As you may have heard, pilots are in high demand across the industry with a pilot shortage both in the short term, and looming over the industry for decades to come.
With many factors combining, including an aging work force, FAA mandated retirements, and continually growing demand for air travel, the pilot shortage is worrying the airlines, but creating a very positive market for pilots with rising salaries and available bonuses.
If you are considering a career as a professional airline pilot, there has never been a better time to start to get on this career path, and benefit for years to come.
Why is there a Pilot Shortage?
For many years, the core demographic of professional airline pilots has been 40–60-year-olds that first entered the industry prior to the 2000s or entered the career through a military-trained background. However, with an FAA-mandated retirement age of 65 years old, the major airlines in the U.S. are now facing a situation where thousands of their pilots are set to retire within the next few years, representing a significant portion of their workforce. This is the leading cause of the pilot shortage in the U.S..
In addition to this attrition of current pilots, the demand for air travel continues to grow and is expected to do so for years to come. For the past 50 years, the airline industry has doubled in size every 15 years, and projections expect this to continue as flying becomes safer, cheaper, and easier than its alternatives.
On average, each aircraft in an airline fleet requires 12 full time pilots on staff. While only 2 pilots may fly at any point in time in the cockpit, this ratio keeps those planes in operation around the clock, day in and day out. With airlines placing orders for 100s of new planes, this translates to thousands of additional pilots needed to be trained and hired for them to fly
For the major airlines, the solution to this pilot shortage – at least in the short term – is relatively simple, as they look to hire their pilots from the regional airlines earlier in that pilots’ career. However, not only can this solution not last for long, but it forces the problem to the regional airlines as they look to secure their own hiring plans, knowing pilots will likely leave them for the major airline carriers after only a few years.
The airline pilot shortage will not be easy to solve, but it does create a very positive outlook for the pilots themselves, making their hiring, retention and pay critical to an airline’s success.
How Big is the Pilot Shortage
There have been many studies into this pilot shortage to estimate its size and factors, with the most comprehensive study coming from aircraft manufacturer, Boeing.
Boeing have studied the trends of airline hiring, aircraft orders, pilots in training, industry trends, macro-economic forecasts and more to come up with an estimate they update periodically. In the current estimate for 2021-2040, over the next two decades 612,000 new pilots will be required worldwide, with 130,000 of these in North America, primarily the U.S.. Expectations are similar for other staff in the aviation industry such as mechanics and cabin crew, as the whole market expands.
This estimate is validated by Airbus’ Commercial Market Outlook which estimates around 40,000 new aircraft will be ordered in a similar timeframe, representing over 450,000 pilots – not including the retirements of the current pilot workforce that will need replacing.
Globally, the factors behind the pilot shortage estimates differ. While in the U.S. this is largely due to retirements, in regions like China and India, it is due to extraordinary growth as their large populations look to travel more, domestically and internationally. While this global growth may not directly impact domestic pilots, it will all lead to a very attractive marketplace for pilots as international airlines compete for the trained pilots available.
What does the Pilot Shortage mean to Pilots?
The laws of Supply & Demand dictate that as the demand for pilots grows from the airlines, and the supply is not able to keep pace, leading to this airline pilot shortage, then the price for those pilots will increase. In this example this will take the form of increasing pilot salaries and growing bonuses, from hiring bonuses, to retention or performance bonuses.
Additionally, pilot upgrades, be it First Officer to Captain, Regional to Major Airline, or across aircraft types from narrow body domestic routes to international wide bodies, can all be expected to happen quicker than in years prior. This represents higher still salaries for these pilots at the leading edge of the hiring curve as they make these upgrades, as well as increased job security.
For airline pilots, pilot seniority means everything, impacting pay, routes, aircraft, domiciles, HR benefits and more. This means pilots hired in the coming years will benefit for decades to come as they obtain higher seniority very quickly. All these factors mean there has never been a better time to start your training to become an airline pilot and take advantage of the pilot shortage.
Pilot Shortage in 2022
While the airline pilot shortage is in full force, and gaining regular headlines at the moment, as airlines struggle to increase staff and maintain their flight routes, this is a short-term pilot shortage separate from the long-term driving factors.
In order for the airlines to try and manage their business during the COVID-19 pandemic, they offered incentives to pilots for early retirement in the form of large monetary buyouts. Many pilots took this lucrative offer, and now these pilots cannot be quickly rehired by the airlines or easily replaced.
Additionally, it is critical for working pilots to maintain their currency, staying active and highly skilled in the aircraft they fly. This means that even for the pilots that did not take early retirement, if they were not flying regularly during 2020 and 2021, they required further training in simulators before they could fly aircraft with passengers.
This high demand for new pilots, combined with a struggle for simulator time to retrain previous pilots, competed over finite resources to train pilots, with airlines having to balance their short-term and long-term needs. These factors combined for a very high squeeze for demand of pilots in this pilot shortage.
This squeeze is expected to continue for several years to come and may never truly end as it transitions to the longer-term airline pilot shortage as further retirements and industry growth continue as planned.
No matter the factors, there has never been a better time to be a pilot in training.