Do you need a degree to be a pilot? For years pilots were required to have degrees to work for major airlines, but this has changed. This article will help you with perspective and considerations when deciding what course of training to take.
“The price of ability does not depend on merit, but on supply and demand”George Bernard Shaw.
This statement rings true for pilots and the question about university degrees. When pilots were plentiful, airlines required their pilots to have degrees. With a global pilot shortage increasing, and degrees not essential for operating a plane, airlines are no longer requiring degrees from their pilots – this can be seen by the recruitment websites from both Emirates1, Qantas2, and most major airlines. In the US, many airlines still prefer their airline pilots to have degrees, but the bidding wars between airlines for pilots are resulting in change3. The question is not so much whether pilots must have a degree as should pilots have a degree?
Do you need a degree to be a pilot?
No. A degree is not required for a person to be a licensed pilot – with a pilot being defined as “a person who flies or is qualified to fly an aircraft or spacecraft” (Merriam-Webster dictionary).
There are many types of pilots (including those that fly spacecraft), and in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) pilots have three license types – private pilot (PPL), commercial pilot (CPL), and Airline Pilot (ATPL).
The pilots who fly the Boeings and Airbus planes on commercial routes are the ATPL pilots. If a pilot aspires to work for major airlines like United Airlines, Delta, British Airways, and Qantas, the question of whether to have a degree or not will be more relevant than for those flying PPL or CPL operations.
How can you become a pilot without a degree?
To expand on the ICAO definitions of pilots mentioned above, the requirements for achieving a private pilot’s license are to pass all private pilot exams (6-9 exams depending on the country) and 40 – 60 hours of flying. Commercial pilots require another set of exams and around 200 hours of flying. An airline pilot needs to complete a further set of exams and have 1,500 hrs of flying experience. Australian ATPL requirements4 can be viewed online. The FAA (United States) and the United Kingdom websites have similar requirements. Neither of the regulatory bodies requires a person to have a degree to achieve an ATPL license.
All aviation regulatory bodies will however require that training be done at certified flight training schools. Thus, if you want to become a pilot but are not interested in a degree, find a flight school online and do the training through the flight school.
As flight training possibilities are extremely wide, the information provided from here forward will apply to pilots wanting to achieve ATPL licenses and work for Airlines.
Do pilots with a degree have any advantages over those with different flight training?
Yes. There are advantages to doing a degree when flying.
The first advantage is in the training approach. There are two (main) methods of achieving ATPL – integrated and non-integrated training. Almost all colleges/universities that offer degrees have integrated training regimes. These have fewer hour requirements and conduct training in a way that provides the candidate with skills most applicable to airline flying – Instrument flying in multi-engine aircraft plays a big part.
The FAA website5 mentions the reduced requirements to achieve an ATPL for students from universities/integrated courses. The integrated training focuses on the necessary skills for airline flying. Although the non-integrated method is often cheaper on an hour-to-hour comparison, the lack of integration across training can easily result in an applicant having lopsided experience – i.e many hours of day instruction, but not enough night flying to achieve an ATPL. The integrated training ensures the right skills are being developed.
The second advantage that pilots with degrees have, is that major airlines often prefer candidates with degrees. This means that should two candidates with equal aviation experience should apply for a role/promotion, the pilot that has a degree will usually receive preference.
The third major advantage of holding a degree is the fact that pilots sometimes lose medical fitness, and as such can no longer fly. By holding a degree, one can ensure that they can still work in aviation.
There are also multiple options in terms of doing flight training and a degree, and some options for flight training and completing a degree in the United States are explained here6.
Where can you get a degree to be a pilot (in USA, Australia, UK)?
There are many universities in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that offer various bachelor’s degrees in aviation or aviation-related topics. There are options for part-time studying and full-time flying, part-time flying and full-time studying and a myriad of options in-between.
The internet is a very good source when looking at degrees, and multiple websites provide guidance including this one7 which shows colleges that offer aviation degrees in the United Kingdom. The easiest way is to Google something along the lines of “Aviation degree in ******(country)” to see what options exist.
