How does an airline pilot work his way up to a 747/A380?

In my position as a research engineer, I am afforded opportunities for promotion. I can stand out among my peers by exhibiting excellence in attention to design detail, data analysis and project management, and if sufficiently motivated, I can take on greater responsibilities in my current position, or even work my way up the org chart into management.

Recently I got to wondering how an airline pilot ends up at the controls of (to me, at least) the biggest and most prestigious aircraft, the 747 or the A380.

Can someone describe the career path of a 747/A380 pilot? When you’re fresh out of flight school, how do you distinguish yourself from your peers and get selected for advancement/promotion? It seems (to this non-pilot) like a pilot’s responsibilities are clear cut, and either you meet expectations (i.e. fly safely) or you don’t. In what ways can an airline pilot exceed expectations?

I’m guessing you pay your own way through flight school before you get hired, but once you’re employed by an airline, who pays for the training that lets you step from a small “simple” aircraft like a regional jet up to a complex, 4-engined leviathan that puts as many as 600 lives in your hands?

A huge percentage of them probably had military training on big cargo planes which would be similar to a big passenger plane.

A lot come from the military as pilots, but even they have to work their way up.

I had a passing interest in becoming a commercial airline pilot, and it is possible to do it the civilian route but very few do.

Essentially you go and get your pilot’s license, and then log thousands of hours flying, and then you hope you get hired by a small regional airline that will pay you crap. You work for them for years and years and log lots of safe flying, and then you apply at a slightly larger airline or to transfer to a larger plane in the same airline. You keep working your way up and eventually if you get lucky you’ll get a position on one of the big 747’s.

It basically just takes a lot of time, and obviously no major screw ups. Becoming a pilot isn’t easy, and you’re subject to furloughs and strikes.

But yeah, if you do make your way up to the 747’s, you’ll probably be making six figures and only working every other month of the year or something like that.

All this info came from internet research, so take it with a grain of salt. I am not an expert on the industry.

Flying as a career suffers from a huge oversupply of willing candidates. For every pilot that makes a living flying (even a poor one) there are probably at least 20 people with a private ticket that dream of doing so, and probably another 10 that are spending every dime they can scrape together chasing that dream.

At the start there are several levels of license: Private, commercial(can carry passengers for hire) IFR (instrument rating, can fly blind on instruments alone) CFI (Certified flight instructor). You spend a lot of money working your way up to CFI. Then you get to charge students while you log time. Before the internet took off, you used to be able to get jobs moving bank paper around…not so much now. Now you need even more time, and then you spend more money and get a turbine rating and eventually you can work for a regional airline who pay slave wages.* More time, and eventually you can get on with a major airline who still start you out at just above slave wages. Eventually you work your way up to bigger and more sophisticated aircraft…once you are with a major airline, they will likely pay for the training, but until then it is almost all on your dime.

There are some unusual ways to build time while getting paid, other than instructing: Towing gliders, towing banners, crop dusting (very dangerous).

*It is so bad that some pilots have established crowded “flop houses” where they can overnight and save hotel costs. On a small regional airline, your pilot’s diet most likely includes a lot of raman noodles.

My father in law retired from American Airlines 2 decades ago, so this is a bit dated. But back then, you got the best routes on the best planes via 1 method: Seniority.

Along the way, you did have to train and qualify on each subsequent aircraft, but as long as you didn’t flunk out, your place in the pecking order was defined by your seniority. Period.

Things may be different now.

When my brother-in-law left the Air Force for a commercial airline they started him off as a lowly first-officer (co-pilot) on DC9-MD80-90 types despite his not only having been the command pilot on bigger planes in the Air Force, but being a wing commander as well.

As he worked his way up the seniority/performance review ladder, I know there was a “career fork” when either he’d move up to bigger planes as a first officer, or move up to be captain on the MD80 types.

Today he’s a captain on the smaller planes. He says he prefers it because the smaller planes fly shorter routes out and back, meaning he can spend most of his evenings at home, rather than a hotel a half-continent away. I suspect he would have eventually made more money on the bigger jets, but he would have had to spend another long apprenticeship as a first officer before working his way up (again) to captain.

That’s a really interesting question. I suppose that one way to stand out is by getting the plane to its destination early. Do airlines expect that pilots will have X number of kerfluffles a year and rate pilots with less as superior? E.g. you are allowed to be late/delayed up in the air up to 5 times a year and still be treated as meeting expectations. Do airlines record your stick and throttle movements and instrument readings and have them evaluated by a flight instructor? E.g. “Pilot Jones, you’ve been flying JFK<->LAX for five years now and are always on time, but you twitch the flaps two much. You don’t meet expectations.”

