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How to Get Into the Airline Industry

How to Get Into the Airline Industry
Taylor Rains

Working in the aviation industry offers a great lifestyle – free flights, a good paycheck, the opportunity to hang out around planes all day, what could be better? However, getting into the industry can be tough, and some people do not know where to start. As I write to an audience full of avgeeks, I’m sure many of you have already found your niche in the industry, or maybe prefer to keep it as a hobby. However, for those who are still scratching their heads looking for opportunities, I’ve created a list of options that may be helpful.


Cheap/Free Options

Flight Attendant

Becoming a flight attendant is a great way to enter the industry, but getting hired and making it through training can be a challenge. Typically to become a flight attendant, you will need to be at least 18 years old (some airlines required 19 or 20), have experience working in customer service, and be physically able to do the job. Luckily, the industry is growing rapidly right now, and airlines are opening new bases left and right, meaning there is a demand for flight attendants.

If you decide to go down this route, it is crucial to understand that simply getting hired does not mean you’ll immediately be put on an aircraft to start serving drinks and present the safety demo. Instead, you will be required to go through specialized training that can last anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on the airline. Only after you complete the training and pass the necessary tests will you be considered a qualified cabin crew and be allowed to work.

Although I am not a flight attendant myself, I work with them every day and can tell you that although the flight benefits and opportunity to travel is great, the job is not always what it is hyped up to be. Here are few things to know before you apply to get your wings:

  • The pay could be better. On average, flight attendants are making between $29 and $45 an hour, depending on the airline and seniority. That would be an excellent pay if they were working 40 hours per week, but flight attendants usually only fly upwards of 85 hours a month, so you’re looking at a $2000 to $4000 monthly salary based on average pay and hours worked. Here’s the catch – most airlines only pay their flight attendants during flight hours, so even though they are “working” during boarding, taxi, or delays, they are not always paid for that time.
  • Long duty days. Typically the union will cap how many flying hours a flight attendant can work per day, but sometimes delays and cancellations leave them sitting in airports for hours on end, forced to deal with upset passengers. If you want to become a flight attendant, do not be surprised if you find yourself awake for 24 hours straight, followed by only an eight hour rest period before your next flight.
  • Customers can be awful. Flight attendants are trained for safety, but customer service is part of the job. Expect to deal with rude or upset passengers during delays, and understand you will be cleaning up their messes after each flight.


Becoming a Dispatcher is a great way to enter the industry, but is a challenging (yet fun) job that requires months of studying specialized training. One of the best schools to get a Dispatch license is the Sheffield School of Aeronautics, which offers an intense, 5-week course costing about $5000. The program requires you to read, write, and understand the English language, be 21 years of age, be a high school graduate, and display great attention to detail and self-discipline. If you pass the course, you will also need to pass the FAA Aircraft Dispatcher Practical Test and be at least 23 years of age before you can work at an airline. See “Aircraft Dispatchers: Who Are They and What Do They Do?” for more information.

Customer Service, Airport Operations, or Ground Support Agent

Becoming an airport operations, customer service, or ground support agent does not require a degree, nor much prior experience. You will need to exhibit excellent customer service skills, be physically able to do the job, and be able to work odd shifts, including holidays, nights, and weekends. Although it may not be the most thrilling of jobs, there are plenty of opportunities to move up into management roles at the airport or corporate positions at an airline. I have a few coworkers that started as a ramp agent and now work in stations safety or auditing at my airline’s headquarters.

TSA Agent

Becoming a TSA agent doesn’t require a degree. You just need to be 18 years of age, hold a high school diploma, be a U.S. citizen, and be able to pass a background and drug test. Now, I know that TSA agents get a lot of grief, but it is a great way to learn about airport security without spending thousands on a specialized college degree. One of my former coworkers was a 5-year TSA agent who ended up working as a manager in our airline’s security department, and his hands-on experience working for the agency helped him succeed at his job.


Expensive Options

The options outlined above are relatively inexpensive (or cost nothing at all), but require a bit of work, time, and patience to get to where you want to be. If you want to focus on a specific niche of the industry, then pursuing a degree in aviation or business or going to flight school may be the best route. Although college is expensive, there are plenty of scholarship opportunities that can help with tuition.

Aviation Specific College Degree

If you want a surefire way into the industry (considering you work hard and take it seriously), then an aviation-specific degree is a great option. There are a handful of reputable schools in the United States that offer top-notch programs that will provide the knowledge and technical skills necessary for landing a job after college. I honestly do not think you can walk around any U.S. airline’s headquarters without seeing these schools represented on t-shirts, hats, or desks.

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
  • Purdue University
  • Florida Institute of Technology
  • University of North Dakota
  • The Ohio State University
  • Western Michigan University

These schools offer degrees in aviation management, aeronautical science, flight, and aviation technology. Many pave the way towards an A&P (FAA-certified mechanic) or air traffic control license, as well as offer courses in unmanned aircraft systems (drones). These degrees can lead to employment in maintenance, safety, operations, security, emergency response, accident investigation, regulatory compliance, risk management, data analytics, and technical writing.

Business Degree

You don’t need an aviation degree to work in the industry. Many people who focused on business in college can also land a corporate job or airport development job. Airlines and airports are businesses, so they need people with expertise in finance, marketing, communications, human resources, and strategy.

Air Traffic Controller

There are a few ways to become an air traffic controller. As outlined by The Bureau of Labor Statistics, “A candidate must have either 3 years of progressively responsible work experience, a bachelor’s degree, a combination of post-secondary education and work experience totaling three years, or obtain a degree through a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program.” If you meet these educational requirements, you must also:

    • be a U.S. citizen
    • pass a medical evaluation, including drug screening, and background checks
    • pass the FAA pre-employment test, which includes a biographical assessment
    • pass the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery (ATSA)
    • complete a training course at the FAA Academy (and start it before turning 31 years of age)

If you cannot afford the tuition to go to one of the approved AT-CTI schools, then you can also obtain the necessary experience and education by joining the U.S. military.

Flight School

Obviously, becoming a pilot is extremely expensive and takes years of training, but the pilot shortage makes finding a job pretty easy (considering you’re well trained and qualified). In the United States, individuals must accrue 1500 hours of flight time (or 1000 with an accredited degree) and obtain their Air Transport Pilot’s License (ATP) before they are eligible to fly for an airline. The good thing about becoming a pilot is that the average salary at a regional carrier is about $70,000, not including the sign-on bonus, which is given to most new-hire first officers. Although the title and pay are nice, there are a few things to be aware before signing up for flight school:

  • As I mentioned before, it is expensive. Flight students will spend anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 to get their commercial license
  • Airline new-hire training takes months to complete, and you will be regularly tested and trained through your career
  • Commercial airline scheduling can be long and tiring. In your first few years at the airline, expect to frequently sit on reserve with no consistent schedule

I know FlyerTalk is full of avgeeks, but who here works in the industry? Which route did you take? Let us know in the comments!

View Comments (1)

1 Comment

  1. pulokk1

    March 1, 2020 at 4:59 am

    The article is a bit misleading. Working for TSA does not get you “into the airline industry.” The example sited, of someone who worked for TSA and then got a job with an airline’s security department, may be an unusual example.

    I applied to work part-time @ TSA and unless I worked a minimum number of hours they wouldn’t hire me. This despite my offering to work weekends and holidays, to help out full time employees.

    And no travel perks. Again, it is not an airline job.

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