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Want To Be An Airline Pilot?

Information about job opportunities as an airline pilot

Airline pilots travel all over the world, seeing places that most of us only dream about visiting. And they earn very lucrative salaries for doing it!

Just imagine flying to Paris, Hong Kong, and other exotic cities on a regular basis. Airline pilots routinely fly to locales like this. It's no wonder that so many people have a burning desire to become an airline pilot.

I receive lots of emails from people seeking information about becoming an airline pilot in the US. This article provides answers to many of the most asked questions I receive about the types of pilot careers, training, salaries, FAA requirements, advancement opportunities and the employment outlook for airline pilots. 

Please be aware that the commercial airline pilot industry is very competitive, especially since the sad events that took place in New York and Washington, DC.

Types of pilot careers

There are four general types of careers for pilots:

  1. Commercial Airline Pilots - 4 out of 5 commercial airline pilots in the US transport passengers and/or cargo from one location to another. The remaining commercial pilots are involved in search and rescue operations, aircraft testing, flight instruction and examination, monitoring automobile traffic, or tracking criminals. A few commercial pilots also fly planes for agricultural purposes, as described below in more detail. 

    There are generally three categories of careers for commercial airline pilots:
    • The Pilot (also called the Captain) is the most senior officer and supervises the entire flight crew.

    • The Co-Pilot (also called the First Officer) assists the Captain.

    • The Flight Engineer (also called the Second Officer) assists the other pilots and performs such tasks as monitoring and operating flight instruments.

      Note: Most modern aircraft now fly with only two pilots because automation has replaced the need for flight engineers in modern, more sophisticated planes.
    About 75% of airline pilots fly 75 hours a month, and spend about 75 additional hours completing non-piloting work responsibilities. About 25% of airline pilots work more than 40 hours per week. 
  2. Agricultural Pilots - Agricultural pilots fly airplanes or helicopters and are usually responsible for crop dusting, fighting forest fires, distributing seeds for reforestation, inspecting pipelines, or distributing fish into lakes. 
  3. Helicopter Pilots - Helicopter pilots provide a wide variety of services for private businesses and government bodies.

    These pilot duties include monitoring traffic and pipelines, oil and gas exploration, construction, logging, agriculture, search and rescue operations, emergency medical transportation, law enforcement, and newsgathering. Other positions for helicopter pilots are available for corporate or travel charter. 
  4. Photogrammetry Pilots - Photogrammetry pilots specialize in flying at speeds and altitudes suitable for aerial photography, which is used for real estate purposes, mapping the earth?s surface, and business and government research requirements.

What are pilots earning today? 

As of this writing. The median annual income of all commercial pilots in the United States is $43,300. The top 10% of earners earned over than $92,000 while the lowest 10% made less than $24,000. 

Pilots? salaries vary widely depending on the type of aircraft, the number of miles and hours flown, and whether or not the pilot works for a major airline. Salaries for airline pilots are among the highest in the country. 

The average annual income of airline pilots is $110,940, and over 25% of those airline pilots earned over $145,000. The lowest 10% of airline pilots made less than $36,110. Senior pilots are among the top earners in the US. 

In addition to traditional monetary income, airline pilots also earn a "per diem" or expense allowance for every hour that they spend away from their base city. This per diem can be upwards of $500 per month. Also, pilots and members of their immediate families enjoy the benefits of free or significantly reduced air travel and hotel rates. 

Airline pilot unions 

Over half of all airline pilots in the US are members of a pilots union. The majority of pilots that work for the major airlines belong to the Airline Pilots Association, International, or ALPA. However, the pilots that work for one national airline are members of the Allied Pilots Association. In addition, some flight engineers belong to the Flight Engineers' International Association. 

The flight route assignments of pilots are based on seniority of union membership. 

FAA Regulations - What you need to get hired as a pilot

To get a job as a commercial pilot in the US requires a Federal Air Transport rating and certification for the specific type of aircraft that you wish to fly. Helicopter pilots must also be rated and hold a commercial pilot?s certificate.

Applicants for these pilot licenses must have at least 250 flight hours of experience and be at least 18 years old. In addition to these requirements, candidates must pass a rigorous physical examination to prove that they are in excellent health and that they have good hearing and 20/20 vision either with or without correction. 

The written test for getting a pilot?s rating covers FAA regulations, navigation techniques, and the principles of safe flight. The pilot certification process also requires pilots to demonstrate their flying ability to FAA examiners (or examiners approved by them). 

