What are FAA Pilot Requirements?
When we make plans to fly somewhere, we’re putting our life into the hands of a multitude of highly trained professionals who have prepared for many years to serve us.
No one is more crucial to our safety when flying than the pilots, though some would argue that the aircraft manufacturer, airline mechanics, and air traffic controllers are just are important.
Let’s take a look at what is required to become an airline pilot. The long road to taking a seat in a commercial aircraft cockpit involves many years of studying and training, on the ground and in the air.
Governed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the airline industry has strict guidelines that ensure that before a person can pilot an aircraft that carries paying passengers, he or she meets all requirements to earn an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) license. The ATP certification is the highest license level that a pilot in the U.S. can attain, requiring far more training than recreational and even commercial pilots.
Many airlines have hiring standards that exceed those required by the FAA, but aspiring airline pilots first must meet the federal minimums.
Airline Pilot Basic Requirements
Rest assured that before being hired to fly a passenger plane, all pilots have been fully vetted by the FAA and the potential employer. The FAA’s basic requirements before the issuance of an ATP license include:
- Applicants must be determined to be of good moral character
- Minimum age: 23
- Pilots must already have earned a commercial pilot’s license with a full instrument rating (meaning they can fly during inclement weather when visibility is limited, and the clouds are low to the ground, relying almost entirely on the aircraft’s instruments to fly the aircraft)
- Pass an FAA medical exam, which is much more extensive than your typical annual doctor’s physical
- Meet or exceed FAA mandated ground training, flight hours, and pass all associated tests
It takes at least several years to become an airline pilot, and pilots can take many paths to ultimately reaching this goal. Chances are that your captain and first officer in the cockpit have amassed hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of flight hours in private planes and/or military aircraft, earning licenses that are lower level than the ATP license.
Airline Pilot Medical Requirements
All pilots must take and pass an FAA medical exam to obtain and maintain their pilot’s license. The doctors that administer these exams are FAA certified, so you can’t just walk in ask your doctor to “give me an FAA medical check-up”.
There are distinct differences with the FAA exam, so passengers have no need to worry that their pilots aren’t in good enough shape to fly a plane. The FAA exam must be passed annually, and most U.S. airlines also require an additional physical exam by their in-house, or privately contracted medical staff.
Everyone’s safety is always the top priority.
Do You Need a College Degree to be an Airline Pilot?
As far as the FAA is concerned, the answer is no. But the major airlines, meaning United, American, Southwest, and Delta, do require a college degree to fly for them. It doesn’t matter what the major was, but they want to hire pilots who have shown a dedication to completing a college education.
Without a college education, and especially now when there is a shortage of pilots, you can still become a pilot for a smaller or regional airline. However, if one of these pilots wants to change employers someday to one of the larger carriers, they will be required to get that four-year degree.
By now you’re hopefully feeling better about who’s in the cockpit flying the aircraft. The requirements spelled out so far are no different for the plane’s captain who occupies the left seat, or the first officer/co-pilot, who rides in the right seat. Both have to be equally qualified to fly the aircraft on their own when necessary.
But there’s still lots more to qualify for the coveted ATP certification. These are the FAA requirements for flight time:
- A minimum of 1,500 hours of total flight time (that’s 90,000 minutes!), including at least 500 hours of cross-country flying between multiple airports
- 100 hours of night flying
- 50 hours in the same class of aircraft that the pilot is being rated for. (I.e., airplane, helicopter, etc.)
- 75 hours of instrument flying time
- 250 hours as the pilot-in-command. This typically means as the captain of an aircraft with multiple pilots, or the sole pilot manning the controls of an aircraft.
- Pass all required written exams
- Pass practice flights with an instructor
Air Transport Pilot applicants must have previously earned their commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating.
Clearly, the road to becoming an airline pilot isn’t easy. This long and intricate process is just the way we all want it to be. Flying a plane full of passengers who are trusting you to get them safely to their destination is an enormous responsibility.
