Learn to Fly

Airline Careers

Future airline pilots have always been faced with tough choices and it’s no different today. Finding the path that’s right for you is vital

Photo: Martijn Kort

Yes the airlines are recruiting again. The Covid vaccination programmes are allowing world travel to restart and demand is growing fast for airline flights. Statistics issued by Eurocontrol and others show the aviation industry is recovering fast, and in some regions of the world, it’s back to 2019 pre-Covid levels.

That’s good news all round, although it’s tempered by the recent upheaval created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Apart from the dreadful human suffering caused by the war, it’s also having an impact on oil prices and that, in turn, will affect the cost of travel.

The simple fact is that the airline industry is, and always has been, cyclical. It has its ups and downs. An airline pilot has to be prepared for these eventualities, determined and resourceful.

Assuming that you haven’t already started your journey, by the time you choose a school and pathway (integrated vs modular etc.), go through selection, get a Class 1 medical etc., it is likely to be something like 24 months before you graduate at the very earliest. Some pathways can take perhaps five years should you choose to spread your training over a longer period by going modular. 

You are effectively trying to figure out what the airline world will look like in two to five years, and that’s pretty much impossible to do with any degree of certainty.

However, it seems probable that the airline industry will be in a better place two to three years from now when oil supplies settle down and more of the world is vaccinated.

Good contingency planning is more important than ever, and you might want a plan C to add to your plan B. You will want to thoroughly research your options before making final decisions, and if you think this kind of industry disruption might not be for you, then you should probably have a very honest chat with yourself about an airline career. 

So why train as a professional pilot? If you’re reading this, you may already have the answer – to fulfil a deeply rooted ambition. This is enough for many. However, for those who require more reasons, it is worth considering the following. Varied rosters make for an exciting, if demanding, lifestyle. You will visit large numbers of different places, see the world from a different perspective, and meet a wide range of people who feel as passionately about the job as you do, which makes for a unique and special workplace.

Before committing to the enormous challenge of training as a pilot, consider what your end goals are and tailor your journey accordingly. This guide is largely aimed at those considering airline flying, but some stages are applicable to other types of commercial flying.

Q What do I need before I start?

Do your research. As you’ll quickly realise the path to the flight-deck is long and complicated, with many route options and no standard narrative. 

If you’re too young to begin training, consider getting involved with the Air Training Corps or Combined Cadet forces – and if you’re planning on going to university, consider joining the University Air Squadron. All of these experiences will help you to decide if a pilot career is for you, as well as setting you in good stead once you get to the selection stage and when competing for airline jobs.

ATO selection doesn’t require a degree. However, one may still be of benefit, and for some airlines it is looked on favourably. 

Having a degree means that you’re going into the profession slightly older, with a bit more experience behind you, and if for any reason you’re no longer able to pursue a flying career, you can use the skills gained while working for the degree to look for other work.

Aviation-related degrees are becoming more common, particularly since they may allow student pilots to access government student loans, potentially to amounts up to £40,000. If considering full-time training, remember it is a professional course, and the typical ‘university partying’ will not be on offer. 

Night Landing Zanzibar | Photo: Martijn Kort

Visit one of the Pilot Careers Live events,  visit flight schools, and talk to as many people in the industry as you can and interrogate marketing.

Your training provider will be one of the key choices in your flying journey. Before committing, visit the school and meet the current instructors and students. Will it provide the kind of experience you want?

Are the resources reliable? Is the training recognisable and acceptable to the kind of employer you’re looking at going to? Remember, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

All training providers would recommend taking a trial flying lesson before you start. This should be a memorable experience to ensure you both enjoy it, and have some basic suitability for operating an aircraft.

Obtain a Class 1 Medical. This will be a showstopper if you are unable to pass. This is a thorough medical exam, however not as strict as some would imagine. Wearing glasses isn’t an issue as long as it falls between a wide band of correctability. All medicals must be carried out by a UK CAA-approved Aeromedical Centre (AeMC) and will take up to four hours. It looks at your medical history, eyesight, general physical check, hearing, heart rhythm, lung function and also includes blood and urine tests.

