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The Big Problem Driving the Aviation Industry’s Pilot Shortage

It’s not a matter of pilots, the key word here is qualified pilots. That one word is the issue.
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A Perfect Storm Created the Aviation Industry’s Pilot Shortage Problem

The aviation industry and government regulators have created a perfect storm, but you have to look closely at the radar to realize where the danger really is. There are, and will always be, enough pilots who want to fly airplanes to keep the equipment in the sky. The pilot shortage storm we are entering into is not a necessarily a large problem for the majors right now, but it’s a primary issue with where they get many of their pilots from: regional or commuter carriers. And, it’s not a matter of pilots, the key word here is qualified pilots. That one word is the issue, so let’s work backward and see where and how the industry trend and pilot shortage problem started.

A perfect storm isn’t built on just one ingredient. It arises out of a rare combination of adverse factors and this storm starts with a dwindling pilot pool. The declining population of pilots is not an opinion. In 1980, the general aviation industry was booming with over 827,000 active certificated pilots. General aviation airports thrived and because they were unsecured, were often a casual meeting place for tens of thousands of pilots. There was a strong community but with the constraints of security after 9/11, walls went up and simply having the ability to hang around the airport disappeared. Aviation is iconic for freedom and independence, so it lost some luster under lock and key. Last year (2015), there were only 590,039 pilots total (including students) and only 487,310 of those held at least a private license. Having 339,690 fewer pilots to draw from at the same time that the aviation demands are growing is the first ingredient for our perfect storm. And don’t forget, of those numbers, only a small percentage actually want to make a career out of aviation.

So, where’d all our pilots go? Given the economic turmoil in past years, one might immediately assume our disposable personal income has disappeared and people can’t afford to learn how to fly. The reality is that our expendable income has remained on a steady ratio climb since 1959. At least a portion of our population still has some money to spend (even if it doesn’t feel like it to you!) on learning how to fly if they so choose. If the option is still there for many, maybe the cost of flight training has changed?

United Airlines Boeing 747 on runway

Photo by Aero Icarus, CC2

It has always been expensive to learn how to fly, but now that our airspace and airplanes have become more complex, it does take longer to get your license. The minimum is 40 hours, but the average is now 60-70 hours. There are many variables on cost, but it is roughly between $5,000 and $9,000 to get your private pilot certificate. Not cheap, but doable. However, your private is just the first step to being a qualified pilot. You’ll need to get your private, instrument, multi-engine, commercial, airline transport (ATP) and probably your certified flight instructor certificate (this could also mean your CFII and MEI) along the way to being qualified. This process will take years. Then, you don’t just need the ratings because since the rules changed in 2013, you’re also required to have 1500 flight hours to prove you’re qualified. Once again, there are many variables, and the cost of being a qualified pilot is now around $65-80,000 on average, but it could cost more. That’s a lot more than disposable income, so only a small percentage of the population can handle these costs. Toss in that airlines want college degrees and you’re looking at $100-150,000 to become a qualified pilot for a commuter airline where average starting salaries are around $22,500 per year. Starting pay at Great Lakes in 2014 was $14,616. In response, commuters are upping their salaries and providing hiring incentives like signing bonuses, but they’re still paltry compared to a pilot’s investment.

Okay, so what? Pilots will always find a way and they still want to be pilots, despite the miserly pay. That still doesn’t explain why the qualified pilot pool has dwindled so fast. Once again, that word qualified is a moving target and Congress suddenly created a gap that didn’t exist before so, let’s go back to that magical 1500 hours. In the past, commuter airlines had traditionally been able to hire first officers with as little as 250 hours and a commercial pilot certificate. Could doesn’t necessarily mean that they did, but they could. Their average first officer had over 500 hours already, so it really wasn’t an issue. Congress’s knee-jerk reaction to the 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash brought these major rule changes. It now requires an ATP and 1500 hours to fly as a first officer, up from 250 (even though the pilots in the crash had much more than that). That is a huge gap in minimum qualifications, but for the majors, it didn’t matter. They always hired people with more hours than that (at least over the last twenty years), but this was devastating for the regionals. Yet, they still expect qualified pilots to walk in the door. Their business plans have not included training their own pilots and they still don’t. Yes, they train their pre-qualified pilots extensively, but they don’t provide training to get them to the minimums so they can be hired.

