Commercial Pilot Careers: Salary Information & Job Description

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A commercial pilot's mean annual salary is around $82,430, but is it worth the lengthy training requirements? Read real job descriptions and see the truth about career prospects to decide if becoming a commercial pilot is right for you.
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A Commercial Pilot Career: Pros and Cons

A career as a commercial pilot can be exciting as you get to travel to new places all the time if you work for an airline. Consider the pros and cons below to see if this career interests you.

PROS of Becoming a Commercial Pilot
Job advancement opportunities (first officer to captain)*
Exceptional earning potential (median annual wage for the 90th percentile of $141,210 in May 2014)*
Allows you to travel all over the world*
Regional and budget airlines provide the best job opportunities from 2012-2022*

CONS of Becoming a Commercial Pilot
May require long periods of time away from home (average of 360 hours a month away from home)*
Irregular schedules are normal*
Actual flying time is limited by the Federal Aviation Administration (100 hours a month maximum)*
Mandatory retirement (Must retire at age 65)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Commercial airline pilots transport people and cargo by airplane. Additionally, commercial pilots may do other types of flying, including dusting crops, tracking criminals, reporting traffic conditions and rescuing stranded individuals in remote areas. Flying a plane involves monitoring dials and gauges to maintain the proper elevation and speed. You are also responsible for cargo and people aboard the flight. Through communication with air traffic control, you're able to safely take off, fly and land your plane.

You may have to deal with hazardous weather conditions or issues with cargo or passengers during a flight. Your flight crew may assist you with managing any in-air issues. The crew may also assist you with navigation and other flying-related tasks. You may also be subjected to dangerous conditions if you are flying in remote areas or carrying toxic chemicals.

Career Paths and Specializations

As a commercial airline pilot, you may serve as the captain or first officer, also called the co-pilot. As the captain, you hold the main responsibility for the flight. The co-pilot position is an assistant to the captain and helps when needed and as directed by the captain. Typically, you'll start out as a co-pilot and work your way to a captain position. Specializations within the commercial aviation industry include charter pilots and crop dusters. Some pilots also fly planes specifically for firefighters and aerial photographers. Another specialization includes flight instructors.

Job Prospects and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there is a projected job growth of 9% from 2012-2022 for commercial pilots ( Reductions in flights and maximizing passengers per plane to maximize profitability will be the largest factor in this low growth. Due to the mandatory retirement age, many job openings will occur due to retirements.

In May 2014, the BLS reported that commercial pilots in the 10th-90th percentile salary range earned approximately $35,250-$141,210. The top-paying industry was aerospace parts manufacturing carriers with an annual mean wage of $116,790. Wired telecommunications carriers were the second-highest-paying industry with a wage of around $114,700. The top three paying states were New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois with mean annual wages of $111,120, $102,160 and $98,450, respectively.

Career Skills and Requirements

Typically, a 2-year college degree is required to work as a pilot. However, training in the military can often be substituted for a college degree. All pilots paid to transport people or cargo must hold a license. In order to become licensed, you need to have flight experience. Flight experience can be gained in the military or through flight school. All licensing is regulated through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA requires you to be at least 18 years old and to have a minimum of 250 flight hours. You must also pass physical, written and practical exams. Being a pilot also requires:

  • Good vision and hearing
  • Attention to details
  • Ability to focus for long periods of time
  • Ability to handle stressful situations and remain calm

What Employers Are Looking For

Job descriptions published by employers in March 2012 were focused on commercial airline pilot positions for flying passengers to destinations around the world. Pilots were expected to be fully qualified through the FAA. These descriptions also noted some employer-specific requirements, such as:

  • In a job posting from an airline out of Florida, the company wanted a pilot to fly an Airbus A320 series plane whose experience includes the minimum of 1,000 hours in multi-engine aircraft. At least 50 hours must have been flown in the last 12 months.
  • A job description from an air group stated pilots need experience in cross country and night flying.
  • A major airline provided a job description that said pilots need to be at least 21 years old with at least 1,000 hours in fixed-wing turboprop or turbofan and a radiotelephone operator's permit.
  • A small airline in Wisconsin posted a job description that said its pilots need to be fluent in English, have previous turbine experience and be willing to complete the company training program.

How to Maximize Your Skills

The best way to maximize your skills as a commercial pilot is to gain experience and log as many flying hours as possible. You may want to volunteer to fly as often as possible for an employer or fly from a private airfield. You may also consider working as a flight instructor, which can allow you to log a large number of flying hours.

Other Careers to Consider

Perhaps traveling a lot and working an irregular schedule doesn't appeal to you, or maybe you've discovered some other aspect of being a commercial pilot that has you reconsidering this career. Some related career options include air traffic controllers and flight attendants.

Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers are responsible for keeping the runways safe and helping airplanes to navigate without incident. With the use of radar, you monitor aircraft and give direction as well as update pilots on current and upcoming weather conditions. Some controllers monitor planes specifically while en route, while others oversee radar approaches and departures. Still others, called tower controllers, handle the planes while on the runway. The FAA regulates air traffic controllers and requires education and/or experience requirements to be met. Typically, new controllers require 2-4 years of on-the-job training before they are fully certified as controllers.

Flight Attendant

As a flight attendant, you take care of passengers on flights. Your job may involve explaining safety procedures, providing drinks and ensuring that passengers are comfortable. The job can be physically demanding due to irregular schedules, 12- to 14-hour work days and working in a pressurized environment. Airlines schedule flights year round, thus flight attendants may work nights and weekends as well as holidays. Flight attendants are also regulated by the FAA. You can become a flight attendant with a high school diploma, but you may need a college degree. According to the BLS, a degree in hospitality or tourism may prove advantageous when seeking a flight attendant position. Regardless of your education, you will have to undergo a training program once hired. You must also be certified by the FAA.

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