Air Transportation

Significant Points
  • Although flight crews—pilots and flight attendants—are the most visible occupations, the vast majority of the industry's employees work in ground occupations.
  • Senior pilots for major airlines are among the highest paid workers in the Nation.
  • A bachelor’s 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.

Nature of the Industry [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

Goods and services. From 2001 to 2004, a series of major global and economic events resulted in air transportation industry employment remaining below its 2001 level. During this period, the industry endured a recession, terror attacks, and concerns about pandemics. The impact of these events was especially devastating to the major airlines. However, air travel remains one of the most popular modes of transportation, expanding from 172 million passengers in 1970 to 741 million in 2006, an average growth of 4 percent per year.

Industry organization. Airlines transport passengers and freight over regularly scheduled routes or on routes, called “charters,” specifically designed for a group of travelers or a particular cargo. Several classes of airlines function in the United States. As of 2006, there were 33 mainline air carriers that use large passenger jets (more than 90 seats); 81 regional carriers that use smaller piston, turboprop, and regional aircraft (up to 90 seats); and 25 all-cargo carriers.

Seven of the mainline carriers are known as network carriers, which have a “hub” and also fly internationally. A hub is a centrally located airport designated by an airline to receive a large number of its flights from many locations, and where passengers can transfer to flights destined for points served by the airline’s system. In this way, the airline serves the greatest number of passengers, from as many locations as possible, in the most efficient manner.

The mainline group also includes seven low-cost carriers. These carriers generally don’t have a hub and only offer flights between a limited numbers of cities. In the past, low-cost carriers focused primarily on transporting leisure passengers on routes less than 400 miles and had a reputation for “no frills” service. At present, low-cost carriers are expanding their routes to include longer transcontinental and nonstop flights with in-flight service that parallels their competition. These moves have helped low-cost carriers expand their customer base to include more business travelers. Low-cost carriers are the fastest growing segment of commercial aviation, flying one out of every four domestic passengers.

Another type of passenger airline carrier is the regional carrier. In 2006, there were approximately 81 of these carriers. Regional airlines operate short-haul and medium-haul scheduled airline service with an emphasis on connecting smaller communities with larger cities and hubs. Some of the largest regional carriers are subsidiaries of the major airlines, but most are independently owned, often contracting their services to the majors.

Air cargo is another segment of the airline industry. As of 2006, there were 25 of these carriers. Cargo can be carried in cargo holds of passenger airlines or on aircraft designed exclusively to carry freight. Cargo carriers in the air transportation industry do not provide door-to-door service. Instead, they provide only air transport from an airport near the cargo’s origin to an airport near the cargo’s destination. Companies that provide door-to-door delivery of parcels, either across town or across the continent, are classified in the couriers and messengers industry.

Recent developments. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, passenger traffic dropped sharply, causing airlines to slash flights, lay off employees, and park surplus aircraft. During the ensuing years, most of the network carriers restructured operations, with four out of seven seeking bankruptcy protection. At the end of 2006, only two of the network carriers remained in bankruptcy. Since 2000, network carriers have reduced domestic capacity by 21 percent, while low-cost and regional carriers have increased capacity by 57 and 141 percent, respectively. While the industry as a whole was on track to post an operating profit in 2006, record-high fuel prices made this target elusive for the sixth consecutive year.

Demand for air travel is expected to continue into the future. Growth in the more mature domestic markets is expected to be moderate, while travel between the U.S. and foreign points is expected to be moderate to strong. International travel will be spurred by the emerging economies in and around Asia, and by liberal regulations that allow U.S. carriers to fly to more foreign destinations.

The airline industry faces many challenges in the future. Airlines must focus on cost control, cash preservation, and cautious growth. In the long run, a strong national economy, inexpensive tickets, and increasing demand for seats aboard aircraft should bode well for the industry and consumers.

Working Conditions [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

Hours. Airlines operate flights at all hours of the day and night. As a result, many workers have irregular hours or variable work schedules. Flight and ground personnel, including mechanics and reservation and transportation ticket agents, may have to work at night or on weekends or holidays. Flight personnel may be away from their home bases frequently. When they are away from home, the airlines provide them with hotel accommodations, transportation between the hotel and airport, and an allowance for meals and expenses. Flight attendants typically fly from 65 to 85 hours a month. In addition to flight time, they have about 50 hours a month of duty time between flights.

