Pilots seem to have one of the more glamorous jobs in the aviation industry, they’re the rock ‘n’ roll frontman in the sunglasses and the hat. The practical reality of being a pilot is, of course, much more mundane, and much harder work than they might make it seem. ‘Pilot’ is a broad term covering anyone who has the skill and training to fly a plane or helicopter but in terms of commercial aviation, where most pilots are employed, the role encompasses both first officer and captain roles.
The differences between first officer and captain roles are minimal, and mainly boil down to chain of command. Whilst the two will perform the same basic duties, and will split much of the actual flying, the captain remains in charge, and solely responsible for the plane, its passengers and its crew. Captains are usually promoted internally, so it is entirely possible that the captain may be younger, with less flight time than his first officer if he has come from a military background, or another airline.
Pilots need hundreds of hours of training, as well as passing practical and theoretical examinations before they are qualified. Local aviation authorities have their own requirements, but all require a certain number of hours flight time before a pilot can take his practical test. The British Civil Aviation Authority, for example, requires a candidate to complete 1,500 hours, with 100 at most in a simulator. As well as this, there is a theoretical part to the qualification, on subjects ranging from meteorology, principles of flight and air law.
Once a pilot is qualified, that qualification lasts forever, but they still need to keep their skills sharp. Pilots need to have recently completed a certain number of hours on any given plane type to be considered safe to fly; again this varies by authority, but it means no pilot can jump straight into a plane after an extended absence. If the flight time has not been achieved in the required timeframe, a re-examination has to be undertaken for the pilot to be declared fit to fly.
Pilots work in a vast array of capacities and their wages vary accordingly. A newly qualified pilot working as a first officer for a small commercial airline could expect to earn a salary of around £22,000 ($35,000), or £25,000 ($40,000) with a larger operator. With a little experience this could rise to between £28,000 (£44,000) and £45,000 ($70,000) whilst for a captain role salaries could be from 54,000 ($87,000) to £75,000 ($120,000), while those with the major operators could earn from £97,000 ($156,000) to over £140,000 ($225,000).
Like plane tickets, pilot wages vary greatly from airline to airline. British Airways is one of the best airlines to fly for in terms of average salaries. Our calculations suggest that a long-haul pilot with lots of experience could well reach the £130,000 mark. But the key factor is experience, as even low cost airlines like Ryanair can pay their senior captains up to £100,000.