Ever since that glorious day on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina where Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first aircraft, planes have always fascinated us. Amelia Earhart, an American aviation pioneer and author, once said, “I have often been asked what I think about at the moment of take-off. Of course, no pilot sits and feels his pulse as he flies. He has to be part of the machine. If he thinks of anything but the task at hand, then trouble is probably just around the corner.” Then there was Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III who crash-landed US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River in Manhattan on January 15, 2009 saving all 155 passengers. Many of us know of these courageous heroes and pioneers, but what we don't know is that the industry they fought so hard to build is beginning to crumble. According to the 2019 Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook, by 2038 there will be a need of approximately 804,000 new civil aviation pilots. Due to the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, the high cost of pilot training, the retirement of the boomer generation, the interest of foreign aviation students, as well as the low starting salary for regional airlines, this shortage of pilots is and will become an even bigger problem if not addressed.
Some believe this pilot shortage to be factual while others believe it to be a myth based on perception. For some aviation authors, the pilot shortage is true depending on whether the shortage is referenced to major carriers or to regional airlines. For others, the pilot shortage is not about a decrease in the number of qualified pilots, but rather a refusal of pilots to work at companies (airlines) that offer low wages and minimal benefits (Smith,2016). Yet for others, the pilot shortage is fallacious, and does not exist – due to the large numbers of unemployed pilots, and the even greater number of pilots on furlough (Smith, 2016). These three views provide further insight on the reality (or lack thereof), of the pilot shortage.
The first view of the pilot shortage is that it is relative: being that the shortage is affecting the regional airlines more than it is affecting the legacy carriers (Smith, 2016) This view is based on the belief that legacy carriers will always have a larger pool of pilots to choose from among regional airlines such as the military and seasoned pilots – a pool that is not quickly exhausted. Regional airlines, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of choosing from a large pool of qualified experienced pilots as their main employee base is pilots seeking to build and earn flying hours. On top of this, regional airlines have grown at an extremely high rate to the point where the available pilot pool cannot meet their demands. According to an article written by Patrick Smith, regional airlines have grown to make up 53% of all domestic flights in the United States – yet the number of graduating pilots has not been growing as fast (Smith, 2016). Due to this imbalance, the legacy carriers aren’t as affected by the shortage.
The second view notes that the pilot shortage is mainly driven by the refusal to work in airlines offering lower pay by qualified and experienced pilots. Before the recent increase in pilot pay, many pilots began their career with a low starting salary of about $20,000 a year, mostly on regional airlines. This low salary was also accompanied by unattractive healthcare and 401k benefits (Smith, 2016). Compared to the amount of money pilots put into their training – a total of about $100,000, the low starting wages mean a slow return on investment. It prompted many potential pilots to change careers; causing the pilot shortage.
Lastly, the belief by some that the pilot shortage is a myth based on the numbers of pilots who are unemployed. In the United States in 2004, 10.20% of the pilot population was laid off, in efforts to reduce their operational costs (Aero News
Network., 2003). In 2008, United Airlines and Frontier Airlines laid off 950 pilots and 465 pilots respectively – following the bad economic season caused by the recession (Peterson, 2008; Tsai, 2008). More recently, American Airlines in 2010 planned to lay off about 175 pilots and in 2012 announced its plans to lay off 11,000 employees of whom 400 are pilots (Koenig, 2012). This layoff of pilots isn’t only happening in the United States however. For example, in 2015, Air France made public its intention by laying off 2,900 pilots in order to reduce the money spent on pilot wages (Willsher, 2015).
If there are so many unemployed pilots and many more are being laid off, how is it that there is a pilot shortage? Statistical data provides us with more insight to the answer of this question. “The 2019 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook, a respected industry forecast of personnel demand, projects that 804,000 new civil aviation pilots, 769,000 new maintenance technicians, and 914,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet over the next 20 years. The forecast is inclusive of the commercial aviation, business aviation, and civil helicopter industries” (Boeing, 2019) In 2018, according to the Future and Active Pilot Advisors, the top airlines globally hired 4,606 pilots. (FAPA) When these figures are compared to the actual number of pilots pursuing the FAA pilot licenses, we see a conflicting view. In the U.S. as of December 31, 2018, there was a total of 633,317 active airmen certificates held by pilots, of which 162,145 are Airline Transport Pilot Licenses (ATPL) (FAA, 2018). All in all, the shortage depends on which perspective you view it from, and you will believe which one you’re more inclined to. However, there is a general agreement that there is a shortage of pilots affecting the regional airlines more than anyone else.
One major cause of the current lack of organization in the airline industry is the effects of September 11, 2001. Financially, according to the International Air Transport Association, It took three years to recover the $22 billion revenue drop (6%) between 2000 and 2001 (IATA, 1). Although devastating to the aviation community financially, it better prepared them for the recession in 2008 where they suffered less losses.