Medical fitness will become a bedrock of your flying career and your profession relies on you passing annual tests, increasing in frequency as you age.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle and have a back-up plan in the event of the loss of your medical should be considerations.

Acronyms

Become familiar with acronyms, as you will discover they play a big part in the aviation dialect!

Q What licence do I need?

To get into the right-hand seat of a commercial airliner, you will need an Air Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) or a Multi-Pilot Licence (MPL). For smaller operations, you may only need a Commercial Pilot’s Licence with a Multi-engine Instrument Rating.

An Air Transport Pilot’s Licence is at first ‘frozen’, and allows you to act as a co-pilot on commercial operations. At 1,500 hours, it becomes ‘unfrozen’ and legally you may operate an aircraft as commander, although in practice this will become subject to an airline giving you a rank of captain. A Multi-Pilot Licence offers the same, although is restricted insofar as the training is tailored towards a specific airline, and you may not use the MPL at any airline other than the one it is affiliated with – there is no ‘generic’ MPL. At 1,500 hours it becomes an unfrozen ATPL.

For other commercial flying jobs, such as instructing, surveying, or parachute dropping, only a CPL may be needed. It is worth considering that there is a wide range of aviation careers beyond flying airliners, which is itself a unique lifestyle. At selection your motivation will be challenged, so proving that you have researched the career field thoroughly will be advantageous.

Q How do I get these licences?

You need to decide what licence you are going to get before you start training, as it affects how you will train. Two key types of training are available, integrated and modular. Regarding the ATPL, integrated and modular routes follow the same syllabus of exams and practical flying, although the modular route requires more hours. The modular route can be done on a timeline tailored to the cadet, separate elements of the course can be interspersed with jobs or other life demands. The integrated route requires less minimum hours as it is based on a full-time, ‘zero-to-hero’ style model of training that is often residential and can be completed within one to two years.

The MPL is only available for airline-affiliated courses, and you will need to pass selection for an airline’s own MPL scheme before being accepted. Only integrated-style training is available for MPL schemes. These tend to be very competitive, with the numbers of applicants outstripping the number of places available, so multiple tries at selection may be required.

There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both licences. As mentioned, a MPL is restricted for use at a single airline before 1,500 hours are obtained, so if you were to lose your job before that time you would be in a very tough position. An ATPL is less competitive to get onto, although typically all integrated courses require selection. Deciding which route is best for you will be a key part of your research.

Q Integrated or modular training?

Deciding whether you want an integrated or modular style of training is a personal choice. An integrated course has the advantage of typically being faster than a modular course as it is full-time, requires fewer hours and should provide high consistency of training, which is good for learning skills rapidly.

Courses are normally residential, typically have phases of training at foreign bases, and you will be with your peers for a large amount of time, which should give its own support group.

Historically the integrated course has been favoured by airlines, but increasingly this bias is lessening as the airlines shift to new emphases in selection. A modular course has no fixed timeline and can be tailored around the candidate, and course prices typically end up cheaper than integrated courses. Both courses require discipline and focus but the modular course requires more organisational skills on the part of the trainee to schedule the various elements of the course. The 14 ATPL exams on a modular course are also typically done remotely and at home, requiring enormous discipline and organisation. Some full-time residential courses are available to modular students for groundschool.

Q How much will it cost and how do I fund it?

Courses to the point of licence issue will typically cost between £60k and £100k, plus living costs.

Scholarships are available for some elements of modular training, such as ground school and a Private Pilot’s Licence. Very few airline schemes will fund the cost of training for those accepted onto their schemes.

Typically, airline ‘schemes’ will consist of a ‘sponsored’ ATPL or MPL, with the sponsorship taking the form of provisional job offers upon completion of training, while requiring the cadet to shoulder the cost of training. Fewer bank loans are available than they have been in the past, and it is still a popular choice for trainees to get private loans from the bank of mum and dad…

The total cost of your pilot journey, will also include the cost of a Type Rating, which is an aircraft-specific course, only undertaken upon securing an airline job. The cost will range from around £15k to £40k, and each employer will have a different ‘deal’. Typical arrangements are that a pilot is bonded for the cost of the type rating, a bond that diminishes with services or disappears after a length of time. Others will require the trainee to pay upfront.

