The often-forecast shortage of U.S. airline pilots may finally come to pass, fed by a “perfect storm” of increasing demand for new pilots, mounting retirements by baby-boomer pilots and declining interest among young people in airline careers, industry experts say.
A recent study by researchers from several U.S. universities reinforced the conclusions of Boeing’s 2012 projection that the next two decades will bring an unprecedented demand for new pilots. Filling those jobs may not be easy, the university study said.
The study forecast the hiring of more than 95,000 pilots in the United States over the next 20 years as a result of the combined effects of “new aircraft growth, pilot retirements and pilot attrition from the industry for reasons other than retirement,” as well as government regulations — especially rest and duty time requirements that will limit the number of hours pilots may work — that may lead to an increase in the number of required new pilots.1
The Boeing study had forecast a need for 460,000 new pilots worldwide by 2032, including 69,000 in North America (Figure 1). The Asia Pacific region will account for about 40 percent of the total worldwide need; that number will include 71,300 in China alone. The study cautioned that, “in many regions of the world, a pilot shortage is already here” and noted that the Asia Pacific region, in particular, “is experiencing delays and operational interruptions due to pilot scheduling constraints.”2
The university study, which was conducted at the request of an aviation industry stakeholders’ group, acknowledged the failure of frequent past warnings of an impending pilot shortage to come to fruition, as well as confusion about exactly what constitutes a shortage.
“Does pilot shortage refer to a situation where the lack of available qualified pilots results in operational disruptions, such as changes in schedule or reduction of flights?” the study’s authors asked. “Using this definition, the last pilot shortage occurred in the 1960s. In this era, it was noted that thousands of hours of flights by major airlines had to be canceled and operations adjusted due to the unavailability of qualified pilots to hire.
“Or does a pilot shortage mean a lowering of hiring requirements to dip into the next wave of applicants who, of course, still meet FAA [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] requirements but are not at the top of the flight experience hierarchy? There is evidence to support this was the case at the regional carriers in the most recent hiring wave of 2007 and 2008.”
Typically, U.S. airlines have found enough qualified pilots by hiring retired military pilots and others from civilian sources.
“What is different now?” the study asked before outlining several new considerations:
- Recent limited hiring at major airlines;
- An increase in retirements from major airlines over the next few years;
- Expansion of airlines;
- A smaller number of new flight instructors who say they want careers with the airlines; and,
- A legislative requirement for airline pilots to possess airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates — which typically require 1,500 flight hours.
The hiring of pilots for major airlines stimulates demand for pilots throughout the industry, the study said, adding that the unanswered question now is whether hiring over the next few years will provide enough of a stimulus to develop an adequate, continuous supply of pilots.
About 45,000 pilots are expected to retire from major airlines in the next 20 years, and with 18,000 current regional pilots, the industry will face a shortfall unless a significant number of new pilots enter the work force, the study said.
“Current projections indicate there will be disruptions in the pilot labor supply unless industry–market fundamentals change, more pilots can be enticed into an airline pilot career or the regulatory environment changes,” the report said. “A status quo projection indicates that there will be a shortage of around 35,000 pilots” (Figure 2, p. 25).
The university study included a survey of certified flight instructors (CFIs), gauging their interest in an airline career, Kent Lovelace, chairman of the Department of Aviation at the University of North Dakota and one of the study’s authors, said during a panel discussion in May at the Regional Airline Association’s (RAA’s) annual meeting in Montreal.
“It’s not so much how many pilots are out there, but how many want to pursue the career,” Lovelace said, noting that many CFIs trained in the United States plan to return to their native countries to continue their aviation careers.
The survey, administered to 1,636 CFIs, found that 54 percent are planning on an airline career. Nine percent of those questioned said they had abandoned their interest in a career with the airlines because of the requirement for first officers to possess an ATP. An additional 33 percent said the requirement had prompted them to reconsider their plans to fly for the airlines.
The requirement — included in a 2010 law — left room for exceptions to the 1,500-flight-hour requirement for military pilots and for new pilots who graduate from four-year colleges with aviation degrees (ASW, 12/12, p. 43). The specifics of those exceptions will be clarified in a rule expected to be issued later this year by the FAA.
The numbers of CFIs hoping for airline careers are dramatically lower than they have been in the past, Lovelace said, noting that 10 or 15 years ago, 75 to 90 percent of those questioned said that they wanted to fly for an airline “and they knew which airline and which equipment.”
Today, Lovelace told the RAA, “if you convince 100 percent of those [the 54 percent] to pursue an airline career, you don’t have a supply problem.” Nevertheless, he added, airlines must “actively persuade” new pilots to join their ranks.
