A pilot career with the airlines

Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways

Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways

For many people who embark on flight training, the ultimate aim is a career flying for the airlines, travelling around the globe at the controls of some of the most sophisticated aircraft ever built. And there has never been a better time to train.

Throughout the past few years, there have been plenty of rumours circulating regarding the imminent global pilot shortage. Boeing has predicted a global demand for 23,000 new pilots by 2029, while the huge number of pilot captains reaching retirement age in the next few years has created greater awareness of the need to train pilots of the future with a captain’s skill set in mind. So with pilot demand greater than ever before, how do you make the most of this opportunity?

The UK and Europe is home to a number of established, top-ranking Flight Training Organisations, commonly known as FTOs, offering two training routes to a commercial pilot career, the integrated and modular options, with some also offering a third route, the Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL).

More and more airlines are introducing full- or part-sponsored cadet training programmes, with Flybe announcing a part-sponsored MPL training scheme with Stella Aviation in 2012 and British Airways launching the second phase of the Future Pilot Programme (FPP), a programme designed to recruit more than 800 new pilots to the carrier by 2016. Speaking on the launch of the programme, BA’s manager of pilot recruitment Lindsay Craig explained, “The financial demand of training, as well as the challenge of securing that first job, is discouraging some very able people from getting involved with aviation at the outset. BA’s initiative gives people a chance to show their skills and abilities, and secure a place on a programme that leads to a First Officer’s position.”

More and more airlines are following suit with part-sponsored training, which means that for the lucky few, the cost of training need not set you back in excess of £100,000.

More good news for trainee pilots is on the way with the development of a Professional Pilots Higher Apprenticeship

which is designed to make the route to becoming a commercial pilot more accessible for all, with the possibility of student-loan type funding to support training costs. The framework for the apprenticeship is set to be in place by late-March 2013.



The integrated route involves a full-time course of study, generally lasting around 14 months. This takes a student from complete beginner to a position where they are ready to take up a role as a commercial pilot. The main advantage is that a student enters an intense course of study within a dedicated and well-equipped training facility, surrounded by like-minded students and often with links to leading airlines.

Being a full-time student means your progress can be monitored at each stage of training. Should you fail your ground exams and flight tests during your training (and this is exactly the same whether you’ve chosen the integrated or modular routes) while the chance does exist to retake them, airlines do look more favourably on graduates who have passed first time and with top marks.

While much of your training is completed as part of a curriculum that has been set by the CAA, it’s the specific character, location, cost and presentation of each FTO that will help you decide which is the best suited for you.

The training itself can be split into specific sections, which typically run like this:

The ATPL ground exams – for many, the most demanding part of the training. You’ll need to pass 14 exams covering subjects such as navigation, flight planning and aviation law.

Flight training – the fun bit. A majority of this may well take place overseas, often in the USA, which offers cheaper flying and better weather.

Night Qualification – your first additional qualification.

Commercial Pilot Licence – the CPL is a basic requirement to be allowed to fly for financial reward. This is a major stepping-stone. You need a minimum of 150 hours of flight time to get this far, flying aircraft with retractable undercarriage and variable-pitch propellers.

Multi-engine rating

Instrument Rating – the most demanding of the flying skills, flying solely with reference to the aeroplane’s instruments.

Multi-Crew Co-operation – learning to work as a team, a requisite for the majority of professional pilots.

With all of this successfully completed, you’ll have what is known as a frozen ATPL. The ‘frozen’ part refers to the fact that you’ve passed the theory part of the Airline Transport Pilot Licence; to ‘unfreeze’ it you’ll need to have a total of 1,500 hours flying-time logged. You’ll also need a type rating, basically the result of a course of training undertaken that is individual to each type of aircraft, e.g. a Boeing 737-400. It’s now common to have to pay for your first type rating yourself, at a cost of between £20,000 and £30,000 – although this could change. You can generally expect any further type ratings to be paid for by your employers.

You can’t just buy your way onto an integrated course. You have to apply for and pass a series of selection tests that will gauge your suitability to be a pilot and work in a team. Each FTO has its own tests, although they are broadly similar.



With banks no longer keen to lend unsecured loans, and pilot training grants very difficult to come by, the modular training route is increasingly popular, offering training towards exactly the same qualifications at the same high standard but for typically half the cost of an integrated course – or less – and within a similar timeframe. There may also soon be an option of student-loan type funding for training through the Professional Pilots Higher Apprenticeship.

The big difference from the integrated route is that the study doesn’t necessarily take place as a full-time study option or over a set period of time – instead it can be done at the student’s own pace, module by module, as time and money allow. What’s more, in most cases the cost is substantially less and you can train in ‘blocks’, allowing the cost to be spread over a longer period, even allowing you to return to work between modules.

