Torqued: Have Aviation Labor Shortages Reached a Critical Point?

 - July 3, 2019, 6:00 AM

We’ve all been reading about future pilot and mechanic shortages for a long time. While some people believe that the predictions are hyped by labor unions looking to pay their members higher salaries, others believe that the predictions aren’t dire enough and don’t fully capture the current hiring situation. I have been concerned about both the forecast shortages and the current ability of many aviation entities to recruit qualified candidates for pilot and maintenance technician openings. I have reviewed applicants for openings at a number of different entities—both airline and corporate—and have concerns about the dearth of applicants, even for well-paying jobs, and the caliber of some of those applications. That's especially true at smaller aviation entities away from aviation centers.

But have these shortages reached a critical point where warning bells should be ringing? Some recent news reports should raise alarm in the industry and prompt much more action to accelerate the pipelines for these jobs.

Worldwide, the latest Boeing Pilot & Technician outlook for 2018-2037 projects that in this 20-year period “790,000 new civil aviation pilots, 754,000 new maintenance technicians, and 890,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet.” For North America, Boeing predicts the need for 206,000 new pilots, 189,000 new technicians, and 174,000 new cabin crew. Boeing attributes the demand to a mix of fleet growth, retirements, and attrition and warns that “meeting the extraordinary demand will require proactive planning and collaboration within the global aviation industry…[and] educational outreach and career pathway programs will be essential to inspiring and recruiting the next generation of personnel.”

Back to the two recent news reports that caught my attention. One involved a pilot at a major airline’s commuter subsidiary who was arrested for a triple homicide. The other involved quality complaints at Boeing’s South Carolina plant due in part to an apparent lack of qualified personnel. 

The New York Times article about the pilot caught my attention for several reasons. Of course, an airline pilot arrested for a triple homicide is very unusual. But the article also revealed that the pilot had been hired by American Airline’s subsidiary, PSA, at the age of 50.  While hiring 50-year-old pilots is not terribly unusual in the corporate or air-taxi worlds, it is rather unusual for a Part 121 air carrier, at least in my experience. Most Part 121 airlines don’t hire pilots after a certain age, and 50 is usually well beyond that age. But that's just one red flag here.

According to the article, the pilot had been dishonorably discharged from the military. That’s certainly another red flag. And, perhaps most startling, the pilot—who had served as a pilot in the U.S. Army—was court marshaled in 2016 and found guilty of simple assault and of mishandling classified information. He reportedly served 90 days in jail.

Is it possible American Airlines or PSA was not aware of this criminal record? According to the carrier, the Times noted, ”pilots undergo a criminal-background check and are then vetted on a recurring basis; the vetting of [the pilot] had not turned up criminal history that would disqualify him from becoming a commercial pilot.” I don’t know for sure what that last line means, but it sounds to me like being court-marshaled and jailed for, among other things, simple assault was not a disqualifying enough criminal record. Alternatively, something is wrong with the way American does its criminal background checks that it missed a jail sentence for assault. 

So, while the pilot plans to plead not guilty on the triple homicide charge, his prior record with the military would not seem to make him the most desirable candidate for an airline pilot job, especially at a Part 121 airline. Unless, of course, the airlines are really desperate for pilots and are willing to overlook recent convictions for assault and jail terms. Pretty shocking state of affairs, if that is the case.

The other example that, to me, highlights a potentially critical shortage of experienced aviation personnel was a New York Times investigation of “shoddy production” at Boeing’s plant in North Charleston, South Carolina. In large part, it appears that the shoddy standards—including multiple examples of debris left inside airplanes that could cause significant safety issues, such as sharp metal fragments on wiring—are due to the difficulty in recruiting qualified workers in the South Carolina area. The report highlights complaints by a number of whistleblowers and past employees but also contains what, for me, is the most glaring signal that a serious problem exists: Qatar Airways stopped accepting Dreamliners manufactured at Boeing’s plant in South Carolina. It now will only purchase aircraft made in Boeing’s legacy plant in Everett, Washington. 

In 2014, factory employees were told to watch a video from the chief executive of Qatar Airways. He chastised the North Charleston workers, saying he was upset that Boeing wasn’t being transparent about the length or cause of delays. In several instances, workers had damaged the exterior of planes made for the airline, requiring Boeing to push back delivery to fix the jets.

Ever since, Qatar has bought only Dreamliners built in Everett. I have never heard of an airline or any aircraft purchaser specifying which plant they wanted their aircraft manufactured in. 

So are these just two random indicators of aviation personnel recruiting issues? Can we just dismiss a pilot with a criminal past getting through a background check at a major airline as a one-off?  Similarly, can we dismiss a major airline like Qatar Airways refusing to buy aircraft manufactured at a South Carolina plant as some kind of foreign idiosyncrasy? Maybe. But then again, what if they’re the proverbial canaries in the coal mines? If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril.