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Whether you want to become a commercial or an airline pilot, every field requires you to take the first step, which here is knowing the difference between them.
If you search for the differences between the two on Google, you'll come across many complex terms you can't make sense of.
So here it is: every airline pilot is a commercial pilot, but every commercial pilot is not an airline pilot. A commercial pilot can fly helicopters and private jets but can’t work for an airline. An airline pilot flies an airline while also having the license to fly private jets and other planes.
Becoming an airline pilot is the final step to be a professional pilot. If you want to become a pilot who works for an airline, there are a series of steps you must follow to get there. These include studying and passing tests to earn your Private Pilot License, logging in a specific number of hours to get your Commercial Pilot License, and finally, working towards an Airline Pilot License.
As an aerospace engineering graduate and aviation geek, I would describe clear differences between a commercial and airline pilot and discuss the degrees, licenses, flight times, salary, and duties of both types in detail.
Education and Experience
To become a commercial pilot, you should have a high school diploma or equivalent. The same goes for becoming an airline pilot, except that you must fulfill additional requirements to get there.
Although a potential airline pilot was previously required to have a four-year bachelor's degree in any field, this is no longer the case. There's a shortage of qualified pilots in regional airlines, and the bachelor's degree requirement narrows the pool of potential airline pilots.
So now, recruiters only look for pilots who fulfill the other requirements to become airline pilots. These include having 1500 flight hours logged, no criminal record, a good driving record, a decent track record with the FAA, and being a generally good person to interact with.
You become a commercial pilot before you can go ahead and become an airline pilot. A commercial pilot should complete 250 flight hours, out of which 100 hours should be as a Pilot in Command (PIC) and 50 hours cross-country.
The best way to explain the certification a commercial and airline pilot must acquire to become one is through a step-by-step guide to getting there.
Let's start from scratch when you have zero experience and know nothing about aviation, but your dream is to become an airline pilot. The first step is to get a Private Pilot License (PPL).
First Steps: Private Pilot License
For this, you need to look for a good flight school according to Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 141. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is the overarching U.S government transportation agency that controls everything aviation related in the country and nearby it. There are hundreds of FAA-certified flight schools you can enroll in to begin your flight training. These range from small ones called fixed base operators (FBOs) to large state universities.
You can also earn a PPL by training under a private instructor, according to FAR Part 61.
Once the flight training school has accepted you and your training begins, you need to pass an FAA medical exam taken by an Aviation Medical Examiner. After getting your medical certificate, you apply for your FAA Student Pilot certificate through IACRA (Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application).
Now you begin your ground school and flight lessons, after which you give a 'written.' You must pass this FAA written examination to qualify for the next step: the FAA check ride. Check ride is like a driving test but in a single-engine aircraft and in the air to ensure that you can apply all the stuff you have learned in your lessons while flying.
Passing the check ride makes you a private pilot with a PPL. You can now fly single-engine aircraft but only under visual flight rules. As a private pilot, you can fly wherever you want without any restrictions, as put by FAR Part 91; however, you can’t operate commercially or for hire.
Next Steps: Commercial Pilot License
Now that you have a PPL, how do you become a commercial pilot? The first step is getting an Instrument Rating (IR). A private pilot can only fly under visual flight rules, but a commercial pilot must know how to navigate a plane in low visibility. For this, a pilot must know how to use flight instruments. After going through a two-month rigorous training of flying an aircraft while relying solely on flight instruments, you get your IR.
Other requirements you must fulfill to attain the role of a commercial pilot are:
- Be at least 18 years old,
- Have a first-class medical certificate,
- Pass your FAA written and check ride,
- Log in 250 flight hours, out of which 100 hours as PIC and 50 hours cross country.
These requirements are summarized in detail in the FAA’s Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for commercial pilots.
After passing your tests and fulfilling all the requirements, you are now a licensed commercial pilot with a Commercial Pilot License (CPL).
Final Steps: Airline Transport Pilot
There are stricter requirements when it comes to becoming an airline pilot. Now that you have a CPL, you must have 1500 flight hours before qualifying for an airline pilot.
