How to become an airline pilot?

In this comprehensive guide on training for airline pilots we look at the routes that can be taken to fulfil your dream, the medical and fitness requirements, the cost of training and ways in which pilot training can be combined with university study.

General requirements for commencing training

In general anyone can commence training who has reached the age of 16, who is in good physical and mental condition and who has ideally completed at least high school education. Let’s take a look at the requirements in more detail.

Age requirements for pilots

In general it is possible to start training at 16 years of age, but to be awarded the first pilot licence you have to have reached the age of 17. The final licence necessary for flying an airliner can be awarded from the age of 18. The maximum age for an airline pilot is 64 (including).

Health requirements for pilots

Pilots, not just airline ones, must be in good physical and mental condition so as not to endanger themselves or others when flying. In the case of airline pilots a stricter level of medical requirements must be fulfilled (so called First Class Medical check). To receive this level of medical certificate it is necessary to undergo an initial examination at an Aeromedical Centre (AeMC). A list of these for individual European countries can be found on respective CAA websites. The comprehensive examination takes about half a day and detailed requirements are listed in European Commission Regulation Annex Part-MED.

Revalidation takes place at yearly intervals (every 6 months over the age of 40) and this can be performed at any of the Aeromedical Centres or by an Aeromedical Examiner. A list can again be found on the respective CAA websites. The revalidation examinations are not as demanding (they do not include detailed eye examination, audiogram and certain other examinations) and is normally completed in around 60 to 90 minutes.

The price for the initial examination is approx. £700 (€800), and the annual revalidation examinations cost around £150 (€170). Price is not covered by a medical insurance (public or private).

For sport and recreational flying a class two medical is sufficient, which is less strict and anyone with an average state of health should not have any problem obtaining the certificate.

A detailed description of the examination procedure for a first class medical certificate is covered in a separate article.

What level of education is required before commencing pilot training?

There is no regulation setting out minimum academic educational requirements for commencing pilot training. A general assumption, however, is that candidates should have completed high-school education.

Pilots are trained in flight schools, which are usually not a part of public educational system. Many flying schools require students without a school leaving certificate to take a test in high-school mathematics and physics. Non-native English speakers are also required to take an English test.

Some of the large flying schools (e.g. CAE Oxford, L3 Airline Academy) require that candidates have passed 5 GCSE exams (or equivalent) at grade C or higher in mathematics, English and science subjects. As a rule airlines also have similar requirements for recruitment.

Some airlines in Asia may require a higher level of education, for example a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but this is not standard practice in Europe.

Is a career as a pilot suitable for women?

Yes, a career as a pilot is equally suitable for men and women. With regards to the fact that a career as a pilot has traditionally been seen as a profession for men, less than 10% of airline pilots are currently women. This should, however, change in the coming years as many companies have started to target women in their recruitment campaigns (e.g. EasyJet, Lufthansa).

Where to start?

Before you start to do anything, try to study as much information as possible so that you can make an informed decision. You may actually find the training and the job is not suitable for you. In particular, focus on the medical requirements, how the training is conducted and what the life of an airline pilot is like. People usually see only the positive things about being an airline pilot.

Read this guide thoroughly to choose the best route that fits your life situation. There are different training routes available. Below you can find a detailed description of each of them.

Do research into the flight schools in your location, but don’t limit yourself just to that. Good quality training may require a bit of travel, not just within your country, but also abroad. You have to consider the best option for you may actually be thousands of miles away from your home.

From a practical point of view, it’s strongly recommended to start with your Medical Class 1 check. Starting your actual training is not recommended before you hold the medical certificate in your hand. Pilot training is very expensive, and you may waste a lot of money if you start and find out you are not medically fit to continue the training later on.

Modular, integrated, or MPL training?

At the current time there are 3 different routes to reach the same objective.  These are modular, integrated and MPL training. One of these routes should suit everyone. Let’s take a look at each route separately.

A) Modular training

The traditional method of airline pilots training in which the training as a whole is subdivided into smaller units called modules. These can be taken independently at various flight schools or even in different EASA member states.

