There are two routes to becoming a commercial airline pilot: the military route and the civilian route. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages which should be considered when pursuing a career in commercial aviation. Would-be pilots should also be aware that commercial airline pilots need a lot of training, which often involves a very large investment of cash, and that employment in commercial aviation is quite varied. Some pilots make top salaries flying internationally for major airlines, while others struggle to make due on local commuter routes.
Becoming a commercial airline pilot through the military route involves joining the Air Force, qualifying as a pilot there, and committing to a set number of years of service as a pilot. In addition to working as a pilot, military pilots are also called upon to perform military duties, and military experience should not be viewed as simply a stepping stone in the path to becoming a commercial airline pilot. After a pilot's military service is over, he or she can apply to work for commercial airlines, relying on flight experience and earned certifications to get a foot in the door.
People who choose to go the civilian route to become a commercial airline pilot are encouraged to consider going to college to get a degree, which does not necessarily have to pertain to aviation. While getting a basic degree, the would-be pilot can attend flight school or enroll at a vocational school which trains pilots. Ultimately, the goal is to earn a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 flight hours and ground school training. At the end of training, pilots can take a check-ride, a sort of driving test of the skies, in order to be certified.
In addition to a commercial pilot certificate, a commercial airline pilot also needs a medical certificate, an instrument rating, and a multi-engine ratings. Even with these qualifications, most airlines are not going to be lining up to hire you. Commercial airline pilots need a lot of flight hours, ideally in the thousands, before an airline will consider them, which means that you may need to work for regional and commuter airlines to get enough experience. Along the way, you can work towards your airline transport pilot certificate, which requires 1,500 flight hours with 250 in command. This flight certificate allows you to be in command of a commercial airliner, sitting in the coveted captain's seat and making the announcements which start with “ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking...”
Once someone is hired by an airline, whether the civilian or military route is taken, additional training is needed. Airlines train pilots in their procedures, and also provide training which is sometimes mandated by government aviation agencies. Pilots who want to be able to fly internationally may be required to pursue additional certifications, and commercial airline pilots are also expected to submit to routine physicals and drug testing to ensure that they are fit for duty.