Airlines are recognising the benefits of employing graduates from the modular method. For example, Flybe’s Chief Pilot, Ian Baston explains, “Modular courses tend to produce pilots who have come from a wide background and experience and this can be very advantageous when we come to look at suitability for command in the future. We do require that the professional flying aspect of a modular course is undertaken at a maximum of two different FTOs in order to ensure a degree of continuity and enable the FTO to give us reasonable feedback on an individual’s performance, progress and character. This does mean that any PPL training, groundschool examinations or MCC can be carried out at other FTOs. In order to reinforce our support of modular courses, we maintain close relationships with a number of FTOs offering such courses including Professional Air Training (PAT) and Atlantic Flight Training and Aeros.”

A student might typically complete a module and then take some time out to go back to work and earn enough money to start the next module. Alternatively, they might combine a weekday job with their pilot studies at weekends and in the evenings. This does create its own challenges. It can obviously take much longer to complete the training and the extra workload of holding down a job while also studying is extremely demanding. Without the support of a strict timetable, and being among tutors and other students, motivation can also be difficult to maintain. However, as Colin Dobney, Head of Training at Stapleford Flight Centre explains, most modular FTOs have the experience to identify the challenges encountered by this type of training and can act accordingly. “We work with the students to schedule their training so that they can make the most of the time available. Also, when they’re nearing the completion of each module, we recommend that they come in for a full week and we help them to be as fully prepared as possible for the flight tests and exams.”



A recent – and increasingly popular – addition to the list of training options is the Multi-Crew Pilot Licence, whereby a student will train with an FTO specifically for a selected airline that uses this type of licence (not all airlines do). The huge attraction of this route is that you’re highly likely to get a job with the chosen airline at the end of the training, while for the airlines each curriculum is designed to feature its standard operating procedures.

The big difference is in the training itself. With an integrated course of study, for example, a student would expect to expect to graduate with in excess of 200 hours flight time. With an MPL this is likely to be closer to 90 hours, with a much larger proportion of the training taking place on simulators.

One word of caution. If, for example, you have earned your MPL to fly with airline X and then want to fly with airline Y, airline Y might well demand that you receive additional training. What’s more, with an MPL you cannot fly as a Captain. The good news, however, is that an MPL can be converted to an ATPL once 1,500 hours of flight time has been achieved.



Over the past four or five years, a new training route has opened for pilot students who would like the safety net of a degree. A number of universities – Brunel, City, London Metro, Kingston and Leeds among them – are offering degree courses combining either pilot training or aviation engineering training with a degree that covers more general aspects of the airline industry. In this scenario, the university will cover the theoretical side of the flight training and contract the more practical aspects to established FTOs. The attraction of this route is that should a graduate struggle to find a pilot’s job when they graduate, he or she is qualified for other aviation-related employment. What’s more, the content of the course is carefully chosen to provide new pilots with both a deeper understanding of the technical subjects of the ATPL and an insight into the air transport industry as a business, which looking ahead, could help their career progression in a training or management role.



Paying for your professional flight training is one of the most expensive investments you’ll ever make. At a time when few banks are lending, this means many students have to turn to the bank of mum and dad. For the rest, it’s either a matter of working your way through the training or taking a loan secured on a house.

Whichever route you choose, you’re going to want to make sure that your investment is secure. So what steps should you take?

  • Research your chosen FTO. How long have they been trading? Do they have any history of financial problems? What links do they have with major airlines? Most FTOs operate on a very strong financial footing but sadly it’s not unknown for an FTO to go under, sometimes taking their students’ investment with them. It’s obviously best to go with a well-established organisation with impressive industry links.
  • If you can, pay module-by-module rather than all upfront. Even some integrated courses offer a pre-designated schedule to draw down payments in instalments over the period of your training rather than taking it all in one go.
  • Pay for the training by credit card, which can provide some sort of insurance in the event of an FTO going under.
  • Does your chosen FTO offer a payment protection programme, such as the Bond Protection package offered by CTC Wings or the Skills Security Protection Plan from Oxford Aviation Academy? These plans guarantee to refund a percentage of your fees should you fail to reach the required standard to complete the course.
  • Throughout your training, keep your eyes on the bigger picture, in terms of the financial position of your chosen FTO and the industry in general.
  •  Finally, remember the old adage: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. ‹


Flight Training Exhibitions
For the very best guidance and advice on which FTOs to choose and to hear from the airlines themselves about their recruitment policies, pay a visit to one the Flight Training Exhibitions, held each year at Heathrow, Dublin and Eindhoven.

For full details of the events and when the next one will take place, visit http://exhibitions.flyer.co.uk