With roles as diverse as logistics and leadership, finance, business and data, opportunities to work for an airline extend far beyond becoming a pilot or member of the cabin crew

A dedicated airline graduate programme provides a structured route into your chosen aviation career, allowing you to sample a number of business functions while developing your knowledge and skills.

In such a constantly evolving industry, thanks to the advancement of technology, employers are always on the lookout for passionate, talented graduates.

Why choose an airline career?

'The aviation industry is fast-paced and exciting,' says Melissa Richardson, emerging talent manager at British Airways (BA). 'If you're determined, love a challenge, and are looking for a promising career in a growing sector, there are opportunities for you.'

Embarking on an airline career you'll meet a variety of people across the business and have plenty of opportunity to develop your role. The chance to travel may also be a feature of your job, meaning you'll get to expand your cultural horizons.

You'll also receive impressive benefits such as discounted flights. But the perks aren't the only reasons you should consider a career in this industry.

Whether you have your heart set on becoming a member of the air cabin crew, managing the aircraft on the ground as an air traffic controller, or joining one of the leading graduate schemes in your chosen business area - be that IT, finance, HR or marketing - there are plenty of jobs for graduates to choose from.

How do I find airline work experience?

Jobs with major airlines and aviation employers are competitive. To give yourself an edge and to gain an insight into what it's like working in the sector, try to secure some work experience. This will look impressive and make you look proactive on graduate scheme application forms.

Speculatively contacting organisations to find out if they take on students during the holidays is a clever way to source experience.

Alternatively, you can apply for more structured programmes. For example, BA runs a three-month Future Leaders Internship over the summer, based at London Heathrow. You'll earn a salary of £18,000 pro rata.

'We also have business placements available, which last for 11 months and be completed between years two and three of your degree,' explains Melissa. 'Students on this scheme will rotate around different areas of the business, ranging from finance to marketing, and take on a number of roles.'

Boeing provides both three and 12-month internship placements in areas such as:

  • commercial
  • digital services
  • engineering
  • finance
  • project management
  • supply chain.

Airbus also offers year in industry placements in a range of fields including:

  • business management
  • communications
  • engineering
  • flight physics
  • systems and landing gear.

It's also worth researching local airports to see if they offer any work experience opportunities - for example, the schemes on offer at London City Airport. Although not working directly with an airline, you'll still gain valuable transferable experience.

Leading airlines also take on apprentices; to discover more about the possibility of working at a major airline while studying for a recognised qualification, see transport apprenticeships

Which airlines run graduate schemes?

  • Aer Lingus - Offer three separate graduate programmes in maintenance and engineering, digital technology and finance. 
  • BA - There are six programmes to select from, each lasting two or three years. Whether you opt for the Data Analytics, Commercial business, Engineering, Finance, Future Leaders or Logistics stream, you'll be handed responsibility from the outset.
  • easyJet - For a minimum of two years, you'll join a business, operations, technology or leaders-focused team if you make it onto the easyJet Talented Career Programme.
  • Ryanair - Two-year head office programmes are split into Sales and marketing, Finance, Commercial, Inflight, Customer service and Digital Experience. Then there’s the 12-month IT Lab graduate programme, split into Infrastructure and operations, Software development, Quality assurance, BI and data analytics, IT planning and delivery and IT security. Finally, the two-year Operations programme offers schemes in OCC, Group operations and Safety and pilot management. Based at the airline's head office in Dublin, each involves rotations across a number of different teams within a chosen department.
  • Virgin Atlantic - You'll get involved in multiple teams across the business' engineering services and production departments. The two-year scheme is designed to give you a comprehensive overview of the technical world of Virgin Atlantic.

Not an airline but a huge employer in the aviation field, Heathrow Airport also runs graduate schemes focused on leadership development in areas including generalist leadership, engineering, procurement and finance.

Similarly, Manchester Airport run graduate programmes in:

  • airport operations
  • asset management sustainability and renewables
  • finance
  • project management
  • property development
  • technology.

For more general information on programmes, see graduate schemes 2024.

What qualifications do I need?

Gaining a place on one of these schemes isn't easy. A strong academic record is essential, and while entry requirements for different programmes vary, there are some attributes you'll require whichever route you choose. 

You'll need a willingness to learn and a commitment to deliver for customers. Interpersonal skills, relationship building, and a high level of commercial acumen are must-haves.

Applicants for the BA Future Leaders scheme will need a 2:2 in any degree discipline, while those wanting a place on the Data Analytics programme will need a relevant 2:2 degree, such as those in data or analysis.

Ryanair expect graduates on their Inflight scheme to have achieved a 2:1 - the same is true for their Ground operations and IT security programmes.

For some schemes, an aviation-based course may make you stand out -or example, aviation management, aviation technology and aviation finance. Gaining experience through an internship programme during your studies also shows ambition.

When applying for a scheme, be prepared for a process more competitive than passengers rushing to get away for their summer holidays. Application procedures can vary but at Ryanair, BA and easyJet, for example, the first step is to complete an online application form. Next, you'll face a screening process, which usually involves psychometric tests. You'll then take part in a remote or face-to-face interview. If all goes well, you'll then be invited to an assessment day involving group exercises, presentations and second-round face-to-face interviews.

What do airline graduate schemes involve?

Your responsibilities depend on the scheme and your employer but it's likely that you'll work on live projects that make a real impact. These range from deciding on new menus for in-flight meals, to developing sales in new markets or working on the technology behind in-flight entertainment systems.

On the Ryanair Head Office Inflight programme, you'll work in one of the organisation's busiest departments. You'll plan crew incentives, gifts and parties and analyse the rosters and training needs of over 15,000 cabin and flight crew. You'll work in in-flight training, crew planning, retail sales analysis and European base management.

As a graduate on the Virgin Atlantic programme, you'll get involved with teams across the airline's engineering and production departments and learn all about the maintenance and optimisation of Airbus and Boeing aircrafts, while sharpening your commercial and project management skills.

On BA's Future Leaders scheme, you could manage cabin crew, escort media on press trips or deliver major projects to enhance and transform customer experience at Heathrow. The three-year scheme is based at London Heathrow, and you'll earn a salary of £30,000. On the airline's finance programme, you could influence investment decisions on onboard products, analyse commercial decisions on network growth opportunities, or negotiate with supplier networks to maintain cost competitiveness. You'll get paid £33,000 per year.

'Once our graduate schemes are finished, we work with graduates to best align their skills and interests and find them a permanent position within the business,' adds Melissa. 'Some of the leaders at British Airways today started off as graduates.'

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