The Role of a Captain

Chris Carey is a graduate of ATP who has gone on to fly for United Airlines. Chris is also a pilot-mentor and contributor to, the online community where interested people can ask airline pilots flight training and airline related questions. Chris has written a follow-up to an article he wrote back in August.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Role of a First Officer at an airline, today we will explore the role of a Captain.

In the simplest terms, the Captain of an airplane is responsible for the safety of the aircraft. The Captain must ensure the airplane is operated safely, efficiently and within FAA rules. At all times his or her judgment is absolute. While the Captain is the final authority, they share their responsibility with others, namely the aircraft dispatcher, the First Officer and to some extent the Flight Attendants. Whereas First Officers wear three stripes on their uniforms, Captains wear four.

Captains and First Officers receive the same training in the simulator, but Captains usually get a few more weeks of regulatory and “Role of a Captain” training. On the flight line, Captains and First Officers split the actual flying responsibilities. There are a few cases such as very low visibility landings or high wind takeoffs with a new First Officer when the Captain will always fly that portion of the flight.

In general day-to-day operations, the Captain will review the flight plan with the First Officer. If both are in agreement that the flight is safe to operate as planned, the Captain will sign the “aircraft release,” which is a document that formally releases control of the airplane to the Captain. From that point on the Captain is responsible for setting the pace and tone of the flight. It is the Captain who decides when to call for checklists, when to start engines, who will fly each leg of a trip and other routine items.

Where a Captain really earns their paycheck is when something abnormal comes up, such as a need to divert to another airport due to a low fuel situation or a mechanical emergency. The captain is responsible for coordinating with the company, Air Traffic Control and the Flight Attendants, while the FO focuses on flying the airplane. The Captain will almost always solicit input from all resources available to him or her, but will make the final decision.

Like most things at the airlines, being a Captain is determined by seniority within the company. However, this does not mean that a First Officer automatically becomes a Captain when they reach a certain seniority. Some pilots choose to stay as First Officers for a longer period of time to make use of their seniority to have better schedules, more desirable trips, or to fly to more interesting destinations. Other pilots choose to upgrade to Captain as soon as possible to take advantage of the higher pay rates. One of the really nice aspects of being an airline pilot is that we are afforded the ability to make this choice without sacrificing long-term career potential.