How long does it take to train to become an airline pilot?
A look at how long it takes to go from zero flying experience to a qualified First Officer operating for an airline
How Long Does it Take to Train as a Pilot?
The shortest possible time it takes to train and qualify as a commercial airline pilot is around 18 months, assuming the trainee has no previous flying experience and performs to a high standard throughout their training. Realistically for most people, it is likely to take around 24 months (2 years).
If you enrol on an integrated flight training course, you can start the course with no previous flying experience and reach the point of operating a commercial passenger aircraft in about 18 to 24 months. To do it within this time frame, you would need to be accepted onto an integrated flight training course. An integrated training course is a full time, intensive course, where you complete all the required training at one flight training organisation, including all the theoretical studying and practical flight training.
You will typically spend 6 – 9 months completing the theoretical training (ground school) prior to moving onto the practical training on the aircraft and in the simulators. After completing this training you will have obtained a licence referred to as a ‘Frozen’ Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL). This is a pre-reqresit to going onto train on a specific commercial aircraft on which you are employed to fly with an airline (the type rating).
Type Rating Duration
If or when you secure employment with an airline, you will then spend about another 2-3 months training specifically on the aircraft you will be flying for that airline (e.g. Boeing 737). This is called the type rating and is the most intensive part of the flight training journey. It consists of both technical classroom and simulator training which must be completed before you start flying passengers. It is possible to complete this type rating training without having secured a job, but this isn’t something we would recommend due to the substantial cost (£20k+).
There are other ways to complete your commercial flight training, for example through part time courses and these will obviously take longer to complete. This is referred to as ‘Modular’ training. It would conceivably be possible to complete Modular flight training in the same sort of time frame as integrated training, but it would be an unusual route.
How long does it take to become an airline Captain?
A look at how long it takes to be promoted to the position of Captain on a commercial aircraft…
How long does it take to become an airline Captain?
Being promoted from First Officer to Captain can take anywhere from about 4 to 20 years from joining the airline, depending on the type of airline and individual performance.
To Captain a commercial aircraft, you must have logged at least 1,500 flight hours and hold a full Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL). However in reality, most short haul airlines require a minimum of 3,000 hours before considering any pilots for promotion. Smaller regional turboprop carriers might however require less than this.
Given you fly a maximum of 900 hours a year, at some airlines, it is possible to be promoted to the position of Captain within 4 to 5 years. These would typically be at short haul low cost airlines which are expanding or have a high level of pilot turnover, which maintains the requirement for a continuous promotion process. Typically at legacy or ‘flag carriers’ the time to command will be significantly greater than that of a low cost airline purely because expansion is limited and pilots don’t tend to leave such airlines once they’ve started there.
Training & Performance
Meeting the hours requirement is only the start of the process. The airline then looks into your training record and performance before putting you through a ‘command assessment’. This might consist of an interview, simulator check or both. If you pass this assessment, you are then put onto a command course, however passing this course is certainly not assured, in fact many don’t get through it!
Long Haul Captain
To become a long haul Captain, you would need a minimum of around 5,000 flight hours which would take at a minimum 6 years to achieve. At many long haul airlines, which aren’t expanding significantly and don’t have a pilot turn over, it can take between 10 – 20 years before being promoted to the position of Captain. This isn’t necessarily because of capability, it’s because there are only a limited number of Captain positions and people are promoted in seniority order.
Some pilots will never be promoted to the role of Captain as they are simply not deemed ‘Captain material’. It’s a bit like being qualified as a pilot – just because you are qualified doesn’t mean you will get the job, you need to be a suitable candidate.
How many hours can pilots work in a day / week / month / year?
A guide to pilot flight time limitations and how airlines prevent pilot fatigue
How many hours are pilots allowed to fly a day?
In Europe, the maximum flight duty time which can be planned for the pilot to work without inflight rest is 13 hours. However, the limits for how many hours a pilot can work in a day, week or month can be complex and depend on many different factors.
The amount of hours pilots can work in one day vary by their time zone acclimatisation, the amount of sectors they are going to operate (number of flights), and how many flight crew onboard (for long haul flights). There are also restrictions on duties that have several early starts in a row or time off required following night flights. There are requirements for a fixed amount of days off during a set period, maximum flight and duty time limits for periods of 7 days, 14 days, 28 days and annually which can be seen in the example below. There are also requirements that state a minimum period of rest (normally 12 hours but can be less or more) between each day of flying.
