Would you like to tour the world?
Meet people on the go and keep them safe? Fix some of the
world’s largest and most complex machinery? If any of
these scenarios sound exciting, a career in air travel
might be for you.
Air transportation is surging, which in
turn should lead to an expansion of the industry. In 2006,
according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a
record 741 million passengers traveled by airplane—and
FAA forecasts show that that number could reach 1 billion
This increase in passengers should lead to
lots of jobs for the people who ensure that air travelers
arrive safely at their destinations. The U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an increase in wage and
salary jobs over the 2004-14 decade. And most of these
air-travel jobs come with an adventurous perk: the chance
to fly for free or at substantially reduced rates.
But a career in the skies begins with
solid training on the ground. Among other abilities,
workers in air travel need technical skills, clear
thinking, and the maturity to deal well with the
Get started now by reading about
occupations unique to air travel. Learn about the duties,
earnings, training, and ups and downs of working in the
air transportation industry. A few other occupations
related to air travel are described in the box on page 10.
And resources listed at the article’s end can help you
The business of air travel requires a
variety of workers, from service-oriented ticket agents to
business-savvy logistics managers. But when most people
think of airline careers, they think of the workers in
highly technical jobs that include airline pilots,
air-traffic controllers, flight attendants, and mechanics.
Airline pilots and flight engineers
Pilots working as captains are in command
of the aircraft and everyone on it. They supervise the
work of the crew, give instructions, and make decisions
aboard the plane. An airline pilot might oversee a
twin-engine DC-3 on a 100-mile hop, a 4-engine Boeing 747
jet crossing the ocean, or a variety of aircraft in
Duties. Airline pilots plan
each flight with the airline’s flight dispatcher and
meteorologist. Pilots brief the crew, check takeoff
procedures, ascertain that the plane is operating
normally, fly the plane over the designated route, land
the plane, and file a trip report at the final
But there’s much more involved in
flying. Before the flight, pilots must check the latest
safety notices to determine, for example, if volcanic
activity along the flight path might affect routing. They
plan alternative routes and safety procedures. They also
check to make sure that the necessary paperwork is aboard.
The copilot usually carries out a visual inspection of the
aircraft to ensure that the fuel lines, tires, and engine
turbine blades are all in good condition.
When the air traffic controller approves
takeoff, the pilot gets ready to fly.
Takeoff, when engines are at maximum
power, is one of the most critical stages of a flight. The
aircraft of major airlines often weigh about 280 tons and
have about 2 miles of runway to attain liftoff. During
takeoff, the pilot releases the brakes and applies power
to accelerate down the runway. When the aircraft reaches a
certain speed, the pilot gently pulls the control column
back to lift the plane off the ground
Larger aircraft climb at an airspeed of
about 370 miles per hour and rise at a rate averaging
1,500 feet per minute to reach their cruising altitude.
The pilot switches on the weather radar and other systems
to detect aircraft that might accidentally fly into the
During flight, pilots normally follow
designated airways—highways in the sky—marked on
flight maps. Most planes have a Global Positioning System
onboard that helps the pilot to navigate.
When cruising on a flight path, airline aircraft are
usually on autopilot, under the control of an onboard
computer. The pilot manages the systems by reporting the
plane’s location to air traffic control, keeping an eye
on all the engine instruments to ensure that they are
within limits, and, if necessary, taking over control of
the aircraft from autopilot. On long-distance flights,
most aircraft issue routine reminders to help the captain
and copilot stay vigilant.
But the routine of autopilot is never
completely routine. Pilots watch for turbulence on the
weather radar screen inside the cockpit and attempt to
avoid it. They monitor conditions during the flight and
prepare for emergency diversion, if needed. And they plan
safe alternative routes—ones that avoid mountainous
terrain, for example—in case an unplanned descent
When the plane nears its destination, the
pilot checks the weather and other conditions. Unfavorable
conditions might require a diversion.
