Step One: Obtain a First Class Medical Certificate
A "First Class" medical is something that you'll need to maintain throughout your pilot career. I won't go into the particulars of the medical however I highly reccommend obtaining one if you'd like to be an airline pilot. You can look in the yellow pages for "Aeromedical Surgeon" or call the local FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) for a listing of doctors that can examine you in your local area. Contrary to popular belief, you can wear glasses and still be an airline pilot as long as your vision is correctable to 20/20. Click here to find out where to get a FAA Physical. Also, if you have other questions about FAA physicals, see the FAQ .
Even if you cannot pass a class one medical, discover this early enough to weigh your options. There are circumstances in which you could apply for a medical flight waiver (even I had one of these for a period of time) and the earlier you begin this process, the better.
Step Two: Private Pilot Certificate
This phase is approximately 40 hours of flying time in which you learn basic manuevers, navigation skills, and some basic instrument skills.
Step Three: Instrument Rating
After you've built up some hours after your PPL, you begin to work on your instrument rating. Basically, you learn to fly the aircraft solely by reference to the instrument panel. You do various instrument approaches and cross country flights in actual or simulated instrument conditions.
Step Four: Commercial Certificate(s)
The certification requires demonstration of advanced manuvers and more precise flying skills than shown for the private pilot check ride. You need at least 250 hours in order to qualify for this certificate. Also, many students will begin their multi-engine training in which you learn to fly a multi-engine aircraft -- usually a Beechcraft Duchess, Piper Seminole or Seneca. You will be responsible for demonstrating that you can do instrument approaches with both and only one engine operating.
Step Five: Time building!
You can obtain your Certified Flight Instructor certificate in order to build flight time by instructing other student pilots, fly banner towing, friegh, aerial surveying, or whatever else you can do to build flight time. Some freshly certified commercial pilots are fortunate enough to be offered positions at a regional airline affiliated with the flight school at which they learned. Flying for a regional airline is critical because you fly advanced equipment into high density airports and hone the skills that major airlines are looking for in a new hire pilot.
Step Six: The Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
You can think of the ATP certificate as the "Master's Degree of Flying". You're eligible for this license when you have at least 1500 hours and meet some other requirements. Without an ATP, many major airlines really wouldn't want to consider your application until you do. I recieved my ATP during my initial captain upgrade training at Skyway Airlines a few years ago.
Apply. Apply. Apply.
You may think that you're not ready for a job at a major, but unless you apply, they don't know you're out there. I'd even reccomend apply to every major airline when you hit the 1000 hour mark. By the time you've earned your ATP, you've already built a history in the human resources file at the majors and be persistent.
Anyone working for the majors would agree that this business is "feast or famine". Either no job offers are coming through or there is a FLOOD.