There's a strong demand for commercial airline pilots - so if you're prepared for the huge investment that's required for training, discover what it takes to land your first role
Pilot training at a glance
- You'll need an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) and a Class 1 Medical Certificate to become a commercial airline pilot.
- The minimum age to commence pilot training is 18, but you cannot get an ATPL until you're 21.
- Some integrated flight school courses cost over £100,000, but you can train for around £60,000.
- It typically takes 16-18 months to qualify as a pilot if you've no previous flying experience.
- A two-year part-time 'modular' route is also available allowing you to work while you train.
- The average starting salary for a commercial pilot is £36,000 (BALPA).
What qualifications are needed to work in aviation?
To work as a professional commercial airline pilot and fly an aircraft with nine or more passenger seats you'll need to apply for an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
However, before you can do this, you'll be expected to have undertaken the necessary training and obtained a Class 1 Medical Certificate (valid for 12 months until you're 40). Trainees will also need to hold good GCSEs in mathematics, English and science - plus ideally a second language. While a degree isn't essential, having studied to A-level standard would also be viewed favourably.
Find out whether you're cut out to be a pilot by taking an aptitude assessment test from The Honourable Company of Air Pilots at a cost of £155.
Then you'll need to build up the required 1,500 hours flying experience, which can be in any aircraft (including light aircraft), before you can take the practical skill test. This is in addition to passing ATPL theoretical knowledge exams in areas such as air law, operation procedures and radio navigation.
What are the routes to becoming a pilot?
You may wish to consider the structured programmes offered by the major airlines, including British Airways (BA), Virgin Atlantic and easyJet. They work with established providers who'll carry out the pilot training. The airline will typically loan their trainees the course fee and recoup the cost once the pilot is qualified and working.
Alternatively, you could look at aviation courses operated by pilot training schools. However, if you're a trainee without airline sponsorship, you'll be expected to pay the course fees yourself, and you won't have a guaranteed job at the end of it.
In terms of relevant aviation degrees, Bucks New University offers the BSc Air Transport with Commercial Pilot Training while Kingston University London runs the BSc Aviation Operations with Commercial Pilot Training.
Both these practical pilot courses can be completed within three years, although the Kingston course allows you to undertake a sandwich year, making it a four-year programme. While you'll be expected to cover the additional costs on top of your tuition fees, the main advantage of these academic courses is that students will have access to government loans the same as other students. As you'll be training for the integrated ATPL qualification, these fees can be as much as £80,000 at Bucks, and approx. £70,000 at Kingston.
Many of these options are covered in advice provided by the industry's professional association, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA).
Where can I undertake pilot training?
For those who've decided to embark on an aviation career, and fully understand the financial commitment this requires, you can go ahead and plan your journey to becoming an airline pilot.
If you've decided to train through a flying school, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published its list of approved training organisations (ATOs) through the CAA.
An example of a leading provider is FTA (Flying Time Aviation), a commercial flight academy based at Brighton City Airport. Their integrated flight deck programmes begin at £69,950 for those with no previous flying experience.
You could also consider L3 Commercial Aviation, a flight school with UK academies in Bournemouth, Coventry and Southampton.
How much does a pilot earn in the UK?
The average commercial pilot salary for those starting out is £36,000, according to the British Airline Pilots Association (BAPA). This rises to around £79,000 for experienced pilots, while it can reach £140,000 at the top end.
The average basic British Airways pilot salary is £89,000, according to Glassdoor. The total pay can reach an average of £96,000 a year.
What are the working hours?
A pilot's flight duty period will begin once they arrive at the airport to carry out their pre-flight tasks. For long-haul flights, this is typically 90 minutes prior to take-off. It ends once they have parked the plane at the arrival airport, as further duties can be carried out at a later date. Pilots usually get around 12 hours rest time between each day of flying.
The working hours of a commercial pilot will vary drastically depending on the time zones they'll be working in, the number of flights they'll be making and the flight crew on board the aircraft when making long-haul flights. Therefore, planning an airline roster of pilots can be extremely complex.
European countries, including the UK, have to comply with the EASA flight time limitations. This means that operating crew members cannot exceed 100 hours of flight time in any 28 consecutive days, or 1,000 hours of flight time in any 12 consecutive calendar months.
Read more on pilot working hours and flight time limitations at FlightDeckFriend.com.
Find out more
- Get expert advice on getting your career started from the CAA.
- Read BALPA's Inside Track on becoming a pilot.
- Explore the role in more detail by reading the airline pilot job profile.