Airline Pilot

The Job and What's Involved

Airline pilots are responsible for flying aircraft safely and efficiently. They fly people and cargo around the world for business, commercial and leisure purposes.

A pilot's duties typically begin at least an hour before the aeroplane takes off. Before the flight, the pilot:

  • Checks the details of the route, flying altitude and weather.
  • Carries out safety and security checks.
  • Checks that the navigation and operating systems are working properly.
  • Briefs the cabin crew.
  • Supervises the refuelling and loading of the plane.
  • Contacts air traffic control, obtaining a start-up time and gaining clearance for push back, taxiing and takeoff.

Throughout the flight, the pilot:

  • Keeps in regular contact with air traffic control to ensure safety at all times.
  • Checks data on the plane's instruments and monitors progress using a computer.
  • Maintains contact with the cabin crew to make sure that the passengers are comfortable.
  • Makes announcements to keep passengers informed.

At the end of the flight, the pilot brings the plane in to land with the help of air traffic control, taxies the plane to its final position, shuts down the engines and writes a flight report, noting any problems they may have experienced during the flight.

Pilots fly on short-haul and long-haul flights. The captain has overall responsibility for the aircraft, crew and passengers. On short-haul flights there is usually a captain and a co-pilot or first officer. On long-haul flights there is usually a captain and two co-pilots.

Airline pilots work shifts. Their working hours are strictly controlled, but include nights, weekends and public holidays. Flight delays can mean long, irregular working hours. Pilots spend long hours sitting in flight decks, which are usually comfortable but very confined.

The amount of time spent away from home varies. On short-haul routes, a pilot may return home every evening. On long-haul flights, pilots spend nights away from home and may fly across several time zones, so jetlag fatigue can be a problem.

Pilots are required to wear a uniform and have a presentable appearance.

Starting salaries may be between £20,000 and £38,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are over 10,500 airline pilots in the UK. They are employed by scheduled, chartered and freight airlines. The number of airline pilots is increasing, mainly because of the growth of low-cost airlines. However, competition for qualifying courses and jobs is intense.

Vacancies are advertised in Flight International, on airlines' websites and on the website of the British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA).

Increasingly, pilots have to pay for their own training. As training is costly, it may be useful for entrants to first have their aptitude tested. The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN), for example, offer a pilot aptitude testing scheme. It is also sensible to have a medical carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Unless potential entrants are assessed as a low risk for training and have passed the medical examination, they are unlikely to be able to successfully pursue a career as a professional pilot.

Education and Training

The minimum qualification required for an airline pilot is a 'frozen' Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). This involves passing written examinations for the ATPL and doing 200 hours of flight training, including flight tests. Pilots are awarded the full ATPL when they have 1,500 hours of flying experience, including 500 hours as co-pilot on a multi-pilot aircraft type. A full ATPL is required to be considered for training and promotion to captain.

There are different routes towards obtaining an ATPL licence:

Full-time integrated training - entry is normally with at least three GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3) in English, maths and science, or equivalent qualifications, or a pass in maths and physics tests. The minimum age for entry varies from 17 to 18 years. This method of training takes from one to two years and costs at least £50,000.

Modular training - the first step towards modular pilot training is to gain a Private Pilot's Licence (PPL). Many flying schools in the UK offer PPL training. Costs are normally over £6,000.

Pilots then need to gain 150 hours' flying experience before they can train for their frozen ATPL.

Modular training normally costs over £20,000.

City University and London Metropolitan University offer degree courses that can include pilot training to frozen ATPL level. Leeds, Liverpool, Salford and Sheffield Universities also offer degree courses that include some pilot training. Students usually have to pay for the flying element of their course.

It is also possible to join the Armed Forces as a trainee pilot. This route requires commitment not just to becoming a pilot, but also to serving in the Armed Forces for a set period of time. Armed Forces pilots have to do a conversion course before being awarded an ATPL licence to fly civilian aircraft.

Most pilots pay for their own training at private training schools. A list of approved training schools is available at

Sponsorships, which involve an airline paying for training, are now only offered by a few airlines. For a sponsorship, people need at least two A levels/three H grades, preferably including maths and physics, and five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English, maths and a science subject.

A limited number of flying scholarships and bursaries are available from organisations such as the Air League Education Trust and the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN).

British airlines insist that applicants have the unrestricted right to live and work in the UK and EU, and are eligible for an unrestricted world passport. There may also be height restrictions.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Airlines provide an induction course for qualified pilots on entry, to train them in airline procedures and their fleet of planes. Pilots usually start work as a co-pilot, working alongside a training captain on short-haul flights, to gain maximum experience of takeoffs and landings.

Pilots have to take refresher training and tests every six months, throughout their career. They also undertake training as new aircraft and instruments are introduced.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An airline pilot needs to:

  • Work well under pressure and be able to take charge in an emergency.
  • Have a calm and efficient manner.
  • Have the ability to process data and information quickly and accurately.
  • Be confident using technology.
  • Be able to interpret maps and 3D displays.
  • Have excellent hand-to-eye co-ordination and spatial awareness.
  • Have good communication skills, with a clear speaking voice.
  • Be self-confident, with leadership qualities.
  • Be a good team worker.

Your Long Term Prospects

Airline pilots start work as co-pilots. Eventually they become fully-qualified first officers.

After about five years' experience they can apply to be a co-pilot on long-haul flights. Promotion to captain usually requires at least 2,500 flying hours, which can take more than five years to achieve.

Pilots may take on training or managerial roles alongside their flying duties. They can also transfer to ground-based management and may reach senior positions within an airline.

Airline pilots can also move into other flying work, such as flying instruction.

There may be opportunities to work for overseas employers.

Get Further Information

The Air League, Broadway House, Tothill Street, London SW1H 9NS
Tel: 020 7222 8463

British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA), BALPA House,
5 Heathrow Boulevard, 278 Bath Road, West Drayton UB7 0DQ
Tel: 020 8476 4000

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), 45-59 Kingsway, London WC2B 6TE
Tel: 020 7379 7311

GoSkills, Concorde House, Trinity Park, Solihull, West Midlands B37 7UQ
Tel: 0121 635 5520

Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN), Cobham House,
9 Warwick Court, Gray's Inn, London WC1R 5DJ
Tel: 020 7404 4032

Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS),
4 Hamilton Place, London W1J 7BQ
Tel: 020 7670 4300

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