Max Duty Hours in 7 days / 14 days / 28 days
EASA who govern European airlines, stipulate the following:
The total duty periods to which a crew member may be assigned shall not exceed:
- (1) 60 duty hours in any 7 consecutive days;
- (2) 110 duty hours in any 14 consecutive days; and
- (3) 190 duty hours in any 28 consecutive days, spread as evenly as practicable throughout that period
A duty period is defined as when a pilot checks into the airport to commence their pre-flight duties, to after landing once they have completed their post flight duties. This is not the same as a Flight Duty Period, which covers the period from when the aircraft is under it’s own power (typically when the parking brake is released) to when the aircraft comes to a stop (parking brake on) for the crews last flight.
Max Flying Hours in a Month & Year
The total flight time of the sectors on which an individual crew member is assigned as an operating crew member shall not exceed:
- (1) 100 hours of flight time in any 28 consecutive days;
- (2) 900 hours of flight time in any calendar year; and
- (3) 1 000 hours of flight time in any 12 consecutive calendar months.
Maximum Flight Hours in a Day
In terms of how many hours a pilot can work in one day you may be surprised to learn that it is normally far higher that Lorry drivers. A flight duty period is one day’s work and that starts from when a pilot arrives at the airport to complete their pre-flight duties, which involves looking at fuel planning, weather and briefing the crew. They then have to get to the aircraft early enough to complete their checks and start boarding customers to ensure an on time departure. Most short haul flights have a flight duty period that would start 1 hour before the flight and long haul is typically 90 minutes before.
A flight duty period ends when the pilot sets the park brake at the final arrival airport. Although the pilots still have work to do after this it is not deemed to be dangerous if they are tired as they are not flying customers around anymore, although they still have to drive home!
A short haul pilot working for a low cost airline would typically do 2 long sectors (flights), 4 shorter ones or perhaps even 2 long ones with 2 short ones after or before.
Airline rostering is a complex business. Airlines have a responsibility to roster pilots work that they can safely complete, however pilots are an expensive to airlines so they also need to get as much work out of them as possible. It is a fine balance to strike.
Below is a table which sets out the normal maximum hours a crew member can work for a flight duty period, assuming the crew member is ‘acclimatised’. These hours can be extended through inflight rest (i.e. having more than 2 pilots onboard) and Captains discretion, both of which are described later on in the article.
A Typical Short Haul Day
A typical days work will see a pilot reporting early in the morning for example at an airport in the UK to fly down to the Mediterranean, perhaps somewhere in Spain, they will then fly back and perhaps fly again to somewhere closer within an hour or so, possibly within the UK or close by in Europe.
The maximum flight duty period under EASA regulations for a start time of 0600 or later would be 12 hours. Longer than you thought?
Don’t forget although the flight duty period ends when the park brake is set on the final sector in terms of the legal limits on regulations the pilots still then have to say goodbye to their customers, complete their post flight checks onboard, file any paperwork in the office, clear customs and immigration, get to the car park and drive home.
What happens when delays occur?
What happens if the flight is running late? You may have been on a flight and heard the expression by pilots, cabin crew or ground staff ‘pilots are out of hours’. If they are out of hours it won’t be that they are just a little tired and don’t fancy competing the day’s work. It will mean in the example above the duty will have exceeded 12 hours, however even in that case they can legally carry on.
The Captain has the authority to exercise what is called as ‘discretion’. This is an extension to the maximum duty period (12 hours in the case above) if he/she feels after looking at all the factors and consulting the crew on their tiredness levels that they can safely extend their working day. The rules state he / she can extend it by up to 3 hours, but if it appeared the 3 hour extension was to be breached the pilots would have to land at the nearest suitable airport. The Captain can of course refuse to operate into discretion if he / she feels it would not be safe to do so. The Airline is not allowed to put any pressure on the crew to operate into discretion and it is the Captain’s decision only, the airline can only ask if they are willing and able.
On long haul flights there is also a requirement for a number of local nights rest at home base / airport depending on the time zone you have been in (if equal or greater to 4 hours difference to home base / airport) and the number of nights you have spent in the different time zone. This is to try to ensure pilots are adequately rested and acclimatised for their next duty.