A major issue is the cost of flight training and of accumulating enough flight hours to be employable, Lovelace said. The study added that an airline job might be more attractive if those costs could be reduced through scholarships, programs that provide funding in exchange for future employment or “gateway” programs that show a clear path from early pilot training to airline employment. Lovelace noted that many potential pilots also want to maintain connections with their friends and communities, and many fear that an airline pilot’s schedule would preclude them from doing so; that concern might be more difficult to address.
‘A Shrinking Pool’
In the short term — the next five to 10 years — major airlines are unlikely to experience a shortage, the university study said. But it added that supply problems may have an impact at regional airlines, which “will have to actively compete for a shrinking pool of qualified pilots,” the study said. “It is not clear whether all the regional airlines will be successful in attracting an adequate number of qualified applicants,” he said.3
If they are not, the study predicted, “the most likely consequence … would involve the industry reducing its schedule. In particular, smaller communities served only by regional airlines could experience airline disruption or even a suspension of service.”
Another factor — not specifically considered in the university study — was that non-U.S. air carriers, which also will be eager to hire qualified pilots, may “decide to aggressively compete and employ lower-time, entry-level pilots.”
Darrin Greubel, manager of line operations for ExpressJet, told the RAA that the decline in the number of pilots leaving the U.S. military for airline jobs, the increasing number of retirements as airline pilots reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 and regulatory changes are adding to pressure on the pool of employable pilots.
“We’ve heard this [shortage warning] a dozen times in the past, and we’ve always worked it out,” Greubel said, adding that this round of warnings is based on more complete data. “Today… you can talk to the majority of people, and they will say, ‘I believe in it this time. I see the supply issue; I see the demand issue. It’s time to act upon this.”
Air carriers themselves are beginning to develop solutions to the problem, Greubel said, citing new cooperative programs involving universities, regional operators and major airlines.
One such program is the Aviation University Gateway, operated by JetBlue Airways in cooperation with Cape Air, ExpressJet, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Auburn University, Jacksonville University and the University of North Dakota. The program, begun in 2008, is designed to identify potential pilots and provide them with academic training, a flight instructor’s job, regional airline experience and — ultimately — an airline pilot’s job at JetBlue.
Krista Poppe, a captain with Cape Air and manager of the program, told the RAA conference that the goal is “to provide a defined pathway for a student to reach a major airline.”
She said the participating airlines benefit from the “steady stream of qualified pilots” who typically work as flight instructors in the gateway program until they accumulate between 800 to 1,200 flight hours and then are hired as first officers at Cape Air (or ExpressJet, a newcomer to the program), where they work until they have 2,000 to 3,000 hours and an airline transport pilot certificate and are eligible for job interviews with JetBlue.
About 150 pilots have participated in the program, and the first eight are now first officers at JetBlue, Poppe said. More than 20 are flying with Cape Air, she said.
Not everyone is convinced that a shortage of pilots will materialize in the United States.
John Allen, director of the FAA Flight Standards Service, told the World Aviation Training Conference and Tradeshow (WATS 2013) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., in April that while some studies warn of a looming shortage, others express confidence that market forces will resolve any potential shortage and that “there is a robust commercial certificated pilot inventory … that would cover the need for ATPs in the future.”
Brant Harrison, a pilot for a large U.S. airline who has conducted his own industry analysis to forecast pilot demand over the next decade, predicted that regional airlines in the United States will experience little growth over the next 10 years and may experience significant reductions.4
As a result, his analysis said, it was “highly unlikely any significant pressure will be felt for finding pilots to fill the left seats at the regional airlines and any seat at the majors. However, even with a glut of pilots, it may become difficult to fill the right seat of some regional carriers with pay scales below poverty wage.”
Greubel, however, said the pilot shortage is already here.
“There’s a hard time finding 1,500-hour pilots and filling classes. That’s already becoming a challenge,” he said. “And it’s starting to become a challenge for simulator vendors who sell sim time and say they aren’t selling as much because they can’t find the pilots. … It [the shortage] is here now, today. It’s only going to get worse.”
What is most needed, Allen said, is a thorough collection and analysis of data and a healthy discussion of the issue to determine the likelihood of a pilot shortage.
“What I’m afraid of,” he said, “is that we will have a problem and we’ll be too late with recognition and too late to fix.”
- Higgins, James; Lovelace, Kent; Bjerki, Elizabeth et al. An Investigation of the United States Airline Pilot Labor Supply. 2013.
- Boeing. 2012 Pilot and Technician Outlook.(Ed. note: Link now goes to the 2014 edition.)
- The authors said their analysis did not consider the likely effects of new flight and duty time regulations in the United States, the prospect of non-U.S. carriers hiring U.S. pilots or an additional decline or increase in the number of new pilots who decide against an airline career.
- Harrison, Brant. Pilot Demand Projections/Analysis for the Next 10 Years. Audries Aircraft Analysis. 2013.