Airline Pilots Overview
Airline pilots will find the best opportunities at low-cost and regional airlines. At the major airlines, which offer better benefits and wages, competition is fierce. While in the past many pilots learned to fly in the military, more and more airline pilots have college degrees and get flight training from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified civilian flight schools. At major airlines, new hires usually have about 4,000 hours of flight experience under their belts.
Nature of the Work for Airline Pilots
Airline pilots fly airplanes or helicopters transporting passengers and cargo.
Usually the cockpit crew is made up of two pilots. The more experience is the captain supervising other crew members. The copilot, often called the first office, along with the pilot share a range of duties including monitoring instruments and communicating with air traffic controllers. Some small aircrafts only have one pilot and some large ones have a third—the flight engineer. New technology can take on many flight tasks and now almost all new aircraft fly with just two pilots who use computerized controls.
Airline pilots must plan flights before departure. They also need to check their aircraft to ensure everything is running properly and that baggage or cargo is properly loaded. They work with aviation weather forecasters and flight dispatchers to determine conditions at their destination and en route. They then choose a speed, altitude and route to provide the smoothest, most economical and safest flight possible. When there is poor visibility, airline pilots fly under instrument flight rules using an instrument flight plan with air traffic control so it can coordinate with other air traffic.
The hardest part of the job for airline pilots is the takeoff and landing. The two pilots must work in close coordination so that the pilot can focus on the runway or the direction of the wind, while the copilot scans the instrument panel and checks to see when the plane reaches takeoff speed for example. The two usually switch back and forth flying each leg from takeoff to landing.
In good weather flights are usually routine. Airline pilots steer their plane using autopilot and flight management computer systems. They scan the instruments to check their systems. If they hit turbulence or want to find a stronger tailwind for example, they may request a change in altitude from air traffic controllers. Helicopter pilots must be on the lookout for obstacles such as transmission towers or power lines. All airline pilots must monitor warning devices that detect dangerous and sudden shifts in wind.
When visibility is poor airline pilots must rely on their instruments including altimeter readings, special navigation radios and other sophisticated equipment that gives them information about their position and obstacles.
Airline pilots also have nonflying duties, but those tasks vary from job to job. Under the Flight Deck Officer program some airline pilots undergo training and screening to be deputized as Federal law enforcement officers to protect the cockpit with issued firearms. Others may have to handle passenger luggage, keep records, schedule flights or load the aircraft.
Some airline pilots are also flight instructors teaching on the ground, in simulators or using dual-controlled aircraft.
Many airline pilots spend much of their time away from home due to overnight layovers. The Airline Pilot’s Association calculates this number to be 360 hours a month. Away from home, airlines provide a meal allowance, hotel accommodations and transportation.
Jet leg is a common complaint of airline pilots, especially those on international routes. Flying can also cause mental stress as aircraft pilots are responsible for a safe flight in all conditions. They must be alert and quick to react when things go wrong.
The FAA regulates flying time by the hours per month and year. Most airline pilots fly about 75 hours a month and may work an additional 140 hours per month completing nonflying duties. Most have variable work schedules and must work irregular hours including night and weekend hours. Flight schedules are based on seniority.
Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Airline Pilots
Some airlines hire high school graduates, but most prefer airline pilots with at least a 2 year degree. As the number of college-educated applicants increases, this is becoming an educational requirement. Courses include mathematics, physics, English and aeronautical engineering.
Flight experience is also a must for a license. The Armed Forces provide many experienced airline pilots due to extensive flying time. Also appropriate are flight schools or lessons from FAA-certified flight instructors. Training includes a week of company indoctrination, 3 to 6 weeks of simulator training on the ground and 25 hours of initial operating experience. Once or twice a year throughout their career they must attend training or checks.
For a license, applicants must by 18 or older and have 250 hours of experience in the air. They also need to pass an exam and have 20/20 vision with or without corrective lenses, good hearing, no physical handicaps that could impair performance, and be in good health. They also need to be rated by the FAA to fly by instruments in periods of low visibility. And airline pilots working as captains must have an air transport pilot’s license.
Airline pilots may advance into other flying jobs such as flying corporate planes. A small number find jobs at the airlines as flight engineers. Seniority helps determine the most desirable routes. With 1 to 5 years of experience they become first officers and with 5 to 15 years they become captains.
Employment and Job Outlook for Airline Pilots
Airline pilots held about 76,800 jobs. While they work all over the country, most are based near major cities or airports that are hubs for major airlines.
Jobs for airline pilots are expected to grow at an average rate of about 12 percent. The demand for air travel will increase with the growing population and expanding economy and in turn, increasing the demand for airline pilots.
The best opportunities will be found with low-cost and regional airlines, which should grow faster than major airlines. Other new jobs will be found in corporate, commuter, business or on-demand air taxi travel.
Jobs at major airlines will be tough to get as the positions receive many more applicants that the number of openings. Plus, candidates will be competing with laid-off pilots. The greatest number of logged hours with the most sophisticated equipment will open the most doors, often giving military pilots the advantage.
Jobs for airline pilots fluctuate with the economy. A decline in air travel forces airlines to decrease the number of planes and airline pilots flying.
Earnings and Salary for Airline Pilots
The wages of airline pilots vary greatly depending on seniority, rank and type of aircraft. Flying jet aircrafts usually brings higher wages than turboprops, for example. The median annual wages for airline pilots are $106,240. The lowest 10 percent earned $56,620. The middle 50 percent earned between $80,640 and $144,010.
Usually airline pilots are eligible for health and life insurance plans, retirement benefits, disability payments and other benefits.