Airline Captain Duties

The airline captain's duties cover every aspect of the operation of the aircraft.
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The airline captain's duties cover every aspect of the operation of the aircraft.

The airline industry once lured passengers by promising "Speed, Comfort and Safety." While it was just a slogan back then, today it's a good way of describing the duties of an airline captain. Commercial pilots are the chief executives of the sky, vested under U.S. federal law with complete authority and responsibility over their aircraft. Put simply, their job is to get the plane with its passengers and cargo to the desired destination -- quickly, comfortably and without incident.

Fly the Plane

Airline captains are primarily in charge of operating their aircraft

The airline captain's primary duty is straightforward: To "drive" the aircraft from departure to arrival airport. However, there's more to it than turning the key and steering. Pilots must operate communication systems to stay in touch with air traffic controllers, passengers and crew. They must know how to interpret instruments that monitor the operation of the aircraft. Piloting the aircraft also involves making key decisions about routes and altitudes. The busiest time in flying the plane is during takeoff and landing. In the air, the airplane generally runs on automated pilot.

Oversee Safety, Comfort

If turning on auto-pilot were the only task, more people would probably put in the effort to become airline captains. Under both law and custom, the airline captain is the primary person in charge of everything involving the aircraft. This involves extensive pre-flight safety checks to make sure all instruments and systems are working appropriately; monitoring weather reports to avoid turbulence or other dangerous systems; planning routes for optimal fuel usage; and making maintenance decisions on equipment. The airline captain has final say over the entire operation of the airplane.


The pilot is also the senior human resources manager on the aircraft. Pilots oversee the actions of co-pilots and flight engineers, flight attendants and other crew members. They also greet passengers and respond to complaints or concerns. If a passenger has a problem with a seat, it's up to the pilot to decide how to have it repaired. The pilot is also responsible for filling out reports and insuring that all federal rules are followed to the fullest extent possible.


The outlook is bright for airline pilots, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of jobs is projected to grow by 11 percent through 2020. In raw numbers, that encompasses only about 10,000 new jobs. However, recent airline mergers and other economic changes may lower the growth rate. The fastest growing sector for airline captains are the regional airlines and low-cost carriers. For people just starting out, the pay can be modest; it is only when airline captains obtain experience and seniority that their salaries begin to grow.

2016 Salary Information for Airline and Commercial Pilots

Airline and commercial pilots earned a median annual salary of $111,270 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, airline and commercial pilots earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,450, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $166,140, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 124,800 people were employed in the U.S. as airline and commercial pilots.

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