AIN Blog: Yet Another Pilot and Mechanic Shortage

 - October 3, 2012, 7:36 PM
737 in Shanghai
737 sunset

We’re at it again, hyping the upcoming pilot and mechanic shortage. (How come we never talk about flight attendant shortages?) Maintenance shops are having a hard time finding mechanics, and the new 1,500-hour rule for airline pilots means that airlines that are now losing their 65-year-old pilots to retirement are sucking instructors out of flight schools.

Oh, woe is us! What are we going to do?

First of all, let’s calm down. There is no shortage in the world that sufficient money won’t fix. Pay people enough and they will come. Raise the price of oil enough and clever humans will figure out an alternative.

But, I can hear aviation people saying, “It’s not that easy. Aviation is different. Special. People should feel lucky to have a flying or maintenance job. It’s not about the money, is it?”

Oh, yes it is.

Maybe not for young people starting out, but add a spouse and kids, and mommy and/or daddy will soon be looking for a real job, one that pays enough to put money away for college and one with decent benefits.

So what should the aviation industry do, if we don’t want to suffer a real people shortage?

Simple. Figure out how to remunerate better. If your company can’t, then don’t be whining when the résumé pile dries up and no one is knocking on your door.

Here are some simple ideas.

Flight School:

Stop charging $70 an hour and paying instructors $20 or $30 of that. Charge what you need to make money renting the airplanes and let the instructor keep all of the instruction fees. Your school will be overrun with high-quality candidates who want to stick around. They will be better teachers and thus keep students’ costs to a minimum, too.

Maintenance Shop:

Many shops are charging more than $100 an hour for maintenance. How much of that goes to the mechanic? Shouldn’t a maintenance job be a remunerative career instead of a training ground for the next job, which often is not even in aviation because aviation doesn’t pay that well? Mechanics’ work is just as important as that of the flight crew (pilots and flight attendants), air traffic controllers, line personnel and so on; all carry a huge responsibility, keeping the customer safe.


Please do us all a favor: stop racing to the bottom, and charge whatever is needed to keep our butts safe. If you can’t make it fly safely for what you’re charging, then get out of aviation and leave it to the professionals.

FAA (EASA, other regulators):

Stop over-regulating aviation! After a certain point, all of your well meaning efforts to fix every problem with more regulation do more harm than good. You could do far more for safety by walking around and visiting with us, rather than wasting everybody’s time assessing a $687,000 fine against Delta Air Lines for a  chip in a radome, for just one example. Or another $300,000 for a faulty copilot floodlight. Every time you impose more regulations or more penny-ante penalties, you ratchet up our costs yet again, which makes it even harder to pay people more. If what you are doing right this minute doesn’t actually contribute to truly improving safety, then help us all out and stop it.

This isn’t a problem that can’t be fixed. All it takes is a little common sense. And we need to wean ourselves off the lame excuse that anyone who works in aviation should consider themselves lucky. Of course we all want to employ people who have a passion for aviation, but they aren’t going to stick around unless their career is economically worthwhile.


The aviation businesses did this to themselves. Not giving the aviation community a reason to persue a career in this field. It cost over 100k to get your ratings and a bachelor degree. Really!! And pay us pennies on the dollar.

Finally, someone in the aviation media hits it right on the nose. The author is correct in every point especially the airlines charging enough to actually make money. Where else in business can you operate continuously at a loss, then repeatedly declare bankruptcy, and then return to business (losing money) as usual, all along screwing over their hard working employees while top management get big bonuses for their "efforts". I have said this before and will say it again, there never has been, is not now, nor never will be a shortage of pilots in the US. The only possible "shortage" is of pilots who are willing to work for nothing.

other regulators: Stop over-regulating aviation!
I agree with you on all of this. However, and I apologize to be a buzzkill, but this one point is what is going to kill more industries than just ours: over-regulation and burdensome taxes/fees/whatever. This type of organization: what incentive do they have? None. They have no incentive for performance, efficiency, profit, even professionalism. Until that is addressed as a culture and restrained instead of enhanced, we will all be fighting losing battles, in every industry. Ours just happens to be most visible to us.

Yes sir. We've heard it all before. "There's a BIG pilot shortage coming and pay will have to go up to keep qualified help."