So as you can see there are many factors involved and some of the regulations are based on scientific research to help prevent fatigue. It is a well known fact and genuine concern in the industry as increased fatigue has a direct correlation to reducing safety as most air accidents are caused by some sort of pilot error at some point and many of these incidents have fatigue as a contributing factor.
The FAA (American authority) made changes to their regulations in a bid to reduce fatigue particularly in the small commuter airlines after the Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009 accident which was attributed to pilot error likely caused by fatigue. Other air accidents attributed to fatigue include Korean Airlines flight 801, American Airlines flight 1420 and Corporate Airlines flight 1566.
Typical Long Haul Day
Long haul flights are slightly different as they sometimes have more than 2 pilots to allow a longer flight duty period by giving each pilot some rest away from the controls, these areas are called bunks as they are like bunk bed areas normally in the roof space of long haul aircraft. Some long haul aircraft do not have bunk areas so the airline would have to block a seat off (normally a first class or club class seat) so the pilot can get some rest there instead.
If a pilot started early in the morning like the example above and did one flight then the maximum duty period is 13 hours. The increase in maximum flight duty period is due to the fact it is deemed less fatiguing to do 1 flight than 2, 3 or 4. There are also less mistakes likely to be made as they are only setting up the aircraft and departing and arriving once.
Crew Rest Quarters Onboard / Crew Bunks
Even with this increase in the maximum duty period it would not be long enough to allow some long haul flights to take place. Some long haul sectors have flight times in excessive of 13 hours and that does not include the pre-flight duties, taxi out and taxi in. It is forbidden to plan to use discretion. Discretion is only permitted if unforeseen circumstances occur throughout the day like a technical problem, weather issues, air traffic control delays etc. So as mentioned above airlines can extend the maximum duty period by rostering an additional pilot or sometimes even 2 additional pilots. With one extra pilot and bunk rest facilities onboard the EASA authorities allow an airline to extend the maximum duty period in the example above by an additional 3 hours which would be a total of 16 hours.
Cabin Crew Restrictions
Cabin crew have similar restrictions as pilots, sometimes identical limits. The main objective of these regulations is to ensure pilots and cabin crew have the required alertness levels at crucial stages of flight – take off and landing.
Controlled Rest While Flying
If pilots still feel tired during a flight duty period they can opt to have ‘controlled rest’. This is a short period (no longer than 45 minutes) of sleep in the seat at the controls. There are various requirements including the seat has to be pulled back from the controls, the rudder pedals moved forward so the pilot cannot inadvertently move the pedals while asleep, the other pilot must feel alert enough to fly the aircraft, it must be during a period of low workload during the cruise and it is normally a requirement to inform the cabin crew to ensure they keep checking on the other operating pilot.
Most aircraft have systems fitted whereby if no controls are touched or buttons pushed for a period of time an alarm will sound. The maximum of 45 minutes sleep / rest has been scientifically researched to increase your alertness levels for the landing phase of the flight without allowing the pilot to fall into a deep sleep. Once awake again the pilot that was sleeping must not touch the controls for 10-15 minutes until they have fully woken and feel fit and alert once more.
It may sound alarming that pilots have a quick nap on occasions with the rules above applied but it has been proven to significantly reduce fatigue and improve alertness levels for the critical landing phase.
Remember the key objective with any flight time limitation rules is to allow airlines to operate their schedules as efficiently as possible while ensuring pilots and cabin crew are sufficiently rested to perform their duties safely.
How Much Rest Do Pilots Need Between Flights?
Generally speaking, pilots need 12 hours rest or the length of the preceding duty if it was more than 12 hours. If a pilot was on duty for 8 hours, they would need 12 hours rest, but if they were on duty for 16 hours, they would need 16 hours rest. This can be lowered under some circumstances when delays occur and you are away from your home base. ‘Split Duties’ can also be utilised where crew rest in a hotel whilst in the middle of a duty, which has the same effect as inflight rest – it extends their max allowable duty time.
Crew Bunk Pictures
Below are examples of cabin crew and flight crew bunk rest facilities on long haul aircraft:
If you enjoyed reading this page, you might find our article on Can Pilots Sleep Inflight of interest.
How Do Commercial Airline Pilots Make Decisions?
A look at the decision making process on the flight deck
How Do Pilots Make Decisions?
