Will the Airline Pilot Shortage Get Worse?
It’s hardly necessary to be a pilot to know that a shortage is ongoing. News websites are filled with stories of airlines canceling flights, paring schedules, or even swapping regional flights for bus service due to a lack of qualified pilots. Compounded by retirements, the Covid-19 pandemic, and a lengthy training process for new pilots, the current shortage shows no signs of easing up any time soon.
The Foundations of the Pilot Shortage
Though we’re seeing the effects today, the aspects that led to a drought of available pilots began years ago. Large amounts of airline hiring around the turn of the century was greatly blunted by the “lost decade” of the early 2000s, a period of time where the airlines suffered the 9/11 terrorist attacks, reduced demand, a downturn in the economy, skyrocketing fuel prices, and multiple bankruptcies.
Storied airlines like TWA, Northwest, and Continental were absorbed into American, Delta, and United, respectively while many smaller carriers and startups floundered entirely. Pilot hiring stagnated and the passing of a rule in 2007 bumping the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 effectively stopped all seniority movement for five years as senior pilots attempted to refill retirement accounts drained by economic hits and bankruptcy-induced pension eliminations.
On the regional airline side, hiring had long been permitted as low as 250 hours, allowing a nearly unlimited supply of new pilots. The crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009 led to the passing of laws in 2010 requiring all Part 121 airline pilots, even at the regional level, to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. The additional time and experience required slowed the pipeline of available pilots and led to the regional airlines competing for a limited number of applicants.
The Pandemic and its Hiring Effects
By 2019, the airline industry was already in a strained state. Major airlines were picking off many qualified applicants as children of the “baby boomer” generation began to hit forced retirement. As majors snapped up pilots from regional airlines, the regionals began offering various incentives to attract pilots to one company vs. another. Thousands of senior pilots took early retirement packages while many junior aviators left the industry altogether to support their families.
As 2021 brought vaccines and reopened borders, the airline industry snapped back faster than anyone seemed to expect. Airline hiring rapidly exceeded pre-pandemic levels as companies struggled to fill pilot seats and cancellations abounded. Qualified applicants, once spending years building experience hoping just to get on at a legacy airline, suddenly found themselves with the choice of multiple offers. Regional airlines resorted to bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars to entice pilots to choose them, then continued paying bonuses to attempt to make them stay.
The Path of Learning to Fly
For potential pilots on the outside looking at possibly pursuing an aviation career, the choices can seem endless. Flight schools vary from ‘mom-and-pop’ outfits at the local airport to major academies with hundreds of students at a time.
In an industry where seniority means everything, choosing a flight school that can get you trained both quickly and proficiently can mean a major difference in where you get hired and how quickly you get there, providing a springboard to the next step of your career. For most pilots, after learning to fly they will build time to Airline Transport Pilot minimums (generally 1,500 hours) by flight instructing. Learning at a school that teaches in a standardized fashion and offers instructional opportunities can help you move quickly while also ensuring you provide valuable instruction to those following you.
Demand by the Numbers
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says an average of 14,500 openings are expected for commercial pilots every year for this decade. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) reported that 2022 had already hit record hiring numbers by only June, while Boeing’s 2022 Pilot/Technician Outlook Report forecasts a need for 128,000 pilots in the next two decades in North America alone.
Laying the Groundwork for Your Career
If you’re a new or potential pilot, it may be confusing to lay out a plan to get to your career destination. Do you see yourself being a corporate pilot, or at the front of an airliner? Maybe you have a passion for teaching and envision yourself as a professional flight instructor in either aircraft or simulators. Or maybe you’ll find a home in one of the numerous jobs that don’t always leap out at the front of the public eye such as air ambulance, utility work, airborne law enforcement, or aerial firefighting. No matter your goal, having a good foundation of quality flight instruction will help ensure you are ready for a professional flying career.