To fly during times when visibility is low, pilots must be rated to fly by instruments. To qualify for an instrument rating, pilots must pass a written test and are required to have 105 hours of flight experience which includes at least 40 hours of experience flying by instruments only. This certification requires pilots to demonstrate their ability to fly by instruments alone to the examiners. 

Commercial airline pilots must also meet two additional licensing requirements:

  1. Airline pilots must hold a valid transport license, which requires applicants to be at least 23 years of age and have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience. This experience must include instrument and night flying. Airline pilots must also pass written and flight examinations.
  2. Airline pilots are typically required to have at least one or more advanced pilot ratings, such as an aircraft type rating or a multi-engine aircraft rating. This qualification criteria is mostly dependent upon the types of aircraft the pilot is flying and/or the type of pilot job being applied for. 
Pilots? licenses and ratings are valid as long as the pilot continues to pass the regular physical examinations and flying tests as required by the Federal Government and the specific airline regulations.

Medical certificates are issued in 3 classes:
  1. A class l certificate is the most difficult to get, and requires meeting the highest standards of vision, hearing, equilibrium and health.
  2. The Class ll certificate has less stringent requirements, but still demands a very high level of general health and and superior medical history.
  3. The least rigid (and easiest to get) classification is the class lll Medical certificate. 

FAA regulations limiting monthly flight hours for pilots

By law, pilots may not fly more than 100 hours per month, and no more than 1000 hours in one year. Also, pilots must be allowed at least 8 hours of uninterrupted rest in the 24 hours before completing their flight duty. The Federal Aviation Administration requires airlines to provide pilots with this period of rest in order to prevent excessive fatigue that could affect flight safety. 

Pilot training 

Approximately 600 FFA certified civilian flying schools serve student pilots in the United States. Some colleges also offer certified pilot courses that offer degree credits.

The Armed Forces also provide excellent training for thousands of pilots who have the opportunity to transition into civilian pilot careers after they complete their required military service. 

Advancement opportunities for airline pilots

Most new airline pilots begin their careers as flight engineers or first officers with smaller (or regional) airlines. Advancement opportunities for many pilots involve transferring from a small airline to a major carrier. Advancement is usually dependent upon seniority.

Flight Engineers usually advance according to their seniority in First Officer positions after 1 to 5 years of pilot experience. After to 5 to 15 years of experience, they may advance into Captain positions depending on their seniority. 

Some pilots move into managerial positions, while others advance based on their seniority to larger aircraft, more lucrative routes, or a preferred home base city. Agricultural pilots usually advance into management positions or become self-employed independent contractors. 

Pilot employment forecast

The number of job opportunities for pilots in the United States is expected to grow at about the average overall employment growth rate through the year 2010.

But competition for these lucrative pilot jobs will continue to be strong. Causes that may slow the growth of pilot positions include mergers and challenges in the airline industry. Also, advancements in technology continue to reduce the need for Flight Engineers while video conferencing and teleconferencing reduce the need for business travel. 

Industry analysts predict the need for 27,000 new airline pilots through 2010 as a result of pilot retirements. Many of the pilots who were initially hired during the 1960?s are now reaching mandatory retirement age, which will provide for a few thousand pilot job vacancies each year for the next several years.

Be aware that few pilots retire early because of the high earnings and excellent benefits, and the fact their unique skills are rarely transferable to other careers. 

The number of available jobs for pilots is sensitive to changes in the economy. Airlines are often forced to temporarily lay-off pilots during periods of low air travel. During recessions, pilots who are employed in commercial or corporate flying and flight instruction are often affected by the downturn in the economy. 

The best pilot job prospects

Pilots that hold the most FAA licenses and have flown the most number of hours on sophisticated aircraft will generally have the best job prospects. Former military pilots usually have more experience and licenses than their civilian-trained counterparts, and thus qualify for more and better pilot job opportunities. 

It's forecasted that the most new pilot job openings will come from the regional airlines as well as international carriers. The flight industry will likely experience a need for more airlines, pilots and flight instructors in the years to come. 

It's also expected that there will be an ever increasing need for pilots who operate smaller airplanes because more businesses are chartering private aircraft. 

Women make up approximately 25% of the total number of pilots in the United States and this figure is expected to increase in the future. 

Where are the pilot jobs?

The majority of pilot positions in the US are located in cities that host major airline hubs. Most pilot positions are concentrated in Georgia, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, the District of Columbia, Michigan,  Washington, DC, and Florida. These regions generate the most airline flights relative to their population size. 

Julia Dean is the President of AirlineJOB.net and a professional researcher and copywriter.

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