Now, to add the final elements to the storm. In 2007, the FAA pushed the retirement age up to 65, which was great, but the airlines were shortsighted. Airlines were gearing up to hire pilots to replace those retiring, but with the sudden age shift, the hiring slowed and the problem was just pushed down the road. There will be 20,000 airline pilots retiring by 2025 at just the majors. With each retirement, another commuter/regional pilot gets pulled up into the majors, leaving more gaps down below.

Another volatile ingredient is the expansion of corporate aviation. A career in corporate or charter aviation wasn’t even a consideration for the last pilot generation, but this segment has expanded exponentially and lured thousands of pilots away from going to the airlines. The corporate equipment is fast, high tech, the clients are C-level, and the destinations are exotic. There are now airline pilots leaving for careers in corporate aviation.

The final element which has created our storm is the number of pilots coming out of the military. Once a significant source of pilots, it has diminished to a trickle. For contrast, in 1945, there were 12,055,884 active military personnel, in 2011, there were 1,400,000. Not that those people were pilots, but the personality that can handle the self-discipline and demands of the military used to be drawn into the aviation world once their service was complete. Now can you see the storm building?

Cumulonimbus is from the Latin origin cumulus which means “heap”. We have heaped these issues together and created atmospheric instability in the aviation world. It can further develop into a supercell, so we’re going to add a few more issues to uplift and build the storm. We can now all see the storm growing and towering over us, but it hasn’t started raining yet so some say we don’t have anything to worry about. So let’s add a few underlying issue which will trigger this downpour.

Boeing 757 instrument panel - Addressing the Pilot Shortage Problem Facing the Aviation Industry

Photo by: Kent Wien

The lack of new pilots goes back to a societal change which is hard to quantify. Aviation once held the image of glamor, adventure, pride, and travel. Air travel used to be very expensive, elite and most pilots stayed with one or two companies for a career. Pay was extraordinary, pilots were respected and it was a defining career. Airlines were families so loyalty and comradery ran deep. With deregulation in 1978, aviation had to become pure capitalism, which over time created a race to the bottom to provide the cheapest air travel possible. Nothing wrong with that, it’s the American way. It has created millions of jobs and opened up the world to everyone. However, mergers and acquisitions over the last twelve years have taken what had been 10 major U.S. airlines down to four mega-carriers which dominate the market. There really isn’t a lot of difference between them. The new pilot generation that grew up with hijackings, pilot strikes, mergers, bankruptcies, furloughs and 9/11 don’t view aviation like they did a generation before. In this new world of gadgets, computers and innovative technology, the personality that once sought aviation is now being lured away by other industries which didn’t even exist before. They’re offered better pay where there is still a promise of adventure, great benefits, and schedules which provide a reasonable work-life balance…and they don’t have to spend years and tens of thousands of dollars getting there.

What’s the answer? We’re going to have to weather this storm because the world needs pilots. The answer is simply that there needs to be balance. Aviation is about finding the perfect balance and we’ve spent too many years on one side or the other. It begins with the fact that there remains an onerous burden on the pilots to walk in the door of any airline, or Part 135 charter companies, pre-qualified. The United States is going to have to pay attention to the lessons learned in Europe where there have never been enough pilots because general aviation is rare.

You’ll be hearing a lot about Ab Initio training in the future. It’s one idea, but it’s still not balanced. It’s a program where an airline trains their own pilots who have little or no flight time in exchange for a long employment contract, but it has its drawbacks. Having a pilot grind away in the sky with the autopilot on to reach 1500 hours isn’t going to make them better pilots. The commercial aviation industry really needs pilots with a variety of flying experiences. The middle ground to create balance? Pilots might be more willing to go into their own training debt if they know that they’ll be able to pay off their loans once they reach at least the commuters. First-year pay should be worthwhile and the sign-on bonus should be equivalent of what an airline might have to pay to get them to their current qualifications. If they come in the door with 1500 hours and an ATP, first-year pay should reflect that. If they need training and time, then do it, and let the first year pay reflect the burden. At least give the pilot world some options. Think outside the proverbial box. Short term investments for the long term health of an airline can be hard to swallow for Wall Street accountants, but that dark cloud looming is going to cost a lot more once it lets loose.