But you know what? That was 20 years ago and I still haven't seen any airplanes parked with a sign in the window that says, "Will fly if I can find a pilot."

In US the military pilot pool is now non existant. Hence, problems with finding quality pilots from day one of hiring. That leads to accidents. Majors get around liability issues with contract feeders, mostly RJ's with latest automation. Once past relying on the button pushing there is no resource to rely upon and probs add up and happen fast. You may say, they are too young. Age not the prob....experience! At age 25 I was hunting the bad guys on the Ho Chi Min Trail flying 5-7 hr combat sorties, 125 hr/mo. Check that out while dodging AAA 37 and 57MM ground fire. In retrospect, you either love it or loose it. Those pilots are not in the "pool" today.
The Asian airlines are late bloomers but, they have a rapid learning curve. Hire ex-pats on contract until they can produce their own pilots! They pay for pilot training from day one for there choosen applicant nationals. They develop approach profiles for training that matches airline ops. Consequently all effort is focused upon the airline cockpit and nothing else. Their crew intergration is very slow and sure, seeking experience over the shoulder and understanding there is a real bonifide "Captain" of the ship.
Here when the airline hires, they have no idea what they will get. Once pasted all the minimum sims and check, then it is time for the Captains to suffer until the new hire is up to "speed". All newbies have a hack at it at all levels without proper screening. The good do well anywhere and the others..... Maybe the military and asian carriers have a better overall plan? Yes, they produce quality pilots that can handle what they are given.
If the true "golden parachutists" had no parachute, then maybe they could train there own pilots from scratch.

Retired from major carrier.

Blue Sky

You want a shortage......that's how you get paid more.....all that being said....I'..I've seen enough of the sleazy side of this industry to want out......6500hr ATP


Why is the military flying pool drying up? It may be less than it was but somebody is flying all the F-16s, F-15s, F-18s, C-17s, ect. A lot of the pilots get out around ten years and a lot stay in to retire at twenty. Still a lot of pilots separating or retiring every year. A 42 year old ex-military pilot is too old to fly for some sleaze bankrupt major carrier? Fine, park the damn thing in the weeds until some 23 year-old with 6,000 hours and two moon landings shows up. Good luck on making the lease payments.

It takes several years to train a pilot to airline level, minimum. The training pipeline is largely empty and infrastructure dismantled, both civilian and military. Most of what training happening in the US is of foreign pilots desperately needed overseas. We need to replace half our US airline pilots over the next ten years just to keep our industry at this historically low size, which certainly won't be adequate. Only a breathtakingly huge investment right now will produce enough pilots to avoid shrinking our airline industry five years from now. Most likely we will first lower standards and raise pay just enough to draw the remaining entry-level instructor pilots into the airlines, shutting down what little training was available. And forget the military, their potential contribution is too small to matter.
A modest increase in pilot pay will attract bodies and money to the training pipeline and it will grow organically. The time for that is getting late.

I have never heard of such unadulterated BS in my life. In addition to the separated and retired military pilots each year there are thousands of corporate pilots who might prefer the regular schedule of an airline pilot to a corporate schedule if the pay and benefits were on equal footing with their corporate job. The rub is that it would be a giant step down in professionalism for many of them. Same goes for the military pilots in the squadrons asking themselves whether to stay for retirement or get out at the end of their current commitment. They trade outstanding leadership for the dreck that is running the major airlines, never mind the near criminal "management" of the commuters. The above comment about a pilot shortage reminds me of the VLJ prediction a few years ago. Farcical doesn't even begin to describe it.

George, I agree the airlines are now undesireable and will have to pay handsomely to begin to attract pilots. My fear is it will be too late. As far as thousands of pilots, we are talking thousands of pilots needed for each airline, tens of thousands of pilots needed. In the late '90s individual airlines hired many thousands of pilots each and were running out of pilot candidates. That was just a growth spurt, not a retirement bubble with a growth from deep recession with a much smaller military and a world-wide shortage. The regionals expect to pull scheduled service out of over 500 markets due to pilots leaving for major airlines and no replacements. Regional and corporate pilots are also closing on retirement, they will be short and will raise the stakes to keep pilots and keep operating. Flying will become a very expensive luxury or necessity again, and airlines will make a lot of money flying only their most lucrative routes at very high ticket prices.

