The argument over changed and increased flight hours and academic experience requirements for pilots to be qualified to fly for airlines has been simmering these last few years.

There’s as many opinions on what the qualifications should and shouldn’t be as there are opinions on the cause or even existence of the pilot shortage.

This article will cover the experience and FAA mandated academic training you will need to fly as an airline pilot in the United States.

Pilot Job Searches Shouldn't Be Stressful.

It takes just minutes to set up your profile and begin matching with available opportunities.

Learn More

What are 121 Operations

Scheduled airline operations in the United States operate under part 121 of the federal aviation regulations (FAR). These carriers are said to be 121 operations.

Getting certified as a part 121 air carrier is a lengthy and expensive process. Maintaining that certification is complex.

Embraer E175

Part 121 of the federal aviation regulations specifies key positions an airline must staff, the authority and responsibility of those positions, the qualifications necessary to work in those positions, and initial and recurrent training and testing requirements.

Airline pilot positions are defined under these regulations, and they specify what qualifications an airline pilot must have before an airline is able to hire that person.

Original 121 Requirements

Prior to the Airline Safety and Federal Administration Act of 2010 pilots could fly as a first officer for a 121 carrier with a commercial pilot certificate, which is obtained with 230 to 260 hours of flight training experience. Captains were required to have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.

Prior to the change the job market dictated the minimum qualification standards to get hired at an airline. Most of the time these standards were well above the minimum flight experience to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Sometimes the competitive minimums dipped below this and pilots were able to get regional airline pilot jobs soon after earning their commercial pilot certificates.

Changes to Airline Pilot Requirements

Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, NY Feb 12,2009. This was a watershed crash that brought many aspects of the regional airline industry into the light. As a result of the crash a law was passed, The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.

The new law contained many changes for the airline industry, including changes to pilot qualification, training, and experience requirements. The changes included:

  • All pilots flying in a part 121 operation must have an Airline Transport Pilot Rating.
  • Established the restricted-ATP that allows pilots to obtain a modified ATP prior to meeting the flight time requirements by completing an approved aviation-oriented associates or bachelors degree program. Restricted ATP allows pilots to obtain an ATP before reaching 23 years old.
  • Established an academic requirement to complete an FAA approved certification training program ATP-CTP prior to taking the tests for obtaining the ATP certificate.

There's a better way to find a pilot job.

Learn More


Requirements to Fly for a 121 Operation

First Officer

Per federal aviation regulations (FAR) 121.436 a first officer must hold at least an Airline Transport Pilot certificate and a type rating in the airplane that is to be flown. A second-in-command type rating issued per FAR 61.55 is not permitted to be used for airline operations.

A pilot may use a restricted ATP to fly in air carrier operations. Except that a pilot may not serve as a first officer on specific types of 121 operations or in operations that require three or more pilots. This requirement is for operations requiring three or more pilots and not just the airplane type. If the flight is being operated as augmented (where rest shifts are being used) this restriction can potentially apply.

Requirements for the Airline Transport Pilot Rating

Full Airline Transport Pilot experience requirements:

  • 1,500 hours total flight time
  • 500 hours cross-country flight time
  • 100 hours of night flight time
  • 50 hours of multi-engine time. 25 hours of this may be completed in a flight simulator if it is part of an approved training program
  • 75 hours of instrument time (actual or simulated). You can count up to 25 hours of simulator or flight training device time towards this while training with a flight instructor.
  • 250 hours of pilot in command (PIC) time, including:
    • At least 100 hours of cross-country time
    • At least 25 hours of night flight time

Restricted Airline Transport Pilot experience requirements for military pilots include the same requirements as the full ATP except for the following reductions:

  • 750 hours total flight time
  • 200 hours cross-country flight time
Flight Training University

Restricted Airline Transport Pilot experience requirements for graduates of an approved four-year university bachelor program in an aviation major may reduce the full ATP experience requirements to:

  • 1,000 hours total flight time if they completed at least 60 credit hours of aviation related coursework
  • 1,250 hours total flight time if they completed at least 30 credit hours, but less than 60 credit hours, of aviation related coursework
  • 200 hours cross-country flight time

Restricted Airline Transport Pilot experience requirements for graduates of an approved two-year college with an associates degree in an aviation major may reduce the full ATP experience requirements to:

  • 1,250 hours total flight time if they completed at least 30 credit hours of aviation related coursework
  • 200 hours cross-country flight time
  • Note: for applicants to reduce the flight time requirements by using an approved aviation associates or bachelors degree they must have earned their commercial pilot certificate through the associated school’s part 141 flight training program.
  • Source: Bold Method
Captain Requirements

In addition to what is required for first officers, captains in 121 operations are required to have at least 1,000 hours of flight experience as second-in-command in either 121 operations or in other specific types of operations. The other types of operations include:

  • Fractional Corporate Jet programs.
  • Part 135 Charter operations using turbojet airplanes.