Regional and commuter airlines are going to have to band together to be realistic in their budgets and ticket pricing. When they bid to the majors, they should all agree that pilot training is part of the price. If it means that each passenger has to pay $10 more to have experienced pilots, it’s well worth the price. The major airlines should realize that it’s an investment in their future employees. If a few hundred hours of good flight experience prevents just one crash, then the return on investment is a million to one. If having a full pilot roster prevents one shutdown, it’s an economic win for everyone.

Being a commercial airline pilot is an extraordinary profession. Factor in all the negatives and it is still one of the most rewarding, challenging and inspiring careers available. It’s truly incomparable to put an extraordinary machine into the air and move billions of people every year to where they want to go. It is the epitome of what the human mind is capable of, and pilots are ultimately in charge of the outcome. The airline industry itself needs to work harder to get the years of tarnish off its image and solve the pilot shortage problem. Despite what the investment board members say, it’s not just about ledgers and numbers. It’s about creating an environment that allows pilots to shine and passengers to enjoy their flight while still putting a smile on an accountant’s face. It is possible if there is a balance, but we’ll all have to change our position to find it.

Featured Image: Kent Wien

Resources and References for the Pilot Shortage Problem:

//www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states/disposable-personal-income

//www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=united-states-of-america

//www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/civil_airmen_statistics/

//aviationblog.dallasnews.com/2014/07/alpa-lists-10-airlines-with-lowest-starting-pay.html/

18 Comments

  • Karl says:

    I see another huge issue being the loss of “entry level” flying jobs. Most of this due to drones in the form pipeline patrol, SAR, fish spotting, aerial survey etc or to technology ie waze instead of traffic watch, and electronic banking instead of flying checks. Those entry level jobs will not exist in under three years, and were all the backbone of building aviation experience in countries like the United States, Australia, Brazil and others with a strong tradition of general aviation. The only way to build time will be CFI or ab-initio, no one talks about this, but people should.

  • Bill Bashwinger says:

    Wait, my job isn’t glamourous? All the peanuts I can eat and the downtown Richmond Crown Plaza! What’s not to glamorize?

  • Rod Machado says:

    That is an excellent article. Well said!!!!!

  • Harold Coghlan says:

    I totally agree with the author that this is a major storm of sorts, and that the solutions are going to cost some more money. I have been in aviation for 40 yrs, which has included military, 135, and 121 airline, for over 21,000 hours. I have seen and lived thru the “pendulums” of this aviation industry during these 40 yrs.
    I think it is highly realistic to expect to have some sort of “experience pay”, since it is not only unfair but “unattractive” to pilots with higher experience to get paid the low, almost insultingly low, pay that the Regional jet airlines are paying their crews (if anyone wants to think that paying 22K to 50K a year to pilots with an ATP is sufficient, or fair, they are deluding themselves). And to expect to retain them for said low pay is ridiculous also.
    Enjoyed the good, realistic article.

  • T.R. Wood says:

    Ericka,

    A very trendy topic indeed. However, all who try to explain this epicdemic fail to realise the actual reason for it.

    One word SCOPE. The de-regulation era pilots are to blame. Just as a plumber doesn’t set his pay based on the size of the building he works in, pilots shouldn’t either. To vaule pay based on the size of the craft is so egocentric it is maddending. Take it from a former 747 Captain when I say that. Those pilots felt too good to fly the smaller aircraft failed to realize the ramifications of their egos.

    The Legacy pilots complaining of a pilot shortage only need to look in the mirror and make a stand to encompass their scope of work, not attached to seats, but to their ATP Licence.

    The commuters are the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the flying public. Pilots themselves are to blame for this issue. They gave it away.

    Make a stand on SCOPE and this problem goes away. If an airline wants to fly ANY aircraft, regardless of the size, the pilots of that airline should fly it, period. No more fraululent contract airlines. This is the reason, plain and simple.

