Each time we fly, it’s SOP to be screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to help ensure no passenger will pose a threat to any other passenger, the aircraft, or its crew. So we board with confidence, secure in the knowledge every individual on board has passed this multi-check safety screen.
But what about the pilots? What training do they go through? After they prove they can fly commercial aircraft, who conducts background checks — and what background checks must they pass — to make sure they’re safe?
Well, you can relax, knowing that pilots are heavily screened. You’re in very good hands. Here’s why.
Long before walking into your aircraft’s cockpit, pilots must first obtain:
- Private Pilot License (PPL)
First things first. All pilots must earn a pilot’s license. The minimum requirement for private pilots is 40 hours of experience for Part 61, which includes a minimum of 20 flying hours with an instructor and 10 solo hours. That’s time in the air and doesn’t include the ground time required to obtain private pilot knowledge requirements. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), students take between 50-70 hours in total to get their PPL.
- Instrument Pilot
The next step is to add on an instrument rating, which is required to operate under instrument flight rules, as well as fly above 18,000 feet where all major airlines fly. This usually takes about 50 hours to complete.
- Commercial Pilot
To qualify for the major leagues, pilots must:
- Be at least 18 years of age.
- Be able to read, speak, write and understand the English language.
- Hold at least a private pilot certificate.
- Meet the aeronautical experience requirements of the Commercial Pilot rating that apply to the aircraft category and class rating sought.
- Pass the knowledge test.
- Pass the practical test.
Once the candidate has completed their instrument rating, they must now spend a minimum of 250 hours, of training with additional requirements for both single and multi-engine aircraft.
- 1500 Hour Rule
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established a “1500 Hour Rule” to promote safety among airline pilots. A first officer must have at least 1500 hours and an airline transport pilot certification in order to work in the United States as a commercial airline pilot. To qualify for the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, the individual must meet each of the following requirements:
- Be at least 23 years old
- Hold a commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating
- Pass ATP knowledge and practical tests
- Have accumulated at least 1500 hours total time as pilot
The Background Check
Now that an individual has gained their PPL, instrument pilot certification, has become a commercial pilot and passed the 1500 Hour Rule, they may apply to fly for an airline. All American carriers must adhere to the Pilot Record Improvement Act of 1996 (PRIA), which authorizes the mandatory gathering and sharing of specific information including the pilot’s flight qualifications and other safety related records from the FAA and/or previous employers. PRIA enables the airline to make an informed decision before extending a firm offer of employment to a pilot applicant.
In addition, airlines may engage third parties to conduct background checks that examine:
- Motor Vehicle Records
- PRIA Drug/Alcohol Verification (5 year)
- PRIA Pilot Employer Record
- Employment Verification
- FAA PRIA Record (Airman Medical Certification)
- FAA Pilot Accident/Incident Check
- National Driver Register Search
- FAA Airframe and Power Plant License
- DOT Drug/Alcohol Verification (five year)
- Drug Test (DOT)
- Alcohol Test
- Physical Exams (DOT)
- Criminal/Public Records
Further, the airline will submit the candidate’s fingerprints to the Transportation Security Clearinghouse (TSC) which is operated by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). TSC routes the fingerprints to the FBI and posts the results on a secure website for the airline to review.
TSA conducts a Security Threat Assessment (STA) which compares the pilot’s biographical data to certain subsets of a watchlist and immigration databases. The result will be either an “issue” or “do not issue” order to the airline.
The Transportation Threat Assessment and Credentialing Office (TTAC) is the office within TSA that is responsible for conducting name-based and fingerprint-based checks on individuals with SIDA access, Sterile Area Workers, and other individuals holding or seeking airport badges or credentials. Additionally, the TTAC implements policies associated with airport secure areas and provide support to the airport and airline security officers who adjudicate the results of the criminal history checks. Consequently, the TTAC shares information on a regular basis with the AAAE, airport and airline industry personnel, the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), other Department of Homeland Security components, and other federal, state, and local law enforcement entities in carrying out these responsibilities.
Whew! You can see it’s quite a process to be able to fly a plane from Point A to Point B. So sit back, eat those pretzels and enjoy the ride! You’re in the best–and probably the most thoroughly screened–hands.