How to Become an Airline Pilot

Airline Transport Pilot from nostri-imago, under CC license
Northwest Airlines

If you'd like to learn how to become a airline pilot, also known as an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP), this article will guide you through the requirements as well as career pathways and salary information.

In order to fly for major commercial airlines like United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, American Airlines, and other major airlines you will need more than a commercial pilot's license-- you will need an Airline Transport Pilot license.

This article will focus on how to obtain your Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license. The license is a prerequisite for acting as a pilot-in-command (Captain) in scheduled airline operations.

If you are like me and thought commercial pilots flew the major airline flights, you are not alone! You must be an ATP to fly for the major airlines. An ATP has the necessary instrument rating training needed in order to fly in instrument meteorological conditions; in other words, when visibility is restricted and you must rely on your instrument gauges to navigate safely.

Conversely, commercial pilots are restricted to flying during the daytime, within 50 nautical miles of their point of origin, and are not allowed to fly in adverse weather conditions where visibility is limited.

Types of Pilot Certifications

The Federal Aviation Association issues different types of airman certificates. This article specifically focuses on Airline Transport Pilot certification and licensure, but the different types of airman certificates are listed below.

  • Student Pilot- an individual who is learning to fly under the tutelage of a flight instructor and who is permitted to fly alone under specific, limited circumstances
  • Sport Pilot- an individual who is authorized to fly only Light-sport Aircraft
  • Recreational Pilot- an individual who may fly aircraft of up to 180 horsepower (130 kW) and 4 seats in the daytime for pleasure only
  • Private Pilot- an individual who may fly for pleasure or personal business, generally without accepting compensation
  • Commercial Pilot- an individual who may, with some restrictions, fly for compensation or hire
  • Airline Transport Pilot- (often called ATP), an individual authorized to act as pilot in command for a scheduled airline

ATP Prerequisites

The minimum pilot experience is 1,500 hours of flight time, 500 hours of cross-country flight time, 100 hours of night flight time, and 75 hours instrument operations time (simulated or actual). Other requirements include being 23 years of age, an instrument rating, being able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language, a rigorous written examination, and being of good moral character.

Commercial Airline Pilot Job Description

ATP Requirements

Each major airline has its own requirements to work as a pilot. These are the requirements for flying for SWA, and will provide you with an idea of what is required.

  • U.S. FAA Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
  • Unrestricted U.S. Type Rating on a B-737 (B-737 CIRC.APCH.-VMC ONLY limitation may be accepted)
  • 2,500 hours total flight experience or 1,500 hours Turbine total
  • Minimum of 1,000 hours in Turbine aircraft as the Pilot in Command
  • Experience must include actively flying two of the last five years
  • Must possess a current FAA Class 1 Medical Certificate
  • Must pass FAA mandated Drug Test
  • Three letters from any individuals who can attest to the pilot's flying skills
  • An undergraduate degree from a four-year, accredited college or university

Education Requirements

Most major airlines in the United States prefer their airline pilots to have graduated from an accredited, four-year college or university.

Work Experience

You must have many hours of flying under your belt in order to become a commercial pilot. Each airline has its own specific requirements and some flight simulators do not quality. Be sure to check with the specific company for which you wish to work.

Airline Pilot Salary Information

Regional airline pilots usually start at very low salaries. According to an article by the Wall Street Journal, a salary survey from 2009 showed pilot salaries as low as $21,600 and as high as $165,278 per year.

The low end was for first-year airline pilots at U.S. Airways. At the high end, Southwest Airlines had a first-year minimum salary of $49,572 for commercial pilots. Further, on average, starting pay at major airlines was $36,283. This is about double what regional airline pilots start. On average, top captains top out at minimum salaries of $165,278.

It's worth noting that UPS and FedEx both showed top pay salaries for their pilots, with captains maxing out at a minimum of more than $200,000 a year. At Delta, American, United and Continental, the top minimum for captains was between $156,000 and $167,000 per year.

Keep in mind that this survey was completed in 2009. According to the BLS, the median pay for Airline and Commercial Pilots was $92,060 per year in 2010.

Commercial Airline Pilot Jobs

Here are some of the airlines you can work for as a commercial pilot.

Other Resources

Video on how to become an airline pilot