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Career Information: Aviation


Although flight crews—pilots and flight attendants—are the most visible occupations, the vast majority of the industrys employees work in ground occupations.


  • Senior pilots for major airlines are among the highest paid workers in the Nation.
  • A bachelors degree is increasingly required or preferred for most pilot and flight attendant jobs.
  • Job prospects generally are better in regional and low-cost carriers than in major airlines, where competition for many jobs is keen; a unique benefit—free or reduced-fare transportation for airline employees and their immediate families—attracts many jobseekers.


Aircraft Mechanics and Technicians: Many AIRCRAFT MECHANICS, also called AIRFRAME MECHANICS, POWER PLANT MECHANICS, and AVIONICS TECHNICIANS, specialize in preventive maintenance. They inspect aircraft engines, landing gear, instruments, pressurized sections, accessories—brakes, valves, pumps, and air-conditioning systems, for example—and other parts of the aircraft, and do the necessary maintenance and replacement of parts. They also keep records related to the maintenance performed on the aircraft. Mechanics and technicians conduct inspections following a schedule based on the number of hours the aircraft has flown, calendar days since the last inspection, cycles of operation, or a combination of these factors. In large, sophisticated planes equipped with aircraft monitoring systems, mechanics can gather valuable diagnostic information from electronic boxes and consoles that monitor the aircrafts basic operations. In planes of all sorts, aircraft mechanics examine engines by working through specially designed openings while standing on ladders or scaffolds or by using hoists or lifts to remove the entire engine from the craft. After taking an engine apart, mechanics use precision instruments to measure parts for wear and use x-ray and magnetic inspection equipment to check for invisible cracks. They repair or replace worn or defective parts. Mechanics also may repair sheet metal or composite surfaces; measure the tension of control cables; and check for corrosion, distortion, and cracks in the fuselage, wings, and tail. After completing all repairs, they must test the equipment to ensure that it works properly.

Other mechanics specialize in repair work rather than inspection. They find and fix problems that pilot’s describe. For example, during a preflight check, a pilot may discover that the aircrafts fuel gauge does not work. To solve the problem, mechanics may troubleshoot the electrical system, using electrical test equipment to make sure that no wires are broken or shorted out, and replace any defective electrical or electronic components. Mechanics work as fast as safety permits so that the aircraft can be put back into service quickly.

Some mechanics work on one or many different types of aircraft, such as jets, propeller-driven airplanes, and helicopters. Others specialize in one section of a particular type of aircraft, such as the engine, hydraulics, or electrical system. AIRFRAME MECHANICS are authorized to work on any part of the aircraft except the instruments, power plants, and propellers. POWERPLANT MECHANICS, COMBINATION AIRFRAME-AND-POWERPLANT MECHANICS—called A&P MECHANICS—work on all parts of the plane except the instruments. Most mechanics working on civilian aircraft today are A&P mechanics. In small, independent repair shops, mechanics usually inspect and repair many different types of aircraft.

Avionics systems — components used for aircraft navigation and radio communications, weather radar systems, and other instruments and computers that control flight, engine, and other primary functions — are now an integral part of aircraft design and have vastly increased aircraft capability. AVIONICS TECHNICIANS repair and maintain these systems. Their duties may require additional licenses, such as a radiotelephone license issued by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Because of the increasing use of technology, more time is spent repairing electronic systems, such as computerized controls. Technicians also may be required to analyze and develop solutions to complex electronic problems.

Office and Administrative Support Occupations: Although pilots and flight attendants are the most visible occupations in this industry, nearly 44 percent of all employees in air transportation work in office and administrative support occupations and installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. The two largest occupations in these occupational groups are RESERVATION AND TRANSPORTATION TICKET AGENTS and TRAVEL CLERKS.

A reservation and transportation ticket agent is most often the first employee that passengers meet after entering the airport. Ticket agents work at airport ticket counters and boarding gates and use computers to provide customer service to incoming passengers. They make and confirm reservations, sell tickets, and issue boarding passes. They also may work in call centers, answering phone inquiries about flight schedules and fares, verifying reservations, issuing tickets, and handling payments. CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVES assist passengers, check tickets when passengers board or disembark from an airplane, and check luggage at the reception area and ensure that it is placed on the proper carrier. They assist elderly or handicapped persons and unaccompanied children in claiming personal belongings and baggage, and in getting on and off the plane. They also may provide assistance to passengers who become ill or injured.

