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What does a airline pilot do?
An airline pilot is sometimes also known as a captain, first officer, co-pilot or aircraft pilot. They fly passengers and cargo to various destinations globally and will operate different types of aircraft. Pilots can fly aircraft for business, leisure and commercial reasons, which can involve long-, medium- or short-haul flights.
An airline pilot usually works with another pilot in an aircraft cockpit during flights. One pilot is the captain in command who is in overall charge of the aircraft, as they have more experience, authority and responsibility. The other is the co-pilot or first officer who assists the captain. Both pilots will typically fly the aircraft, speak with air traffic control, look after systems, help crew and passengers, etc. There can be more than two pilots on long-haul flights to ensure they take regular breaks from flying.
An airline pilot’s main aim is to get the cabin crew, passengers and cargo to their destinations efficiently, safely and on time. They will be responsible for ensuring flights leave and arrive on schedule and go as smoothly as possible, passengers are comfortable, and cargo is not damaged. If there is an emergency, pilots must also think and act quickly to mitigate harm and damage. Therefore, they have a lot of responsibility. Mistakes can cost many lives, cause severe damage and result in significant financial losses.
Airline pilots will carry out many tasks, including checking and changing routes, developing flight plans, carrying out pre-flight checks, taking off and landing, flying the aircraft, speaking with air traffic control and following instructions, instructing and briefing the cabin crew, communicating with passengers, etc. The role may also involve some administrative work, e.g. completing in-flight issues reports and logs.
An airline pilot will work and communicate with many people during flights, including other pilots, cabin crew members, air traffic control, passengers and flight engineers (sometimes on long-haul flights). When not flying, they may liaise with ground crew, other airport staff, hotel staff, training companies, flight instructors, medical staff, accident investigators, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), etc.
Airline pilots will typically work for one of the UK airline companies on commercial flights. They can also work for transport freight airlines and for private businesses on corporate flights. Some roles enable pilots to work overseas.
An airline pilot’s responsibilities will depend on who they work for, the types of aircraft they operate and their seniority.
Some examples of common duties can include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Following air traffic control data and weather reports to check routes and change them where required.
- Ensuring all information, e.g. weather, routes, passengers and aircraft, is present to create flight plans.
- Developing flight plans detailing quantities of fuel and flight altitude needed.
- Checking safety systems, fuel, instruments, engines, and equipment are working before every flight (pre-flight checks).
- Safely taking off, flying and landing the aircraft.
- Checking, understanding and interpreting data mid-flight and making adjustments where required.
- Adhering to take-off and landing procedures to reduce noise pollution and comply with noise regulations.
- Communicating with air traffic control and taking instructions from them where necessary.
- Liaising with the cabin crew regularly and giving them instructions and briefings.
- Using a public address system to communicate with passengers before, during and after the flight.
- Dealing with any emergencies calmly, quickly and appropriately.
- Producing flight reports and logs for every flight and keeping them up to date.
- Assisting with loading and unloading cargo or luggage (on smaller aircraft).
Being a pilot is not a 9–5 job, and they will work unsociable hours on a rota, e.g. early mornings, evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays. It may also require individuals to work on special occasions and religious festivals, as flights operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The shifts can be long and up to 12 hours a day. However, this varies and will depend on their employer and type of flights, e.g. short-, medium- or long-haul. Working on short-haul flights can give pilots a better work/life balance, as they will know their shifts a few months in advance.
Pilots travel to the airport to start their working day and must live relatively close to be on standby. They will work on the flight until they reach the intended destination. Once there, overnight stays nationally or internationally may be necessary, or they may need to wait for a flight to make their return journey. In some cases, flights may be delayed or cancelled, which can mean working on days off and longer working days.
Some employers may offer part-time, job-share or flexible jobs. However, unsociable hours are still usually required.
What to expect
Being an airline pilot is not for the faint-hearted, as there is a lot of responsibility associated with the role. Controlling a multimillion-pound aircraft and getting passengers and cargo safely to their destinations may be a daunting prospect for some. However, it is a rewarding and exciting career choice for those with the right personal qualities and competence. Pilots are well respected and have a certain status within society. Therefore, the role can give individuals a sense of pride and fulfilment in their careers.
