Airline pilots fly passengers and/or cargo on long or short-haul flights for leisure, business or commercial purposes.

The aircraft is typically operated by two pilots; one will be the captain who is the pilot in command, while the other will be the supporting first officer.

The pilots will usually take turns to fly the plane to avoid fatigue, with one operating the controls while the other speaks to air traffic control and completes the paperwork.

In some instances, such as long-haul flights, there may be three or four pilots on board so that the necessary breaks from flying can be taken.

The captain has the overall responsibility for the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft and the safety of crew and passengers.

The job of a pilot comes with heavy responsibility and personal commitment. Stringent training courses have to be passed, followed by recurrent training every six months in order to maintain the relevant licence required for the job.

Responsibilities

There is more to the role than just flying the plane, which has to be done safely and economically. Prior to the flight, pilots check flight plans, ensure that the aircraft's controls are operating efficiently and calculate the required fuel for the flight.

They are also responsible for checking the weather conditions and briefing cabin crew.

Specific tasks can typically include:

  • making sure all information on the route, weather, passengers and aircraft is received;
  • using that information to create a flight plan, which details the altitude for the flight, route to be taken and amount of fuel required;
  • ensuring the fuel levels balance safety with economy and supervising the loading and fuelling of the aircraft;
  • making sure all safety systems are working properly;
  • briefing the cabin crew before the flight and maintaining regular contact throughout the flight;
  • carrying out pre-flight checks on the navigation and operating systems;
  • communicating with air traffic control before take-off and during flight and landing;
  • ensuring noise regulations are followed during take-off and landing;
  • understanding and interpreting data from instruments and controls;
  • making regular checks on the aircraft's technical performance and position, on weather conditions and air traffic during flight;
  • communicating with passengers using the public address system;
  • reacting quickly and appropriately to environmental changes and emergencies;
  • updating the aircraft logbook and writing a report at the end of the flight noting any incidents or problems with the aircraft.

Salary

  • Salaries vary according to the airline that you are employed with, the type of aircraft you are flying and your experience.
  • The starting salary for a newly qualified first officer working for a small operation may be around £21,000. Starting salaries for those in larger companies are higher at around £22,000 to £24,000.
  • Some run apprenticeship schemes for fully-trained pilots looking for their first job, where salaries may be lower but further training will be paid for by the company. In other companies, starting salaries may be higher, but you will be required to fund the additional training yourself.
  • Salaries for more experienced pilots could range from £36,000 to £48,000 in a first officer role.
  • The starting salary for a captain with a medium-sized airline may range from £57,000 to £78,000, while those with the major operators could earn from £97,000 to more than £140,000.
  • A pilot's salary is often incremental, rising with each year of service with the company.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Employee benefits

Benefits usually include a pension scheme, various allowances and discounted travel.

Working hours

Being a pilot is not a nine-to-five job and unusual working hours should be expected. The length of a working day varies depending on the company and route but can range from three to twelve hours. The start times of a day will often differ depending on the route, sometimes beginning in the early morning and sometimes late at night.

What to expect

  • As pilots can often be on standby duty, they generally need to live near the airport where they are based so they can get there at relatively short notice.
  • Pilots working for short-haul airlines often have their working shifts for a month or two ahead. This results in a more stable working/home life balance.
  • Long-haul airline pilots are expected to spend much greater periods of time away from home as they will fly further distances. This means that they often have to adjust to different time zones and may regularly stay overnight at their destinations.
  • Pilots are restricted to 900 flying hours per year. On scheduled airlines, the workload is spread evenly throughout the year; on charter airlines, the summer months are busier than the winter months.
  • The majority of commercial airline pilots are men, but more women are now entering the profession.
  • Most of a pilot's working time is spent sitting in the cockpit of the aircraft, and the majority of cockpits are designed with comfort in mind. Long-haul pilots may suffer tiredness, particularly if they are flying either eastwards or westwards through different time zones. On long-haul flights, there are often bunks on the aircraft where you can take a short nap.
  • The role requires a lot of work and dedication as pilots are required to pass certain tests every six months and so must carry out the necessary study. A medical must be passed every year.

Qualifications

The usual qualifications needed to begin training as a pilot are a minimum of five GCSEs and two A-levels. The training requires a good level of understanding of maths and physics and so any qualifications that demonstrate this may be of an advantage.

A degree or postgraduate qualification is not required, although some people may choose to take one to make them stand out in the tough competition.

Related degrees are available, for example Buckinghamshire New University offers a BA in Air Transport with Commercial Pilot Training, but this degree is not essential to become an airline pilot and costs for the flight training are on top of the normal degree costs.

There are other degrees such as aviation management, aviation technology and aircraft engineering that are combined with 'pilot studies'.

These courses can help start you off in flying as they typically cover the theoretical work needed for a private pilot's licence. Flying lessons may be available but they will be at an additional cost.

In order to work as an airline (commercial) pilot you must hold an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). This qualification is known as a 'frozen ATPL' and becomes 'unfrozen' when a certain number of hours and experience have been achieved.