The student can thus, in stages, obtain the following licences/qualifications (modules):

  • PPL (A) – The student starts with the basic Private Pilot Licence, which enables the piloting of light aircraft for private purposes (recreation, sport, personal transport etc.). With this licence it is not possible to profit from flying services and the maximum take-off weight is 5700 kg.
  • NIGHT Rating – This enables the holder to fly between the evening civil twilight and the morning civil twilight, in other words, night flying. However, the flying still takes place during acceptable weather conditions with respect to good visibility.
  • ATPL theory – Is the theoretical basis for a further qualification. It comprises 14 subjects and the study of each of them is completed by an exam.
  • IR (A) – A rating that extends a pilot licence to include instrument flying. It is necessary for flying in poor weather conditions when a pilot can fly using instruments in the plane alone.
  • MEP (A) – More powerful aircraft or aircraft with higher take-off weights are normally multi-engine. For a pilot to gain authorisation to fly multi-engine aircraft, the Multi-Engine Piston qualification (MEP) is necessary.
  • MEP/IR (A) – In the same way as it is necessary to learn instrument flying for a single-engine aircraft, it is also necessary to obtain this rating for multi-engine aircraft.
  • CPL (A) – A higher level of licence that permits flying for payment in civil transport aviation. As rule this is the final licence required before a pilot can seek employment as an airline pilot.

The (A) in brackets at the end of the licence / qualification abbreviation means the licence is intended to fly an Airplane. Qualifications for helicopters have letter (H) in brackets at the end of the name. For example PPL (H), which is a Private Pilot Licence for Helicopters.

When following the modular route it is not necessary to take the modules in precisely this order. There are several options. This is, however, the standard and cheapest route.

After obtaining all the above licences and qualifications a pilot is at the same level as a pilot who has completed the integrated training route (see below).

Advantages of modular training:

  • The individual modules can be taken at different places and combinations to obtain a lower price or higher quality.
  • The training is not time limited – it can be stretched over a longer period and thus can be fitted in with, for example, full-time employment.
  • It enables easier financing, as the training period can be stretched over several years.
  • If a student decides for any reason to terminate training at any stage he retains possession of the already completed licences/qualifications.

Disadvantages of modular training:

  • As a rule it takes longer to complete the training.
  • The training tends not to be linked to any promise of employment as a pilot after its completion.

B) Integrated training

In the integrated training route the student obtains a pilot licence after completing a single integrated study course. Over a maximum of 36 months, the entire theory and practice of the training is covered to obtain the highest necessary licence level.

The training content is similar to that covered during modular study. However, thanks to the mutual interconnection of all theory and practice not only the total training period, but also the necessary flying hours are minimised. Depending on the country, flight training school and the student’s ability, integrated course takes approx. 195 – 200 flying hours.

Integrated training is suitable for students who don’t yet have any licence and are starting from scratch. At the same time it is necessary for the cadet to have sufficient funds to cover the complete training (normally paid in one go, or in several instalments).

Advantages of integrated training:

  • The training takes place over a short period, with the minimum period according to regulations being 18 months.
  • In some flying schools the integrated training can be linked to a promise of employment as a pilot after completion (known as cadet programmes).

Disadvantages of integrated training:

  • Integrated training can be somewhat more expensive than modular training.
  • If the student decides to end the training for any reason before completion he leaves without holding any licence/qualification.
  • The entire training must take place at a single flying school.

Whether you choose modular or integrated training, in both cases after completing training you are awarded the licence ATPL (A) – Frozen, which means the candidate has fulfilled all the theoretical requirements of the exam for the final ATPL licence, but as yet the conditions have not yet been fulfilled for the practical exam. This is possible after logging 1500 flying hours, including 250 hours as a pilot in command and 75 hours instrument flying.

With the ATPL (A) – Frozen it is possible to fly large transport aircraft, but only as the First Officer (second pilot), not as captain. After obtaining the full ATPL (A) licence (i.e. unfrozen) the pilot can fly as captain of a large airliner.

C) MPL training

A relatively new route to the cockpit of an airliner is the MPL (A) livence. Over time it has been seen that the standard training route places an unnecessary emphasis on building habits used in general (light) aviation.

A Multi Pilot Licence is obtained through a form of integrated training that assumes from the start that the student will become an airline pilot at specific airlines. The syllabus and all the training undertaken by the student is focused on this goal. The emphasis is placed on standard operating procedures used in airline operations with most training taking place in simulators of specific airliners (e.g.  Boeing 737 or Airbus A320). Flying in small propeller planes is limited to approx. 50 flying hours at the start of the training.