Landing is the most critical phase of a
flight, and it can be tricky. During the manual landing
for large aircraft, the flight crew start to slow down
with several quick actions: pulling back on the throttles;
raising another set of controls, known as the spoilers, to
disrupt airflow over the wings; and reversing the thrust
of the engines while applying the brakes. During autopilot
landings, all landing actions are automatic except for
selecting reverse thrust and taxiing to the parking bay.
Passengers appreciate a smooth landing.
Pilots try to oblige by gradually slowing the plane using
their skill and experience in operating the controls. But
even on autopilot landings, pilots make choices. If the
runway is wet, for example, pilots may opt to hit the
brakes as soon as possible, choosing a jerky stop over the
risk of overshooting the runway.
Most airline pilots start their careers as
copilots with regional carriers. When they join major
airlines, their first positions may be as flight
engineers. Flight engineers inspect the aircraft and
oversee fueling operations before flight. During the
flight, these engineers monitor engine performance, cabin
pressurization, air conditioning, and other systems.
The position of flight engineer exists only on some
large jet planes. Smaller airliners, as well as the newer
large aircraft, have only a 2-person flight crew that
consists of the pilot and copilot.
Most pilots and flight engineers say they
love their jobs. They like the thrill of flight and the
science of mastering complex instruments. The opportunity
to do respected work is another element that draws people
to this career: Pilots have ultimate responsibility for
the safety of passengers and crew.
Employment and earnings.
Aircraft pilots and flight engineers held about 102,930
jobs in May 2006, according to BLS. Of those, about 75,810
worked as airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers;
the rest worked as commercial pilots. Other jobs include
flight instructor and corporate, charter, test, or
Earnings of airline pilots and flight
engineers are among the highest in the Nation and depend
on factors such as the aircraft’s type, size, and
maximum speed and the pilot’s number of hours and miles
flown. According to BLS, salaries of aircraft pilots and
flight engineers vary, depending on whether they work as
airline or commercial pilots. Pay for flight engineers can
be low, but earnings increase significantly as workers
advance to copilot and pilot positions.
In May 2006, BLS data show that median
annual salaries of airline pilots, copilots, and flight
engineers were $141,090. Median annual salaries of
commercial pilots were $57,480 in May 2006, according to
Qualifications and training.
All pilots must have a high school diploma or equivalent.
However, most airline pilots have a bachelor’s degree.
In fact, some colleges and universities offer FAA-approved
flight training. These programs combine flight training
with regular college coursework.
Pilots learn their flying skills in one of
three ways: by attending a flight school approved by the
FAA, taking private lessons from an FAA-licensed
instructor, or training to fly in the military.
Initial training for pilots includes
classes, simulator training, and actual flight with
instructors. After students gain experience and flight
time, they fly alone to practice specific skills. Next, to
earn a private certificate, students must pass a written
examination and a flight test with an FAA flight examiner.
Before pilots can earn pay for flying,
they must have a commercial certificate and an instrument
rating. To qualify for the commercial certificate, pilots
need to complete at least 250 hours of flight time and
must pass another exam and flight test. In addition to the
required instrument rating, most of these pilots have one
or more advanced ratings—including those for
multi-engine operation and aircraft type, depending on job
Most airline pilots also need significant
paid flying experience. They gain flying experience either
in the military or in other types of civilian piloting
jobs, such as flying packages for a courier.
Pilots are tested throughout their
careers, taking "check rides" twice a year.
Check rides include a written and oral exam and flight
tests given by an FAA instructor. Pilots are also expected
to stay current on new techniques and procedures.
Aircraft pilots also must undergo frequent
physical examinations and meet medical standards, which
vary by licenses. A Class I medical certificate requires
the highest standards for vision, hearing, equilibrium,
and general physical condition: Pilots must have an
exceptional health history. Class II and Class III
certificates have less rigid requirements but still demand
a high degree of physical health.
All three classes of medical certificates
allow the pilot to wear glasses, provided that the
correction is within prescribed limits of vision. Drug
addiction or alcoholism disqualifies any applicant.
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