What the heck can a commercial pilot actually get paid for?
It’s probably one of the most misunderstood topics in aviation. Scores of commercial students — and even flight instructors — don’t fully understand the rules surrounding being a commercial pilot. But the good news is that the regs are incredibly simple.
Today, I’ll break them down for you…
Having a commercial pilot certificate gives you the ability to get hired as a professional pilot. That’s it. And hired is the operative word.
With a few exceptions, you can get any flying job except a part 121 airline gig with just a commercial certificate (you’ll need an ATP cert for the airline job).
And yet, people somehow get themselves into trouble with the FAA for running illegal charter operations. Why?
Here’s the key: there’s NO pilot certificate lets you start a charter business, and airline, or some other type of aviation operation. For those, you’ll need a separate certificate from the FAA for your business operation — a 135 certificate or 121 certificate are good examples of those.
Think about it this way: if you were a culinary school grad, you’d need a bunch of licenses and approvals to open a restaurant — that’s not a limitation of your culinary school diploma, it’s a limitation of starting a business. You can still get hired by a licensed restaurant with your credentials, but the health department isn’t going to let you start a new restaurant without that piece of paper.
The commercial pilot limitations work the same way. To “hold out” as an aviation business, you need a license for that business from the FAA.
So, if a guy owns a plane you’re qualified to fly and needs a pilot, no problem — he can hire you to fly it for him.
If a charter operation is looking for first officers, apply away!
But if you’re offering your pilot services and the aircraft to fly someone to Myrtle Beach for the weekend, you’re obviously not just a pilot anymore. Suddenly, you’re a charter operator who’s holding out without a 135 certificate.
Why is that? Put simply, the reasoning is the exact same as the health department in the example above. When you open a restaurant, the health inspectors want to see the kitchen. They want to know where you’re sourcing your parts. Likewise, the FAA’s inspectors require a higher standard from 121/135 certificate holders — they require drug testing programs, and ops manuals, and higher pilot training for folks trying to provide flights to the general public.
There are some loopholes, though.
The FAA does provide is a set of exemptions under part 119.1 that allows CPL holders to automatically operate a number of businesses without needing a charter or airline certificate. A few examples include flight instruction (for those with CFI certificates), aerial survey and photography, air tours, ferry flights, cropdusting, and banner towing.
Those aren’t limitations to your pilot certificate, they’re extra benefits you have that get you around needing a separate certificate for your business! Thanks FAA!
When teaching commercial pilot privileges and limitations, people tend to intermingle those rules with part 121.135 certificate privileges — and that ends up confusing a lot of commercial pilot students about what they can do when they get their ticket. Just think of the restaurant analogy, and you’ll be able to figure out most scenarios a DPE can dream up on a checkride.
I’ll leave this here one more time: having a commercial pilot certificate gives you the ability to get hired as a professional pilot. If you’re trying to run a business that’s not covered by the part 119.1 exemptions, then you need an airline or charter certificate from the FAA.