As the long-feared pilot shortage begins to rise like the crest of a tidal wave, the major airlines are plucking pilots out of other industries, including cargo and helicopter operations, to fill vacancies. Offering signing bonuses, higher salaries, generous per diem and profit-sharing plans, and other benefit packages, airlines are desperate to fill pilot seats vacated by retirees and on new routes added to meet expanding passenger demand.
As of Dec. 31, 2018, 633,317 active pilots held FAA certificates, including 162,145 with airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates. Of the active pilots holding ATPs, approximately 21,000 are already over the ICAO mandatory retirement age (for airline operations) of 65—apparently flying corporate and other aircraft—and 7,500 reside outside the U.S. More than 45,000 ATP holders will reach mandatory retirement age by 2029.
If it were only about the numbers, the pilot shortage would be non-existent; the FAA issues an average of 6,000 ATP certificates per year, more than enough to cover the approximately 4,500 retirees. Of course, it’s not that simple, as the experience gap between type-rated veterans and new ATP holders fresh out of flight school is not a one-for-one match. Hence the poaching out of regionals and other industries such as the helicopter market, where pilots have turbine time and some experience flying in the National Airspace System.
But worse, as demand for air travel increases, the demand for pilots is also increasing. Worldwide, there are currently an estimated 305,000 active airline pilots. The 2019 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook projects that 804,000 new civil aviation pilots, 769,000 new maintenance technicians, and 914,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the worldwide commercial, business, and civil helicopter fleet over the next 20 years due to expanding passenger demand, especially in Asia-Pacific. This equates to approximately 40,000 new pilots and technicians needing to join the airline workforce every year.
For the helicopter industry, the numbers are more dire. Boeing predicts 61,000 new helicopter pilots and 44,000 new technicians will be needed through 2038, or 3,000 pilots and 2,200 technicians each year for the next 20 years. In 2018, the FAA issued 2,367 new rotorcraft pilot certificates and 6,710 mechanic certificates (no distinction between rotorcraft and fixed-wing mechanics).
HAI, along with the University of North Dakota and Helicopter Foundation International, in 2018 released a study finding that the helicopter industry faced a shortage of 7,600 pilots and as many as 40,600 mechanics over the next 18 years. This confirmed fears of such shortfalls, especially as experienced rotary-wing pilots take up lucrative offers for commercial fixed-wing positions.
Regional airlines started feeling the pinch of the majors increasingly poaching their pilots as early as four years ago, when Indianapolis-based Republic Airways filed for bankruptcy in 2016 despite profitability, citing the pilot shortage as one of the key reasons for reorganizing.
Industry Seeks To Attract New Blood
Restructured and emerging from bankruptcy in 2017, Republic launched several pilot-recruitment initiatives, including paying student ambassadors to promote their airline at aviation colleges, subsidizing some training costs for qualified students, and establishing its own LIFT Academy with guaranteed jobs for graduates. Hiring approximately 600 pilots per year and expecting to double that figure by 2029, in 2018 Republic raised its pilot pay from $40 to $45 per hour for starting flight officers, nearly double the starting rate of $22.95 per hour paid by the airline through 2015.
Tactics like these—especially significantly increasing starting pay—are finally attracting young adults to the airline industry. FAA student pilot certificates issued annually dropped from approximately 70,000 in 2007 to just 36,700 in 2016 but rose to more than 45,300 in 2018.
“Student pilot certificates are an important trend,” said Kent Lovelace of the University of North Dakota during the 2019 Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association conference. “And we’ve seen some encouraging numbers there. What’s even more important is the private pilot completion rates, where we’re up 16.8 percent, and that’s the highest number of private certificates issued by the FAA in the past 10 years.”
According to FAA figures, annual commercial certificates issued has increased from about 9,000 in 2007 to just more than 10,000 in 2017. Air transport pilot (ATP) certificates bounced dramatically from just 3,000 issued in 2009 to nearly 10,000 in 2016, but otherwise hovered around 6,000 per year.
“Commercial pilot certificates are up about 16 percent over the past three years,” said Lovelace. “You have to go back to 2004 to see numbers that are higher…These are all good indicators that people are starting to come back to learn how to fly airplanes.”
To facilitate getting new pilots into the pipeline, some companies might be dropping requirements such as a four-year-degree. “A lot of corporate flight departments usually favor a four-year degree,” said Gulfstream G550/450 captain Amanda Ferraro at the 2019 Aviation Insurance Association conference. “But with the pilot shortage as a concern, it’s an area that is being reexamined. I know a lot of individuals in our industry are reexamining whether we really need a four-year-degree to accept [new pilots] into our entity.”
Currently, only 12 percent of pilots are coming from the university system, according to numbers from a 2018 Emsi resume and profile search. The top three universities listed—Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Naval Academy—together accounted for 10.8 percent of graduating pilots, with the rest of the schools on the list, including University of North Dakota, Purdue, and Southern Illinois, each accounting for less than 1 percent.
“The majority of pilots entering the workforce are coming from what I call ‘factory’ flight schools like mine,” said Robert Werderich, owner of Illinois Aviation Academy in DuPage, Illinois. “And all of my students have jobs waiting for them. Most of them have jobs already by 500 hours. [Regional airlines] will hire them, give them financial cash up front so they can lock in their first 1,000 or 1,250 hours. And they already have a company seniority number now to get benefits.”
The emerging urban air mobility (UAM) market might also become a factor in the pilot shortage as Uber Air plans to begin flights in 2023, about the same time airline pilot retirements reach their highest point. Michael Ingram, v-p of cockpit systems for Honeywell Aerospace, told AIN that until the public becomes comfortable with UAM vehicles being fully autonomous, which might not occur for several decades, pilots will be needed to fulfill UAM piloting roles either from a simplified cockpit or from a remote control center.
“I think there will be a time when each (UAM) will have a pilot behind it,” said Ingram. “If you have another 10,000 to 30,000 of these vehicles flying around that need pilots, then that’s going to add complexity to the pilot shortage.”
According to the most current data from the FAA, in December 2018 there were already 106,321 FAA-certified remote pilots, a category started in 2016.