Imbalances in the supply of qualified pilots are creating problems for airlines around the world, as their initial Covid-19-driven decisions to lay off flight crew have given way to a massive hiring boom, industry experts say.
Kit Darby of Peachtree City, Georgia-based Kit Darby Aviation Consulting said the U.S. major airlines need to hire between 10,000 and 12,000 new flight crew, a new record. St. George, Utah-based regional airline SkyWest lost more than 250 pilots in each of the last three months, implying a projection of up to 3,000 over 12 months for an airline that employs about 5,000 pilots in all.
“Some airlines are paying pilot employment contracts off so they can transition to their airline,” he told AIN. “Some majors will hire a regional pilot into their flow program immediately if they get a job offer from another major airline. Recency requirements are being waived too; the requirement for 100 hours of turbine flight experience in the last 12 months may no longer be needed.”
Wilmington, Delaware-based pilot-employment platform PilotsGlobal attributes a rise in canceled flights to the pilot shortage, which has become worse than initially anticipated. The U.S. industry needs to hire about 14,500 pilots each year until 2050, which might prove difficult to achieve for many airlines, thereby creating adverse consequences, v-p Gregory Newman told AIN.
“In recent months we have witnessed United and American Airlines contracting with The Landline Company to substitute planes with buses on shorter routes,” he said. “Cape Air has had to cancel multiple Essential Air Services routes subsidized by the government due to a pilot shortage, while Republic Airlines seeks an exemption from the 1,500-hour minimum requirement rule in order to catch up with hiring needs.”
He notes that many U.S. airlines are trying to recruit more pilots from overseas, and from Australia in particular, primarily due to the eligibility of its citizens for an E-3 visa. He fears the Australian pilot market cannot meet the growing demand of U.S. carriers, while the door for European pilots seeking U.S. employment remains closed due to current visa requirements.
In fact, the firm sees an increasing demand for flight crews worldwide. The U.S. market has launched one of its most aggressive pilot recruitment campaigns ever, due to the confluence of circumstances over the past few years. In Canada, almost all airlines have increased recruitment, including WestJet, Swoop, Flair, and others.
Meanwhile, many European airlines have begun hiring again, including Air Baltic, Turkish Airlines, Ryanair, EasyJet, CMA CGM Air Cargo, Air Atlanta Icelandic, SAS Scandinavian, Flyr, Norse Atlantic Airways, Pegasus, Condor, Corendon Airlines, Eurowings, Air Belgium, Heston Airlines, and SmartLynx included. British Airways recently started recruiting heavily, and many have yet to follow.
“We are starting to see a slow trickle of recruitment begin to open up in the Asia-Pacific region, with airlines such as Cebu Pacific, VietJet, Bamboo Airways, and others, starting to hire again,” he said. “With South Korea easing travel restrictions, we expect that market to pick up soon. Demand is certainly there and keeps growing. It is an incomparable picture to where we were just a year ago.”
On the supply side, PilotsGlobal says it processed nearly 20,000 pilot job applications in April alone and has since seen consistent month-on-month growth. “The pilots are there and they have several options when it comes to selecting their future career destination,” Newman said. “It all depends on the recruitment efforts of particular employers to stand out. There is very high demand and competition for flight crew right now, with no signs of that abating.”
Moving to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Newman said a near doubling of oil prices would drive up the cost of travel, while the re-routing of flights to avoid Russian airspace would affect Europe-Asia and Asia-North America routes the most. “Pilot demand will be heavily dependent on how local economies perform, and the ability of people to travel within and around these regions,” he noted. “It is important to note that not only commercial airlines face this problem, but business aviation as well.”
Every airline had its own reasons for why pilot recruitment has proved a challenge, he explained. In the case of Cathay Pacific, the major factor centered on the high turnover rate amid certain airline decisions made during the pandemic. “Pilots themselves are a community-driven society, and if one airline takes a certain decision or faces a high turnover rate, almost the entire pilot community will find out about it, making it more challenging to recruit new crew later on,” he said. “It is remarkable to see Emirates for the first time admitting to the challenges they face during the pilot recruitment process.”
Key reasons for the recruitment challenge among airlines included the fact that pilots today enjoy many options, and salaries have skyrocketed. Still, many pilots prefer to stay at their current airlines and are hesitant to change jobs due to instability in today’s global markets, primarily outside of the U.S. and Canada.
“Emirates does not have large exposure with their current pilot recruitment campaigns, as we are aware they rely mostly on their own website, referrals, and hiring events, which could be well complemented by other broader pilot recruitment campaigns,” Newman said. “In the current climate, the most proactive employers are the ones who get pilots—a great example is [our client], CMA CGM Air Cargo—who do not have a shortage or lack applications, despite requiring high flight time and the EASA license.”
Darby said corporate pilots now earn up to $2,000 a day on large aircraft. “New and used bizav aircraft are sold out,” he said. “This is going to be a year like no other and next year might be even better for pilots. There has never been a better time to be or become a professional pilot.”