots because of the extensive training provided. However, increased duty requirements have reduced the incentives for these pilots to transfer out of military aviation and into civilian aviation. Most military pilots who transfer to civilian aviation are able to transfer directly into the airlines rather than working in commercial aviation.

Commercial pilots must have a commercial pilot’s license and typically need a high school diploma or the equivalent. Some employers will have additional requirements. For example, agricultural pilots will need to have an understanding of common agricultural practices, fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides. Flight instructors will have to have special FAA-issued ratings, such as the Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), CFI-Instrument (CFII), Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI), MEI-Instrument (MEII), and possibly others. Many other requirements exist for other specialties. They range from glider and banner towing to helicopter and airship qualifications.

Commercial pilots typically begin their flight training with independent FAA-certified flight instructors or at schools that offer flight training. The FAA certifies hundreds of civilian flight schools, which range from small FBOs to large state universities. Some colleges and universities offer pilot training as part of a 2- or 4-year aviation degree. Regardless of whether pilots attend flight schools or learn from independent instructors, all pilots need the FAA’s commercial pilot license before they can be paid to fly. Additionally, most commercial pilots need an instrument rating. Instrument ratings are typically needed to fly through clouds or other conditions that limit visibility. An instrument rating is required to carry paying passengers over 50 miles from the point of origin or at night.

Interviews for positions with major and regional airlines often reflect the FAA exams for pilot licenses, certificates, and instrument ratings, and can be intense. Airlines will often conduct their own psychological and aptitude tests in order to make sure that their pilots are of good moral character and can make good decisions under pressure.

Airline and commercial pilots who are newly hired by airlines or on-demand air services companies must undergo moderate-term on-the-job training in accordance with the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). This training usually includes 6-8 weeks of ground school and 25 hours of flight time. Additionally, commercial pilots may need specific training based on the type of flying they are doing. For example, those who work in aerial application need training in agricultural practices and fertilizers, pesticides, and other substances that can be applied to crops by air to increase yield or production efficiency. Additionally, various type ratings for specific aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 or Cessna Citation, are typically acquired through employer-based training and are generally earned by pilots who have at least the commercial license.

In addition to initial training and licensing requirements, all pilots must maintain recency of experience in performing certain maneuvers. This means that pilots must perform specific maneuvers and procedures a given number of times within a specified amount of time. In addition, pilots 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.

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 these licenses, many pilots get Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) ratings after they get their commercial certificate, which helps them build flight time and experience more quickly and at less personal expense. Current licensing regulations can be found in FARs.

Commercial pilot’s license. To qualify for a commercial pilot license, applicants must be at least 18 years old and meet certain hour requirements. When pilots first begin their training, student pilots need to get a logbook and keep detailed records of their flight time. They may also need to log their ground instruction time as well, depending on their school. This logbook must be endorsed by the flight instructor for the student to be able to take the FAA knowledge and practical exams. For specific requirements, including details on types and quantities of flight experience and knowledge requirements, see the FARs. Title 14 of the code of federal regulations (14 CFR), Federal Aviation Regulations part 61, covers the basic rules for the certification of pilots. Flight schools can train pilots in accordance with part 61 rules or the rules found in 14 CFR part 141.

In addition, 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 their performance.

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

Instrument rating. Earning their instrument rating enables pilots to 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, 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. Beginning in 2013, all pilot crew 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. Furthermore, airline pilots usually maintain one or more aircraft-type ratings, which allow pilots to fly aircraft that require specific training, depending on the requirements of their particular airline. Some exceptions and alternate 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.

Other Experience

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 then apply to the airlines. Newly hired pilots at regional airlines typically have about 2,000 hours of flight experience. Newly hired pilots at major airlines typically have about 4,000 hours of flight experience.

Important 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.

Advancement

For airline pilots, advancement 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. In large companies, a captain could become a chief pilot or director of aviation.

Pay

Airline and Commercial Pilots

Median annual wages, May 2012

Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers

$114,200

Airline and commercial pilots

$98,410

Commercial pilots

$73,280

Total, all occupations

$34,750

 

The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $114,200 in May 2012. 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 $66,970, and the top 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

According to the Air Line Pilots Association, International, most airline pilots begin their careers earning about $20,000 per year. Wages increase each year until the pilot accumulates the experience and seniority needed to become a captain. The average captain at a regional airline earns about $55,000 per year, while the average captain at a major airline earns about $135,000 per year.

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 also are eligible for health insurance and retirement benefits, and their immediate families usually are entitled to free or reduced-fare flights.

The median annual wage for commercial pilots was $73,280 in May 2012.The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,520, and the top 10 percent earned more than $134,990.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for commercial pilots in the top four industries employing these pilots were as follows:

Nonscheduled air transportation$73,660
Ambulance services69,700
Technical and trade schools; private69,500
Scenic and sightseeing transportation and support activities66,550

For most pilots, federal regulations set maximum work hours and minimum requirements for rest between flights. Airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month and work an additional 150 hours per month performing other duties. Pilots have variable work schedules that may include several days of intense work followed by some days off. Flight assignments are based on seniority. In general, that means that pilots who have worked at a company for a long time get preferred routes and schedules.