Work environment. Working conditions in air transportation vary widely, depending on the occupation. Most employees work in fairly comfortable surroundings, such as offices, terminals, or airplanes. However, mechanics and others who service aircraft are subject to excessive noise, dirt, and grease and sometimes work outside in bad weather.

In 2006, the air transportation industry had 9.9 injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers, compared with 4.4 throughout private industry. Virtually all work-related fatalities resulted from transportation accidents.

Flight crews, especially those on international routes, often suffer jet lag—disorientation and fatigue caused by flying into different time zones. Because employees must report for duty well rested, they must allow ample time to rest during their layovers.

Employment [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

The air transportation industry provided 487,000 wage and salary jobs in 2006.

Most employment is found in larger establishments—nearly 2 out of 3 jobs are in establishments with 1,000 or more workers. However, 93 percent of all establishments in the industry employ fewer than 100 workers (chart).

Employment in air transportation is heavily concentrated in establishments with 1,000 or more employees, which provide nearly two-thirds of all jobs.

Most air transportation jobs are at large airports that are located close to cities and that serve as hubs for major airlines.

Occupations in the Industry [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

Office and administrative support occupations and installation, maintenance, and repair 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 (table 1). The two largest occupations in these occupational groups are reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks and aircraft mechanics and service technicians.

Aircraft mechanics and service technicians service, inspect, and repair planes. They may work on several different types of aircraft, such as jet transports, small propeller-driven airplanes, or helicopters. Many mechanics and technicians specialize, working on the airframe (the body of the aircraft) or the powerplant (the engines) or avionics (the parts of an aircraft that depend on electronics, such as navigation and communication equipment). In small, independent repair shops, they usually inspect and repair many different types of aircraft.

Some mechanics and technicians specialize in scheduled maintenance required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Following a schedule based on the number of hours flown, calendar days, cycles of operation, or a combination of these factors, mechanics inspect the engines, landing gear, instruments, and other parts of aircraft and perform necessary maintenance and repairs.

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, classified under laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand, 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.

Table 1. Employment of wage and salary workers in air transportation by occupation, 2006 and projected change, 2006-2016.
(Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2006 Percent
Number Percent

All occupations

486 100.0 7.3

Management, business, and financial occupations

24 5.0 12.8

Top executives

3 0.6 0.3

Transportation, storage, and distribution managers

2 0.4 10.8

Human resources, training, and labor relations specialists

3 0.7 14.6

Professional and related occupations

10 2.0 13.7

Computer specialists

4 0.9 14.8

Service occupations

111 22.9 9.7

Baggage porters and bellhops

9 1.8 -0.1

Flight attendants

96 19.8 10.5

Transportation attendants, except flight attendants and baggage porters

3 0.6 10.6

Office and administrative support occupations

162 33.3 2.4

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

11 2.3 2.9

Customer service representatives

9 1.9 21.9

Reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks

98 20.1 -0.6

Cargo and freight agents

20 4.0 8.4

Stock clerks and order fillers

5 0.9 -7.5

Secretaries and administrative assistants

4 0.7 7.0

Office clerks, general

3 0.7 9.5

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations

52 10.6 2.5

First-line supervisors/managers of mechanics, installers, and repairers

5 1.0 10.8

Avionics technicians

2 0.4 1.8

Aircraft mechanics and service technicians

38 7.7 -0.2

Maintenance and repair workers, general

5 1.1 10.5

Transportation and material moving occupations

121 24.9 11.4

Aircraft cargo handling supervisors

2 0.3 21.9

Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers

69 14.2 13.7

Commercial pilots

9 1.9 12.8

Air traffic controllers and airfield operations specialists

2 0.4 11.4

Cleaners of vehicles and equipment

4 0.8 10.8

Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand

10 2.1 -0.2

Note: Columns may not add to totals due to omission of occupations with small employment

Training and Advancement [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

The skills and experience needed by workers in the air transportation industry differ by occupation. Some jobs may be entered directly from high school, while others require specialized training. Most positions in the airline industry involve extensive customer service contact, requiring strong interpersonal and communication skills. Mechanics and pilots require specialized formal training and must be certified by the FAA. A bachelor’s degree is increasingly required or preferred for most pilot and flight attendant jobs. Skills for many other air transportation occupations can be learned on the job or through company-sponsored training.