To build these hours, you can become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) by taking courses. You should have a first-class medical certificate too. If you don’t want to become a CFI or go down that route, you can get a job as a skydiving pilot, do aerial surveying, haul cargo, or fly banner towing planes to complete your flight hours.
With that said, after becoming a CFI, you keep working as a flight instructor to complete the required flight hours. You can get paid for it, too, unlike a private pilot. Before you can be qualified to become an airline pilot, you need to earn your CFI rating, CFII (Certified Flight Instructor Instrument Rating), and MEI (Multi-Engine Rating). Getting an MEI means now you have upgraded and can fly multi-engine aircraft.
Congratulations, you are now an airline pilot with an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate!
As an airline pilot with an ATP certificate, you can work for major airlines that primarily transport passengers and cargo. Airlines have fixed schedules, and the pilot is responsible for supervising the other crew members. Usually, an airline pilot is not alone: a copilot or first officer, also known as the second in command, helps with flight duties.
The main duties of an airline pilot include:
- Checking the aircraft before a flight to ensure it is safe to fly, such as the engines, navigation systems, radar, etc.
- Checking that the cargo weight is within aircraft limits.
- Making a flight plan according to weather conditions, aircraft performance, and altitude.
- Staying in touch with air traffic control to take off and land safely.
- Checking aircraft attitude, air traffic, and weather conditions constantly during flight so the pilot can change direction whenever needed.
- Observing cockpit instruments like speed indicators and altimeters to ensure they are working correctly.
- Ensuring sufficient fuel supply.
- Staying in touch with flight attendants to ensure that everyone on board is following safety rules and regulations.
- Writing out a report about the status of the aircraft after landing.
On the other hand, a commercial pilot doesn't have scheduled flights like airline pilots do. They are more involved in aerial tours, charter flights, or aerial applications. Unlike airline pilots, commercial pilots can sometimes load luggage onto the aircraft, schedule flights on their own, or call for aircraft maintenance. Corporate pilots whose passengers involve businessmen or company executives also have to greet them before commencing a flight.
Airline pilots have tighter and more variable flight schedules than commercial pilots. Ordinarily, they fly 75 hours per month while working for an additional 150 hours carrying out other duties like creating flight plans and checking weather conditions.
Their schedule usually depends on their seniority level. The more senior an airline pilot, the more freedom they have in choosing which flights to take and when to take a day off.
Newly hired airline pilots must fly domestically for the first few years before switching to international flights. On the other hand, the longer flights are taken care of by the senior pilots.
A junior airline pilot can only have 12 days off, while senior pilots can take up to 20 days off. The airline pays for the pilot’s hotel accommodations, meals, and transportation if a flight includes an overnight layover.
In contrast, commercial pilots don’t enjoy such luxuries, especially if they are working on getting an APT certificate. Their schedules can be irregular and mostly depend on them. They can choose to work for more than the standard number of hours if they want.
The typical annual wage for an airline pilot is $202,180 as of May 2021. For a commercial pilot, it is $99,640.
Airline pilots' wages increase with time as they gain experience and seniority. They also get an expense allowance known as 'per diem' for hours spent away from home. When airline pilots embark on international flights, they can expect to earn more. Their families can also travel free of cost or pay less fares.
Commercial pilots can't expect these commissions because they don't work for an airline. They can only expect to earn their salary after flying private aircraft like the Cessna Stationair or aircraft like the one that tows banners or performs aerial tours.
Commercial vs. Airline: Which is Better?
Definitely an airline pilot. Not only is the pay better, but there are also other benefits. With time, airline pilots gain enough seniority to choose their own flights and days off. They are also paid more when traveling internationally; their families get traveling incentives that commercial pilots don't get. The pay also increases with time, and the employment rate for airline pilots is estimated to increase 14% from 2020 to 2030.
In contrast, commercial pilots can’t expect stability because they’re not working for a specific airline. Thus, they can’t expect to grow, gain experience, and climb the seniority ladder. They also don’t get the same incentives as airline pilots do.
That said, at the end of the day, you decide when to stop. You can choose to be a private pilot and leave it at that, or you can continue working to become an airline pilot because that's what you have always wanted to be.