An important aspect to consider when looking at Universities is whether they have their own aircraft/flight school or whether they are subcontracting to another school. As a rule, colleges and universities with their own aircraft will be a better option than those that do not.
What is the quickest way to become a pilot?
The quickest way to become an ATPL pilot will be to sign up for a cadetship at one of the major airlines. These cadetships are designed to get the cadets into airline jobs as soon as possible.
The second quickest option would be to sign up at a flight school as a full-time student. Make sure you choose a flight school situated in an area with predominantly good weather.
The University option is probably the “slowest” in terms of progress, but it provides structure and guidance.
Is it more expensive to study aviation at a college?
Yes and no. A university degree is more comprehensive than training through a flight school. The Bachelor Degree in aviation at the University of Nebraska9 components includes public speaking, mathematics, and diversity subjects.
Flight Schools tend to focus on the bare minimum requirements – flying, and flight-related exams (Navigation, Weather).
Determining the cost of studying at either a flight school or a college is also difficult when it comes to flight training – students vary considerably, and all training providers require that actual flying hours be paid for, meaning, if you require 10 extra hours of flying to meet the required standard, that is included over and above the normal quoted price.
The degree will cost more than training through a flight school but offers more in terms of training and qualifications.
Are there any advantages to studying aviation at a flight school rather than getting a degree?
Yes, it will generally be cheaper and potentially faster than following a university degree. As a trainee, you will also have the freedom to structure training in aspects that you prefer. If you combine that with the high demand for pilots that currently exist, it might also be beneficial to delay the degree until after achieving a role with an airline. Many airlines would be supportive of pilots studying part-time whilst working.
Should you have a degree or not? There are advantages to having a degree; it is structured training, provides redundancy and will make employment opportunities in the Airline industry marginally better. The cost factor and the time spent on achieving the degree tend to make most candidates lean towards flight schools. The decision is ultimately your own, and the best advice is to make a comparison for yourself. Speak to the universities, the airlines, and the flight schools, and weigh the options, but rest easy in the fact that a degree is not required to achieve your dream of captaining a Qantas, Delta or Emirates Boeing.
- ‘Pilots and Flight Operations’, Qantas. Accessed at https://www.qantas.com/au/en/about-us/qantas-careers/pilots-flight-operations.html#qantas on Sep 15, 2022.
- ‘The United States Is Obsessed With Four-Year Degrees’, Julie Brosnan, New America. Published April 11, 2019. Accessed online at https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/america-obsessed-four-year-degrees-pilots/#:~:text=British%20Airways%2C%20Emirates%2C%20Qatar%20Airways,Not%20one on Sep 15, 2022.
- ‘Getting an air transport pilot licence (ATPL)’, CASA. Updated: Aug 23, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.casa.gov.au/licences-and-certificates/pilots/pilot-licences/air-transport-pilot-licences/getting-air-transport-pilot-licence-atpl on Sep 15, 2022.
- ‘Pilot Training’, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Updated: August 7, 2020. Accessed online at https://www.faa.gov/pilots/training/atp on Sep 15, 2022.
- ‘Going to College to become an airline pilot’, Brian Brassaw, Thrust Flight, Published: April 20, 2021. Accessed online at https://www.thrustflight.com/going-to-college-to-become-an-airline-pilot/ on Sep 15, 2022.
- ‘Top aviation Universities/Colleges in UK’, Colledunia.com. Accessed online at https://collegedunia.com/uk/aviation-colleges on Sep 15, 2022.
- ‘How do I become a pilot?’, Go Fly Aviation. Accessed online at https://www.goflyaviation.com.au/how-do-i-become-a-pilot/ on Sep 15, 2022.
- ‘Bachelor of Science in Aviation-Professional Flight’, University of Nebraska, Omaha. Accessed online at https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-public-affairs-and-community-service/aviation/academics/bachelor-of-science-in-aviation-professional-flight.php on Sep 15, 2022.