Office and administrative support occupations and installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. When hiring aircraft mechanics, employers prefer graduates of aircraft mechanic trade schools, particularly those who gained experience in the military and are certified. Additionally, employers prefer mechanics who are in good physical condition and able to perform a variety of tasks. After being hired, aircraft mechanics must keep up to date on the latest technical changes and improvements in aircraft and associated systems. Most mechanics remain in the maintenance field, but they may advance to lead mechanic and, sometimes, to crew chief or shop supervisor.

A good speaking voice and a pleasant personality are essential for reservation and transportation ticket agents and customer service representatives. Airlines prefer applicants with experience in sales or in dealing with the public, and most require a high school education, although some college is preferred. Formal company training is required to learn how to operate airline computer systems, issue tickets, and plan trips. Agents and service representatives usually are promoted through the ranks. For example, an experienced ticket agent may advance to lead worker on the shift. Agents who obtain additional skills, experience, and training improve their chances for advancement, although a college degree may be required for some administrative positions.

Some entry-level jobs in this industry, such as baggage handler and aircraft cleaner, require little or no previous training. The basic tasks associated with many of these jobs are learned in less than a week, and most newly hired workers are trained on the job under the guidance of an experienced employee or a manager. However, advancement opportunities for many ground occupations are limited because of the narrow scope of duties and specialized skills necessary for other occupations. Some may advance to supervisor or to another administrative position.

Transportation and material moving occupations and service occupations. Pilots must have a commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating, a medical certificate, and certification to fly the types of aircraft that their employer operates. For example, helicopter pilots must hold a commercial pilot’s certificate with a helicopter rating. Pilots receive their flight training from the military or from civilian flying schools. Physical requirements are strict. A medical exam, from an FAA-designated physician, must be taken to get a medical certificate. With or without glasses, pilots must have 20/20 vision and good hearing and be in excellent health. In addition, airlines generally require 2 years of college and increasingly prefer or require a college degree. Pilots who work for smaller airlines may advance to flying for larger companies. They also can advance from flight engineer to copilot to captain and, by becoming certified, to flying larger planes.

Applicants for flight attendant jobs must be in excellent health. Employers increasingly prefer applicants who have a college degree and experience in dealing with the public. Speaking a foreign language also is an asset. Airlines operate flight attendant training programs on a continuing basis. Training usually lasts from 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the size and the type of carrier, and may include crew resource management, which emphasizes teamwork and safety. Courses also are provided in personal grooming and weight control. After completing initial training, flight attendants must go through additional training, where they obtain certification, and pass an FAA safety exam each year in order to continue flying. Advancement opportunities are limited, although some attendants become customer service directors, instructors, or recruiting representatives.

Outlook [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

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.

Employment change. Wage and salary jobs in the air transportation industry are projected to increase by 7 percent over the 2006-16 period, compared with 11 percent for all industries combined. However, the number of job openings may vary from year to year, because the demand for air travel—particularly pleasure travel, a discretionary expense—fluctuates with ups and downs in the economy. In the long run, passenger and cargo traffic is expected to continue expanding in response to increases in population, income, and business activity. Job prospects will continue to be better in regional and low-cost carriers than in major airlines, where competition for many jobs is keen.

Demographic and income trends indicate favorable conditions for leisure travel in the United States and abroad over the next decade. The aging of the population, in combination with growth of disposable income among older people, should continue to increase the demand for air transportation services. Also, business travel has and will continue to improve as the U.S. economy and world trade expand, companies continue to go global, and the economies in many foreign countries become more robust. However, as businesses also try to reduce costs, they are resorting to cheaper alternatives to flying and finding new ways to communicate. Many business travelers are using other means of transportation—for example, automobile or train—and are conducting more business by phone, e-mail, and better and lower-cost videoconferencing technologies.

International cargo traffic is expected to continue to increase with the economy and growing world trade. It also should be stimulated by the development of global electronic commerce and manufacturing trends such as just-in-time delivery, which requires materials to be shipped rapidly. Other factors contributing to growth include the increase in international trade from open skies agreements—which set ground rules for international aviation markets and minimize government intervention—and the expanded use of all-cargo carriers by the U.S. Postal Service to transport mail. Growth of domestic air cargo traffic is not expected to increase as much as international cargo, primarily because of the increased use of mail and the rise of time-definite trucking. Increasingly, shipments will be sent via trucks, as opposed to aircraft, because trucks are reliable, can be monitored through Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, and are more cost-effective.

