The airline pilot profession is one of the most regulated professions in the world. Being a pilot in an airline requires an individual to hold certain certifications, ratings, and licensing, which requires highly standardized training and checking.

The licensing and certification requirements to become an airline pilot

In most countries, you must hold at least a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) to act as a pilot in Commercial Air Transport (CAT) operations. However, with a CPL, a pilot can only act as a Second in Command (SIC) or a co-pilot. To command or captain an aircraft in CAT operations, a pilot must hold an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL).

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Captain Chris With Plane

Pilots start their journey by getting a CPL, which you can do in two main ways. The first is to go for a pure CPL course, and the other is to do an ATP-integrated course. In the latter, pilots train for a CPL in terms of flight training but never sit for the CPL theory exams. Instead, the ATPL exams are undertaken. By the end of the course, the pilot is given a CPL license with ATPL theory credits.

Pilots who plan to fly for airlines are also required to undergo instrument training, or get an Instrument Rating (IR). This IR rating allows a pilot to fly the aircraft with reference to instruments. In most cases, the IR course is integrated into the program.

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Photo: L3Harris Pilot Training

ATP integrated course

The ATP integrated course is designed so that, in terms of flight training, candidates are trained to the level of a CPL holder. However, in terms of theoretical knowledge, pilots are trained to the level of an ATPL holder. The course aims to give pilots the required skill or the proficiency to operate as a co-pilot or a SIC in a multi-engine, multi-pilot (airplanes that require two pilots) aircraft.

Theoretical knowledge

  • The ATP theoretical knowledge consists of 750 hours of instruction and 14 exams.
  • A Multi Crew Cooperation (MCC) course comprising 25 hours of instruction.
  • An Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) course.
Southwest Airlines Pilot

Photo: Southwest Airlines

Flight training

Flight training comprises 195 hours, of which 55 hours must be instrument flight time. In these 195 hours, pilots complete at least:

  • 95 hours of dual instruction.
  • 70 hours as PIC (Pilot in Command), out of which 55 hours can be SPIC (Student Pilot in Command).
  • 50 hours of cross-country flying as PIC, which includes at least one VFR cross-country flight of 300 NM (540 km) where full stop landings are conducted at two aerodromes that are different from the departure aerodrome.
  • 5 hours of night flying, including 3 hours of dual instruction. This includes:
    • 1 hour of cross-country navigation.
    • Five solo takeoffs.
    • Five full-stop landings.
  • UPRT flight instruction
  • 115 hours of instrument time, including at least:
    • 20 hours as SPIC
    • 15 hours of MCC, for which a simulator may be used
    • 50 hours of instrument flight instruction
  • 5 hours must be completed in:
    • An aircraft certified to carry at least 4 people.
    • An aircraft with a variable pitch propeller and retractable landing gear.

Once the theoretical exams and flight training are complete, the pilot is allowed to go for the check ride or the skill test. The skill test is a CPL skill test that can be carried out in a single-engine or multi-engine aircraft. However, when it comes to the instrument check or the IR for the integrated ATP, the skill test must be conducted in a multi-engine aircraft. This gives the pilot a MEIR (Multi-engine Instrument Rating).

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Joining an airline

Once a pilot completes the integrated ATP course, they can legally act as the co-pilot of a multi-pilot aircraft in commercial operations. This, however, does not mean they could just go and fly any aircraft. Airplanes are divided into two main licensing categories based on their weight and complexity, which requires a pilot to gain either a class rating or a type rating.

If an airline flies a Pilatus PC-12 (a single-engine high-performance turboprop), a pilot is required to only gain a class rating for the aircraft. On the other hand, if the airline operates a much more complex aircraft, such as a Boeing 737, a specific type rating is required to fly the aircraft.

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Type rating

Type rating training is highly specific to a particular aircraft, and it consists of theoretical and practical parts. Most of the time, particularly for larger aircraft, the entire portion of the flight training is conducted in a full motion simulator.

The training course must be conducted per the aircraft manufacturer’s Operational Suitability Data (OSD). The OSD is a legal document that contains the relevant training a pilot must undergo to fly an aircraft. The training is about 30 days long and is quite intensive. During the program, the pilots are taught the aircraft systems and performance, followed by an exam.

Typically, there is a separate exam for the performance part. Once the exam is cleared, the flight training portion begins. During this training phase, pilots learn the normal, abnormal, and emergency procedures applicable to the aircraft. Successful training is followed by a skill test conducted by a type rating examiner.

Flight Simulator Training Boeing 747

Photo: Getty Images

A passed skill test does not directly give the pilot the type rating. For that, they must undergo base training, where 6 takeoffs and landings must be conducted in the actual aircraft under the guidance of a type rating instructor or an examiner. Once base training is complete, the pilot can get the type endorsed in the license.

If the pilot has prior multi-pilot aircraft experience, they can undergo a ZFTT (Zero Flight Time Training) program, where the base training portion is also completed in the simulator.

Air France A350 Flight Simulator Heads-Up Display Getty

Photo: Getty Images

Class rating

Class rating training is a lot less intensive than type rating. It generally involves a ground training portion, whereby the pilot is taught the systems and operational procedures of the aircraft. The depth of the instructions depends on the complexity of the aircraft. Most of the time, a simulator is not used for a class rating, as the practical training is done entirely in the aircraft.

Line training and line check

A type rating allows a pilot to fly the aircraft. However, to fly for an airline, they must undergo line training. Line training involves flying normal passenger flights with an airline instructor. The instructors can be line instructors who are senior captains chosen by the airline to train their pilots. The instructors can also be type-rating instructors and examiners who are also captains at the airline.

During line training, plots are taught and checked on their ability to follow company standard operating procedures, and their ability to fly the aircraft safely. The number of flights to be flown in this training varies with the trainee pilot’s former experience. Once the instructors feel that the pilot is ready to fly with normal line captains, a line check is conducted.

With the successful completion of this check, the pilot is allowed to fly with captains other than instructors. They then become a part of the line pilot pool of that airline.


Photo: Airbus

How do co-pilots become captains?

As most co-pilots hold a CPL with ATPL theory, they need a full unrestricted ATPL to be eligible to become a captain. This requires the ATPL to be unlocked. For this, the pilot must log a certain amount of hours in a certain manner.

To get the unlocked ATPL, the pilot must have at least 1500 hours of flight time, including:

  • 500 hours of multi-pilot operation experience, including:
    • 250 hours as PIC; or
    • 250 hours, including 70 hours as PIC and the remaining as PICUS (Pilot in Command Under Supervision); or
    • 500 hours as PICUS.
  • 200 hours of cross-country flight time, with at least 100 hours as PIC or PICUS.
  • 75 hours of instrument time.
  • 100 hours of night flight time as PIC or co-pilot.

A co-pilot can log the PICUS hours under the supervision of a captain. In many airlines, only some senior captains can give PICUS hours to a co-pilot. In a PICUS flight, the co-pilot is allowed to act as a captain under the watchful eyes of the captain. If they perform to the required standards, the captain signs the log book and the flight time is recorded as PICUS hours.

Once the above requirements are met, the pilot can go for the ATPL check ride or the skill test. This can be conducted in the simulator by a type rating examiner, and marks the end of the training.


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