An airline pilot flies an aircraft loaded with passengers, freight or a combination of both (combi). They may fly for a major international carrier that serves the world, a regional airline that serves airports in a certain part of the country, or a freight service that moves envelopes, small packages and large containers.
An airline pilot’s chief duty is to safely fly their passengers/cargo from one point to another, doing their best to make the flight as smooth and predictable as possible. They can do this either in the role of First Officer (second in charge), or Captain (first in charge). An airline pilot is also responsible for the safety of their crew.
Generally, a new airline pilot will start out in a small aircraft flying as few as 19 people. As they gain experience, accumulate more flying hours and are trained in new aircraft types, they can expect to fly larger and more modern aircraft. The largest passenger aircraft flown today, the double-decker airbus A380 that can fly up to 853 passengers at a time.
Historically, airline pilots would work a series of days at a time. They would spend overnights in hotels until their shift rotation was over, and they got to return home. However, a trend towards improved work/life balance in the industry has resulted in many pilots working just a few days at a stretch. Some even work daily shifts before going home; such as flying Toronto-Vancouver-Toronto.
How to Learn
There are a few ways to learn to become an airline pilot. All begin with the notion of obtaining a private pilot’s licence, before moving into commercial training.
The traditional way to learn to fly is by enrolling at a flight school; either close to home or in another location. Training is usually full or part-time based on the student’s personal schedule, the training program and financial resources. The learning includes in-class training (ground school) and in-aircraft training (flight training), in preparation for earning their Air Transport Pilot’s License (ATPL) through testing.
Flight hours also matter. They are the amount of time the student spends flying. Many aviation jobs (such as airline pilots) require licenced pilots to have accumulated a specific minimum amount of flight hours before they will be considered for employment.
Across Canada, community colleges and universities are now teaching students to fly on a full-time or part-time basis; often in partnership with local flight schools. This option can offer an aspiring pilot a faster route to their licence by fitting more education and training into a shorter time.
In some instances, flight schools have joined with regional airlines to provide career pathways. This means that successful pilots graduating from these schools may have a fast track into jobs at the partnered airlines.
An aspiring airline pilot must build up their flight hours before applying for a job. Typically, a minimum of 1,500 flight hours must be accumulated to qualify to be a regional airline pilot in Canada (smaller propeller and twin-engine jet aircraft). The major airlines require 2,000-3,000 flight hours (larger jet aircraft).
To earn these hours, many new pilots work as flight instructors for one-three years. Others work as pilots for charter airlines and small plane carriers who require fewer hours from their pilots.
The good news (from an employment standpoint) is that there is a growing pilot shortage both in Canada and around the world; due to retiring pilots and the growth of airline travel. This means that opportunities for pilots in all sectors has increased and will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
Upon graduation, a new pilot can expect to earn between $25,000 and $40,000 annually, based on the position and their location in Canada.
Regional airlines pay $40,000-$70,000 annually to First Officers, and $100,000-$150,000 to Captains.
The salaries that major airlines pay depends on the aircraft. For instance, entry level First Officers who fly the smallest aircraft are paid $50,000-$90,000 annually, while their Captains earn $100,000-$150,000.
As these pilots gain experience and are trained on larger aircraft, their pay increases. For instance, a Captain on a Boeing 777 can earn $250,000 annually, or more. Major airlines and may regional airlines also provide health and pension benefits to their pilots.
Depending on the educational choice, training to be an airline pilot can cost anywhere between $50,000 and $75,000. These costs are for the basic training and Integrated ATPL. Once employed by an airline, training is usually covered by the employer.
Some provinces do offer subsidies/grants to help students pay for pilot training. Student loans may also be available from financial institutions.
Need More Information?
Visit the Pilot Career Centre Canada for information about about flight training, how to choose a flight school and listing of schools across Canada.
The Government of Canada also offers guidance on how to select a flight school and the steps needed to start training.