Airline captain duties and responsibilities explained

First officer is controlling autopilot and parameters for safety flight. Cockpit of Boeing aircraft.

Flying an aircraft requires a highly skilled and organized team, with the captain playing a pivotal role.  

This article will explore the duties and responsibilities of a captain on a flight and the distinctions between a captain and a pilot, as well as the different types of pilots within a flight crew. 

What is a captain? 

The captain, also known as the aircraft commander or the pilot-in-command (PIC), is the highest-ranking pilot in an aircraft. The captain holds ultimate responsibility for the safety and operation of the flight. They are the leader of the flight crew and they make critical decisions to ensure a smooth and secure journey for all passengers and crew members. 

What is a pilot? 

In general aviation terms, a pilot is someone who operates or navigates an aircraft. However, within the context of a flight crew, the term “pilot” is often used to specifically refer to individuals who are not serving as the captain of the aircraft. It’s important to note that pilots can hold different positions within the flight crew, including captains, first officers, and flight engineers. 

Differences between captain and pilot roles 

While both captains and pilots are trained to operate an aircraft, there are distinct differences in their roles and responsibilities.  

The captain is the ultimate authority in the aircraft. They make critical decisions, oversee the entire flight, and are responsible for the safety of everyone on board. Pilots, on the other hand, may assist the captain, but they do not have the final decision-making authority or ultimate responsibility for the flight. 

Licenses needed to become a commercial pilot 

Pilots need to obtain a Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL) and/or an Air Transport Pilot’s License (ATPL) to work in commercial aviation as a first officer or captain. 

A CPL is a license that allows pilots to fly for compensation or hire. It is a prerequisite for those aspiring to work as first officers in commercial airliners. With a CPL, pilots can work as co-pilots or first officers, assisting the captain in operating the aircraft. 

An ATPL is a higher-level license that is required to work as a captain or PIC on any aircraft. The ATPL signifies a higher level of experience, training and knowledge, and it grants pilots the authority to assume full responsibility for the safe operation of an aircraft. 

Pilot certifications for specific aircraft types, such as the Boeing 747 or 777, are established by regulatory agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This is necessary because each aircraft has unique characteristics. Pilots are required to undergo additional training beyond their basic licenses to ensure competence in operating these specific aircraft. 

For instance, if you obtain an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), you may be offered a first officer position by Lufthansa, which operates a fleet comprising Airbus and Boeing aircraft models like the A320-200 and Boeing 747-8. In such cases, Lufthansa and similar airlines typically provide further training to newly hired pilots to acquire the necessary type ratings. 

The requirement for a type rating is determined by local aviation authorities, and it varies depending on the specific aircraft. Regardless of the airline you work for, it is highly likely that you will need to undergo some form of rating training to ensure proficiency in operating the aircraft assigned to you. 

These licensing regulations are important considerations within the aviation industry globally. 

Transitioning from co-pilot to captain 

To transition from a co-pilot to a captain in commercial aviation, there are several steps and considerations to keep in mind. Here is a general outline of the process: 

  1. Gain experience: accumulate flight hours and experience as a co-pilot. Different regions may have specific hour requirements, so check the regulations applicable to your location. Typically, pilots aim to gain a substantial number of flight hours, building their knowledge and skills. 
  1. Meet airline-specific requirements: airlines often have their own set of criteria for upgrading co-pilots to captains. These requirements may include a minimum number of flight hours, completion of specific training programs, and satisfactory performance evaluations. 
  1. Enhance qualifications: consider pursuing additional qualifications and certifications to boost your chances of becoming a captain. This could involve completing advanced training courses, such as type ratings for specific aircraft models, and obtaining an ATPL. 
  1. Build leadership and decision-making skills: aspiring captains should focus on developing leadership qualities and decision-making abilities. Take opportunities to lead and make decisions within the flight crew environment, demonstrate effective communication, and showcase your ability to handle complex situations. 
  1. Network and seek opportunities: networking within the aviation industry can be valuable for career advancement. Attend industry events, join professional organizations, and establish connections with senior pilots and airline representatives who can provide guidance and potential opportunities for promotion. 
  1. Apply for captain positions: keep an eye on job openings and apply for captain positions. Prepare a well-crafted resume highlighting your experience, qualifications, and achievements as a co-pilot.  
  1. Complete captain transition training: if selected for a captain position, you will likely undergo specific transition training provided by the airline. This training focuses on the responsibilities and duties of a captain, including aircraft command, crew resource management, and decision-making in various scenarios. 

Pilot types 

Co-pilot/First officer: The co-pilot, also referred to as the first officer, is the second-in-command (SIC) in the cockpit. They work closely with the captain and share responsibility for operating the aircraft. The co-pilot assists the captain in various tasks, including navigation, communication, and monitoring the aircraft’s systems. 

Captain: As discussed, the captain is the highest-ranking pilot on the aircraft. 

Flight engineer: In the context of most commercial airlines and modern passenger aircraft, the position of a dedicated flight engineer is no longer a standard part of the flight crew. The advancements in technology and automation have allowed for more efficient and streamlined operations, reducing the need for a separate flight engineer role in most cases. 

However, it’s important to note that some older or specialized aircraft may still require the presence of a flight engineer. 

For example, certain cargo planes, vintage aircraft or specific military aircraft might still utilize flight engineers due to the complexity of their systems and the need for manual monitoring and management. These cases, however, are relatively rare now compared to the widespread use of automated systems in commercial aviation. 

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