Airline or Commercial Pilot
What Airline and Commercial Pilots Do
Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft.
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.
The following are examples of types of pilots:
Airline pilots work primarily for airlines that transport passengers and cargo on a fixed schedule. The captain or pilot in command, usually the most experienced pilot, supervises all other crew members and has primary responsibility for the flight. The copilot, often called the first officer or second in command, shares flight duties with the captain. Some older planes require a third pilot known as a flight engineer, who monitors instruments and operates controls. Technology has automated many of these tasks, and new aircraft do not require flight engineers.
Commercial pilots are involved in unscheduled flight activities, such as aerial application, charter flights, and aerial tours. Commercial pilots may have additional nonflight duties. Some commercial pilots schedule flights, arrange for maintenance of the aircraft, and load luggage themselves. Pilots who transport company executives, also known as corporate pilots, greet their passengers before embarking on the flight.
Agricultural pilots typically handle agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides, and may be involved in other agricultural practices in addition to flying. Pilots, such as helicopter pilots, who fly at low levels must constantly look for trees, bridges, power lines, transmission towers, and other obstacles.
With proper training, airline pilots also may be deputized as federal law enforcement officers and be issued firearms to protect the cockpit.
Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers held about 91,700 jobs in 2022. The largest employers of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers were as follows:
|Scheduled air transportation
|Couriers and express delivery services
|Federal government, excluding postal service
|Support activities for transportation
|Nonscheduled air transportation
Commercial pilots held about 50,900 jobs in 2022. The largest employers of commercial pilots were as follows:
|Nonscheduled air transportation
|Support activities for air transportation
|Scheduled air transportation
|Technical and trade schools; private
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.
Most pilots are based near large airports.
Injuries and Illnesses
Although fatalities are uncommon, commercial pilots experience one of the highest rates of occupational fatalities of all occupations.
Federal regulations set the maximum work hours and minimum requirements for rest between flights for most pilots. Airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month and work an additional 150 hours per month performing other duties, such as checking weather conditions and preparing flight plans. Pilots have variable work schedules that may include some days of work followed by some days off. Flight assignments are based on seniority. Seniority enables pilots who have worked at a company for a long time to get preferred routes and schedules.
Airline pilots may spend several nights a week away from home because flight assignments often involve overnight layovers. When pilots are away from home, the airlines typically provide hotel accommodations, transportation to the airport, and an allowance for meals and other expenses.
Commercial pilots also may have irregular schedules. Although most commercial pilots remain near their home overnight, some may still work nonstandard hours.
How to Become an Airline or Commercial Pilot
Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree and experience as a commercial or military pilot. Commercial pilots typically need flight training, and some employers may require or prefer them to have a degree.
Airline and commercial pilots also must have specific certificates and ratings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree in any field, including transportation, engineering, or business. They also complete flight training with independent FAA-certified flight instructors or at schools that offer flight training.
Commercial pilots typically complete flight training, and some employers require or prefer that they have a degree.
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.
Airline and commercial pilots who are newly hired by airlines or on-demand air services companies undergo on-the-job training in accordance with federal regulations. This training usually includes several weeks of ground school and flight training. Various types of ratings for specific aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 or Cessna Citation, typically are acquired through employer-based training and generally are earned by pilots who have at least a commercial pilot certificate.
Pilots also must maintain their experience in performing certain maneuvers. This requirement means that pilots must perform specific maneuvers and procedures a given number of times within a specified amount of time. Pilots also must undergo periodic training and medical examinations, generally every year or every other year.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Airline pilots typically need work experience as a commercial or military pilot.
To get a job with a major or regional airline, pilots need extensive flight experience. Some pilots work as flight instructors or on-demand charter pilots, positions that usually require less experience than airline jobs require, to help build enough flying hours so that they can apply to the airlines.
Military pilots may transfer to civilian aviation and apply directly to airlines to become airline pilots.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Those who are seeking a career as a professional pilot must meet FAA requirements. Pilots typically get their FAA-issued certificates and ratings in the following order:
- Student pilot certificate
- Private pilot certificate
- Instrument rating
- Commercial pilot certificate
- Multi-engine rating
- Airline transport pilot certificate
Each certificate and rating requires that pilots pass a knowledge test on the ground and a practical flying exam, usually called a check ride, in an appropriate aircraft. In addition to earning these credentials, many pilots get a flight instructor certificate after they get their commercial pilot certificate. The flight instructor certificate helps them build flight time and experience quickly and at less personal expense.
Commercial pilot certificate. To qualify for a commercial pilot certificate, applicants must meet age and flight-hour requirements. Student pilots use a logbook and keep detailed records of their flight time, which must be endorsed by a flight instructor. Federal regulations specify the types and quantities of flight experience and knowledge needed.
Applicants must pass the appropriate medical exam, meet all of the detailed flight experience and knowledge requirements, and pass a written exam and a practical flight exam in order to get a commercial pilot certificate. The medical exam confirms that the pilot’s vision is correctable to 20/20 and that no physical or mental conditions exist that could impair the pilot’s performance.
Commercial pilots must hold an instrument rating if they want to carry passengers for pay more than 50 miles from the point of origin of their flight, or at night.
Instrument rating. Pilots who earn an instrument rating can fly during periods of low visibility, also known as instrument meteorological conditions, or IMC. They may qualify for this rating by having at least 40 hours of instrument flight experience and 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command, and by meeting other requirements detailed in the federal regulations.
Airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate. All pilot crews of a scheduled commercial airliner must have ATP certificates. To earn the ATP certificate, applicants must meet certain federal requirements, such as for age, hours of flight, and written and practical exams. A commercial pilot certificate is a prerequisite for the ATP. Airline pilots usually maintain one or more aircraft-type ratings, which allow them to fly aircraft that require specific training, depending on the requirements of their particular airline.
Pilots must pass periodic physical and practical flight examinations to be able to perform the duties granted by their certificate.
Commercial pilots may advance to airline pilots after completing a degree, accruing required flight time, and obtaining an ATP certificate.
Advancement for airline pilots depends on a system of seniority outlined in collective bargaining contracts.
Overall employment of airline and commercial pilots is projected to grow 4 percent from 2022 to 2032, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 16,800 openings for airline and commercial pilots are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Employment of airline and commercial pilots is projected to grow as the demand for air travel increases. The post-pandemic expansion of hybrid and remote work arrangements is likely to increase demand for trips that combine business and personal travel, also known as “bleisure” travel, supporting employment demand for pilots.
Continued demand for private chartered flights is expected to sustain job growth for commercial pilots.
Contacts for More Information
For specific information about pilot certificate and ratings requirements and other federal regulations, visit
For more information about pilots, visit
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of airline and commercial pilots.
|Median Annual Pay, May 2022
|Air Traffic Controllers
Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of aircraft to maintain safe distances between them.
|Water Transportation Workers
Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water.
|See How to Become One