Airline and Commercial Pilot Career Description


Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft.

What they do

Pilots typically do the following:

  • Check the overall condition of the aircraft before and after every flight
  • Ensure that the aircraft is balanced and below its weight limit
  • Verify that the fuel supply is adequate and that weather conditions are acceptable
  • Prepare and submit flight plans to air traffic control
  • Communicate with air traffic control over the aircraft’s radio system
  • Operate and control aircraft along planned routes and during takeoffs and landings
  • Monitor engines, fuel consumption, and other aircraft systems during flight
  • Respond to changing conditions, such as weather events and emergencies (for example, a mechanical malfunction)
  • Navigate the aircraft by using cockpit instruments and visual references

Pilots plan their flights by checking that the aircraft is operable and safe, that the cargo has been loaded correctly, and that weather conditions are acceptable. They file flight plans with air traffic control and may modify the plans in flight because of changing weather conditions or other factors.

Takeoff and landing can be the most demanding parts of a flight. They require close coordination among the pilot; copilot; flight engineer, if present; air traffic controllers; and ground personnel. Once in the air, the captain may have the first officer, if present, fly the aircraft, but the captain remains responsible for the aircraft. After landing, pilots fill out records that document their flight and the status of the aircraft.

Some pilots are also instructors using simulators and dual-controlled aircraft to teach students how to fly.


Work Environment

Pilots assigned to long-distance routes may experience fatigue and jetlag. Weather conditions may result in turbulence, requiring pilots to change the flying altitude. Flights can be long and flight decks are often sealed, so pilots work in small teams for long periods in close proximity to one another.

Aerial applicators, also known as crop dusters, may be exposed to toxic chemicals, typically use unimproved landing strips, such as grass, dirt, or gravel surface, and may be at risk of collision with power lines. Helicopter pilots involved in rescue operations may fly at low levels during bad weather or at night, and land in areas surrounded by power lines, highways, and other obstacles. Pilots use hearing protection devices to prevent their exposure to engine noise.

The high level of concentration required to fly an aircraft and the mental stress of being responsible for the safety of passengers can be fatiguing. Pilots must be alert and quick to react if something goes wrong. Federal law requires pilots to retire at age 65.


How to become an Airline and Commercial Pilot

Airline pilots typically begin their careers as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots usually need a high school diploma or equivalent. Airline pilots need a bachelor’s degree. All pilots who are paid to fly must have at least a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In addition, airline pilots must have the FAA-issued Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.

Interviews for positions with major and regional airlines may reflect the FAA exams for pilot licenses, certificates, and instrument ratings, and can be intense. Airlines frequently conduct their own psychological and aptitude tests to assess the candidates in critical thinking and decision-making processes under pressure.

Military pilots may transfer to civilian aviation and apply directly to airlines to become airline pilots.

Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree in any subject, along with a commercial pilot’s license and an ATP certificate from the FAA. Airline pilots typically start their careers flying as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots usually accrue thousands of hours of flight experience in order to get a job with regional or major airlines.

Commercial pilots must have a commercial pilot’s license and usually need a high school diploma or equivalent. The most common path to becoming a commercial pilot is to complete flight training with independent FAA-certified flight instructors or at schools that offer flight training. Some flight schools are part of 2- and 4-year colleges and universities.

The FAA certifies hundreds of civilian flight schools, which range from small fixed base operators (FBO) to state universities. Some colleges and universities offer pilot training as part of a 2- or 4-year aviation degree.


The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $147,220 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $74,100, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of airline and commercial pilots is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.

Employment of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers is projected to grow 3 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment of commercial pilots is projected to grow 9 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. The number of commercial pilot jobs is projected to increase in various industries, especially in ambulance services, where pilots will be needed to transfer patients to healthcare facilities.

Similar Job Titles

Airline Captain, Airline Pilot, Airline Pilot (Captain), Airline Transport Pilot, Captain, Check Airman, Co-Pilot, Commuter Pilot, First Officer, Pilot, Captain, Charter Pilot, Check Airman, Chief Pilot, Commercial Pilot, EMS Helicopter Pilot (Emergency Medical Service Helicopter Pilot), First Officer, Helicopter Pilot, Line Pilot, Pilot

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More Information

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Video Transcript

Flying a plane safely through the sky… with passengers or freight on board… takes more than excellent vision… airline and commercial pilots need quick reaction times and excellent problem-solving abilities. These pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft. Pilots run through detailed checks before every flight, including checking fuel supplies, aircraft weight limit, cargo balance, weather conditions, and aircraft condition. Tiny cockpits contain the flight crew for the duration of flight; strong teamwork and sharing of flight duties keep the pilot and copilot alert and rested. Pilots communicate frequently with air traffic controllers on the ground, from submitting their flight plan before take-off, to checking in during a flight, and receiving instructions for landing and handling storms or emergencies. Airline pilots fly public, scheduled flights. They may fly long-distance routes, and be away from home for extended periods. Those routes, along with mandatory rest periods between flights, cause pilots to have irregular work schedules. Pilots may be deputized as federal officers and carry firearms to protect the cockpit. Commercial pilots fly charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting missions, crop dusting flights, and take aerial photographs. They often have additional duties that include scheduling flights and aircraft maintenance. Those who fly at low levels must navigate hazards such as power lines. Commercial pilots typically need high school education, while airline pilots generally need a bachelor’s degree, the Airline Transport Pilot certificate, and thousands of hours of flight experience as a commercial or military pilot. All professional pilots must have a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Flight training usually begins at a flight school or with an independent instructor.

Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistic,
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