Pilot Shortage Expected to Return

Pilots · 4 min read · Apr 12, 2022
Pilot Shortage

The generalized shortage of pilots was already a concern some years ago. According to a poll conducted by Oliver Wyman in 2019, 62 percent of flight operations leaders listed a shortage of qualified pilots as a key risk.

However, this concern was set aside due to the COVID-19 pandemic since most airlines were more worried about their business survival in such a tough situation.

Of course, we now know that the industry managed to survive, and it is getting stronger again. The bad news is that airlines are finding it difficult to get new pilots to battle the global pilot shortage.

Keep reading as we give you the facts about this looming pilot shortage and what airlines are doing to fight back.

Is there a shortage of air pilots?

Sadly for the industry, the answer is yes, there is. And it will get worse. According to data collected by Oliver Wyman, “a global pilot shortage will emerge in certain regions no later than 2023”. Also, the data points out the fact that in the most likely scenario, the global gap will be 34,000 pilots by 2025, and it could reach 50,000 pilots in the worst-case scenario.

On the other hand, there is good news for Europe. According to the same data, “the supply and demand of pilots are expected to be balanced over the next three to four years.” Yet, this is expected to change in the long term.

Something that is worth highlighting is that, while this represents a challenge for the entire industry, it also represents a great opportunity for new pilots. In fact, major airlines, as well as regional carriers, are already offering different ways to find a career path. We’ll get into the details below.

An airplane cockpit and instrument panels as well as two pilots sitting in their seats.

What is causing the pilot shortage?

The combination of an aging workforce facing mandatory retirement, especially in the United States, and rapid growth in the number of passengers demanding flights in China and other regions, is putting high pressure on the aviation industry to find ways to combat a pilot shortage.

Add the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic forced many commercial airline pilots to early retirement, and you have clear reasons to understand why the pilot shortage exists.

Other causes include:

  • Flight schools are expensive
  • Programs take too long
  • Fewer pilots are coming out of the military forces
  • Concerns about work-life balance
  • Concerns about technology such as autonomous flying taking over

The last two points from the list above come from pilots giving anonymous interviews to Flying magazine. They said finding a more “fulfilling career” and “worrisome promises from emerging eVTOL companies that their airplanes will be pilotless” were among the reasons for them to leave the airline transport pilot career.

So, what can airlines do?

How major airlines find qualified pilots

Airlines like United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Delta Air Lines rely on specific programs to facilitate the process of recruiting pilots.

Other airlines, especially regional airlines find it challenging to have their own program, so some of them prefer to become regional partners with some flight schools. Apart from reducing costs, they also benefit from the fact that a flight school usually graduates all the pilots in their program much faster.

Here are two of the programs in more detail.

United Airlines Program

Launched in January, the United Aviate Academy is one of the most comprehensive training programs found in the airline industry nowadays.

The airline executives have managed to build partnerships with major organizations including JP Morgan Chase to offer $2.4 million in financial aid to remove financial barriers and increase diversification.

The airline expects to hire 24% of all the pilots that go through their training pipeline. The whole process to become a commercial pilot with the airline is described in a series of steps that include:

  1. 2 months to get the private pilot license. They will cover the cost of $17,750 if necessary.
  2. 10 months to finish the pilot training, which includes obtaining the required ratings and certificates.
  3. 18 months to get ATP certification. At this point, they help students cover the ATP hour requirement and gain enough experience by working as a CFI at United Aviate Academy or at one of Aviate’s partner schools and Part 135 operators that include top US universities such as Auburn Aviation, The Ohio State University, and Florida Tech, renowned flight schools such as ATP, and Lufthansa Aviation Training, and operators like Wiggins Airways.
  4. After obtaining ATP certification, the pilots can start flying with the airline partners under the United Aviate partnerships.
  5. Finally, after 24 months and 2,000 flight hours, the pilots can start working as First Officers for United.

Alaska Airlines Program

The program called Ascend Pilot Academy is very novel as it was launched at the beginning of March in partnership with the Hillsboro Aero Academy and with locations in the Portland and Bend area.

The main of the program is to “provide aspiring pilots a simpler, more financially accessible path to becoming a student pilot” as stated on the academy’s website.

They also state that after enrolling, “cadets will be eligible for access to financial aid, and a stipend up to $25,000 upon signing on to work for Horizon Air.” From this point, if the pilot ranks well according to certain criteria, they will be given an opportunity to fly with Alaska’s major airline.

The academy claims that its students can become commercial pilots within 13-18 months, which is much less than the 4 years that would take with a university career path.

An airplane pilot sitting in a cockpit with a passenger, both wearing headphones.

Other alternatives for the aviation industry

As we said before, regional airlines usually have it more difficult to get an airline pilot. Therefore, they need to find alternative ways to cope with the shortage. These are two good examples.

Reduce the need for pilots

By replanning their operations and improving their productivity, airlines can have their crews operating smoothly with a reduced number of pilots. This will not only help them with the shortage, but it will also bring the costs down in the long term.

Keep workforce engaged

The shortage also creates a higher level of competition among aspiring candidates, especially for those pilots who were furloughed. So, airlines can take advantage if they actively engage their pilots in a proactive way, thus improving pilots retention.

Pilot shortage summary

The future growth of aviation will require even more pilots. With travel demand getting to pre-pandemic levels, this can be expected to become the primary concern for the next decade. Keeping this in mind, airline executives will have to work to avoid more early retirements, improve retention, and fight against the perception that the position offers low wages.

As Edward Russell, an author at Airline Weekly said, “accepting that there is a pilot shortage in the U.S. is only the first step to fixing the problem. The next is producing more pilots but that, even with big names like Alaska and United working on it, will take several years.”

Time will tell, but what we can be sure of is that the opportunities will abound in the years to come for young people to find their way into aviation, even more as a pilot.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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