Pilots play a pivotal role in ensuring passengers are comfortable and safe during the flight. Some passengers will be going to or from holiday, work and business, and families. If they have a smooth flight, especially when nervous about flying, it can make for a positive experience and happier customers. Pilots can go home at the end of their working day knowing their job makes a significant difference to other people’s lives.
Boredom will never be a problem for pilots, as no two days will be the same. They will operate flights to numerous destinations meeting different people along the way. They may fly several aircraft types and face tough challenges and flying conditions. They may also have opportunities to visit new places and experience diverse cultures if they have time to stay at their destinations.
There are many perks to being a pilot. They will travel for free and can also get free hotel stays, food and drinks, and discounted airline tickets. Their salaries are also very competitive. However, this does reflect the time, cost and training needed to become and remain a pilot.
Even though being an airline pilot is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:
- A lot of responsibility – pilots have lots of responsibility and pressure in their roles. They will fly aircraft worth hundreds of millions of pounds and be responsible for hundreds of passengers and potentially expensive cargo. Mistakes are not an option, as they can cost lives and result in significant financial losses.
- Challenging passengers – there can be instances where passengers can get verbally and physically abusive and even threaten the lives of other passengers, the crew and even those on the ground (if the aircraft crashes). Even though pilots are secure in the cockpit, they will have to make quick decisions in these situations, which can be stressful.
- Physical and mental demands – being a pilot can be tiring, especially when working on long-haul flights and with different time zones. The shifts can be long and unsociable, meaning regular stays away from home. Aircraft cockpits are cramped places, and pilots will be sitting down for long periods. They will still need impeccable concentration and remain focused before, during and after flights.
- Time, training and cost to become (and remain) a pilot – individuals will need to be dedicated to becoming and remaining a pilot. There is a lot of training, and individuals must undertake many flying hours to gain and keep licences. It is not a cheap career choice either. It can cost tens of thousands (even >£100,000 in some cases) for the flight school training, licences, medicals, equipment, etc. Loan and scholarship options are available for some individuals, but these opportunities are fiercely competitive.
- Uniform and dress code – most pilots need to wear a uniform and look smart.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable career. There is no doubt that there is a lot of responsibility on airline pilots and the role can be physically and mentally demanding. It also takes a lot of training, time and cost. However, there are many positives. The prestige and the love of flying are why individuals choose to become airline pilots.
When considering whether to be an airline pilot, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be an airline pilot
Some of the personal qualities an airline pilot requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- An interest in aircraft, flying and travelling.
- Good physical fitness, eyesight and hearing.
- Passionate, motivated, confident, committed, assertive and enthusiastic.
- Responsible, trustworthy, dedicated, disciplined and determined.
- Knowledge of maths and physics.
- Good spatial awareness and coordination.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Leadership skills.
- Thinking and reasoning skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Technical skills.
- Observation skills.
- Recording skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
- The ability to give and follow instructions.
- The ability to understand, operate and control complex equipment, instruments and systems.
- The ability to concentrate for long periods.
- The ability to work well with others in a team and alone using their own initiative.
- The ability to work under pressure, be patient and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to think and react quickly in difficult situations.
- The ability to cope with multiple demands.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to use IT and software packages.
There are many different routes to becoming an airline pilot. Individuals could go to university, apply for an apprenticeship or trainee scheme, complete conversion qualifications or attend specialist training courses. They could also do an aptitude assessment to see if they are suited to the pilot role.
An individual does not need a degree to become an airline pilot. However, having an undergraduate degree from an approved flight training organisation can help individuals stand out from the crowd.
Some examples of relevant courses are (this list is not exhaustive):
- BSc (Hons) in Air Transport with Commercial Pilot Training.
- BSc (Hons) Aviation Management with Commercial Pilot Training.
- BSc (Hons) Aviation Operations with Commercial Pilot Training.
The entry requirements will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying.
They will typically need the following:
- To be over 18 years old.
- 2–3 A Levels or equivalent.
- A class 2 medical certificate as a minimum.
Relevant university courses will help individuals obtain a ‘frozen ATPL’ (Airline Transport Pilot Licence). The licence is ‘frozen’ until pilots achieve a certain number of flying hours and experience.
Note: individuals will still need to pay for flight training costs on top of degree costs.