In most airlines pilots will accumulate the 1,000 hours of second-in-command time before they have the seniority to hold a captain position.

Pilot Job Searches Shouldn't Be Stressful.

It takes just minutes to set up your profile and begin matching with available opportunities.

Learn More

Pilot Training Needed to Become an Airline Pilot

To pursue a career as an airline pilot a person will need to complete initial flight training to include:

  • Private Pilot License
  • Instrument Rating
  • Commercial Pilot License
  • Multi-engine rating

The above certificates will be enough to apply to entry level pilot jobs. A common path is to work as a flight instructor for the first pilot job.

Pilots can begin instructing after earning a certified flight instructor (CFI) license. The common ratings available to flight instructors include:

  • Certified flight instructor (CFI). This allows instructors to teach primary students, commercial students, conduct flight reviews, provide pilot endorsements such as complex and high performance endorsements, and teach initial flight instructor training.
  • Certified flight instructor instrument (CFII). Allows instructors to teach students for an instrument rating and allows instructors to conduct instrument proficiency checks.
  • Multi-engine instructor (MEI). Allows instructors to teach in multi-engine airplanes.
Flight Instructor License

ATP-CTP

Before a pilot applicant is allowed to take required tests to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot certificate they must first complete an ATP-CTP course.

The ATP certification training program (ATP-CTP) is an FAA approved course. The training programs that can conduct the course are:

Certificate HolderLocation(s)
Embry Riddle Aeronautical UniversityDaytona Beach, FL / Prescott, AZ
ABX AIR IncWilmington, OH
L3 CTS/ AeroElite TrainingFt Worth, TX / Las Vegas, NV / Miami, FL / Minneapolis, MN / Orlando, FL
CAE SimuFliteDallas, TX / Minneapolis, MN / Morristown, NJ / Phoenix, AZ
Flight Safety InternationalAtlanta, GA / St Louis, MO / Houston, TX / Seattle, WA / Tucson, AZ
AeroStart Training ServicesOrlando, FL
Air Wisconsin Airlines CorporationAppleton, WI / Charlotte, NC
Pan Am International Flight AcademyLas Vegas, NV / Miami, FL
ATP Jet SimulationDallas, TX
PSA AirlinesDayton, OH / Cincinnati, OH / Charlotte, NC
SkyWest AirlinesAtlanta, GA / Cincinnati, OH / Dallas, TX / Denver, CO / St. Louis, MO / Salt Lake City, UT
Atlas AirMiami, FL
DELTA Airlines Training CenterAtlanta, GA
Republic Airlines, Inc.Cincinnati, OH / Indianapolis, IN / St. Louis, MO
Flight Training InternationalDenver, CO
Alliance AviationMiami, FL
Skywarrior Flight TrainingPensacola, FL
Bell Murray AerospaceDallas, TX / Atlanta, GA
Simulator CenterMiami, FL
Gulf Coast Aeronautical ServicesFt. Worth, TX / Sanford, FL
Bewired USA (dba Skyeagle Aviation Academy)Ft Lauderdale, FL
Global One Training GroupPensacola, FL
K&S Aviation ServicesScottsdale, AZ / Seattle, WA / Las Vegas, NV / Dallas Ft. Worth, TX / Charlotte, NC / Phoenix, AZ
Lynn UniversityBoca Raton, FL / Virginia Gardens, FL
International Aviation ServicesAurora, CO / Miami, FL / Miami Springs, FL
Kingsky Flight AcademyLakeland, FL / Miami, FL
Aircraft Development Flight Airways CorporationMiami, FL / Ft Lauderdale, FL
MIL2ATPPikeville, NC / Miami Springs, FL / Aurora, CO
Airbus North America Customer ServicesMiami, FL / Aurora, CO

There's a better way to find a pilot job.

Take the stress out of your job search and let employers compete for you.

