How to Become an Airline Pilot


To become an airline pilot, you typically need a bachelor’s degree, combined with a commercial pilot’s license, and several thousand hours of experience operating an aircraft.


But first and most importantly, you'll need to determine if this career path is a good fit for your skills, interests and personality traits. Does the following describe you?


• You enjoy the idea of operating aircraft for a living

• You have excellent leadership skills

• You are willing to pursue a career path wherein job postings are highly competitive

• You are able to keep calm and be decisive in difficult and stressful situations

• You are willing to take responsibility for the well-being of an aircraft, its cargo, crew and passengers

• You are able to remain mentally and physically alert for long periods of time

• You have the patience and determination needed to earn the necessary flight hours

• You have an excellent sense of spatial orientation


Below we've outlined what you'll need to get started in this field. We've also included helpful information for this career, such as salary expectations, an outline of the skills you’ll need, educational requirements, a list of possible employer types, and much more!



Required Experience

Airline pilots typically start their careers by working as commercial pilots, working as flight instructors and on-demand charter pilots. Pilots must typically accrue thousands of hours of flight experience to get a job with regional or major airlines.


Newly hired pilots at regional airlines typically have about 2,000 hours of flight experience, whereas newly hired pilots at major airlines typically have about 4,000 hours of flight experience.



Education You'll Need

There are no specific educational requirements for becoming licensed as an airline pilot, although many airlines prefer to hire candidates with a bachelor’s degree (in no specific field, although a degree in math or engineering is likely the most relevant). 





What is an Airline Pilot

Job description


Airline pilots are responsible for flying aircraft that transports passengers, cargo and mail on a fixed schedule. During the flight, airline pilots use a range of instruments to control the height and speed of the airplane, as well as to navigate, and communicate with air traffic controllers. After landing, they are responsible for completing all post-flight paperwork.



What Do They Do?

Job duties


Although the job duties of an airline pilot can vary (typically depending on the type of aircraft, as well as the length and nature of the flight), they are generally responsible for the following:


• Gaining clearance from air traffic control to take off

• Manipulating aircraft controls to steer the aircraft and reach the desired altitude

• Monitoring air traffic control for traffic information, clearances and weather information

• Making periodic position reports

• Calculating and revising flight plans as necessary

• Entering data in the aircraft log book

• Monitoring aircraft systems

• Making announcements regarding the flight on the public address system



Who Creates Jobs?

Airline pilots are employed by scheduled and charter passenger airlines, freight carriers and private business charter companies. Competition for airline pilot jobs is keen, and aspiring airline pilots should be willing to relocate to find employment.


Due to the high level of competition in this field, aspiring airline pilots typically need to gain as much commercial flight experience as possible prior to applying with an airline. Airline pilots usually start their careers by working entry-level pilot jobs. Typical entry-level positions for pilots with a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) are as follows:


• VFR (Visual Flight Rules) Charter Air Taxi

• IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) Charter Air Taxi

• Photo Survey Pilot

• Forest Fire Detection

• Medical Evacuation

• Airborne Traffic Watch

• Airborne Banner Towing

• Parachute Dropping

• Forest Fire Suppression

• Flight Instructor (with valid Instructors Rating)





Licensing Requirements

Below are the general licensing requirements for airline pilots in Canada and the United States. Please note, this is general information that does not cover every exception or detail, it is only meant to provide a general understanding.


Licensing in Canada:


In Canada, the minimum licensing requirement for airline pilots is a Canadian Commercial Pilot's Licence (CPL) with night endorsement, instrument flight rating and a Canadian Radio Telephone (Restricted) Licence. Having previous commercial flight experience is preferred by some airlines, and other airlines require it. Private flying clubs and post-secondary schools throughout Canada, with varying costs, offer training programs for aspiring commercial and pilots. In order to qualify for a CPL in Canada, applicants must:


• Have a private Pilot License

• Be at least 18 Years of age

• Have a class 1 medical, obtained from an Aviation medical examiner

• Working knowledge of English or French

• A minimum of 200 hours total flight time and 100 hours Pilot in Command time including 20 hours X-Country

• Pass any related written and practical exams


Licensing in the United States:


All pilots who are paid to fly must have at least a Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL), granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Additionally, airline pilots must have the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Private flying clubs and post-secondary schools throughout the United States, with varying costs, offer training accredited programs for aspiring commercial and pilots. To qualify for a CPL in the United States, applicants must:


• Be at least 18 years old

• Meet certain hour requirements

• Pass the appropriate medical exam

• Meet all of the detailed flight experience and knowledge requirements

• Pass a written exam and a practical flight exam 



Additional Requirements for Working in this Field

In addition to licensing and experience, you may also require the following:


• Able to pass a criminal record check

• Vision corrected to 20/20

• Hold a current, valid passport from Canada or the United States

• Completion of an advanced training ground school course on aviation subjects or related post-secondary education



Helpful Personal Traits and Characteristics

In order to take enjoyment from a career as an airline pilot, you need a certain set of personality traits. Taking enjoyment from your job duties and your career are important, as it helps you maintain a positive attitude towards your work, which can lead to having a long and successful career.


• Enjoy operating aircraft and related equipment

• The ability to work well with others

• The ability to delegate tasks

• Willing to travel cross-border

• Comfortable with heights and loud noises

• Enjoy evaluating aircraft performance

• Willing to pursue a highly competitive career

• Willing to “build time” (accumulate hours and hours of flight training and experience)

• Able to keep calm, be decisive, and take charge in difficult and stressful situations

• Willing to take responsibility for the well-being of the aircraft, its cargo, crew and passengers



Skills You'll Need

In order to become effective in a career as an airline pilot, and perform your job duties with competence, you need to posses a certain set of skills, including:


• A good sense of spatial orientation

• Good hand-eye coordination

• Excellent leadership skills

• Able to speak clearly when conveying information to air traffic controllers

• Able to listen closely for instructions

• Able to remain attentive for long periods

• Able to maintain situational awareness by looking for other aircraft or obstacles

• Able to respond quickly and with good judgment to any impending danger

• Able to work as a member of a team

• Able to effectively deal with people when they are stressed and aggressive

• Able to work effectively with personnel ranging from labourers to company presidents

• Able to work for long periods without supervision



How Much Do Airline Pilots Make?

The salary level of airline pilots can vary, typically depending on the following factors:


• Their level of experience (including hours logged) and aptitude

• The region in which they work

• The size of their employer


Salary for Pilots in Canada (Alberta figures only): According to the 2018 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, Albertans working in the Air Pilots, Flight Engineers and Flying Instructors occupational group earn an average salary of $64,265 per year.


United States: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for American workers in the Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers occupational group is $114,200 per year.



Job Opportunities - Current Postings

Our job board below has job postings for pilots in Canada and the United States:



Typical Work Environment

Working Hours

The working hours of airline pilots are often irregular, as their working hours are reflective of their flight routes and could include nights, weekends and public holidays. The working hours of airline pilots are strictly regulated for safety reasons. In most airlines, pilots spend approximately 75 hours a month in the air, with additional preparation time spent on the ground.


The amount of time airline pilots spend away from home can vary. On domestic routes, airline pilots may be able to return home every evening. Flights further away would often involve overnight stays or longer.


Working Conditions

Airline pilots spend much of their time in cramped aircraft cockpits, and are sometimes exposed to dangerous situations. They also need to maintain situational awareness by looking for other aircraft or obstacles.


On short-haul flights, airline pilots would normally work in a two-person team, as pilot (captain) or co-pilot (first officer). On long haul flights, airline pilots often have a flight engineer on board, who is responsible for checking the instruments.



Similar Occupations in Our System

Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to airline pilot, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.


Air Traffic Controller


Helicopter Pilot

Robotics Technologist

Tour Guide



References for this Guide

To find out more about what an airline pilot does, how much they earn, and other details of this career, please consult the following resources:


Occupations in Alberta:Airline Pilot.” (March 31, 2018). ALIS website - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved October 21, 2019.

Occupational Outlook Handbook - Transportation and Material Moving:Airline and Commercial Pilots.” (September 4, 2019). United States Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Retrieved October 21, 2019.

Programs:Commercial Pilot License.” (n.d.). The Professional Flight Centre website. Retrieved October 21, 2019.

Infograph:Airline Pilot Salary.” (n.d.). Phoenix East Aviation website. Retrieved October 21, 2019.



Scholarships for Getting into this Field

The 'Applicable Majors' section below shows fields of study relevant to a career as an Airline Pilot. You can search for scholarships matched to those fields of study on our All Scholarships by Major pages.


Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!



Applicable Majors

Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point for this career. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!


Top Banner Image: 
Top Banner Image Title: 
Airline Pilot