Apprenticeships and trainee schemes
There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals become an airline pilot, e.g. level 6 first officer pilot, which is equivalent to a degree. Individuals will usually need four or five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and A Levels, or equivalent.
Individuals could also choose an apprenticeship with the Armed Forces, which could help them become an airline pilot. They could then do a conversion qualification later.
There are also various pilot training programme placements offered by airlines, e.g.:
- Virgin Atlantic Future Flyers Programme.
- British Airways Cadet Programme.
- CAE Pilot Training Programmes.
Some sponsorships may pay for full or part training costs, but they are very competitive, so individuals must prepare to stand out from the crowd and work hard. See Flying Scholarships for opportunities.
Look on the websites of various airlines to see if they have any apprenticeships or trainee roles available.
If individuals have trained as pilots in the Armed Forces, i.e. the RAF, they may be able to become airline pilots. Through the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) UK Military Aircrew Accreditation Scheme (MAAS), they can gain credit towards a civilian licence/rating based upon their military flying experience. They will be required to achieve a conversion qualification by completing a civil aviation course.
Specialist training courses
Numerous private flying schools offer training courses (see next section for details) to enable individuals to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence. Further information on flight schools is on the CAA’s website.
Undertaking private flying lessons beforehand will help individuals to get a feel for flying and will help them build knowledge and practical experience.
Achieving an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL)
Whichever route an individual decides to take to become a pilot, they will need to hold an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) to work as an airline pilot.
There are three main training routes to achieve an ATPL, which are as follows:
- Modular – the training is broken down into modules. It is not as intensive as the integrated course, as individuals can complete it part time while they work, which can help financially too. However, it will take longer to complete. This route usually requires individuals to hold a private pilot licence (PPL) and to have completed 150 flying hours, so it is essential to check the requirements before applying.
- Integrated – this intensive course includes classroom theory and flying time. It takes around 18 months to complete full time. It is more expensive and can cost £80,000–£90,000. Individuals do not require previous knowledge or experience with this option.
- Multi-pilot – this route is relatively new and can be more cost-effective. However, it is the most restrictive route, as it only permits individuals to operate a certain type of aircraft and work with a particular airline. Individuals should only take this route if they already have a job offer on course completion.
Once an individual has successfully completed their training, a ‘frozen’ ATPL is issued. This will allow them to work as a co-pilot/first officer with an airline to build up their flying hours to become a captain.
Once an individual has achieved 1,500 flying hours and met other requirements, their ATPL becomes unfrozen. This means they can apply for jobs as a captain.
If individuals have no or very little flying experience, they could take the Aptitude Assessment for Potential Pilots run by the Honourable Company of Air Pilots. The assessment allows individuals to see whether they have the aptitude for professional flying. It can save a lot of time, trouble and money in the long run if individuals are not suited to this as a career. It is advisable to complete the assessments as a first step before paying for training.
Individuals must pass a CAA class 1 medical to achieve the ATPL and become airline pilots. It is advisable to do the medical before signing up for training. Otherwise, if individuals do not pass their medical, it is a lot of time and money to waste.
Individuals must have a good level of physical fitness, as some airlines will have weight and height restrictions. Their eyesight and hearing must also be good, and their colour vision normal.
Criminal records checks
Airline pilots must undergo a criminal record check.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Individuals will need to be over 21 years old to become airline pilots.
To keep their licence, airline pilots must complete exams every six months. They must also pass a medical every six to twelve months (depending on their age).
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge.
Some examples of CPD courses that may be useful for pilots include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Data protection and the GDPR.
- Customer service skills.
- Time management.
- Conflict management.
- Risk assessment.
- Work-related violence.
- Work-related stress.
- First aid.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Equality and diversity.
- LGBTQ+ awareness.
- Foreign languages.
Professional bodies, unions, regulators and associations, such as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, the Independent Pilots Association & Union (IPA) and others, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become pilots and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development and keep their licence.
Training for airline pilots is standard. However, there may be additional qualifications and requirements, depending on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to see what employers will ask for with regard to training. Jobs can be found on websites such as Flight Jobs Global, flightdeckfriend.com, Latest Pilot Jobs, Aviation Job Search, British Aviation Jobs and Airlines Careers Jobs. Also, look at individual airline websites, e.g. Virgin Atlantic Careers, British Airways, TUI Careers and others.
