What are hiding under these letters? What do they stand for? I have read many others, but I could never understand what they mean and the pilot's career on each of them. If possible, can anyone post a brief list and their tasks and responsibilities, please?


PPL is Private Pilot License

May fly for pleasure or personal business. Private pilots cannot be paid, compensated to fly, or hired by any operator.

CPL is Commercial Pilot License

Can be paid, compensated to fly, or hired by operators and are required to have higher training standards than private or sport pilots.

ATPL is Airline Transport Pilot License

ATPs, as they are called, typically qualify to fly the major airliners. ATPs must qualify with a range of experience and training to be considered for this certificate.



PPL is a "Private Pilots License" and is a qualification which allows you to act as Pilot in Command in an aeroplane [PPL(A)] or Helicopter [PPL(H)] without remuneration. It is the most common license held in general aviation, and is the first step to all the other licenses that you mentioned in your question.

CPL is a Commercial Pilots License, and allows you to act as Pilot in Command of a charter or corporate flight.

ATPL (or ATP Certificate) is an Airline Transport Pilots License and is the highest level of pilot certification.

  • $\begingroup$ "and is the first step to all the other licenses that can be obtained." Except for Sport and Recreational licenses. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jan 26 '17 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer - yes, that should have read "[...] that you mentioned" $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jan 26 '17 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ And technically, you don't have to get a PPL first. When I got my multi-engine rating, I had my single engine PPL and took the commercial multi-engine checkride, so never had a multi PPL. In fact, I now have Multi ATP with private single-engine privileges, lol. The same could be done for your first checkride. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Dec 13 '17 at 3:15

Nobody has mentioned experience specifics.

You can get a PPL in about 35 flying hours. It is really a licence to learn how to fly, but without being paid to do so.

You can get a CPL in about 250 flying hours. This also is a licence to learn how to fly, but while being paid to do so. This is also much more difficult to earn, involving much higher precision flying and a ton more knowledge.

You can get an ATPL in about 1,500 flying hours. It is a licence that tells professional pilots you have now learned the basics of how to fly an airplane.

Having said that, a pilot never stops learning, every type they add requires extensive training, and MOST commercial pilots come close to killing themselves about five times during their career.

Commercial pilots also have to prove they still have their skills - and their health - every six months.

ATPL, 13,600 hours.

  • $\begingroup$ Jim, not exactly the case in the US. The minimum number of hours for a PPL is 40 and most pilots need around 60. Commercial pilots need 100 hours of PIC time, so probably more like 150 at a bare minimum. Multi engine commercial need 250 hours. A commercial license isn’t much good without an instrument rating, so you need that as well. Commercial pilots need a medical every 12 months, ATPs 6 months. If you are a commercial Part 91 pilot you only need to have your skills checked every 24 months—just like PPL. Airlines and Part 135 operations check the skill levels depending based on OpSpecs. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Jan 29 '17 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ @JScarry No. US FAA: PPL for ASEL can be earned in 40hours if completed under part 61; 35hours for part 141 flight schools. PPL for AMEL is 20hours more for part 141 flight schools. CPL for ASEL in 250hours if completed under part 61; 120hours for part 141 flight schools. CPL for AMEL in 55 hours more. ATPL in 1,500 hours regardless of part 61 or 141. 14 CFR 61 Subpart E (61.103) spell out PPL reqs for ASEL and AMEL; Subpart F (61.123) for ASEL and AMEL CPL reqs. 14 CFR 141 Part F, Appendix B spells out Part 141 PPL reqs for ASEL and AMEL; Appendix D for ASEL and AMEL CPL. $\endgroup$ – Manuel J. Diaz Jan 30 '17 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ Manuel, I had forgotten about Part 141 as I don”t know anyone who has done it. Good catch. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Jan 30 '17 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ I think the CPL difficulty is being overstated a bit. The hardest part about it is finding a complex airplane (especially for SEL). The maneuvers are excellent training, but not especially difficult and the extra knowledge required is not all that much. Adding IFR is a much bigger knowledge jump. $\endgroup$ – Brian Knoblauch Dec 13 '17 at 17:13


Private Pilot License. You may fly your own plane or rent one to fly. You can fly families and friends. You can not be paid to fly.


Commercial Pilot License. You can be paid to fly, but usually in small planes only. Typical activities include aerial photography, banner towing, dropping sky divers, etc.


Airline Transport Pilot License. You can act as captain of a large airliner.

To give a rough perspective, PPLs usually fly small single-engine propeller planes; CPLs fly slightly larger planes that carry maybe 20~50 people, ATPLs are the ones that fly Airbus and Boeings.

Note that the pilot license restricts which kind of aviation activity a pilot can fly, but does not restrict the size or speed of the aircraft. Technically you can fly an A380 with a PPL if you fly it privately, but very few people (if any!) do that.

In the simple sense, PPL must be acquired before CPL, and CPL before ATPL. It is like driving licenses: you must get an ordinary driving license before you can drive a bus, and you better can drive a bus before you want to drive a semi-trailer. The higher privilege licenses require better precision, better proficiency and handling more complex aircraft systems.

Obviously, pilot and driving licenses vary country by country, but I feel this answer address the OP's concerns.

  • $\begingroup$ If I understand correctly, I could fly that A380 on my PPL, but I would need endorsements for a complex aircraft and multi-engine, or something along those lines? $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jan 26 '17 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan It's also multi-crew, which complicates things. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 26 '17 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab, yeah, but if I'm taking it for a joy-ride, none of that really matters, does it? :D $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jan 26 '17 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ In the U.S., you're also required to have an ATPL to act as any required flight crew member in a scheduled airline operation. However, in some other countries (including EASA-land, as far as I know,) it's not only possible, but common to fly as SIC on a large airliner without an ATPL. For example, the pilot who crashed the Germanwings A320 flight had only a CPL and a bit over 600 hours logged. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 26 '17 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan You would need a type rating, complex, and multi-engine. Since it is not certified for single-pilot operations, you need a similarly qualified copilot. If you go above 18000, you also need an IFR rating. But yes, it is technically possible to fly a transport category aircraft with a PPL and appropriate ratings. Just ask John Travolta or Bruce Dickinson $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jan 26 '17 at 23:44

Uk & Europe minimum number of hours for a PPL is 45 with most people taking around 60 to pass plus 9 written exams.

Commercial PL is 200 hours which includes 150 pilot in command - most people now do the ATPL additional exams when qualifying for cpl and have them frozen.

  • $\begingroup$ 9 written exams? Wow. Are there a bunch of specific subjects? In the US, it used to be I think a 60 question test out of a bank of 600 or 700 question types, many of which you had to calculate the answer, but some which just required memorization. Similar for an Instrument rating. I went thru All the questions and made sure I could either do the math, knew the answer, and knew where to find the answer if I needed more detail behind it (such as the FAR, the AIM, etc.) $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Aug 3 '18 at 18:50

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