In 2023, the airline travel industry is still struggling to catch up to demand. The biggest hit in the aviation industry is probably the shortage of commercial airline pilots.
How Baby Boomers Affected the Aviation Industry
The Baby Boomer generation has shaped our world in countless ways, and their retirement is no exception. Thanks to the mandatory retirement age of 65 as outlined by the Federal Aviation Administration, many of these pilots have retired in droves and opened up job opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available.
However, when the pandemic made it necessary for airlines to slash overhead and incentivize early retirement, the empty positions couldn’t be filled. And with in-person flight training at private pilot schools temporarily suspended in the early 2020s, new pilots weren’t being trained fast enough to take boomers’ places in the cockpit.
As nearly 6,000 pilots retire annually, positions are still being left unfilled, creating a ripple effect across the job market. With fewer pilots, there are fewer flights, and with fewer flights, there are fewer jobs overall in a struggling airline industry.
What Caused the Initial Pilot Shortage in the United States?
If you’ve attempted to board a flight in the last three years in North America, you’ve probably noticed most major airlines have increased the frequency at which they cancel or postpone flights. With the early retirement of many experienced pilots at the onset of the pandemic, the commercial pilot shortage began in earnest. But now that airlines aren’t forcing pilots into early retirement or laying off employees in droves, why are we still seeing a shortage?
Airlines are now working to address this challenge by offering bonuses, increasing training opportunities, and collaborating with flight schools to attract new talent. However, the pilot shortage remains a pressing issue.
Lack of Communication Fueled Flight Cancellations
The airline industry is still facing the aftermath of a lack of communication during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue, unfortunately, revolves around airlines overscheduling flights without pilots available to fly them. Obviously, this left passengers stranded, flights canceled, and airlines frantically trying to find a solution. The lack of pilots was not just due to Boomers starting to retire but from other variables such as enforced quarantine periods due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions.
Additionally, in an effort to curb overhead, small planes that were no longer economically viable were grounded. With 50-seaters costing too much to fly, it meant only pilots with experience on bigger crafts were needed. Limiting the aircraft that can fly also limits who’s available to man them.
Long Training Time Means Fewer Pilots Are Ready to Take Over
Needing upwards of 6,000 new pilots per year is a hard quota to meet. Training new pilots is no easy feat, as in most cases requires 1,500 hours of flight experience, rigorous training, and unwavering focus for months or years. Not to mention it can be expensive to train as a commercial pilot.
Because of these factors, the demand for highly skilled pilots constantly outweighs the supply. Numerous flight schools and training programs like FLT Academy exist, but the process of becoming a pilot takes time, leading to a shortage of qualified pilots when demand for air travel increases.
Though schools are producing capable pilots, the current deficit is hard to overcome. Historically, airlines hired qualified pilots from the military as well as qualified flight schools to pilot commercial aircraft. Now, there are fewer Air Force pilots with actual experience flying real aircraft; many are flying drones for the military. Those skills don’t readily translate to flying commercial planes with passengers. With fewer candidates coming from the armed forces, airlines don’t have the same applicant pool they used to.
How Are Airlines Trying to Catch Up and Fill the Pilot Shortage?
The demand for pilots has been growing rapidly over the past few years, and as a result, the industry has been facing an acute shortage of pilots. Consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that the aviation industry has recovered to 76% of what it was pre-covid. Still, estimates are that airlines will need 14,500 pilots this year, and every year, until 2030 to catch up.
To cope with the demand, airlines are employing various tactics to attract and retain pilots. Some airlines have increased pilot salaries and introduced bonuses, while others have started training program partnerships to provide a pathway for aspiring pilots. With the challenges ahead, airlines are intensifying their recruitment efforts. Some airlines are even reimbursing portions, or completely covering initial training costs for their new hires. The industry is leaving no stone unturned to keep pace with the demand and fulfill the growing needs of passengers.
While it’s wonderful to see the industry coming back from great loss, it’s hard to fill pilot positions across the world with the current candidates available. Smaller, regional airlines don’t have the same clout as larger major airlines such as Delta or United Airlines, leaving them struggling to fill positions and support shorter routes across the nation. Experts estimate that it can take an additional four years before the supply of pilots entering the workforce can meet demand.