Is advancement primarily based on meeting barebones expectations and just getting massive numbers of flight hours and additional certifications under your belt? E.g. You fly a 737 but you go back to school on your own time and get a 747 rating all on your own, sort of like how a public school teacher might go back to school and get a doctorate on their own time and dime in the hopes of making Principal someday.

Any commercial pilots here who can talk about this?

Airline pilot Patrick Smith (former aviation columnist for agrees with your FIL, at least in the USA.

That’s a good way to be noticed in a bad way. If you’re ahead of schedule, you probably flew faster than prescribed for that route and consumed excess fuel (big money lost there). And then, what do you do if you’re early? There’s another plane at the gate, so you either circle the airport or you land and park out in the boonies while you wait for the other plane to leave the gate. Neither of these options will make you popular with your pax.

My ex was a commercial pilot and he expressed frustration with the seniority method. It rewards longevity, with little regard for anything beyond basic competence and the ability to end your flights with a working airplane.

Ah, unions.

My nephew flies for one of the big US airlines, he did the same thing as most non-military.

He learned to fly with a small Cessna, got a commercial (200hrs, IIRC?) and then instructor. Leeched off his folks while teaching flying for a pittance. Eventually got hired to fly small charters and then prop commuter planes. For a while he was flying Dash 8 then Embraer out of Cleveland. After a while he worked up to small jets, then larger jets. Each time, he was sent on the appropriate course - IIRC one time he went to Texas to learn 767 or something for a month. Bids his way upt to less demanding schedules.

If basically, all pilots are effectively the same, how else than seniority would you distinguish between them? (My observation of unions is - a compnay gets the union it deserves. Most militant unions indicate there is or was a dick boss on the other side recently. )

I suppose there are ways to score a pilot - every pilot undergoes flight training and retesting at mandatory intervals. The IFR training, IIRC, was particularly picky. Do those tests result in pass/fail, or a score that could be applied to the record? But then the next question is, does ability to stay, for example, within 20 feet of designated flight level indicate the same skill as needed to not endanger passengers?

My brother is a commercial pilot - worked his way up non-military. He took out some loans and put in the training/time/money to get about 200 airtime hours, his commercial pilots license and his flight instructor rating. Then he found a job as a flight instructor, so he could continue to accumulate hours and be paid a poverty level wage to do so.

The biggest hurdle if I recall correctly was gaining experience in a multi-engine aircraft. Beyond flight instruction or bush pilot jobs, most commercial work is in multi-engine aircraft and when applying for a job flying for any company they will be primarily interested in seeing how many hundreds or preferably thousands of multi engine hours experience you have. My brothers solution was to network and convince a small group of medium size business owners that they would benefit by purchasing a small 2 engine, 10 person plane, and to then hire my brother as their personal pilot. Whenever they were on a business trip somewhere my brother gained those valuable two engine hours.

From there he got a job with a couple of small charter outfits and after several years of that he got a job with an airline flying 737’s. Copilot at first and captain later.

I’m not sure that the number of ex military pilots is as high some of the previous posters have indicated. Perhaps the US is different with a larger military and a generally poor aviation industry in terms of airline expansion requiring significant hiring of pilots. In Australia at least, I know some ex-military pilots but the vast majority of pilots come from civilian flight schools.

The basic premise of the OP is a bit flawed. Flying is not a blank and white thing where you are either safe or unsafe. There is a large range of abilities among pilots and these differences, if big enough, are apparent to the other pilot in the flight deck on a normal flight, they are apparent to check captains when conducting annual line checks where pilots are observed on a normal line flight and assessed, and even the smallest differences are apparent when being checked in the simulator every few months. The simulator has been described as a “fault amplifier”, if you have any weaknesses in technique then it is obvious for all to see.

People talk as well. When I started my current job I had a good idea who the deadwood in the base were and subsequent promotions have validated that.

Not long ago when I was a first officer I had some training to do in the simulator with another first officer. The training was so we could start doing a certain type of approach and it didn’t involve any failures or anything, just flying. The jet I fly is antiquated and the autopilot isn’t the best so it was recommended that this type of approach be hand flown. It became immediately apparent to me sitting next to the other pilot that he couldn’t fly the simulator, what should have been small changes in attitude turned into wild gyrations around the sky and the result was that he didn’t get checked out. He ended up finishing the check on a line flight in the real aircraft where I’m sure he performed adequately because the real aircraft is a lot easier to fly than the sim.