If there was a pilot shortage looming, and there isn't one, the airlines could start their own academies with their own money. Any pay the students to go to school. No, what this is is a scam similar to the Law school scam where about twice as many lawyers are graduated each year than positions available. The students have borrowed up to $200,000 for tuition that is a non-dischargeable debt underwritten by the federal government. The kids waste three years and wind up with no job and a crushing debt. Or a crappy job for less than $20,000 a year, with no benefits. Sound familiar? The only people who make out are the law schools. Substitute "flight schools" for law schools and you have the exact same situation. There is no crisis, no shortage, no anything except an industry that is destroying itself.

A chart of pilot supply vs demand over the past 50 years looks like the Andes mountains, with deep oceanic troughs interspersed. It has always been panic and layoffs for the airlines and the military, always too many or too few, and each cycle more desperate for the pilots or the operators. The last hiring cycle was frantic, but ended dramatically with half the almost ten-thousand new pilots laid off within a year of being hired.

This current cycle of oversupply has been the longest and deepest ever, with those thousands of middle-aged, moderately experienced, and unemployed pilots ready to fly cheap for the past 13 years. Unlike law and med school grads, they don't have a lot of employment options, and usually take unskilled work and wait. The options for new flight school grads have been bleak: pay at historic lows, time away from home at historic highs, and little chance of advancement if they do find a job. That hasn't been lost on young people considering and dismissing a career in aviation.

The picture at the military has been similar, although conditions much better. A decrease in pilot jobs, an increase to ten-years commitment, and few desireable options outside, has retained their pilots. They have closed over half their pilot training bases in the past 13 years and are looking at a shortage if they don't continue shrinking their manned fleet. They won't likely release pilots from their commitments when the airlines start calling.

So the industry is set up for its biggest shortage ever. Now add a few factors:
- The birth of an entire new world of airlines in the Far and Middle-East, with no training infrastructure.
- An improving economy and demand for air travel.
- A resumption of the bubble of airline pilot retirements.
- Increased reliance on small planes, requiring more pilots per passenger.
- Increases in rest requirements, requiring more pilots.
- An increase in the minimum hours to start as an airline pilot (think years of flying cheap for a new pilot).
- An increase in cost of training, close to $200k now and rising.
- An unusual lack of empty seats to absorb any increase in demand.
- Huge orders for new airliners, more than at any time in history.

"- The birth of an entire new world of airlines in the Far and Middle-East, with no training infrastructure." Very true. The US flight schools are loaded with foreign students. I see this at various fair weather airports and hear it on ATC communications. After these students have qualified in their native country to fly those aircraft the expatriot(US) pilots will once again be on the street with no job.
"- An improving economy and demand for air travel." Not sure about either. As far as demand is concerned, obviously not enough for the US airlines as the latest attempt to raise fares failed. US airlines are still limiting or reducing available seats to get higher fares.
"- A resumption of the bubble of airline pilot retirements." Remains to be seen. Delta has already stated that some retired pilots will not be replaced instead they will just park airplanes in their effort to keep available seats at a level to keep fares higher.
"- Increased reliance on small planes, requiring more pilots per passenger." Not according to most US airlines. Due to unprofitablity of 50 seaters Delta has already announced getting rid of the 50 seat RJ in favor of 76 seat RJ and the 100 seat B717.
"- Increases in rest requirements, requiring more pilots." "- An increase in the minimum hours to start as an airline pilot (think years of flying cheap for a new pilot)." Possible on both, but if the US airlines can find a way around this they will.
"- An increase in cost of training, close to $200k now and rising." Until lending companies stop issuing loans for flight training this may not change anything either. May make it impossible for someone other than military graduates and those with a rich mom and dad.
"- An unusual lack of empty seats to absorb any increase in demand". And this is exactly what the US airlines want to keep fares up.
"- Huge orders for new airliners, more than at any time in history". Mostly for out of the country(US) airlines. Those ordered for US airlines are to replace less efficient aircraft, not to increase available seats. Even one airline (Delta) is looking for cheap used aircraft rather than expensive new planes.