Learn More


ATP-CTP Curriculum

Each course will vary. But the FAA mandates specific curriculum for an approved ATP-CTP course. This curriculum includes:

  • At least 8 hours of instruction on aerodynamics, including high altitude operations
  • At least 2 hours of instruction on meteorology
  • At least 14 hours of instruction on air carrier operations
  • At least 6 hours of training in a full flight simulator that represents a multiengine turbine airplane weighing more than 40,000 lbs. This training must include:
    • Low energy states / stalls
    • Upset recovery techniques
    • Adverse weather including icing, thunderstorms, and crosswinds with gusts
  • At least 4 additional hours of training must be completed in a flight training device, to include:
    • Navigation with flight management systems
    • Automation and auto flight

Airline Transport Pilot Exams and Checkride

After completing the ATP-CTP course students can take the ATP knowledge test (written exam). This exam can be taken at any FAA approved testing center and may or may not be associated with the ATP-CTP school. The exam must be taken within 60 calendar months of completing the ATP-CTP course.

Pilot applicants for the ATP checkride may arrange their own checkride with a designated examiner or with the FAA. Or they can take the checkride as part of completing 121 initial training or associated with completing an airplane type rating. It is common for pilots to complete the ATP checkride at their first airline job.

Training at the Airlines

Initial pilot training at the the airlines is compared to “drinking water from a fire hose.” The pace of learning can be daunting, but it is manageable. Airlines want each applicant to succeed. But they have to balance this with the cost and time it takes to get new hire pilots onto the line.

Full Motion Flight Simulator

Phases of Airline Pilot Training

Each employer’s training program will vary. But there are phases that you can expect:

  1. Indoctrination: you are introduced to employment at the airline. This phase will contain general subject areas for pilots and the specific operations for that employer.
  2. Aircraft systems: this phase covers the systems of the airplane you will be flying. This phase is accomplished with a combination of lecture and computer based training.
  3. Systems integration training (SIT): systems knowledge and transferred into how it fits into airplane operations. This phase covers flight management systems, automation, airplane flows, emergency memory items, airplane profiles, and company procedures.
  4. Simulator training: in this phase you will ‘fly’ the full motion simulator for your airplane. At the end of this phase will be the checkride that will allow you to advance to operating the airplane. It is this checkride where pilots that haven’t obtained an ATP certificate may do so.
  5. Initial Operating Experience (IOE), also called Operating Experience (OE): this is still training, but is where you will begin flying the airplane in revenue operations. Your first landing in your new airplane will likely be with revenue passengers on board. In this phase of training you will be paired with check airmen, as line pilots may not be paired with a trainee. This phase is completed after a line check and when you finish you become a line pilot.

Testing While in Airline Training

There are two types of training at airlines. Advanced qualification program (AQP) training is a unique program setup by each airline. It involves validation gates where you will show proficiency or knowledge and will then be marked as completing that item. This usually doesn’t need to be accomplished as part of a scheduled testing event.

In the traditional method there will be scheduled testing events. These will be in the form of written exams, oral exams, simulator evaluations, and line check evaluations. These events will be scheduled and there is jeopardy associated. A jeopardy event is one where a failure will remain part of your training and checking history that is reported to future employers.

How to Bridge the Gap from Commercial Certificate to the Airlines

There is significant discourse over the perceived need for pilots to pay for the flight time between obtaining a commercial pilot certificate and then being qualified to fly for an airline. These discussions cite this is a failure in regulations and the root cause for airline pilot staffing issues.

But this commentary ignores two points:

  1. In a balanced job market pilots have historically worked in entry level pilot jobs as they accumulated flight experience needed to be competitive when applying to a regional airline. It was the norm that pilots gained experience in other types of operations prior to having revenue passengers sit behind them in a high performance jet. Prior to the change in regulations pilots didn’t start their career at a regional airline.
  2. There are many entry level pilot jobs available for pilots to gain experience. Unlike years past pilots can get paid livable wages while building experience.

As an alternative to the traditional low time pilot jobs, some airlines are creating defined flows to help pilots as they enter and transition into the work force. And some charter operations are creating second-in-command programs to have pilots fly advanced aircraft with little flight experience.


There's a better way to find a pilot job.

Take the stress out of your job search and let employers compete for you.

Learn More


About Greg Thomson

Greg started his professional pilot journey in 2002 after graduating from Embry Riddle. Since that time he has accumulated close to 8,000 hours working as a pilot. Greg’s professional experience includes flight instructing, animal tracking, backcountry flying, forest firefighting, passenger charter, part 135 cargo, flying for a regional airline, and working as a manager in charge of a part 135 and part 121 training programs. Greg took a 5 year hiatus from flying and worked in software development and marketing. He has returned to flying and works for a major airline. Greg enjoys educating and helping pilots improve their professional lives and is passionate about applying technology and new methods to help with traditional challenges.