Employment growth will differ among the various occupations in the air transportation industry. Employment of aircraft pilots and flight engineers will continue to grow primarily because of increasing demand for leisure and business air travel, population growth, and an expanding economy.

Employment of flight attendants is expected to grow as an improving economy and population growth boost the number of airline passengers, and as airlines expand their capacity to meet rising demand by increasing the number and size of planes in operation.

Similar to other air transportation occupations, aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians should have their best chance for landing a job at smaller commuter and regional airlines, primarily because of the relatively lower wages. However, advances in technology are increasing productivity of mechanics, limiting job growth. Employment growth also will be sporadic and follow closely with changes in the economy. When the economy is slow, airlines reduce the number of flights, resulting in less demand for aircraft maintenance and, thus, less demand for mechanics.

The number of reservation and transportation ticket agents will grow more slowly than the overall industry as airlines outsource jobs to lower-wage countries, such as India, in order to cut costs, and as more airlines phase out paper tickets and allow passengers to purchase electronic tickets over the Internet. However, the safety and security responsibilities of these jobs will continue to increase, thereby preventing job declines.

Job prospects. Job opportunities in the air transportation industry are expected to vary depending on the occupation. Opportunities for aircraft pilots and flight engineers are expected to be best with the faster growing regional and low-cost carriers. College graduates and former military pilots can expect to have the best job prospects. Opportunities will continue to exist for those pilots who choose to work for air-cargo carriers because of the increase in global freight demand.

Job opportunities for flight attendants will vary by setting. Competition for job opportunities at major airlines is expected to be keen because of the few jobs that are available. Opportunities are expected to be best with the faster growing regional and commuter, low-cost, and charter airlines. Job opportunities for flight attendants also will arise in the corporate jet sector, where flight attendants cater to a high-end clientele. Finally, turnover among flight attendants will produce additional job opportunities as many workers leave for occupations that offer more stable work schedules or better salaries.

Opportunities should be excellent for aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians, reflecting the likelihood of fewer entrants from the military and a large number of retirements. Job opportunities at smaller airports are expected to be best as experienced mechanics transfer to positions at major airlines. Meanwhile, competition for mechanic jobs is expected to be keen at major airlines because of their relatively higher wages and travel benefits. Applicants who have experience and who keep abreast of the latest technological advances in electronics and composite materials should have the best opportunities.

Competition for reservation and transportation ticket agent jobs will continue to be keen as the number of applicants continues to exceed the number of job openings. Entry requirements are few, and many people seeking to enter the travel business start in these types of jobs. Also, people are attracted to this occupation because it provides excellent travel benefits. Some job opportunities will occur as agents transfer to other occupations or retire.

Opportunities also are expected to be good for those seeking lesser skilled, entry-level positions, such as baggage handler and aircraft cleaner, because many workers leave these jobs and need to be replaced.

Earnings [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

Industry earnings. Senior pilots for major airlines are among the highest paid workers in the Nation. Earnings in selected occupations in air transportation appear in table 2.

Table 2. Mean annual earnings of the largest occupations in air transportation, May 2006
Occupation Air transportation All 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

Benefits and union membership. 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.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section] Back to TopBack to Top

Links to non-BLS Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

Information about specific job opportunities and qualifications required by a particular airline may be obtained by writing to personnel managers of the airlines.

For further information on how to apply for a job in the air transportation industry, contact:

  • Federal Aviation Administration, 800 Independence Ave. SW., Washington, DC 20591. Internet:

For information on airline careers, contact:

  • Air Transport Association of America, Inc., 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW., Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20004.

For information on airline pilots, contact:

  • Air Line Pilots Association, International, 1625 Massachusetts Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20036.

For information on helicopter pilots, contact:

  • Helicopter Association International, 1635 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314.

For information on job opportunities with regional airlines, contact:

  • Regional Airline Association, 2025 M St. NW., Suite 800, Washington, DC 20036.

Information on these key air transportation occupations may be found in the 2008-09 Occupational Outlook Handbook:

NAICS Codes [About the NAICS codes] Back to TopBack to Top


Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2008-09 Edition, Air Transportation, on the Internet at (visited September 17, 2008 ).


Last Modified Date: March 12, 2008