Have you ever been a passenger on a motorcoach? Most of us have, but how many of us have ever wondered what the requirements are to be the driver of that bus? Surely, since buses travel at high speeds with 60+ passengers aboard who aren’t wearing seat belts, there must be some rather stringent federal regulations, right?
Not quite. Here are the guidelines from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation:
- Minimum age: 21
- Speak and read English at a high enough level to speak with the general public and officials, understand highway traffic signs, and have the ability to complete reports and record entries.
- Be able to operate the motorcoach safely, learning by experience and/or training
- Possess a current medical examination certificate
- Have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) with a passenger endorsement
- Provide his/her employer with a list of all motor vehicle violations in the last 12 months, or with a signed statement that there are none to report
- Not be disqualified from operating a passenger motorcoach
Having read both the requirements for flying a passenger aircraft and a passenger motorcoach, it’s quite clear that becoming an airline pilot is far more challenging and more tightly regulated by the FAA.
How Do Airline Pilots Get Hired?
That’s a great question that doesn’t have a simple answer. After earning their ATP certification, a pilot who desires to fly for a passenger airline has several options. Whether to apply for a position with a small airline, a regional airline (such as those that contract with United, American, and Delta to fly shorter legs to and from their hubs), or to apply to one of the major airlines right off the bat, probably depends on the state of the airline industry at the time.
At the present time, there is a shortage of qualified pilots, due largely to the many thousands of pilots who accepted early retirement during the peak of the pandemic, when airline flights were drastically reduced. Seeing an opportunity, thousands of future hires are currently training to fill the void. In fact, some of the airlines are paying for the training, in anticipation of hiring many of the graduates in the not-too-distant future.
With the world in motion again, airline flights are plenty full, and the carriers are flying their aircraft as much as possible. So, what do they need? Of course, more pilots as well as flight attendants, mechanics, and gate agents, etc. Many thousands of these former staff also chose early retirement.
To attract pilots, some airlines have relaxed some of their long-standing requirements. While they still conduct in-person interviews and make certain that the federal requirements for the ATP certification have been fully met, some carriers have reduced the college requirement down to two years or have decided not to require college at all.
Criminal background checks are always required, as is drug testing. The FAA has a zero-tolerance policy about the time required – 8 hours – between having an alcoholic drink and flying their next flight. And most airlines have lengthened their company requirement to 10 or 12 hours.
Pilots also are very aware that random drug and alcohol screenings are to be expected, so not adhering to the regulations would mean an early end to their flying career.
What Happens After a Pilot is Hired?
After being hired formally, each pilot is assigned to a specific type of aircraft, though they may be flying various models. For example, the Boeing 737-700, -800, -900, and MAX have many similarities, but there are enough differences that additional training is required to fly each of these models.
This includes ground school, many hours of simulator training, and in-flight experiential time, too. The same is true of the Airbus A319, A320, and A321. Recurrent training is required of all pilots on an annual basis.
The two major passenger jet manufacturers have distinctly different cockpit environments, so a pilot who is trained to fly a Boeing 737 today, for example, can’t just fly an Airbus A320 tomorrow.
This process is lengthy and expensive for the airlines, so it is highly unusual for a pilot to be certified to fly aircraft made by both manufacturers. This is the reason that some airlines, such as Southwest (Boeing 737-700/800/MAX) and Frontier (Airbus A319/320/321), have just one aircraft type in their fleet.
Becoming an Airline Pilot Takes Years of Commitment and Training
As you can see, there’s far more to becoming a pilot than most people think. It’s a years-long process just to get that first job, but pilots are a different breed of professional. They love to fly and want your experience with them to be as positive and memorable as possible. Safety is paramount in the airline industry, and that’s why air travel is the safest mode of transportation in the world.
Just like you, pilots prefer smooth, uneventful flights, and will do everything within their capabilities to provide that exact experience for you and everyone else aboard each flight.
Sit back and relax. You’re in good hands with highly professional, well-trained, experienced, and capable pilots flying your flight.