The IATA also states five major lessons in security over the last decade in response to 9/11:
- Governments must coordinate the development and deployment of security measures to ensure harmonized global standards and eliminate overlapping and redundant requirements among nations.
- Governments are obliged to foot the bill for security threats which are national challenges in the same manner as they would do in any other sector. Airlines and their passengers currently pay a security bill that had ballooned to $7.4 billion by 2010.
- Passengers should and do play an important role in helping keep air travel safe. Vigilance and cooperation with authorities are crucial.
- Governments need to embrace a risk-based approach to security screening.
We must accept that there is no such thing as 100% risk-free security. Governments must focus on the probable and not all that is possible and avoid policies driven by knee-jerk reactions (IATA, 1).
Overall, 9/11 greatly impacted the aviation industry in more ways than one, and it is vital to understand that this is the basis of the economic states most airlines are in currently.
I believe the main causes of this perceived pilot shortage to be fewer local U.S. students having an interest in careers as pilots, fewer certified flight instructors interested in becoming airline pilots, the high cost of pilot training, low entry lever pilot wages, more strict government regulations, and the retirement of airline captains.
In this day and age many young people aren’t as fascinated to become pilots as they once were. Many students are now well informed of the realities of being a pilot such as rough hours, and schedules that may keep them from home for days or even weeks at a time. Another thing discouraging young kids from becoming pilots is the low wages offered by regional carriers, as well as the high cost of training. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of student pilot certificates between 2007 and 2016 has reduced from a high of 66,953 to a low of 36,145 (FAA, 2016). This decrease in students directly affects the regional airlines as they tap into graduating student pilots as their employee base.
In addition to the decrease in student pilots, the number of commercial flight instructors who wish to become airline pilots is also on the decline. According to a study conducted by the
University of North Dakota (UND) in collaboration with other universities, approximately only 53.67% of CFI’s are looking into becoming long-term airline pilots (Higgins, J, et.al., 2013).
Another factor causing the decline of pilots is the high cost of pilot training. This cost is one of the biggest and most profound factors in discouraging people away from a career in the industry. To obtain an Airline Transport Pilot’s License, one may need approximately $60,000 to $100,000 to cover the costs of individual flight training (Smith, 2016). This cost is separate from tuition for those attending universities. Many pilots provide testimonials for not being able to continue training because of financial constraints. One example of this is Travis Evan who in an interview by Mashable expressed his dismay in that he had to stop flight training because the high cost of the training was too much to bear (Pilot Career News, 2016). This is the case for many students in fact, eight in ten student pilots give up and quit flight training due to various reasons (Beckett, 2016).
Now that we have discussed potential sides as well as various causes, it is time to discuss possible solutions for the pilot shortage. I believe that there are many ways we can use to increase the appeal to soon to be pilots and the younger generations such as, increasing wages for entry level pilots and setting up gateway programs with universities or school to job bridge agreements.
Airlines have already begun increasing their airline starting wages. Many regional airlines have raised their starting wages from $20,000 to approximately $60,000 (Templeton, 2016). This increase in wage will encourage pilots to seek airline careers as they begin to get a return on investment sooner. One option could be to provide sign on bonuses, however this only appeals in the short term and does not support a sound business structure.
Another solution is to set up gateway programs between universities and airlines, this would allow students to go directly from school into a stable job. Through these programs, airlines can select soon to be pilots and project them through training and into a job on their airline. These programs also give students to opportunity to repay training costs back to the company as they work. Some airlines such as American Airlines has its own training program known as the Envoy Cadet Program that offers various benefits such as tuition reimbursement, mentorship and internships with American Airlines (American Airlines Group, 2016). Not only do these programs help with the cost of training, but they also help to build real world experience for these students.
In addition to gateway programs, another way to push students from training to the airlines is through school to job bridge agreements. This is yet another way to help students build their hours and progress to working on the airlines. SkyWest Airlines has partnered with Utah Valley University (UVU) to offer a bridge program where graduates of UVU’s pilot program with certain qualifications are hired to work in SkyWest Airlines (Ballard, 2013). For this bridge program, the qualifications are to graduate with a good grade point average, having attained an FAA CFI license (Ballard, 2013). These bridge programs give students the assurance that they will get a job if they work hard in their academics. This motivates them to study hard knowing that their hard work will reap rewards.
In conclusion, the pilot shortage presents an issue for the aviation community as a whole, but it also presents an opportunity for airlines to reevaluate their methods and increase their intakes of pilots. Although I myself cannot tell you whether or not this pilot shortage is fact or fallacy, the number of kids becoming pilots has most definitely decreased over the years. Although a tough time for the aviation industry, it is up to top-level management to decide whether this is a quick fix or if we will continue to feel the effects of this shortage, and it is up to aspiring pilots to take advantage of this highly demanding position.