    Regards,
    T.R. Wood
    Major Airline Captain

  • Brooks Wolfe says:

    Excellent article. There is one factor that most people gloss over because we are loathe to blame those who pay for our services: Our passengers. The American traveling public has learned that it doesn’t need to pay more for safety — Just have congress “fix” it. There are many who cast their blame on the corporate “race to the bottom,” but they forget that it is our passengers who vote with their wallets. What do our passengers value? They’ll pay top dollar for a weekend at Disneyland, Times Square, or Jackson Hole. But when it comes to airfare, the cheapest price wins every time. Attached to that cheaper price is the downward pressure on wages, incentives to cut maintenance corners, lousy food (if any is even offered), bag charges, and cramped seating. Right now, it’s only the tiny markets that are suffering — Little burgs serviced by cut-rate airlines like Great Lakes. When this shortage hits the major cities, then you might see pressure on passengers to ante up, paying for higher salaries. Or, people will just call their congress people again, and we’ll be looking at an American version of the Multi Pilot License.

  • Michael Maguire says:

    Good article indeed, and I think scope is just one more factor, not the only one, but that does raise the point that we pilots have had a part in this too and not just with pay levels.
    Ab initio has a checkered past in the US: When I made phone calls in the late 80’s to all the US airlines, I was told a story by TWA, that they were all doing that back in the late 60’s … until one TWA class sued and won to break the loyalty contract. The industry’s reaction was swift and obvious, and it’s only the profound, current pressure of this storm that is causing a re-emergence of these programs. However that said, I think we can also be the most significant part of the solution:
    When I fly with crotchety, fed up Captains, old or otherwise, and I hear that they’re next in line to flow through to the major, my first thought is that I don’t want to follow them to the major then! Are we inspiring those just starting out in the business, or are telling them what a load of crap it is? Are we involved in our local GA airport giving back the same way we were given so much and inspired by owner/pilots when we were ‘fresh meat’? If not why not? Have we forgotten just how good we have it, even with initial, derisory salaries(?), and the economics of this situation is already forcing up wages and incentives at the regionals. Are we fostering or even truing to recreate that sense of camraderie and community that used to existing the airlines or just being sour grapes that turn people off? I watched just the other day in stunned amazement as a Capt, printing his release at a gate, was approached by a pax and met them with a dismissive “I’m not a gate agent” before they could even ask their question and then looked back down at the printer and gave them no more heed! Maybe he should be made a gate agent for a day to remind him who’s really the more important between the two of them!! Even if you, ultimately can’t help or answer the question, you can still be polite and give a sense of caring.
    I count myself fortunate in one regard, that I had to do some time in an office. It’s given me a perspective that is with me on those earlier-than-early, am starts or when I’m pre-flighting an acft in the wet or contemplating how impossible it is to make ends meet on that first year paycheck. At the end of the day, I’m doing something that millions would love to do. I really am out there living my dream instead of just staring out of a window, filled with regret, maybe watching someone else do it. So it isn’t perfect and comes with its own problems! What doesn’t? As with so much else in life, it does seem to cone down to attitude.
    There, of course, logistical issues to be covered, and at least the restricted ATP program is proving a good way to relieve some of the 1500hr burden, but ultimately, the Colgan crash came down to a Capt who should never have been there, and an FO who wasn’t confident enough to confront him while he committed a basic, Flying101 mistake.
    I’ve also found it interesting in talking to pax, that they concede, without complaint, that there’s only one source for any increased salaries. The general public have had their part in the problem in always pushing for the cheapest airfare too. We’ve all done it, but when they hear what starting salaries at the regionals are; my informal surveying suggests they’re willing to cover the extra cost.