Professional flight training is one of the most expensive investments you’ll ever make. Whichever route you choose, make sure that your investment is secure by taking these steps:

■  Research your chosen Approved Training Organisation (ATO). How long has it been trading? Does it have any history of financial problems? What links does it have with major airlines? Most ATOs operate on a strong financial footing, but sadly it isn’t unknown for an ATO to go under, sometimes taking their students’ money with them.
■  Pay module-by-module, rather than all up-front. Even integrated courses offer a pre-designated schedule to draw down payments in instalments over the period of your training.
■  Does your chosen ATO offer a payment protection programme? These guarantee to refund a percentage of your fees, should you fail to reach the required standard.

Q What does pilot selection look like?

Selection and assessments will be a part of your pilot training career, before and after training. It will examine your interpersonal and technical skills, personality and motivation for the career. Your skills will be tested typically through aptitude tests, measuring your reactions, hand-eye coordination and other reflexes relevant to flying an aeroplane.

Maths tests also normally feature, to measure your ability to perform mental arithmetic quickly and accurately.

Personality tests are becoming more widespread and popular. It is possible to prepare to some degree, becoming familiar with the format of the tests. Schools will be able to offer guidance.

Your personal skills are measured through interview and group exercises to assess leadership and teamwork, key skills that will impact how you work within an airline crew.

An interview will examine your strengths and weaknesses, and achievements and challenges you have come across in your life so far. You will be examined on your motivation for the job, and knowledge of the industry.

Q What is the training?

The training is split into specific sections, which typically run as follows:

■  ATPL ground exams. You’ll need to pass 14 exams, covering such subjects as navigation, flight-planning, aviation law and human factors. Full-time packages on either modular or integrated courses will take six to nine months on average, with a busy classroom and independent study schedule.
■  Flight training. Practical flight training can be split into further sections, and takes place across single and multi-engine piston aircraft. Much of the early sections of flying training require good weather, so ATOs will likely send you abroad to complete sections.
■  Night Rating. Consisting of both solo and instructional flights.
■  Commercial Pilot Licence. The CPL is a basic requirement to be allowed to fly for financial reward. This is a major stepping stone. You need a minimum of 150 hours of flight time to get this far, flying complex aircraft with retractable undercarriage and variable-pitch propellers.
■  Multi-engine rating. Learning to fly a twin-engine aircraft, and what happens when one engine fails.
■  Instrument Rating. Flying solely with reference to the aeroplane’s instruments. This is the essential set of skills allowing a pilot through cloud and other inclement weather, and forms the base of airline flying.
■  Multi-Crew Co-operation. Learning to work as a team, a requisite for the majority of professional pilots.

Q How do I get an airline job?

If you have not been selected for an airline, upon graduating you will be looking for opportunities. Some schools will have dedicated careers services, who will help you prepare CVs, and for interviews and sim assessments, and may have dedicated ‘pools’ from which certain airlines recruit.

Proactiveness is always required on the part of the graduate and if there is a prolonged period between graduation and getting a job, you may need to undergo refresher training to keep an Instrument Rating current, for example, which will be an additional cost.

Q How will my career progress as a pilot?

After completing Type Rating, you will begin line training, which is operating commercial flights with a training captain.

After passing this phase, you will be a qualified First Officer, and from there will begin working towards the rest of your career, which usually involves becoming a Captain and moving to the left-hand seat on the flight deck.

A wide range of other opportunities are available as part of your career, such as training and management.

Short-haul flying and long-haul flying offer different lifestyles and rates of career progression.

Q What next?

■  Join us at Pilot Careers Live events, held throughout the year in the UK and other locations in Europe. Meet first-hand leading ATOs, future employers, universities offering relevant aviation degrees, who will be happy to answer your questions about professional pilot training and careers. There are also presentations from major airlines and trainers. To find out more details, visit pilotcareernews.com/live
■  Visit www.flying-start.org for more information about a broader range of professional pilot careers (including alternatives to airline flying), and available scholarships.
■  You should also check out www.pilotcareernews.com , where you’ll find plenty of articles on training types and funding, plus interviews with people about their own training journeys.

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