Airline Pilot

Job Duties

Airline pilots fly commercial airliners. The crew of a commercial airliner is usually composed of a captain and a copilot, and sometimes a flight engineer. The captain is in command and directs all operations on the plane; the copilot shares responsibility with the captain for communicating with air traffic controllers and monitoring instruments; and the flight engineer makes minor repairs during the flight and helps monitor the instruments as well. Pilots inspect the aircraft before departure, checking everything from engines, controls, and instruments to cargo and baggage. They monitor weather predictions and determine the safest and most efficient route.

The most difficult aspects of the flight are the takeoff and the landing. Careful coordination between the flight crew is required during these precarious periods. The time between takeoff and landing, when the aircraft is in the air, is relatively simple. The pilots depend mostly on the autopilot computer. They may alter altitude or heading if weather or other circumstances demand it. When visibility is poor, pilots rely completely on their high-tech, sensitive instruments to fly the plane. Pilots can even land a plane completely without any visibility at all.

Job Skills

Airline pilots must have 20/20 vision and pass a strict physical examination. They need to be free of physical handicaps that could prevent them from executing their duties. They should be able to make quick decisions and accurate judgments under intense pressure and stress.


In 2002, airline pilots eared a median annual income of $109,580. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $55,800, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $101,460. They typically receive benefits such as life and health insurance, retirement plans, and free or reduced airline travel.

Training and Education

In order to fly any planes that transport passengers, pilots are required to possess a commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating from the FAA. To qualify, applicants must by at least 18 years old an have 250 hours of flight experience. They must pass a physical and a psychological examination, as well as a written test covering flight knowledge. They must demonstrate their flying ability to the FAA. Commercial airline pilots also are required to hold a airline transport pilot’s license, which requires 1,500 hours of flying experience along with a minimum age of 23. They are usually required to hold an additional advanced rating, such as multiengine aircraft or aircraft-type ratings. Many pilots gain valuable experience in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Most airlines require applicants to have at least 2 years of college and almost all prefer to hire applicants who are college graduates. New pilots begin by working as copilots or flight engineers. They also undergo 3 to 6 weeks of training from the airline. Pilots are also required to complete continuing education and simulator checks twice a year for the duration of their careers.


In 2002, airline pilots held about 79,000 jobs. Most were based near major metropolitan airports.

Job Outlook

Between 2002 and 2012, employment of airline pilots is expected to increase about as fast as the average. A growing population and economy will continue to increase demand for air travel. However, the industry is particularly sensitive to economic cycles, and during recessions, some airlines will temporarily furlough pilots. Job opportunities are expected to be good at regional airlines and low-fare carriers. Opportunity will be best for those pilots with the greatest number of flying hours.

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