Pilot training is expensive and highly competitive but the role of a pilot is rewarding with great salary prospects

As an airline pilot, you'll fly passengers 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. Pilots usually take turns to fly the plane to avoid fatigue, with one operating the controls (known as Pilot Flying), while the other monitors the Pilot Flying for safety reasons (known as Pilot Monitoring) and 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 each can take the necessary breaks from flying to adhere to strict flight time limitations set by aviation bodies such as EASA and the CAA.

The captain and first officer work as a team, with communication and cooperation being a major factor of flight safety. However, the captain has overall responsibility for the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft and the safety of crew and passengers.

You'll face heavy responsibility and personal commitment. You have to pass stringent training courses, followed by recurrent training every six months, in order to maintain the relevant licence required for the job.

Pilots typically start out as a second officer, progressing on to first officer, senior first officer and then captain. In some airlines you may enter at an apprentice level before then becoming a second officer.


You'll need to:

  • check the flight plan you've received from the flight planning department to make sure all information is in order, including the route, weather and passenger numbers and ensure aircraft weights are all within limits
  • make a decision on whether to carry any additional fuel based on the weather information received from flight planning
  • use the flight plan to input your route into the flight management computer (FMC)
  • confirm with the refuellers how much fuel you’re taking for the flight
  • make sure all safety systems are working properly
  • brief the cabin crew before the flight and maintain regular contact throughout the flight
  • carry out pre-flight checks on the navigation and aircraft systems, as well as a physical 'walk-around' check to inspect the exterior of the aircraft
  • communicate with air traffic control before take-off and during flight and landing
  • ensure noise regulations are followed during take-off and landing
  • understand and interpret data from instruments and controls
  • make regular checks on the aircraft's fuel state, technical performance and position, on weather conditions and air traffic during flight
  • communicate with passengers using the public address system
  • react quickly and appropriately to environmental changes and emergencies
  • update the aircraft's technical log at the beginning and end of the flight, noting any technical defects and incidents with the aircraft.


Salaries depend on the airline, the type of aircraft you're flying and your experience.

  • Starting salaries for newly qualified second/first officers, working for a small operation, may be around £24,000. In larger companies, starting salaries can reach £28,000.
  • Once you've built up your experience, salaries as a second officer tend to peak at around £58,000 while first officer salaries can reach £75,000. Once you progress on to a senior first officer role, salaries of up to £85,000 can be achieved.
  • The starting salary for a captain with a medium-sized airline may range from £54,000 to £75,000. Those employed by major operators can earn £97,000 to more than £140,000.

The above figures are the base salaries, with most companies offering sector pay on top of this. This is additional money paid for each sector (leg) of a flight, with longer flights paying more than shorter ones.

Some companies 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. Starting salaries may be higher in other companies, but you'll be required to fund the additional training yourself.

A pilot's salary is often incremental, rising with each year of service with the company. Benefits usually include a pension scheme, profit scheme, discounted shares, various allowances and discounted travel.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You will typically work shifts although they may not follow a set pattern with start and finish times. For safety reasons, maximum weekly flying hours are set for pilots but these hours may not be spread evenly across a week. Instead you may have some long working days followed by some shorter days and start times will differ depending on the route, with both early morning and late night starts a possibility.

Each airline has their own type of roster for their pilots and you may find that some offer more stability than others in terms of when your shifts are set. For example, some may offer a four-days-on/four-days-off policy while others will just state you’ll get two days off per week but that these may fall at anytime.

You'll be expected to work across weekends and bank holidays.

What to expect

  • It's likely that part of your working hours will be spent on standby. This means you won't be flying and can usually remain at home but for some specified hours of the day you'll be available to be called out for a flight at relatively short notice. This means you'll usually be required to live near the airport where you're based.
  • If you work for a short-haul airline, you'll generally receive your shifts a month or two in advance and you'll typically be able to return home at the end of each working day. This results in a more stable work/life balance.
  • If you're a long-haul airline pilot you'll spend greater periods of time away from home, flying long distances. You'll need to be able to adjust to different time zones and may regularly stay overnight at your destinations.
  • Pilots are restricted to 900 flying hours per year. On scheduled airlines the workload is spread evenly throughout the year, while 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. Initiatives are in place to encourage and support women, such as Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter.
  • Most of your time is spent sitting in the cockpit of the aircraft, and the majority of cockpits are designed with comfort in mind. If you're a long-haul pilot you may suffer tiredness, particularly if you're 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 - you're required to pass certain tests every six months, so must carry out the necessary study. You also have to pass a medical every year.


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' at first and becomes 'unfrozen' when 1,500 hours of flight time have been achieved.

