Airline and Commercial Pilots

What Airline and Commercial Pilots Do

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oey4mi_QV48

Work Environment

Pilots usually have variable work schedules, with overnight layovers that are more common for airline pilots.

How to Become an Airline or Commercial Pilot

Airline pilots typically begin their careers as commercial pilots or flight instructors. Commercial pilots need a high school diploma or equivalent and a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Airline pilots usually need a bachelor’s degree and also must have the FAA-issued Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.

Pay

The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $147,220 in May 2019.

The median annual wage for commercial pilots was $86,080 in May 2019.

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. Most job opportunities will arise from the need to replace pilots who leave the occupation permanently over the projection period.

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

Duties

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 85,500 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers were as follows:

Scheduled air transportation 86%
Federal government 4
Nonscheduled air transportation 2

Commercial pilots held about 41,600 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of commercial pilots were as follows:

Nonscheduled air transportation 28%
Technical and trade schools; private 12
Support activities for air transportation 10
Ambulance services 10
Manufacturing 3

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.

Work Schedules

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.

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of airline and commercial pilots.

Occupation Job Duties Entry-Level Education Median Annual Pay, May 2019

Air traffic controllers

Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of aircraft to maintain safe distances between them.

Associate’s degree $122,990

Water transportation occupations

Water Transportation Workers

Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water.

See How to Become One $57,330

For specific information about licensing requirements and other federal regulations regarding pilots and operators, visit

Regulations concerning the certification of airmen and general flight rules

Regulations concerning air carriers and operators for compensation or hire, and flight schools

For more information about pilots, visit

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

Air Line Pilots Association, International

Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations

Federal Aviation Administration

Helicopter Association International

National Agricultural Aviation Association

O*NET

Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers

Commercial Pilots


Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Airline and Commercial Pilots,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/airline-and-commercial-pilots.htm (visited ).