I wished all the persons who say that there is a real pilot shortage were correct. Then I could see a real increase in pilot wages. Problem is there are to many pilots out there who are willing to fly for nothing. There are enough pilots out there now that are out of work to last the next 30 years or more. I have heard the pilot shortage nonsense now for over 25 years that I have been involved in aviation and nothing has changed as far as wages are concerned. If anything wages have gotten worse. Simple supply and demand.

The numbers of out-of-work pilots are dwindling. The airlines still point to large numbers of laid-off pilots on their books, but they are finding fewer and fewer accept an offer to return as they get into pilots out ten years or more. The pilots have moved on, most now have more years in at another airline and better pay than they can hope for at their previous airline. The airlines are still telling creditors and pilots that there are large numbers of pilots trained and ready to step back into their cockpits, because it sounds better than the reality they know is coming. Airline executives have gotten very good at managing perceptions and expectations, forgotten about managing airlines.

I do not see why you are beating this horse to death when people with decades of experience are telling you there isn't a pilot shortage. Where do you think people on this blog have been for the last two, three, four decades? The worst thing that could happen is a faster than normal progression from the left seat of a commuter RJ to the right seat of a mainline 737. If some commuter is short-staffed and temporarily can't fly the Peoria-Chicago route, so what? People will drive. It is not the end of the world. In any event, the commuters should be forced to drastically upgrade their salaries and working conditions or go out of business altogether.

Because like a lot of us here, I have an irrational love for aviation, and intolerance for injustice and misleading information. After almost 50 years involved in aviation, I'd like to see it continue to thrive. The lack of a generation of pilots would be harmful to this industry and probably dangerous, and I believe we are headed there. That isn't just speculation, I look at this daily, and it agrees with many top experts in the industry. Look at the FAA, AOPA, Regional Aviation Association, Boeing, Airbus, the National Association of Flight Instructors, and numerous financial analysts. Their recent conclusions are that a pilot shortage is coming and it will be severe, but it is not possible to predict when. I'd be happy to post links to their various articles and studies, if that would be acceptable to AIN. The fact that these recurring shortages are still unpredictable does not mean we can afford to ignore them until problems arrive. Just like the timber and fishing industries, we need to put resources into maintaining our resources. That would be much cheaper than dealing with severe shortages.

No, people won't just drive. When a medium-size city with a lot of industry and/or tourism loses scheduled air service, it is like having the highway suddenly diverted 50 miles away. Cities fight hard and spend hard to keep scheduled air service, because it is essential to so many industries. Like the coming pilot shortage, there is a lot of information on this topic if you care to look.

The article above concludes that something needs to be done to avoid a real problem. Most of the suggestions offered involve devoting corporate income to preventing the problem, a return to the way it used to be. That sounds counter to current management practices of fighting for the quick buck, and ignoring long-term problems. Like the timber and fishing industries, the government may be forced to step in to save the industries from themselves. History has shown that only tragedy and pubic outcry will move legislators to defy an industry that supports them financially. I'm trying to stir the pot before the next series of tragedies. Futile or not, it needs to be done.

Why do u think the A320 evolved in France? It was focused on use by 3rd world countries. Cheap a/c not requiring an experienced pilot. Nothing within its skin relates to all previous a/c or knowledge and experience to fly.
Cases in point: two(one male, one female) seperate occurances while Captain,
F/O "cleared visual" as released from approach control.
Even though airfield had been insight already, the pattern was so far from normal, that the tower enquired if landing was possible? These were US pilots from the RJs and evidently no other education. ie: no hands and brain dead because of automation/no real pilot experience/aero training.
Companies need to have advanced pilot training inhouse or consortorium. ie: Air France A330 Atlantic Ocean crash, only the Captain from the bunk understood the situation and commanded recovery actions from the third seat. Pilots at the controls did not follow through. Junior pilots failed in all respects. Did not avoid the wx that took them down and had no experience/training to apply and recover.
The captain was too lax on that trip. You would think that two other pilots on deck could avoid wx and keep it right side up!
Air France like all carriers should pay for more training and give pilots more hands on experience. ie: upset training not just sim maneuvers, but real aircraft of varing sizes.
If pilot prospects/students saw a real out come in experience and pay for their efforts, no shortage would exist! There would be safer aircrews and less liability for companies.
Just think companies, how loyal a pilot would be if he was paid a liveable amount from day one? The buck should not stop at the head shed!

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