Aviation Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Learn about an airline pilot's job description, salary and training requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of this career to see if it could be the right choice for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career As an Airline Pilot

If you're interested in traveling, a career as an aviator just might satisfy your urge to see the world. The following table outlines the major pros and cons of being a pilot.

Pros of a Career As a Commercial Pilot
Extensive travel across the nation and around the world*
Average industry growth (9% growth for commercial pilots expected 2012-2022)*
Mandatory retirements may open up entry-level opportunities*
Bachelor's degree not required for entry-level position*

Cons of a Career As a Commercial Pilot
Pilots can spend long periods of time away from home*
Employment may be highly competitive with those who have been furloughed from their jobs*
High-pressure situations with split-second decisions required that may affect the lives of others*
Pilots often must complete extensive training to obtain licensure*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

Job Description

An airline pilot, or aviator, transports passengers and cargo by airplane. Some commercial aviators perform other duties, such as dusting crops or monitoring traffic. These professionals may also be aviation engineers who are highly skilled in handling the electronic equipment found in aircraft.

Salary Information and Employment Outlook

In May 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), commercial and airline pilots were earning a median annual wage of $75,620. Those earnings were affected by location. For example, of the 104,100 U.S. commercial and airline pilots flying in 2011, pilots in Hawaii reported annual mean earnings of almost $147,000, while pilots in Utah earned around $92,000.

The BLS reports that employment opportunities for airline and commercial pilots, copilots and flight engineers are expected to increase by 7% between 2012 and 2022. Entry-level job openings are expected to come as older pilots reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 years. Regional airlines may provide the best opportunities for employment, the BLS notes, because smaller airlines are expected to grow.

Career Requirements

Training Requirements

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that aspiring pilots pass both a knowledge test and a practical test. A commercial pilot must be at least 18 years of age and possess a logbook endorsement that shows the individual has completed training and can take the certification test. The required training and knowledge can come from attending a flight school, private instruction or through the military. Colleges are beginning to offer associate and bachelor's degrees that lead to pilot certification. Aspiring pilots must also pass a physical exam.

What Employers Are Looking For

Many employers have an age requirement and a minimum number of flight hours for opening positions. Additional items, such as a bachelor's degree, may be preferred. The following real job listings were posted in April 2012:

  • A small Montana-based airport was looking for a part-time commercial pilot with an instrument rating and minimum of 2000 hours total flight time, including 250 hours of turbine time.
  • A Boston-based regional airport was looking for a pilot with commercial and instrument certifications, as well as an FCC radio license. This pilot must have been at least 23 years of age and have had at least 700 hours total flight time and 100 hours flying a multi-engine airplane. The applicant must also have had an FAA Class 1 medical certificate and pass a criminal background check; a bachelor's degree was preferred.
  • A Houston-based airline sought a dual-rated corporate pilot to plan trips and make passenger arrangements, in addition to flying the plane. This individual must have had an airline transport pilot certificate and at least 4,000 hours of flight time. Experience flying turbo jets was also required; being based in Houston was preferred, as were individuals who had dual ratings for helicopters and fixed-wing crafts. A bachelor's degree was also preferred.

How to Stand Out From the Crowd

Many individuals earn their pilot certification after completing flight school or going through the military, but there are other ways to get your training and stand out. You may find that obtaining a bachelor's degree or ratings for different types of aircraft is useful.

Further Your Education

Many employers prefer to hire applicants with a bachelor's degree in math, physics or aeronautical engineering. In aeronautical engineering programs, you can expect to take courses in aerodynamics, aerospace structures and systems design. You'll also take courses in instrumentation, engineering thermodynamics, and you'll study the various types of jet propulsion. You'll learn about how aircraft are designed and flight control. Depending on the school, you may be required to complete cooperative education experiences in engineering to gain practical experience, or you may have to take laboratory-style classes with lectures. These degrees commonly take 4-5 years to complete.

Obtain Certifications and Ratings

Some employers note that pilots with multiple ratings to fly different types of aircraft are desired. In addition to your commercial pilot's license and fixed-wing certificate, you could pursue a rotorcraft rating, which is necessary to fly helicopters, or you could earn a single or multi-engine rating. Each of these ratings requires that an individual pass both knowledge and practical tests, according to the FAA (www.faa.gov).

Alternative Career Paths

Air Traffic Controller

If you want to work in the aviation industry but don't necessarily want to fly, you could consider a career as an air traffic controller. These professionals direct aircraft, instruct pilots, track flight paths and authorize changes when necessary. To become an air traffic controller, you should have at least an associate degree, complete a pre-employment test through the FAA and complete an FAA Academy training course. Without experience, you must be 31 or younger to qualify for a position. You may have to work evenings, nights or weekends and will be required to retire at the age of 56. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of air traffic controllers is expected to decline by three percent from 2010-2020.

Flight Attendant

If you don't want to fly the plane, you could consider a career as a flight attendant. These professionals must have a high school diploma and must be certified through the FAA. You'll need a passport to work as a flight attendant. According to the BLS, flight attendants typically complete on-the-job training once they are hired and must prove their proficiency in the specific aircraft that they will work in.

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