ATPL, CPL, PPL - What gives?

Martin Trankell

If you are thinking about becoming a pilot you may have heard the following strange terms: LAPL, PPL, CPL, MPL, ATPL and the mysterious “frozen ATPL”. We are talking about licenses! Why are there so many different types of flying certificates, what are the differences between each license, and which one will you get if you decide to pursue a commercial aviation career?

ATPL, CPL, PPL - what gives?

Table of content

  1. The modular way - LAPL or PPL start
  2. The integrated way - Direct to CPL
  3. ATPL-theory and the "Frozen ATPL"
  4. Getting the ATPL
  5. Up front with the CPL and ATPL

The modular way – LAPL or PPL start

If you are a recreational pilot looking to fly smaller aircraft only – you will be happy with either a Light Aircraft Pilot License or a Private Pilot License. The holder of these two licenses can fly smaller aircraft in non-commercial operations. However, a pilot holding a PPL or LAPL may not earn any money through flying an aircraft.

The training for the LAPL is less compared to the training required for a PPL. Consequently, the holder of a LAPL may not fly aircraft heavier than two tons nor fly an aircraft with more than five passengers. There are other restrictions, such as only being allowed to fly single-engine aircraft. The holder of a PPL is therefore a bit more privileged than the holder of a LAPL – but in return the license requires more training to attain. The training to get a LAPL or a PPL consists of flying around 30 to 60 flight hours and passing a theoretical examination in nine different subjects.


Any pilot looking to upgrade a LAPL to a PPL may do so after flying a certain number of hours. In the same way, any pilot looking to attain a Commercial Pilot License may upgrade his or her PPL. This requires the pilot to have accumulated at least 150 hours of total flight time. Training may then be started at a flight school where commercial, multi-engine and instrument flying is trained. After completing the course and having attained at least 200 hours the pilot may be examined and pass a commercial skill test.

If this route to your commercial license is followed, then it is called completing a modular training course – since the licenses have been completed one by one in modules.

The integrated way – Direct to CPL

Many who strive to become commercial aviators choose to train at an integrated program. This means that there is no middle step – the student enrolls in a program with zero flight hours and then stays at the same school until he or she has attained at least 195 hours and is eligible for a CPL examination. The benefits in the integrated course is that the student is actively under training during all 195 hours, assisted by flight instructors and in a commercial training environment from the start. These are some of the reasons why OSM Aviation Academy exclusively train their students through integrated programs.

ATPL, CPL, PPL ... What gives...

At the integrated program with OSMAA the student will be trained in basic flying, instrument flying, single-engine aircraft operation as well as multi engine aircraft operations. At the end of the course students train multi-crew cooperation skills in the Boeing 737 simulator. After examination you will be ready to apply for airline jobs throughout the world.

ATPL-theory and the "Frozen ATPL"

We’ve concluded that both modular and integrated students attain a CPL at the end of their courses. So, what’s all this talk about the Air Transport Pilot License and the often mentioned “frozen ATPL”?

When a pilot attains their CPL license they hold the privilege to work in commercial aviation, be it in airlines, crop spraying, banner towing or cargo flights. To work in a multi-crew aircraft the pilot must also go through a multi-crew cooperation course (MCC) which is often included at the end of an integrated program. However, a pilot with a CPL license and a completed MCC-course may not be commander on a multi-crew aircraft. For that an Air Transport Pilot License is required.

The ATPL-theory will be “frozen” for as long as the student maintains their CPL and instrument privileges, until the day they are ready to upgrade their license to an ATPL.

Most pilots who have gone through an integrated CPL course will read the full ATPL theory at the same time. This means that although they are training to attain a CPL license, the theoretical training for an ATPL is completed already at the initial training stage. Once the student attains their CPL license with a full instrument flying privilege attached, the ATPL theory will be noted as completed in the remark section of the CPL-license. While the term is not an official one, colloquially this is called “freezing the ATPL” and the pilot have attained a “frozen ATPL”. The ATPL-theory will be “frozen” for as long as the student maintains their CPL and instrument privileges, until the day they are ready to upgrade their license to an ATPL.

Norwegian - uniform (1)

Getting the ATPL

The experience requirements to attain this ultimate license are at least 1 500 hours of total flight time, of which at least 500 must be in multi crew aircraft. This means that all pilots working in multi-crew environments all must start as first officers. It is usual for airlines to demand more than the 1 500 hours and 500 multi crew hours before they allow any pilot to become commander. A commonly stated minimum figure for pilots working within Europe is around 2 500 hours total time, of which around 1 000 in multi crew aircraft.

Once a pilot has attained the required amount of hours, he or she may elect to upgrade their CPL to an ATPL. The training required is very small. The theory course has been completed in the initial training course and have been noted in the pilots CPL license. What remains is a skill test in which the pilot must demonstrate his or her ability to act as pilot in command of a commercial airliner in a multi-crew environment.

If the pilot passes – congratulations! They now have the highest level of license achievable and are fully certified to be captain in a commercial airliner. The ATPL is now “unfrozen”...

The skill test must be done by an examiner approved by the civil aviation authority. If the pilot passes – congratulations! They now have the highest level of license achievable and are fully certified to be captain in a commercial airliner. The ATPL is now “unfrozen” – a real ATPL license is issued and the note about the completed theory training is removed.

An ATPL-holder may of course also act as a first officer or fly privately for fun. The holder of an ATPL has all the privileges of the LAPL, PPL and CPL with the addition that the pilot may now act as commander on multi-crew aircraft. It is now up to the airline to decide if the pilot is ready to be promoted to captain.

Up front with the CPL and ATPL

So, in summary, if you visit the cockpit of an airliner, you’ll always find at least one first officer and a captain in the cockpit. If you asked them what license each of them got, the captain would always respond that he or she had an ATPL – an Air Transport Pilot License. The first officer may give the same answer, but he or she may also say a CPL – a Commercial Pilot License. If you asked the first officer to see their CPL license, you would be able to spot the remark about ATPL-theory having been completed – meaning that their license is “frozen”.

04. B737 simulator OSM Aviation Academy

Integrated flight training programs

If you are interested in becoming a pilot take a look on the courses offered by OSM Aviation Academy. OSMAA exclusively offers integrated courses which will give you a CPL-license with MCC and a frozen ATPL – meaning you can apply for any airline or commercial aviation occupation in the world. Doing your training in an integrated course as OSMAA means you will always be tutored by professional flight instructors, in modern aircraft and with your future commercial pilot requirements in mind.

Training location at OSM Aviation Academy

Or continue to read: Which flight training program should you choose?


PS. We have omitted a special type of license called the MPL. The Multi-crew Pilot License is an alternative license attained by a different integrated course. The holder of an MPL may act as first officer on multi-crew aircraft but have certain special prerequisites before they are able to exercise the same privileges of a LAPL, PPL or a CPL-holder.

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