What does it take to become an airline pilot? It takes the same things that are required to become a private pilot, that is time, money and commitment. You just need more of everything to get to the airlines.
An absence of any of the above will prevent you from reaching your goal. Less of one can be made up for by extra of another but you will need at least some of each.
In addition to the above you will generally need good general health, 20/20 vision (with or without corrective lenses), a college degree, a clean driving record and no convictions. The degree can be in anything although something aviation related will help.
Assuming you’re ok so far the next question is how do you convert your time, money and commitment into a job flying airliners. If you are prepared to join the military and think you can meet their pilot requirements you can skip all of the following.
How to get a job with a major airline
1. Take the FAA first class medical examination. For about $60 you can establish if you meet the medical requirements for most commercial flying jobs. You can get a student pilot certificate issued the same time at no extra cost.
2. Take a flying lesson. Even if your goal is flying airliners you are going to spend a lot of time in small airplanes to get qualified so try flying one to see if you like it.
3. Plan your training. This means deciding between a full time commercial training course such as those offered by major flight schools or training part time at a local flight school or flying club. You don’t necessarily get better training at major schools but you will probably reach your goal faster at a school that is dedicated to producing commercial pilots. Local flights schools and flying clubs may in theory be more economical but a lack of airplane or instructor availability may slow your progress. You will need to end up with at least a Commercial Pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings. In most cases a flight instructor certificate is also obtained.
4. Once you start your flight training do as much flying as your schedule and budget will allow and study hard.
5. Having obtained your Commercial Pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings your next mission is to accumulate at least 100 hours of multi engine flight time and over 1000 hours total time. These are currently the minimum requirements for getting hired by the commuter airlines. The minimums change with fluctuating pilot supply and airline demand and are currently lower than they have been for many years. However by the time you obtain your Commercial Pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings you will probably only have logged about 250 hours total time and about 15 hours in multi engine airplanes. So your challenge is to get some more multi time and to get your total time over 1000 hours–preferably without buying the time. If you can afford to buy 1000 hours flight time you are probably too well off to consider a career in aviation.
The most common way to bridge the flight time gap is to become a flight instructor. This means obtaining a flight instructor certificate which is the most challenging test of all and then being willing and able to teach flying full time for at least a year. For those unable or unwilling to teach there are alternatives such as flying traffic watch airplanes, pipeline patrols etc . In some areas low time pilots can get work flying cargo in small airplanes. What airlines really need are multi engine and instrument flying skills so whatever you can do to build these skills will help.
5. Once you have over 1000 hours total and more than 100 in multi engine airplanes you can try for a commuter airline first officer position. This will get you into the airline system and you will start building quality time fast. Unfortunately most commuter carriers pay very low wages to First Officers and for most people the job is just a stepping stone to major airlines. With emergence of regional jets at commuter airlines this may change but for now a starring salary of about $20,000 is common. The good news is that the practice of asking First Officers to pay for their own initial airline training is disappearing and that with pilot supply limited salaries are increasing.
6. After a couple of years flying for a commuter airline you should be ready to start applying to the major airlines. At this point the requirements go up and you should plan on obtaining an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate before you take this step. The ATP is essentially an advanced instrument rating and among other things calls for at least 1500 hours total flight time.
What will it cost and how long does it take
Zero time through FAA Commercial Pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings training can be obtained for about $60000 USD. If you train full time you can get from zero time to Commercial Pilot with multi-engine and instrument ratings in little over 6 months. You will then need to do an entry level flying job like flight instructing for at least a year. Low time instructors typically earn less than $25000 / year. Once hired by the commuters plan on at least two years before you are able to land a job with the majors airlines. Commuter airline pay ranges from about $20000 / year for new hire first officers to about $60000 / year for senior captains with several years experience. So overall you are probably looking at a minimum investment of $60000 in training and four years of no pay / low paying work before you can be in a position to apply for a major airline job. This time scale is subject to many variables most of which you cannot control and there is no certainty that following this path will result in an airline job. Although airlines are currently actively hiring it is still a very volatile industry and a competitive field where only the best applicants succeed.
You do not have to be an airline pilot to make a career out of flying
Contrary to popular belief there are lots of interesting careers for pilots that do not involve being an airline pilot. For those who want to fly jets but do not want to get locked into the seniority based airline culture there is corporate flying. Many corporations have their own aircraft and flight departments. Corporate pilots often take on multiple operational responsibilities in addition to actually flying the airplane. Compensation can be similar to airline pilots and for many taking responsibility for operating a business jet and transporting small numbers of important passengers to diverse destinations is more appealing than the routine of airline flying.
Big cargo operators also offer an alternative to the airlines with similar compensation packages.
For those really committed to flight training there are an increasing number of options for career flight instructors both with major flight schools and on an independent basis. In some parts of the US experienced flight instructors are charging $50 /hr as independent contractors.
If you really want to fly small planes for a living then everything from banner towing to aerial application (crop spraying) is an option. As well as flying people and small cargo between remote locations. However in most cases your pay check will be directly proportional to the size of your airplane.