Pilots make important critical decisions every day at work. This starts before they even arrive for duty such as deciding whether they are fit to operate or not. Some decisions can be made with plenty of time available but other decisions are under much more time pressure such as if to fly a missed approach and go-around. We look at how pilots are trained to make such decisions.
Decision Making Models
Decision making is a non-technical skills. It might come to some people more easily than others but pilots are trained in the art of decision making.
Decision making can be influenced by a multitude of factors, such as stress, time pressure, knowledge, perception and experience. Everyone can think of an example when they have made a wrong decision, perhaps because they didn’t consider all the options or didn’t correctly diagnose the problem in the first place. Rushed and ill thought out decisions can have grave consequences on the flight deck, which is why flight crew are trained specifically on the decision making process.
To try and prevent a rushed or inappropriate decision being made by the flight crew, they are taught to use a decision making tool which helps to provide structure and discipline to the process. These can take different forms, but two of the most popular are tDODAR and PIOSEE. This is taught both within ground school and in the simulator to promote the crew naturally reverting to this process when a complicated decision needs to be made.
t – Time. First of all, assess the time available/required to get the aircraft on the ground. You should assess the aircraft fuel state and how time critical the response needs to be. For example an engine failure is not immediately time critical, but an un-contained fire or double engine failure is. You can then set the pace and develop a rough idea of a timeline involved.
D – Diagnose the problem. Usually, the PF (or Captain as appropriate) should invite the PM (First Officer) to diagnose the problem. This is to avoid confirmation bias which is a scenario where an inexperienced crew member will want to agree with a senior Captain regardless of if their perception of the situation differs. This might serve to highlight a factor which the other crew member hadn’t noticed. For example, the Captain may have just heard a bang, whilst the First Officer saw a flock of birds a second before the bang. This helps to ensure the problem is diagnosed correctly, which is critical to ensuring a suitable decision is made. You may want to include other people within the diagnoses, for example, the cabin crew, air traffic control or passengers might have some useful information.
O – Options. Option generation is a multi-crew process. All flight crew members should take part in generating potential options. Both the advantages and disadvantages should be considered. An example of option generation is; where is your nearest suitable airport? What approaches are available? What is the weather presently doing and forecast to do? Check the cloud base above the minima for the approach. Is the runway performance limiting? What emergency services will be available? For non emergency scenarios, consider an aerodromes commercial viability such as is it an a base with engineering coverage, ground handling contracts in place etc..? Consider a backup plan for if you make an approach and don’t land.
D – Decide. Analyse the options you have generated to make a joint decision. If there is a disagreement in the decision, the Captain has the final say, but should always explain why he/she feels that decision is the most appropriate for the situation.
A – Assign. Who is going to do what? This might now be a very busy period for the fligth crew where excellent coordination is essential. The crew will need to notify ATC, the cabin crew, passengers and if possible the company of their decision. The crew will need to setup for the approach and deliver a briefing all whilst monitoring the aircraft’s automatic systems, navigating and communicating.
R – Review. Reviews should be happening right until the situation is fully resolved (after disembarking the passengers). The crew should always be prepared to amend or change their decision as required – flexibility is key. The crew should be questioning whether they have made the right decision? or if theres anything they haven’t considered.
The PIOSEE model is basically the same as tDODAR with interchangeable words:
A Typical Airline Pilot Roster / Schedule
Ever wondered what a typical pilot schedule looks like? We have some examples of both long and short haul rosters for you to look at…
Example Pilot Rosters
A pilot’s roster is very variable and depends on what aircraft they are flying and for which airline. With long-haul rosters, you usually spend more time away from home (when working) than a short haul pilot, but you usually get more days off at home as a result. Short haul rosters often have a mix of day trips and “tours” where you might spend a few nights away from home at different destinations. Some airlines will only plan you for day trips (such as Ryanair). Whilst others will have you regularly staying away from home (flag carriers like BA or KLM).
There is a common misconception amongst the general public that pilots fly a set route, but this is actually very rarely the case. Pilots typically operate any route that is flown by the specific aircraft type they are qualified to fly that is operated by the airline. This could be anywhere from a handful of destinations at a small airline to hundreds at a large one! For example, an airline like Ryanair or easyJet only operate one aircraft type, therefore their pilots could literally operate to hundreds of potential destinations.
