How To Become A Commercial Airline Pilot

In this post I summarise the requirements and try to answer the the question ‘how to become a commercial airline pilot’.

I covered this subject in a previous video made in August 2017. That video continues to receive a lot of views but it has become clear from the enquiries I received since that there are still some unanswered questions.

So if you’re still unsure of how to become a commercial pilot then here are a few pointers.

Prospects for Commercial Airline Pilots

Let’s start with the prospects for anyone considering a career as a pilot.

The much publicised 2016 forecast by Boeing for a huge global demand for pilots in the next two decades persists.

Even taking into account the regional variations in the figures it is likely that Europe alone will require 80-90,000 new commercial pilots in the next 20 years.

Commercial Airline Pilot Salaries

What do airline pilots earn? What salaries can you expect?

As you can probably imagine, salaries vary according to the size of the airline, the aircraft type, and the pilot’s experience.

A recently qualified First Officer for a small, regional airline can expect a starting salary of around £25,000 pa.

Larger airlines may offer more and the salaries will eventually increase in proportion to the experience.

For example, more experienced First Officers can look forward to £36,000 to £48,000 pa.

Once you’ve been promoted to Captain you can expect a salary of £57,000 to £78,000 for a medium sized airline.

If your employer is one of the major operators then salaries of between £97,000 and £140,000 or more are the industry norm.

Reality Check

If you want to end up in the cockpit of a major airline then there is a long road ahead. There is a great deal of study to be done and a lot of money to be spent. Once qualified you will still need to compete with other eager young pilots for positions within airlines.

If you’re still at school or college then make sure you get five GCSEs and two A-levels, ideally in Maths, English, and Science.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, you need to be fluent in English too.

The distance and the requirements may seem overwhelming at first but like all long, hard journeys it’s persistent effort, patience, and sacrifice that leads to eventual success.

One step at a time seems like a cliché but it’s true. Focus on what is in front of you on any given day. Develop the self-discipline to take steps toward your goal each week.

As the months roll by you will be able to look back at sure and certain progress.

Chocks away then, where do you start?

For reasons that should be obvious, anyone wishing to fly aircraft commercially needs to be fit and healthy. You’ll need to pass a Class 1 Medical examination and maintain that standard throughout your career.

If you have any questions or concerns about the medical certificate then please check the CAA website.

Next, you’ll need access to a big pile of money.

The cost of training and the prospect of running up a huge debt can be a little daunting.

Obtaining an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) is likely to take up two years and cost over £100,000.

If you or your family are unable to sponsor you then the money will need to be borrowed. However, there are finance schemes available specifically designed for this purpose.

It may be possible to obtain finance through an airline and then pay the money back through salary deductions once you are employed.

If you do self-finance then make sure the necessary safeguards are in place to protect your money. Study the terms and conditions carefully and make sure your money is protected should the training company suddenly cease trading.

Sadly, both private and commercial student pilots have learned the hard way that there are risks associated with handing over large sums of money to flying schools that go out of business weeks later.

Flight Training, Day One

airline pilot flight trainingIf you have no flying experience at all then you can join what is called an integrated ATPL course. These are designed for ab initio students.

If you’re not familiar with your Latin, ab initio means ‘from the beginning’.

Integrated ATPL courses are full time courses provided by Approved Training Organisations.

The advantage of an integrated course is the continuity of training. You will focus on the training and nothing else.

The disadvantage is that you need not only the money for training but all living expenses available to you throughout.

If you have some flying experience or you’re unable to commit to full time training then you can opt for a modular course.

As the name suggests, this enables candidates to complete things stage by stage or module by module.

The advantage of the modular course is that you can keep working to pay your bills. You fit the training and study in around your job.

The disadvantage is the lack of continuity in training and the commitment required to juggle a full time job with intense study and training.

For a list of all current CAA Approved Training schools please visit the CAA website.

Advanced Flight Training

You will have had many hours of flight training, simulator time, classroom lectures, and self-study.

Eventually, whether on an integrated or a modular course, you will pass several milestones.

These will include First Solo, Private Pilots Licence (PPL), Night Rating, Instrument Rating (IR), Multi Engine Piston (MEP) rating, and Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL).

With the CPL/IR with MEP achieved you could branch out into paid employment at this stage. You could become a Flying Instructor or a pilot of light and medium commercial aircraft.

But onwards and upwards – your goal is the airlines.

After a lot more study and exams you’ll eventually obtain your Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL).

So far, so good, but the training doesn’t end here. Your ATPL is ‘frozen’ i.e. it’s recognised that you’ve completed the theory but you don’t have enough flying experience yet.

This is when most candidates will start knocking on doors and elbowing their way to the front of the queue for a coveted position within an airline.

Next comes line training with your airline to build up a total of 1,500 hours in your logbook. You’ll also need a type rating for a specific aircraft type.

Typically, you’ll become type rated on aircraft like Boeing B737 or an Airbus A320. There are hundreds of these types flying on short haul routes.

If you’re lucky the airline will pay for this stage of training but again, you may need to pay up yourself.

Other Flight Training Options

As an alternative to the ATPL some UK airlines require only a Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL). This enables a pilot to reach the position of First Officer but to be a Captain the pilot will still need to obtain an ATPL.

Another option is to attend one of the new university apprenticeship courses. Several universities in the UK now offer full time courses that lead to a frozen ATPL.

Google for phrases like ‘university frozen ATPL’ for a list of universities and the courses they offer. The course content, fees, and degrees on completion vary so check each one for details.

This route gives access to other options in terms of funding and loans.

Having reached the position of First Officer with an airline you can look forward to a long and rewarding career.

Thanks for reading. Please post your questions, comments, and feedback below.

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Happy Landings!