At the time this was happening there was a command position available at our base. If our company had a strict seniority system he would have been given the promotion, but we don’t have strict seniority and poor performers such as him are regularly overlooked in favour of more competent pilots. Including him, our base has three pilots who are essentially “career first officers”, that is they are unlikely to ever get a promotion because they just aren’t good enough.

“Not good enough” is quantified using a scoring system in checks. The scores range from 1 to 5 with a 3 being of an acceptable standard. I can’t remember the specifics but if you score 2+ or worse for any of the check sequences then you will be put on the back burner for promotion.

In our company if you have several pilots who are good enough and they want the one position then seniority will be used to decide who gets it.

My own career path is broadly typical though the specific jobs I had were not typical. I learned to fly gliders at 16 then trained on powered aircraft at a civilian flight school a few years later. I did well in training and my instructor recommended me for a job flying a small two seat aerobatic plane taking tourists joy-riding. From there I went to another similar company and then once I had an instrument rating on multi-engine aeroplanes (funded by me) I got work flying light twins around followed by a promotion into the right seat (first officer) of a Dash 8 then after two years I went to the left seat as a captain. After three years of that I was in the right seat of a small jet (BAe146/Avro RJ) and after 18 months I’ve become a captain on the same type.

I’m 38 now and I don’t think I’ll be making any changes. I don’t want to be a first officer again so any move to a different company would have to be straight in as a captain and positions like that don’t often become available. If I wanted to fly a big jet then I’d have to join a company like Qantas where you start on international routes as a second officer and that is not something that interests me. I’d much rather fly short sectors and spend my nights at home. My current job has that and I get every weekend off and typically only fly two to three days a week.

Nothing like that happens. Some companies may record the fuel burns from the pilots. If ours does they don’t make it known however in my previous company I got a letter from the Chief Pilot saying that my fuel burns were significantly higher than the other pilots and asking for an explanation, but that had no effect on my career progression and my explanation was accepted.

Sort of. Once you are working within a company they will pay for any training you need for promotion. It used to be that to get a job with an airline you needed the minimum hours they were looking for and the basic qualifications. Typically an airline transport licence and a few thousand hours including hours on twin engine aeroplanes. If you were hired the airline would pay for any training required to fly their aircraft type on their routes. There are now airlines that include having the type rating as part of their selection criteria. So you can go interview for a job flying a B737 and they might offer you the position on the basis that you fund your own B737 rating which costs around $30,000 AUD.

The company I work for requires you to sign a bond for any significant training rather than fund any of it yourself. A new first officer with us will be asked to sign a three year $30,000 bond which is just a promise that you won’t leave for another company within three years but if you do you will pay back the company for the training they gave you (reduced pro-rata for time already served.)

To put it in the words of the OP:

In my position as a pilot, I am afforded opportunities for promotion. I can stand out among my peers by exhibiting excellence in aircraft handling skills, technical knowledge, and crew management. If sufficiently motivated, I can take on greater responsibilities in my current position, or even work my way up the org chart into management

Never underestimate nice teeth and a full head of hair. And lots of hours.

I’m serious.

I’m not so sure about the “arrive early bad” scenario. I fly regularly and my impression is that >50% of my flights land ahead of schedule, and I assume that’s because airlines now “overschedule” the amount of time required to reach the destination so they can boast about their on-time arrival rates. When I arrive early I often find (especially at big airports) that I wind up sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate anyway.

Conversely, I’m guessing that a pilot who arrived significantly late without mitigating factors (like severe weather) wouldn’t stick around long. My understanding is that there’s a fuel margin to make up for some weather conditions by flying a little faster in the face of strong headwinds.

Am I right about all this?

I see no reason why a pilot (or navigator, or computer) can’t work out the optimal combination of speed vs. fuel based on weather conditions and planned routes. Going faster or slower than optimum is probably discouraged by management.

The plane itself has an efficient power setting at a given altitude but the real savings is a balance of best wind conditions and minimum fuel weight and that would be calculated by Dispatch before the plane leaves.

Scheduling is a different issue. It’s based on historic route information and airport efficiencies. Going into a busy airport like ATL use to involve tacking on another 10 or 15 minutes to a flight.