Figuring out how to become a Commercial Pilot is a bit of a process to say the least, but don't let that intimidate you. Here is some basic and general information on what it takes to become a pilot for a living.
There are two basic routes to take: military or civilian. For this discussion, we are going to focus on the process of become a Commercial Pilot via the civilian route. I'm often asked, "Is it possible to become a pilot if I didn't do it through the military?" The answer is definitely yes.
I'll talk about the various civilian routes in a moment, but lets talk about the normal flow no matter which option you choose. Everything starts at the Private Pilot license. After a Private license is obtained, most people begin their training for an Instrument Rating, and than finally their training for Commercial Pilot. If you are serious about the airlines, you will need to add-on a multi-engine rating that allows you to fly multi-engine airplanes. Some people do this after their Private, and some people add this on after their Commercial. So, lets say you have a multi-engine Commercial license. Now what?
Most likely you are somewhere around 250-300 hours of flight experience at this point. The FAA minimum time is 250 hrs before you are eligible to take your test for becoming a Commercial Pilot. Smaller regional airlines rarely hire people with less than 500 hrs total time experience, and it is common that you may need closer to 1,000 hrs or more. A major airline such as Delta, United, or Southwest, will expect you to have much more time than that and will also expect you to have experience in turbine powered airplanes, as opposed to the piston-engine powered planes that most trainers are equipped with. So how do you get from your 250 hrs of flight experience to 1,000 hrs of flight experience so you can get your first airline job?
Common first flight jobs are towing banners for advertisements, aerial photography, traffic watch, aircraft ferrying, dropping skydivers, and flight instruction to name a few. The most common is adding on a flight instructor certificate to your Commercial license and teaching others how to fly.
If you are a civilian in training, the two major options are to go through either an accredited college program, or to pursue training at a local airport obtaining your various ratings and licenses. Each option has their specific advantages and disadvantages. Lets take a look at some of those. Before we do however, I want to point out that flight training standards are set forth by the FAA. Since this is a federal license, the standards for what you must demonstrate and be taught are universal throughout the country. If you obtain your private pilot license in Maine, it is valid and worth the same thing as someone who learned in California. Obviously, schools and programs will vary in their methods, and some are better than others, but the idea is that a pilot from one part of the country is expected to be trained the same core items as someone in a completely different part of the country.
If you are looking into a college program, it will most likely be described as an FAA Approved Part 141 Program. The main advantages of these programs include greater chances for receiving college credit as you go through your training. Since you are going through a school program, funding is generally easier to obtain since college loans are added into your possible options for funding. Also, if you are a veteran, using GI benefits are possible at a 141 school. The flight training is very structured, and sometimes it may be accelerated, or at other times it may take quite awhile since you are dealing with the academic process.
Part 141 programs have a reputation for being more expensive overall. It seems more common that 141 schools have newer equipment such as simulators, newer planes, newer avionics, etc. Some of this can be a great benefit to the student, and some of it can be a flight school taking more money than is necessary to properly train a student.
Negatives that may be associated with a 141 school is expense, as previously mentioned. Another negative can be the environment. Some flight schools are termed "pilot factories" and will have young instructors looking to build hours so they can move on to their next job. This is not to say that their skill is not up to par, but possibly their attitudes. Think back to the teachers you have had and appreciated the most. Did they seem to want to be there and were they happy to be teaching you? These schools can be fast paced environments where the student is in and out as fast as possible, and may have a whole slew of different instructors along the way.
So what are other options besides Part 141 schools? Many local airports have what is called a Part 61 flight training program. These tend to be less formal and structured as a Part 141 program. College credit is not offered as part of the training, but once you have obtained your licenses, there are many college programs that will give you a certain amount of credits for the licenses you already hold whether you were trained Part 61 or Part 141. These college programs would be some type of aviation program and most likely you would have to have a degree in aviation for the credits to be of any value for you.
Part 61 schools can train someone from Private Pilot all the way through Commercial and ATP just like a Part 141 program. The licenses are the same, however the environment may be somewhat different.
Plusses for a Part 61 program usually include a lower cost to the student. There is more flexibility for the student which can be especially nice for those who are working or have families. Part 61 schools may or may not have instructors that are content being instructors, but the chances of finding an instructor who is teaching for the joy of it is more likely at a 61 school.
Negatives for Part 61 programs would generally be that there is no credit associated with the flight training. This means that funding may be harder to obtain since you can't easily find a college loan to use towards flight training. Part 61 programs are not always know for having the newest and most up to date airplanes and equipment. A good part 61 school will have safe and well maintained equipment that is more than adequate for conducting training, but you may want to spend a few extra dollars afterwards learning some of the state of the art equipment before you go for those airline interviews.
I would advise people to heavily way their financial situation when choosing a school. Early jobs for pilots fresh out of training are notorious for being low paying jobs. The high paying pilot jobs are after you have spent a few years in the industry and racked up a few thousand hours of flight experience. If you graduate from college with $100k in college debt, it will be difficult those first few years. If you do not have financial support from parents or some other source besides loans, it is in your best interest to cut excessive cost while still obtaining quality flight training.
Now I will openly admit that I am bias towards Part 61 Programs. I have had experience with both Part 141 and Part 61 programs. I know people from both programs that fly for the airlines and people from some of the Part 61 programs spent about half as much as those from the Part 141 programs. No matter what route you choose, it is in your best interest to really check out a flight school before you commit to it. Some flight schools whether they are 141 or 61 are great, and some are not.
Will you need a college degree in aviation? No. To have a good chance of being hired by a major airline, you will need a Bachelor's degree. To be hired as a First Officer on a smaller regional airline a degree does not hurt your chances, but is not a requirement. Many people finish their degrees while gaining additional flight experience. It is important to note that a Bachelors in Aviation is not a requirement for any airline. If you want to get your Bachelors in a field unrelated to aviation, that is fine.
For more information related to picking flight schools follow these links below:
.: How To Get The Most From Your Training
.: More on Part 141 vs Part 61 (same topics.. little bit different wording)