Examining the Pilot Shortage

There has been much discussion in the commercial aviation community about a global pilot shortage.  This month we are exploring the current state of airline transport pilot (ATP) availability, attrition and growth, causes for the shortage and potential solutions as the community moves forward.

The IATA forecast predicting 8.2 billion air travelers (double the current numbers) by the year 2037 has been widely cited in the pilot shortage discussion.  This forecast is both exciting and terrifying for the industry.  Exciting, because global growth of civil aviation means job security for the tens of millions of people who work in and around the industry; new opportunities and more jobs to come; and continued focus on advancing safety and technology, including the greening of aviation and the means by which it is powered.  Industry growth also means that more of the world is accessible to more people, thereby expanding cultural understandings, connections, humanitarian efforts and more.  But, on the other side of growth is the demand for pilots and the concern that airlines will not be able to recruit, hire and train enough pilots in the time required to keep up with industry expansion (spoiler: they won’t). 

According to the FAA’s latest published data, in 2018 there were a total of 633,316 pilots in the United States. Of those pilots, 145,147 maintained an active airline transport pilot license (required to fly scheduled commercial flights) and were under the mandatory retirement age of 65.  However, 71,100 of those ATP pilots were 50 years of age or over.  That means, within the next 15 years, the U.S. will lose nearly half (48.98%) of its current ATP pilots to mandatory retirement.  Natural attrition would easily put these numbers over 50%.  So, how does the number of outgoing ATP pilots compare to that of incoming ATP pilots? 

The FAA’s data shows, in 2018 there were 145,343 student pilots under the age of 50.  So, theoretically, if half of those students went on to become airline transport pilots over the next 15 years (which is completely unrealistic), new pilots still wouldn’t cover the gap created by retirement and attrition, let alone the expanded delta created by industry growth.  And that’s just in the United States.  In recent reports, both Airbus and Boeing projected a large global need for pilots over the next 15 years.  Airbus’ numbers were a little more conservative, projecting a global need for 450,000 pilots by the year 2035 (Boeing’s was nearly double).  Therefore, in order to meet this projection, there would need to be a global infusion of 30,000 new airline transport pilots per year for the next 15 years!  And that is based on the conservativeestimate.  So, how does actual pilot growth look?  According to FAA data, between 2009 and 2018 the number of airline transport pilots increased by 17,545 in the United States.  This demonstrates a growth rate of less than 2000 pilots per year (averaged out), which falls far short of the mandatory retirement rate projection of 4,666 pilots per year (averaged out) over the next 15 years.  What’s more, because these numbers only represent the U.S., it is just a snapshot of the potential global pilot shortage.

Now that we know the numbers are bleak, let’s examine how we got here starting with mandatory retirement.  Currently, the maximum suggested age for retirement as established by the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) is 65.  Following this guidance, the FAA and most other aviation authorities have set mandatory retirement at 65.  In the U.S., this means that 20% of the nation’s population (baby boomers), is either already over or within nine years of the mandatory retirement age.  The loss of baby boomers, (46,188 pilots according to FAA 2018 report) through mandatory retirement over the next nine years will mean nearly one third of existing airline transport pilots will age out in the United States.  That kind of hit would be a problem for any industry. 

Next, pilot requirements.  Currently, pursuant to FAA regulations, an airline transport pilot in the U.S. must be a minimum of 23 years of age, and have accumulated a minimum of 1500 flight hours after receiving her/his Commercial Pilot License (CPL) to be a co-pilot, and 2500 hours to be a Captain.  These parameters were established for safety purposes, with the increased ATP license flight hour minimum partially stemming from the 2009 crash of Flight 3407 that resulted in 50 fatalities.  The NTSB determined the cause of the crash was due to pilot error (insufficient experience, insufficient training and potential fatigue).  The investigation found that the aircraft’s aerodynamic stall should have been recoverable by either the pilot or co-pilot. Unfortunately, the pilot took the exact opposite action needed to recover the aircraft, and the co-pilot took no action to intervene.  As a result, in 2013 the flight hour requirement went up from 250 to 1500 hours minimum.  While any measure that improves the safety of civil aviation is good, the flip side is the training to become a licensed ATP now takes substantially longer, and costs substantially more.  Which brings us to another major contributing factor to the pilot shortage, money.

The U.S. is the only country in which air carriers require pilots to have a four-year degree, and all major U.S. air carriers maintain that requirement (which we know is getting more expensive by the day).  If this four-year degree was inclusive of a pilot’s license, it might be a bit more palatable, but in fact it is in addition to obtaining a pilot’s license, and logging the requisite hours, all of which can cost up to $200,000.  Such a price tag is a daunting burden to aspiring pilots, an obstacle for industry recruiting, and a major contributor to the shortfall of new pilots.  While the exorbitant cost of becoming a pilot is something for which the industry could have controlled, there were other contributing factors to the pilot shortage that it simply could not. 

The aviation industry (or any industry) could not have been prepared for the devastating events of 9/11, nor could they mitigate the fallout from the national and global economic recession beginning in 2008. These events dramatically depressed air travel for years forcing airlines to cut back on or ground flights, and driving highly qualified and fully certified pilots to leave the industry in search of financial stability.  Unfortunately, once the industry bounced back, many of the pilots had moved on and would not return.  Today, there is a higher demand for air travel than ever!  Globally, people are turning to the skies for travel related to business, holidays, adventure, and more.  The growth in China alone is staggering as the PRC is on pace to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest domestic aviation market this decade.  This overwhelming demand in the U.S., China, and around the world is deepening the gulf between the pilot numbers we have and the pilot numbers we need.  So, now that we understand why there is a pilot shortage, let’s take a look at some ways can the industry could mitigate the shortage.

In the U.S., American air carriers can assist in the abatement of their own problem by easing up on the requirement of a four-year college degree.  Not only will this open the door to existing U.S. pilots without a college degree, but also to highly experienced pilots from other countries without an undergraduate requirement.  Further, it could incentivize more young people who are eager to obtain the flight education and training but are put off by the added cost of a four-year degree.   

Next, both regional and legacy airlines could incentivize perspective pilots through increased salaries, early interaction and even scholarship opportunities.  Obviously no one wants to spend $150,000 on an education, flight school, etc. only to take a job where the pay doesn’t get you out of your parent’s basement.  Clearly everyone has to start somewhere, but perhaps that somewhere could cover the cost of student loans and rent.  Next, the promise of employment.  Several major airlines have established direct lines for high-achieving students to get jobs once all requirements are met.  This kind of program is fantastic and should be expanded upon.  The promise of gainful employment will give students the drive to do well in school and training, as well as the incentive to cross the finish line.  Major industry participants could also establish scholarship programs for perspective pilots, or competitive student loan repayment awards for new pilots.  Yet another way to further incentivize the career path and ease the burden of post-graduate debt. 

Finally, regulatory bodies could relax some of the requirements on pilots by extending age limits or decreasing flight hours; but honestly, we prefer safety first! Regardless of the mitigating measures taken, it seems there’s is no way to backfill all of the vacancies that will be created by mandatory retirement, while simultaneously front loading for the increasing travel demand created by an ever expanding jet-setting global population.  So, for those of you considering a career as an ATP, there is no time like the present!  And for the rest of us who prefer the passenger seat, my best advice is to plan ahead and book early so you don’t miss out!  Either way, safe travels and be sure to thank your flight crew on the way out!