Other ground occupations include AIRPLANE CARGO AGENTS, BAGGAGE HANDLERS, and AIRCRAFT CLEANERS. Airplane cargo agents take orders from shippers and arrange for transportation of their goods. Baggage handlers are responsible for loading and unloading passengers baggage. They stack baggage on specified carts or conveyors to see that it gets to the proper destination and also return baggage to passengers at airline terminals. Aircraft cleaners clean aircraft interiors after each flight.

Transportation and Material Moving Occupations and Service Occupations: Flight crewmembers make up 36 percent of air transportation employment, and include pilots and flight attendants. AIRLINE PILOTS, COPILOTS, and FLIGHT ENGINEERS are highly trained professionals who fly and navigate jet and turboprop airplanes. Generally, the most experienced pilot, or captain, is in command and supervises all other crewmembers. The pilot and copilot split flying and other duties, such as communicating with air traffic controllers and monitoring the instruments. Some aircraft have a third pilot in the cockpit—the flight engineer or second officer—who assists the other pilots by monitoring and operating many of the instruments and systems and watching for other aircraft. Most new aircraft are designed to be flown without a flight engineer. Small aircraft and helicopters that transport passengers and cargo and perform activities such as crop-dusting, monitoring traffic, firefighting, and rescue missions are flown and navigated by COMMERCIAL PILOTS.

Airline flights must have one or more FLIGHT ATTENDANTS on board, depending on the number of passengers. The attendants most important function is assisting passengers in the event of an emergency. This may range from reassuring passengers during occasional encounters with strong turbulence to opening emergency exits and inflating escape chutes. More routinely, flight attendants instruct passengers in the use of safety and emergency equipment. Once in the air, they serve meals and snacks, answer questions about the flight, distribute magazines and pillows, and help care for small children and elderly and disabled persons. They also may administer first aid to passengers who become ill.

Other Occupations:The airline industry also relies on many management, professional, and administrative support workers to keep operations running smoothly.


Senior pilots for major airlines are among the highest paid workers in the Nation. Earnings in selected occupations in air transportation appear below:

Mean annual earnings of the largest occupations in air transportation, May 2006
OccupationAir transportationAll industries

Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers

$145,900 $140,380

Commercial pilots

67,640 66,720

Aircraft mechanics and service technicians

56,630 49,300

Flight attendants

56,200 56,150

First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers

49,660 46,530

Transportation workers, all other

37,170 32,350

Cargo and freight agents

35,680 38,560

Reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks

33,010 30,120

Customer service representatives

30,280 30,400

Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand

24,980 23,050

Median hourly earnings of aircraft mechanics and service technicians were about $22.95 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $18.96 and $28.12. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14.94, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34.51. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of aircraft mechanics and service technicians in May 2006 were:

Scheduled air transportation $27.46
Nonscheduled air transportation $23.33
Federal Government $23.19
Aerospace product and parts manufacturing $21.58
Support activities for air transportation $19.57

Median hourly earnings of avionics technicians were about $22.57 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $19.02 and $26.65. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $15.65, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $30.33.

Mechanics who work on jets for the major airlines generally earn more than those working on other aircraft. Those who graduate from an aviation maintenance technician school often earn higher starting salaries than individuals who receive training in the Armed Forces or on the job. Airline mechanics and their immediate families receive reduced-fare transportation on their own and most other airlines.

Benefits and Unions: About 3 in 10 aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians are members of unions or covered by union agreements. The principal unions are the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and the Transport Workers Union of America. Some mechanics are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Most employees in the air transportation industry receive standard benefits, such as paid vacation and sick leave; life and health insurance; and often profit-sharing and retirement plans. Some airlines provide allowances to employees for purchasing and cleaning their company uniforms. A unique benefit—free or reduced-fare transportation for airline employees and their immediate families—attracts many jobseekers.

In 2006, more than half of all workers in the air transportation industry were union members or were covered by union contracts, compared with 13 percent of workers throughout the economy.

From the Bureau of Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook Online: http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs016.htm