I’ll start with the conclusion: the civilian path to flying an airliner is analogous to the path to practicing medicine as a doctor: years of expensive schools followed by years of low pay and very hard work. At the end of each process, you have a professional with mad career buy-in. He’s earned it.
Let’s say you’ve decided you want to be an airline pilot for a major international airline (aka “major”). You visit the website of a flight school in Florida (note: I’m not endorsing them) that lays out a path from beginning to the end (leaving out sport pilot rating because most future airline pilots don’t need it):
- Private pilot: $9823/21 days
- Instrument Rating: $10088/14 days
- Single Engine Commercial Pilot: $4443/7 days
- Multi-Engine Commercial Pilot: $5520/5 days
You’ve earned your commercial multi-engine rating, but with fewer than 500 hours total flight time. Only the scant solo flight time you’ve flown can be logged as Pilot-in-Command. There is most likely no flight time in a multi-engine turbine powered aircraft, which the majors need to see in their candidates. You’re not there yet. Also, you need to eat. So your next path is:
Have you counted the cost? $40337, plus room and board (since you’re not earning any money), and 10 weeks of your time, if you don’t take any days off and everything goes smoothly during flight training. Things never go smoothly during flight training.
You can also go to college and accomplish the same things. It’s expensive, but since it counts as higher education you might get some help.
If they like you, you can start instructing in your flight school. If they don’t, you have to find a new one. This is where your real education as a pilot begins: you have to explain and demonstrate what you know to people who don’t know anything about flying, and make them understand and perform the things you are teaching. This is one of the most underrated teaching challenges anywhere. It’s dangerous and intense, as student pilots always do unexpected things. This is also where you will build flight time.
After a few years of low pay as a flight instructor, you can get a job as a First Officer with a corporate or regional airline. These jobs will provide you the chance to fly a multi-engine turbine powered aircraft and move up to a Captain’s seat (for that all-important Pilot-in-Command flight time). After a few years as Captain, you will have enough flight time to apply at a major.
The point to all this trivia is that it’s a time and money-consuming haul between dreaming about flying an airliner and doing it. The last pilot I spoke with who followed this road told me that he truly learned how to be a pilot while flight instructing. The dues-paying process for civilians begins in these trenches. This is where the reliable, trustworthy pilots pay the dues that give them career buy-in.