A Pilots Typical Long-Haul Roster
Most airlines that operate Long Haul routes have a “variable” roster. That is to say that there is no fixed pattern and you can end up working any day of the week at any time of year. Most long haul airlines operate using a seniority based system which allow pilots to “bid” for certain trips or days off. The more senior you are (the longer you have been working for the airline), the more likely you are to have your request awarded. This means that if you are a very senior pilot and enjoy having weekends off and doing the flight to New York, you could well end up doing this most of the time! Junior pilots (those low on on seniority list) will have less control over their lifestyle, and in the early years will end up operating to the less popular destinations.
Long-Haul Example Roster
This example is over a one-week period without any annual leave or special requests.
Tuesday: London Heathrow (LHR) – Las Vegas (LAS) departing at 11:00 UTC.
Wednesday: OFF (day off down route in Las Vegas)
Thursday: OFF day down route (in Las Vegas)
Friday: Las Vegas (LAS) – London Heathrow (LHR) (departing 23:45 UTC). Arrive LHR Saturday Morning.
Saturday: OFF (rest of Saturday off)
The time you get off down route depends on how long the previous flight was, how long the next flight is and what the rotation of the aircraft is. For example, if the airline only operates two flights to the destination each week, you will probably get a bit more time off down route than if there were daily flights.
Read more about a typical day in the life of a long haul pilot.
Short Haul Pilot – Touring Roster Example
Monday: Check-in 06:00, STN – EDI – STN – MAD, Check Out 14:00
Tuesday: Check-in 05:30, MAD – STN – RTM – STN, Check Out 13:00
Wednesday: Check-in 08:00, STN – ZRH – STN, Checkout 15:00
Saturday: Check-in 12:00, STN – GVA – STN – GVA, Checkout 22:00
Sunday: Check-in 13:00, GVA – STN – ABZ – STN, Check Out 20:00
Airport Codes Used:
STN – London Stansted
EDI – Edinburgh
MAD – Madrid
RTM – Rotterdam
ZRH – Zurich
GVA – Geneva
ABZ – Aberdeen
A short haul day trip roster would be similar to that above but finishing back at your home base every night.
Fixed or Variable Rosters
Some airlines like Ryanair and easyJet operate a fixed roster pattern. At Ryanair for example, most bases operate 5 days on (at work), 4 days off pattern. Many pilots at easyJet operate on a 5 on, 4, off, 4, on 3 off roster. This gives the pilots the ability to effectively plan their time off as they know what days they’ll be working in a year’s time. Some airlines like BA or Jet2.com operate a variable roster with no fixed pattern. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Due to their nature, long haul rosters are nearly always variable.
When do Pilots receive their roster / schedule?
Again, it depends on the airline. Some airlines issue rosters to their pilots a month before the first date on the roster whilst at others it might only be a week or two. Typically, most pilots receive their rosters for the following month about half way through the current month. So, for example, you would usually get your December roster around half way through November.
Some airlines reserve the right to change their pilots rosters right up until the day before the flight without penalty or ability for the pilot to refuse the change.
Other airlines offer roster protection periods, where the roster can only be changed with the pilot’s permission or through financial incentives. This will depend on the scheduling agreement between the airline and its pilot’s and/or union.
Example Pilot Rosters for Specific Airlines
This provides some guidance as to the type of roster and how many days off you get a month with specific airlines based on a full time contract. These are examples only and may vary or be changed by the airline at any time.
British Airways – Variable Roster. Typically 9 – 15 days off a month.
Delta – Variable Roster. 15 – 19 days off a month.
easyJet – Fixed Roster. Most bases: 5 on – 4 off – 4 on – 3 off.
Jet2.com – Variable Roster. A very seasonal operation so you work harder in the summer than in the winter. Typically 5 days on, 2 off in the summer but significanlty more days off in the winter season.
Lufthansa – Variable Roster. Minimum 10 days off a month but typically 11 – 13 days off a month.
Ryanair – Fixed Roster. Most bases: 5 earlies on – 4 off then 5 lates on – 4 off.
Virgin Atlantic – Minimum 10 days off a month with a minimum of 2 days off between trips. Max 750 hours a year.
Vueling – Operate both fixed roster 5 on – 4 off, and a variable roster.