  • John Edwards says:

    I feel the insurance companies should be involved as a matter of urgency in aviation checking and training supervision.
    My feeling is airline accountants plan their investment returns by working their pilots max duty and minimum rest rosters and the cumulative fatigue and disrupted life styles I feel thus causes accidents and premature mortality…officially of course these two aspects are very much minimised in accidents and incident reports…these maximisers of profit accountants at pilot lifestyle control simply figure in hull losses as a fact and whilst they can get insurance cover and very quick payouts thus pilot safety is not their first priority… and when pilots protest that fatigue is affecting safety they simply quote the hull loses they can afford to their concerned pilots….the insurance industry could do the flight safety job the Civil Aviation Authorities around the world are failing to do…..if airlines do not measure up to safety training standards and life style rostering they should not be able to get insurance cover and are thus out of business..it is the only way to get airline accountants and pilot management obsessed with their annual profits bonuses to pay attention to pilot welfare and thus passenger safety in my opinion.
    I am a retired airline pilot with 35 years flying the line operational experience and I was very glad to have been retired at age 60 in the year 2000. In one piece.
    My company max duty min rest roster policy I observe has killed off most of my pilot friends prematurely. Luckily I was medically advised at age 40 to maximise my rest and minimise the stress and luckily I have survived,… however I see todays pilot rosters are real killers and In fact they are much worse than mine ever were….nobody with any sense today would want to attempt a long term career as a airline pilot especially ultra long haul multiple time zone flying.

  • joel kirk says:

    Signing bonus for Retired and Former Military Pilots who are in their 40’s to return to flying on Term basis to fill the “Inexperienced” T notch and bridge. Spin up time a few months Drop them in the left seat of whatever. Sign on $100,000 then one million a year for up to 10 years. No retirement no medical coverage. Problem solved.

    • Kelly says:

      The Air Force is currently short over 500 pilots and they are offering really fat bonuses to stay. Don’t count on military pilot’s to fill the gap because there isn’t enough already. You can thank Congress’ military budget cuts for that.

  • Xavier Ramirez says:

    I agree with this article. And there is another major issue to add to this storm: if nobody knows you at the airport nobody will give you a job. Period. If you don’t have relatives working in the aviation industry, chances to get hired by any commuter, charter, any airline are nearly to 0%. I have a CPL, MEL, IFR rating and I have seen other students with less than that get a job in a regional airline just because a relative worked or used to work there.

  • Aaron says:

    Good analysis, but it would be interesting to see the effect that Unions have had on the airlines. While it’s easy to blame Wall Street for problems, there are certainly other stakeholders whose roles are important to evaluate.

    With respect to Congress and their recent reforms, where has the aviation industry’s lobby failed the system?

  • […] It is a perfect storm — fewer pilots being trained by the military and then retiring to work for airlines, a separation of aviation from the public because of terrorism concerns, new FAA rules tightening qualification minimums, high costs to complete a college degree and instrument rating pilot training, more corporate jet flights than ever before, and coming pilot retirements. […]

  • Michael Wellinghurst says:

    In addition to the pilot shortage looming, there is an acute shortage of A&P mechanics in the industry as well. Today’s youth are more interested in making the big money with little or no work involved oreint. The aspect of working graveyard shift for a majority of their career, low starting wages, not having any part of the weekend off along with working out in the elements a majority of the time simply doesn’t appeal to today’s youth. In the next ten years, current A&P’s are going to start retiring in record numbers with no one to fill the void.

  • John Q Mechanic says:

    Pilots are overpaid bus drivers. Between reading magazines and eating peanuts they should be happy that they make as much as they do! Seriously rig a flap, change a tire , work a lav issue then tell me about your work ethic. whaaaahhh

  • Josh says:

    One more ingredient to the perfect storm: another Congressional knee jerk reaction: the ATP-CTP course, which is a pre-requisite to taking the ATP written now and will cost the individual at least another $5,000! NO exceptions to this rule!

  • joseph says:

    As a 700 hour chopper pilot with no real interest in flying them commercially, I’d say, if one of the regionals wants to pay for my fixed wing add-ons, I’d consider switching teams

  • joseph says:

    For what its worth if wasn’t for the Great Recession (which still hasn’t ended for MANY) I’d have around 1100 hours by now,…then again those with disposable income generally don’t want to be career pilots,…just “weekend warriors”.

    Never got the 1500 hour requirement you guys have,..I mean there’s two of you in the cockpit, surely one pilot can handle it safely enough with just 500 hours if the other guy has a few thousand or so!?

    Hell we chopper jockeys fly tours in the Grand Canyon (our version of the regionals) with just 1000 hours,…and we fly single pilot!

    What’s so great about being a “bus driver in the sky” anyway?

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