It is important when considering routes into the career, that you chose the right one for you. The two main ways to achieve an ATPL are via the following paths:

  • Integrated course - this is an intensive full-time course, which takes around 18 months to complete. The course is carried out with a flight training provider and is a mixture of classroom theory work and practical flying. No previous experience is required for this route, with training providers taking students from zero hours of flying up to the required amount for the ATPL. Costs for this route are expensive and typically range from £80,000 to £90,000.
  • Modular training - this is offered by the same training providers and covers the same topics and examinations as the integrated route, but is carried out in chunks, which can be completed with breaks in between. The theory side of the course can be completed as a full-time classroom course or as a distance-learning course to allow the student to work at the same time. The modular training may be more appealing to those students who cannot afford the more expensive integrated course as they are able to complete sections as they can afford them and work in between if needed. To carry out the modular route the student must already hold a private pilot licence and have completed 150 hours of flying before starting the practical flying aspect of the course. Although a cheaper option, the modular route is still expensive and involves more self-study.

A full list of approved training providers can be found at CAA Approved Courses of Flight and Ground Training.

Full or part sponsorship from an airline, which pays for the student's training is sometimes available, but usually only when the aviation industry is doing well and there is a high demand for pilots. It may be difficult to find such opportunities while the industry is still trying to recover its growth since the recession. When sponsorship opportunities are available, competition is extremely fierce.

It is highly recommended that before you commit to any training you take the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Class One Medical. It is a requirement that all airline pilots pass this medical, and if you do not, you will not be able to complete the training to achieve the ATPL.

The Honourable Company of Air Pilots runs aptitude tests, which are useful for those with little or no flying experience to see if they may be suited to a career as a pilot. Information on how to register for one of these is available at Air Pilots: Aptitude Tests.

It is also possible for those who have trained as pilots in the RAF, Navy and Army to become commercial airline pilots. To do so, a civil aviation course must be completed and a conversion qualification should be gained.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • an understanding of maths and physics;
  • an ability to understand technical information, as pilots need to know how their aircraft works;
  • excellent spatial awareness and coordination;
  • good communication skills;
  • team-working skills;
  • the ability to think quickly and make decisions in difficult situations;
  • the capacity to remain calm under pressure;
  • discipline, self-confidence and commitment;
  • leadership skills, with the ability to give clear commands to cabin crew and passengers.

Employers

There are many airline companies employing pilots in the UK, one of the biggest being British Airways. Others include:

  • scheduled airlines, e.g. easyJet, Flybe, Jet2, Ryanair;
  • chartered airlines, e.g. TUI Group;
  • freight airlines, e.g. TNT, DHL.

General aviation is the largest sector and includes flying schools, companies operating their own aircraft and air taxi operators.

Although there are many pilot training schools that rely on a regular stream of trainee pilots, there may not be a constant supply of jobs in the airline industry, especially during economically troubled times.

The industry is competitive and pilots often find it takes time to secure their first job as a commercial pilot. Newly qualified pilots may need to look outside of the UK to find work.

Networking with those already in the industry can be helpful in securing positions.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist aviation recruitment companies include:

Advertisements also appear in trade magazines, and flight training schools are often notified of vacancies.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Once you have secured a job with an airline, you will complete a type-rating course on a company aircraft, which then allows you to fly that particular type of plane.

Some companies will cover the cost of the type-rating or may pay a lower wage to compensate for it. Others will expect you to pay the additional cost, which could be around £20,000 to £30,000 depending on the aircraft. They may offer a payment scheme to help with this.

The type-rating course may take place at your designated base (where you will usually fly from), at a different UK airport or at an overseas airport if the airline company has international training bases. If you need to move to a different aircraft in the future another type-rating would have to be completed.

As a newly qualified first officer you will work alongside a captain, usually on short-haul flights to provide you with experience of take-offs and landings.

Once you have achieved 1,500 hours of flying time (500 of that must be in a plane which requires more than one crew to operate it), your Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) will become 'unfrozen' and you will be issued with a full ATPL. This is what is required to progress to the role of captain.

All pilots have to pass certain examinations every six months in order to keep their licence and so it is important that you take control of your studies and ensure you are up to speed with the necessary information.

It is also a good to keep up to date with any developments in new instruments or technology relating to aviation.

You will need to pass a medical every six to twelve months depending on your age.

Career prospects

You will usually start with an airline as a first officer, where you will be second in command on the aircraft. The captain has the overall responsibility for the flight and safety of the passengers and crew, but shares tasks with the first officer.

Limitations are placed on newly qualified first officers in relation to the weather you can fly in and the airports you can fly to. These limitations are lifted as you gain experience. After you have gained enough experience and flying hours you can progress to the role of a senior first officer.

After gaining further substantial experience, senior first officers can apply for positions as a captain.

In order to gain a job as a captain an intensive training course needs to be completed. Promotion to captaincy might occur more quickly in a fast-growing budget airline than in a larger, more static organisation.

As a captain you could go on to become a trainer of new pilots but this involves spending more time in simulators rather than actually flying planes, which you may not want. Alternatively, you may take on an examining role.

You may opt to progress your career by flying a larger aircraft rather than becoming a captain. This will usually involve operating long-haul routes. In some instances you may have to move airlines to do this, as some only cover short-haul flights.

Pilots may move into office-based management roles and could combine this with some active flying time too.

A small number move into senior positions within the wider industry as flight operations inspectors for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or become specialised air accident investigators.