Airline pilots spend a considerable amount of time away from home because flight assignments often involve overnight layovers—sometimes up to 3 nights a week. 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 have irregular schedules. They typically fly between 30 hours and 90 hours each month. Commercial pilots may have less free time than airline pilots because they frequently have more nonflight responsibilities than airline pilots. Although most commercial pilots remain near their home overnight, they may still work nonstandard hours.

Union Membership

Most airline and commercial pilots belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Airline and Commercial Pilots

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations

11%

Commercial pilots

9%

Airline and commercial pilots

-1%

Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers

-7%

 

Employment of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers is projected to decline 7 percent from 2012 to 2022. It is likely that scheduled airlines will attempt to increase profitability over the next decade by increasing the average number of passengers in all aircraft. This will probably be done by eliminating routes with low demand and reducing the number of flights per day along more heavily used routes. These practices will ultimately lower the overall number of flights and lower the total number of pilot jobs.

Employment of commercial pilots is projected to grow 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Commercial pilots are projected to add jobs in various industries, including ambulance services and support activities for air transportation.  

Job Prospects

Most job opportunities will arise from the need to replace pilots who leave the workforce. From 2012 to 2022, many pilots are expected to retire as they reach the required retirement age of 65.

Job prospects should be best with regional airlines, low-cost carriers, or with nonscheduled aviation services as 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. Applicants also will have to compete with furloughed pilots for available jobs.

Pilots with the greatest number of flight and instrument hours usually have some advantage, but the type of time also matters a great deal. For example, pilots with significant amounts of time in turbine engine-powered aircraft often have an advantage over those who do not. For this reason, military and experienced pilots will have an advantage over applicants whose flight time only consists of small piston-driven aircraft.

Employment projections data for Airline and Commercial Pilots, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Airline and commercial pilots

104,100 103,300 -1 -800

Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers

53-2011 66,400 62,100 -7 -4,400 [XLS]

Commercial pilots

53-2012 37,600 41,200 9 3,600 [XLS]

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of airline and commercial pilots.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2012 MEDIAN PAY
Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians

Aircraft and Avionics Equipment Mechanics and Technicians

Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians repair and perform scheduled maintenance on aircraft. They also may perform aircraft inspections as required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

See How to Become One $55,230
Air traffic controllers

Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic to ensure that aircraft stay safe distances apart.

Associate’s degree $122,530
Bus drivers

Bus Drivers

Bus drivers transport people between various places—including work, school, and shopping malls—and across state or national borders. Some drive regular routes, and others transport passengers on chartered trips or sightseeing tours.

High school diploma or equivalent $29,550
Construction equipment operators

Construction Equipment Operators

Construction equipment operators drive, maneuver, or control the heavy machinery used to construct roads, bridges, buildings, and other structures.

High school diploma or equivalent $40,980
Delivery truck drivers and driver/sales workers

Delivery Truck Drivers and Driver/Sales Workers

Delivery truck drivers and driver/sales workers pick up, transport, and drop off packages and small shipments within a local region or urban area. They drive trucks with a gross vehicle weight (GVW)—the combined weight of the vehicle, passengers, and cargo—of 26,000 pounds or less. Most of the time, delivery truck drivers transport merchandise from a distribution center to businesses and households.

High school diploma or equivalent $27,530
Flight attendants

Flight Attendants

Flight attendants provide personal services to ensure the safety and comfort of airline passengers.

High school diploma or equivalent $37,240
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers

Heavy and Tractor-trailer Truck Drivers

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods from one location to another. Most tractor-trailer drivers are long-haul drivers and operate trucks whose gross vehicle weight (GVW) capacity—that is, the combined weight of the vehicle, passengers, and cargo—exceeds 26,000 pounds. These drivers deliver goods over intercity routes, sometimes spanning several states.

Postsecondary non-degree award $38,200
Material moving machine operators

Material Moving Machine Operators

Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects. Some operators move construction materials around building sites or the land around a mine. Others move goods around a warehouse or onto container ships.

See How to Become One $31,530
Train engineers and operators

Railroad Occupations

Workers in railroad occupations ensure that passenger and freight trains run on time and travel safely. Some workers drive trains, some coordinate the activities of the trains, while others operate signals and switches in the rail yard.

High school diploma or equivalent $52,400
Taxi drivers and chauffeurs

Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs

Taxi drivers and chauffeurs drive people to and from the places they need to go, such as airports, homes, shopping centers, and workplaces. They must know their way around a city in order to take both residents and visitors to their destinations.

Less than high school $22,820
Water transportation occupations

Water Transportation Occupations

Workers in water transportation occupations operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water. These vessels travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean, to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.

See How to Become One $48,980

Contacts for More Information

For specific information about licensing requirements and other federal regulations regarding pilots and operators, visit

Regulations concerning the certification of airmen and general flight rules

Regulations concerning air carriers and operators for compensation or hire, and flight schools

For more information about pilots, visit

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

Air Line Pilots Association, International

Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations

Federal Aviation Administration

Helicopter Association International

National Agricultural Aviation Association

For additional career information about pilots, see the Occupational Outlook Quarterly article “Sky-high careers: jobs related to airlines.”

O*NET

Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers

Commercial Pilots

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Airline and Commercial Pilots,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/airline-and-commercial-pilots.htm (visited April 23, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014