When looking at being an airline pilot as a career choice, the question of “Do I need a college degree to be an airline pilot?” often comes up. The answer to this is both yes and no.
No. To be hired at a regional airline there is no requirement for a college degree, in fact the regionals very frequently hire pilots without degrees. The regional airlines are hurting a bit for pilots and are mostly concerned with a pilot having their 1,500 hours, having a good track record with the FAA, a good driving record, no criminal history and the pilot being a good guy or gal to work with.
Yes. The major airlines absolutely require a bachelor’s degree, in any field, from a reputable university or college. When choosing a degree major, choose something that you not only enjoy, but also think you could fall back on if necessary. Now let’s talk about the reality of when an airline states that a degree is “preferred” vs “required.”
Some airlines might say that a degree is “preferred” and not “required”, but the reality is that a pilot will need a degree to get a call from a major airline. Occasionally you might hear pilots say that “the pilot shortage is affecting the majors and they will be dropping the degree requirement”, but I can assure you, this is not true. A pilot job at a major airline is a highly competitive position and the majors have thousands of applications on file, educational status is a very easy way for the airlines to begin the weeding out process and they utilize it.
The only current exception to the college degree requirement at the majors is those pilots that flow through to American Airlines from one of their regional airlines that participates in their flow through program. While this is a way to get to the majors without a degree, it is extremely limiting in that by not having a degree, the pilot is restricting their options solely to AA.
In addition to the major airline requirements for a degree, ATP has found that student success in the program is considerably higher if students have two years of college experience or already hold a Private Pilot License. To that end, ATP requires incoming students to have two years of college experience, or two years of equivalent work experience (military included) or hold a PPL.
So what to major in? Is an aviation degree required for the airlines? We actually recommend against obtaining an aviation degree. There is not a single airline out there that requires an aviation degree and no airline that I am aware of even says that they prefer one. We recommend earning a degree in a field outside of aviation that interests you. That way you will have a degree that you could fall back on should you ever need to.
To recap, a pilot will not need a degree for the regionals, but most likely will for the majors. The degree does not need to be aviation-related, but can be if that’s something you think you will use.