There are three main ways to get an ATPL and it's important you consider each route fully to choose the one that's right for you:

Integrated course - this is an intensive, full-time course that combines all training, including ground courses and flight training, into one programme with one training provider. You will typically start with around six months of ground school followed by flight training and hour building in the aircraft. You will move through various stages to complete the following:

  • ATPL theory course and exams
  • Commercial pilot's licence (CPL)
  • Multi-Engine Rating (ME) - allows you to fly a twin-engine aircraft
  • Instrument Rating (IR) - which allows you to fly using the aircrafts instruments when there is low visibility
  • Multi Crew Cooperation Course (MCC) - covers the importance of working as a team
  • Jet Orientation Course (JOC) - helps the move from flying a single pilot aircraft to a type rating on a multi crew plane.

The integrated route is the quickest way to go from zero hours of flying to being a fully qualified airline pilot but it is also the most expensive way, costing between £85,000 to £105,000 depending on the training provider.

Modular training - this covers the same elements as those listed above with the addition of starting first by gaining a private pilot's licence (PPL) which covers ground school and exams, flight training, radio training and a flight test.

The difference with the modular training is that it is broken down into modules that can be completed at your own pace, allowing you to complete sections as you can afford them and work in between if needed. Although a cheaper option, it is still a big financial commitment.

Multi Pilot Licence (MPL) - this is a newer route and is similar to the integrated route in that all training is done in one continuous course with one provider. The difference here is that the course is directly linked to an airline and a certain type of aircraft, with employment with that airline being offered on successful completion of the course.

The other main difference is that the majority of the flight training is done within a simulator with just a small amount of training in a light aircraft. You will also finish the course with a different type of licence to the above routes (you'll have an MPL instead of an ATPL) and it is not easy to move from one airline to another.

Find out more about training as a pilot and what's required from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

All airline pilots must pass a CAA Class One Medical to make sure they're safe to fly and without it you won't be able to complete the training to achieve the ATPL. It is therefore strongly recommended that this is one of the first things you do before committing to the expensive training costs of the ATPL.

Related degrees are available in topics such as air transport management and aviation management and some of these also come with training for a PPL or ATPL. While these degrees can increase your knowledge and provide additional skills they are by no means essential for a career as a pilot and will increase the overall costs of the training.

Routes in are also available for those who have previously trained as a pilot in the RAF, Navy or Army. Contact training providers or airlines for further information.


You'll 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
  • strong communication skills
  • teamwork 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.

Work experience

It is a good idea to have some kind of flying experience before you start the expensive, intensive training courses. There are numerous small flying schools around the UK that allow you to take flying lessons in small aircraft. This can range from a single half an hour flight to give you a taste of it, to a whole course and exams that lead to you getting a private pilot's licence (PPL). This helps you to work out if you have the passion for flying as you'll need a lot of dedication to complete the training.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.


There are many passenger airline companies employing pilots in the UK including:

  • British Airways
  • easyJet
  • Jet2
  • Ryanair
  • TUI Airways

Jobs are also available with cargo airlines such as Amazon Air, DHL, TNT and West Atlantic.

It is also possible to get a job within general aviation in flight schools, with companies operating their own aircraft or with air taxi operators.

The industry is competitive and pilots can find it takes time to secure their first job as a commercial pilot. Networking with those already in the industry can be helpful in securing positions.

Look for job vacancies at:

You can also check the websites of individual airlines.

Specialist aviation recruitment companies include:

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

Professional development

Once you've secured a job with an airline, you'll need to complete a training course called a type-rating which trains you to fly the particular type of aircraft used by your employer.

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'll usually fly from), at a different UK airport or at an overseas airport if the airline company has international training bases. If you move to a different aircraft in the future, you'll need to complete another type-rating or a shorter differences course.

As a newly qualified second or first officer you'll work alongside a training captain to begin with until a certain amount of flights have been completed to ensure you've had adequate experience before you fly alongside a regular captain.

Once you've 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 ATPL will become 'unfrozen' and you'll be issued with a full ATPL. Once you have achieved this, you can progress to the role of captain.

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

You'll need to pass a medical every six to twelve months, depending on your age.

Career prospects

The progression route for most airlines tends to be:

  • second officer (SO)
  • first officer (FO)
  • senior first officer (SFO)
  • captain
  • training captain
  • type rating instructor (TRI)
  • type rating examiner (TRE)

A second officer, first officer and senior first officer all do the same role with the different titles reflecting the amount of hours and experience the pilot has. In these roles, you'll 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 you.

Limitations are placed on newly qualified first officers in relation to the whether you can fly in and the airports you can fly to. These limitations are lifted as you gain experience.

After gaining substantial experience and the required amount of flying hours (typically around 3,000) you can progress on to intensive training to become a captain. Promotion to captaincy might occur more quickly in a fast-growing budget airline than in a larger, more static organisation.

Following this, it's possible to become a training captain, either training new pilots during flights in the aircraft or training and/or examining new and existing pilots in simulators. Depending on the type of training you carry out, you could spend more time in the simulator than actually flying the aircraft so you’ll need to consider whether this fits your career aspirations.

You could also become a base captain where you take on some HR-related responsibilities for all the pilots who work from the same base as you. This role is combined with some active flying time too.

You may opt to progress your career by flying a larger aircraft which usually involves operating long-haul routes. You may have to move airlines to do this, as some only cover short-haul flights.

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

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