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ATP vs Commercial Pilot Licenses: Know the Key Differences!

Updated: Jan 17

ATP vs Commercial Pilot Licenses

An ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) license is a significant advancement in the field of aviation. Unlike a private pilot's license, which is often considered the starting point in a pilot's journey, an ATP license is the highest level of pilot certification and comes with its own set of qualifications and responsibilities.

To obtain an ATP license, you must first hold a Commercial Pilot License (CPL), which is an intermediate step between the private pilot's license and the ATP. The CPL requires additional flight time and training compared to a private pilot's license, including a minimum of 250 hours of total flight time. You must pass a written exam and a practical flight test to be eligible. 

ATP v/s Commercial Pilot License: Requirements and Scope

Understanding the distinctions among commercial, and ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) certificates can be intricate. The following table concisely outlines the key differences between these ratings.

License Type

Hours Required

Medical Requirements

Instrument Rating


Commercial Pilot


2nd Class

Not required (with restrictions)

Fly for hire

Airline Transport Pilot (ATP)


1st Class


PIC of airlines

What is a Commercial Pilot License?

A Commercial Pilot License (CPL) authorizes its holder to operate an aircraft professionally and earn remuneration for flying services.

Distinct licenses are available for various types of aircraft, such as airplanes, airships, balloons, gliders, gyroplanes, and helicopters. The categorization of these licenses might differ based on regional regulations, and they may be consolidated into a single document in some areas.

Typically, a CPL does not have an expiration date. However, its usage is contingent upon having valid type or class ratings, along with a current medical certificate. The license may also detail the pilot's qualifications, including the aircraft categories they are permitted to fly (e.g., single-engine or multi engine), whether they are authorized to fly under instrument flight rules (instrument rating), and their eligibility to train and evaluate student pilots (instructor or examiner rating).

FAA Requirements for Commercial License

To initiate your journey toward obtaining a Commercial Pilot License (CPL), you must first meet these initial FAA commercial license requirements:

  • Be at least 18 years old.

  • Hold a Private Pilot License.

  • Accumulate a minimum of 250 total flight hours, including specific criteria for cross-country, instrument, and complex aircraft training.

  • Complete formal flight training.

  • Pass the FAA written exam.

  • Successfully complete a practical flight test.

The requirements for a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) in California are the same as those mandated by the FAA nationwide. With CPL, you can earn money through flying jobs like banner towing or flight instruction. 

However, you can't be the captain of large commercial planes without additional training and an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. It's also important to keep flying regularly and only operate planes you're qualified to fly.

Pros and Cons of Commercial Pilot License

The table below shows the pros and cons of a commercial pilot license:



Provides access to aviation careers, enabling compensated flying duties across a spectrum of roles, including flight instruction, aerial photography, charter flights, and various commercial aviation sectors.

Typically confined to non-airline settings, limiting their scope within the broader commercial aviation field and excluding the operation of large scheduled passenger airliners.

With approximately 250 hours needed, CPL allows quicker entry into entry-level commercial flying positions compared to the higher flight hour prerequisites of an ATP.

Higher-level positions in commercial airline operations often require additional qualifications, such as an ATP certificate.

Commercial Pilot Certificate Medical Requirements

Holding a commercial pilot certificate entails offering flying services to the public, which requires a higher standard of medical fitness compared to a private pilot certificate.

A key difference is in vision requirements: a Third Class medical certificate, suitable for private pilots, requires 20/40 vision, whereas a Second Class medical certificate, necessary for commercial pilots, demands 20/20 vision.

The Second Class medical certificate, essential for exercising commercial pilot privileges, needs renewal every 12 months. For private pilots under 40, a Third Class medical certificate is valid for 60 months, and for those over 40, it requires renewal every 24 months. This frequency and rigor in medical evaluations, conducted by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), ensure the safety of the flying public by timely identifying any medical issues that could impact flight safety.

It's important to note that maintaining a Second Class medical certificate is only required for the active use of a commercial pilot certificate. If a pilot is unable to meet the Second Class medical standards but passes the Third Class medical exam, they are still eligible to fly under the privileges of a private pilot.

What is an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) License?

Airline pilots are responsible for conducting scheduled passenger flights. To qualify as an airline pilot, obtaining an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate is essential, as it represents the highest level of pilot licensing issued by the FAA. However, the journey to an ATP certificate begins with first acquiring a private pilot license, followed by a commercial pilot license.

FAA Requirements for ATP License

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposes stringent criteria for pilots seeking an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. 

Flight Hours Requirements:

  • Candidates pursuing an ATP certificate are generally required to have a minimum of 1,500 total flight hours.

  • This total includes various types of flight hours, 500 hours of cross-country flight time and 250 hours as Pilot-In-Command (PIC).

  • Depending on the role, you need either a 1st class medical certificate to act as Pilot-In-Command or a 2nd class medical certificate to act as Second-In-Command.

  • Gain experience with 100 hours of night flight time and 75 hours of instrument training.

  • Complete 50 hours related to the specific rating you're seeking.

Exceptions to Hour Requirements:

There are certain exceptions to the 1,500-hour minimum:

  • Military pilot experience can sometimes qualify for reduced hour requirements.

  • Graduates of approved aviation bachelor degree programs might be eligible for a reduction in flight hours.

  • Individuals with specific Part 121 or Part 135 experience may also have reduced hour requirements.

Pros and Cons of ATP License

The table below shows the pros and cons of an Airline Transport Pilot license:



ATP certification enables individuals to serve as captains in major airline operations, piloting large commercial aircraft crucial for scheduled airline services.

High flight hour requirements and comprehensive examinations can pose challenges and extend the path to ATP certification.

The 1,500-hour minimum requirement ensures higher expertise and proficiency, preparing pilots for the responsibilities inherent in operating large commercial aircraft.

May limit opportunities for pilots seeking roles outside the realm of large commercial airlines within the aviation industry.

ATP License Medical Requirements

To serve as Pilot in Command on an airliner with an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, you must obtain a First Class medical certificate from an Aviation Medical Examiner. The standards for this certificate are somewhat more stringent than those for the Second Class medical certificate.

Applicants for the First Class medical certificate must satisfy the criteria for the Second Class medical examination, in addition to passing an electrocardiographic (EKG) examination, which assesses heart health.

As previously noted regarding commercial pilot certificate medical requirements, if you are ever unable to meet the First Class medical standards, you can opt for a lower class of medical certificate while still retaining the privileges it offers.

For instance, if you retire from being an airline pilot but wish to continue as a flight instructor, you would need to comply with the Second Class medical certificate requirements. Conversely, if your aim is simply to fly as a private pilot, maintaining a Third Class medical certificate would suffice.

Key Takeaways: ATP and Commercial License

The primary distinction between an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license and a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) lies in the level of responsibility and the size of aircraft pilots can operate. An ATP license allows you to captain large commercial planes, while a CPL permits compensated flying but not in the role of a captain on those large aircraft.

When choosing a licensing path in aviation, aspiring pilots should consider their career goals. The level of training and experience required, and the type of flying roles they wish to pursue, whether it's as a professional pilot with an ATP license or a commercial pilot with diverse opportunities.



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