A flight school will always offer MPL training in cooperation with the specific airline for which the student will fly as a pilot once qualified. For this reason it is as a rule necessary to go through a selection process prior to commencing the training. During the training the student operates according to the standards of the given airline.

Advantages of MPL training:

  • The worry of finding employment is removed. Immediately after completion of training, cadets join the airline for which the MPL training was devised.
  • The training includes an MCC/JOC course and type rating, so these do not need to be taken separately, as in the case of modular or integrated training (see below).

Disadvantages of MPL training:

  • A significantly higher price, which can reach three times as much as the price for modular or integrated training.
  • To commence the training it is necessary to go through a selection process.
  • An uncertain future in the event the airline, for which the training was designed, folds. The holder of an MPL licence is only entitled to fly for the one specific airline.
  • With this licence it is not possible to fly for recreation – it does not apply to light aircraft.

What else is required?

The above training is not everything that is required to sit in the cockpit of an airliner as a first officer. If you decide to undertake a modular or integrated form of training there are several additional requirements:

  • Multi Crew Cooperation (MCC) – Pilot is trained to operate in a multi-crew environment on the flight deck. The aim is to teach students how to optimise processes of communication, coordination, and decision making during all stages of a flight. This course is usually as a rule required by airlines to process the application (CV).
  • Jet Oriented Course (JOC) – This training covers the principles of piloting jet aircraft. During a selection process it can be a great advantage, and for some airlines (for example Wizz Air) it is actually a requirement.
  • Type rating – After joining an airline a cadet is required to gain a type rating. Because every type of aircraft is different and the method of piloting can vary. So for all planes with a maximum take-off weight of at least 5700 kg, or all planes with jet engines, it is necessary for a pilot to obtain a type rating. A pilot can, for example, have a type rating for an Airbus A320, a Boeing 737 or perhaps both types of aircraft. A type rating is one of the most expensive items of training. It requires an investment in the order of tens of thousands of pounds, depending on the given aircraft type. It is therefore not recommended to commence a type rating course before securing employment, even though it is possible and some flying schools can offer such a course after the basic training is complete.

As mentioned above, in the case of MPL, the training includes MCC, JOC and type rating.

In airlines the training then continues in the form of base training and line training, regardless of the form of training you select (modular, integrated or MPL). A description of base training and line training can be found in separate chapters.

Studying the subject of “professional pilot” at university or college

Pilot training can be combined with university studies. Several universities offer subjects that are more or less linked to the theory of airline pilot training. The flight training is always provided by a partner flight school.

In certain European countries university studies are paid from the state budget. This, however, does not apply to flight training linked to such study. These universities can provide within their study programmes ATPL theory, which may be recognised by the Civil Aviation Authority and count towards training. The rest of the training must, however, always be paid by the student. As a rule university study is linked to the integrated form of training (see above) and has the same characteristics.

An example of a university in the UK where subjects related to pilot training can be studied is Kingston University London.

The combination of university study and pilot training can be very demanding, so give it careful consideration before choosing such a path.

The price of airline pilot training

Pilot training is very expensive and the cost may be as high as the cost of your house or flat. You have to consider it an investment and consider many things before you start.

Prices can differ significantly across Europe. The range starts at £35000 (€40000) in Eastern Europe and goes up to £105000 (€120000) in the UK & Ireland. The further east you go, the cheaper flight training you can usually get. Be aware that this does not have anything to do with the quality of the training. The cost of work, rents and services is usually lower in the eastern regions, which in turn may positively influence the price of the training for the student.

On the other hand, don’t choose your flight school just by price. Although there may be no correlation between the price and quality, cheaper training within a given region is more likely to be lower quality.

Be aware that wherever you complete your training, you always obtain a licence with the same privileges, as long as the country is a member state of EASA.

Apart from location, there are some other factors that influence the cost of the airline pilot training. These are the aircraft types being flown, airports used for the training, quality and last but not least – the type of training (modular, integrated, MPL).

For more detailed information about the cost of pilot training and financing options follow our pilot career guide.