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Commercial airline pilots carry a lot of responsibility, which is why training for this role is so extensive.
The role involves being able to anticipate changes and solve problems effectively and efficiently.

What does an airline pilot do? Qualifications and training | Getting around sky-high training costs | Typical employers of airline pilots | Career progression | Key skills for airline pilots

A commercial airline pilot is responsible for getting passengers to their destination safely. The role involves being able to anticipate changes and solve problems effectively and efficiently. You will usually work alongside another pilot during a flight. Below are the main responsibilities of an airline pilot.

  • carrying out pre-flight checks to the aircraft, making sure the health and safety systems are working
  • devise a flight plan using information about the weather, passengers, aircraft and route
  • check data throughout the flight and make decisions about changes where necessary – such as altering the route
  • follow instructions from air traffic control
  • communicate with passengers about the progress of the journey
  • think and act quickly when faced with sudden changes to environmental conditions and emergencies
  • note down deviations from the flight plan during the journey
  • write reports about any in-flight issues.

Qualifications and training

In order to start training as an airline pilot, you will need five GCSEs at grades nine to four (A*–C) and two A levels. While a degree or postgraduate qualification isn’t required for this career path, you might decide to take a related course. While many of these will include flight training, you’ll have to pay for these on top of the normal costs of your degree.

To qualify for a pilot’s licence, you must carry out training at an approved training organisation (ATO). You can find a list of these on the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. You might choose to take an integrated course, which is full-time and usually lasts around 18 months, or to carry out modular training, which allows you more freedom over when you take modules and gives you the option of distance learning for the theory side.

You’ll also need to pass a Civil Aviation Authority class 1 medical, which assesses your fitness, hearing and vision. The Honourable Company of Air Pilots provides aptitude tests designed to give you an idea of whether you'd have the capability of becoming an airline pilot and taking this might help you to decide whether this career path suits you.

Getting around sky-high training costs

The modular option appeals to many people as it’s more feasible financially. Training is expensive – for the integrated course you’d probably pay between £80,000 and £90,000 – so being able to carry out a part-time job at the same time might be an appealing option. The modular course is also generally cheaper, although you should do your research into requirements; some providers expect you to have a private pilot licence and some experience in flying.

If you anticipate funding your training to be difficult, there are some ways you might be able to get around this. Airlines sometimes offer sponsorship, although there’s usually a high level of competition for these opportunities. The Air League also offers flying scholarships. You might choose to work for the RAF rather than for a commercial airline. You’d gain full training as part of this; the requirements are: GCSEs grade 4 (C) or above in five subjects, including English and maths, and two A levels. Candidates also need to meet the RAF’s health and fitness requirements.

Typical employers of airline pilots

There are a number of airlines you could work for, such as:

  • British Airways
  • easyJet UK
  • Flybe
  • TUI Airways
  • Virgin Atlantic International
  • Career progression

    When you first train for your Air Transport Pilot Licence, its status will be ‘frozen’ and you’ll be qualified to work as a co-pilot. In this position, you’ll carry out the same duties as the captain but without taking on people management responsibilities. After you’ve completed at least 1,500 flying hours, you can apply for a full licence; this usually takes three to five years. Once you’ve gained enough experience, you could move on to work as a flight training instructor or an operations manager.

    Key skills for airline pilots

    • problem-solving skills
    • the ability to make decisions confidently and quickly
    • strong communication skills and the ability to coordinate your work with another person
    • aptitude for data analysis
    • high attention to detail
    • the ability to remain calm in stressful situations
    • people-management skills
    • spatial awareness
    • the ability to grasp and utilise technical information.

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