“Well, that fixes the pilot shortage.” This has been the “word on the street” since the Covid-19 crisis hit in mid-March. Since then, thousands of airline pilots have taken early retirement packages and extended leaves of absence.
The good news? Private charter flights are more in demand and first-time aircraft buyers are entering the market. While those factors might generate pilot demand, there aren’t enough positions to employ every furloughed airline pilot. And even if there were, many operators are leery of making the investment in them.
According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, it might take up to four years for airline demand to come back to pre-pandemic levels. In the meantime, airlines have “solved” for this by offering early retirements, halting the natural progression of pilots through the ranks. But the strategy has produced the same effect as when the FAA raised the retirement age to 65. And that decision, as we know, fueled the pilot shortage.
When a vaccine is readily available and business and leisure travelers start flying again, will the airlines be ready? Many fear that they won’t be because furloughs and early retirements have gone so deep. As we know, retraining takes time.
So how will we be ready when travelers return? Especially when we’ll have a core of middle-to-late active career pilots and a surplus of out-of-currency pilots, many of whom just started their careers. Will these younger pilots leave the industry altogether?
While I don’t have a crystal ball, it’s likely that the resurgence of travel and the start of additional age 65 retirements could occur simultaneously. Thus, another “perfect storm” looms, where demand for talent outstrips supply. And another pilot shortage begins.
So now, temporarily, we do have some relief. But not for long. It will return, and when it does, I fear it will come with a vengeance!
Don’t Let Up on the Gas
In business aviation, we’ve made tremendous progress with regard to becoming competitive against the airlines. Most business aviation operators have realigned compensation and addressed headcount to help with work/life balance.
Despite Covid, most of the pilots in this segment remain safely employed. More than ever, the industry is proving that being a business aviation pilot is an outstanding, stable career.
At present, it’s important to support our current retention strategies. Also, let’s not allow the flood of unemployed pilots to give us a false sense of security. Because when pilots return to the airlines, there likely won’t be enough. Thus, the pull on business aviation could possibly be even more extreme than it was in the first quarter of this year.
Is it worth becoming a pilot today? I would say “YES,” resoundingly. The public will travel again, and whether it’s with the airlines or on a private jet, we’ll need pilots!
This is the business aviation industry’s time to shine and for the next generation to understand why a piloting career in this segment is so wonderful. Let’s not lose critical ground by kicking the proverbial can down the road.
Sheryl Barden is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving the needs of business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden serves on NBAA’s board of directors and is chair of the NBAA advisory council.