More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities. Refresher training is also necessary as it is legally required and allows individuals to keep their licence. It also keeps their knowledge and skills up to date.
Where do airline pilots work?
An airline pilot will work in and around various aircraft, but they will predominately be in the cockpit. They may also briefly work in offices, airports and maybe outside if there is an emergency.
Airline pilots can be employed and work for companies across the UK and internationally, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- British and international commercial airlines, e.g.:
– From low-budget to high-end.
– Regional and domestic.
- Shipping and logistics companies, i.e. cargo airlines.
- Private businesses and executives.
Overnight stays are usually associated with long-haul flights and less with short-haul flights.
How much do airline pilots earn?
The exact salaries for airline pilots will depend on the following:
- The airline they work for.
- The types of aircraft they fly.
- Their experience, e.g. captain or first officer.
- The size of their employer.
- Their working hours, e.g. working on short-haul or long-haul flights.
Here are some examples of salaries for pilots (these figures are a guide only):
- Newly qualified junior first officer – £24,000–£28,000 a year.
- Senior first officer – £42,870 a year on average.
- Captain – – £101,667 a year on average.
Pilots will also receive further benefits, e.g. pension schemes, allowances, free hotel stays and discounted travel.
Types of airline piloting roles to specialise in
An airline pilot can specialise in flying specific aircraft types and will need additional training to gain the necessary type ratings. For example, a Boeing B777/787 Type Rating will allow pilots to fly the Boeing 777 and Boeing 787.
They could also specialise in specific areas, such as cargo transportation for freight companies or focus on passenger flights. They could work for a small operator or large airline.
They may also be able to specialise in certain flight types, such as:
- Long-haul flights – are usually more than seven hours, and destinations may include the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Australasia. The aircraft tends to be big to accommodate more passengers. There are more opportunities for pilots to spend time at the destination.
- Medium-haul flights – are usually between three and seven hours, e.g. to North Africa and the Middle East. The aircraft is likely to be larger than those used for short-haul flights.
- Short-haul flights – are usually less than three hours and typically include domestic flights and travel to Europe. The aircraft are smaller, which means fewer passengers. There are quick turnarounds for these flights, meaning that pilots may not have time to spend at the destination.
There are also different types of commercial flights that pilots may specialise in, such as:
- Charter flights – flights added to meet demand, e.g. for summer or skiing holidays.
- Scheduled flights – direct or connecting flights that operate to a strict schedule and are pre-established by airlines.
- Low-cost – cheaper budget flights, but passengers have to pay for additional services, e.g. meals.
- Domestic – flights that are internal and do not cross borders, e.g. UK flight from London to Edinburgh.
- Intercontinental and transoceanic – these flights are also known as long haul, as they cross continents and oceans.
- International – flights departing from one country and landing in another, i.e. cross borders.
- Corporate – smaller flights typically booked by businesses and celebrities.
Various airline pilot roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. All airline pilots will need the correct medical and licences. They will need to cope with significant responsibility and remain calm under pressure. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what a company is looking for and the specialist areas an airline pilot wants to work in. Further qualifications and training are necessary for specialist roles.
Airline pilots not competently carrying out their roles may make mistakes, which can have serious consequences. It can result in passengers being injured or killed, damage to cargo and significant financial losses if the aircraft is beyond repair. It can also mean uncomfortable flights and unpleasant take-offs and landings, leading to unhappy passengers and customer complaints. It may even put people off from flying. Therefore, whatever the type of role, airline pilots must have the necessary competence to carry out their jobs professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise and not doing any tasks in which they are untrained.
Guidelines, laws, aircraft, systems, instruments, equipment and technologies are regularly changing. Therefore, airline pilots must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives airline pilots the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, be legally compliant and progress in their careers.
Joining a professional body, union or association (as mentioned previously) can help individuals enhance their skills and overall career. They offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for airline pilots. With more qualifications, experience and flying hours, individuals can go from a first officer to a senior first officer and then on to a captain. They could also move from short-haul flights to long-haul, which means flying larger aircraft. Alternatively, they may choose to become flight training instructors or operations managers.
Knowledge, skills and experience from being an airline pilot can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they may want to move into an enforcement role and become a CAA inspector or specialise in air accident investigations.
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