What forces are behind the shortage of pilots?
A shortage of commercial pilots loomed over the United States for years. Now that it is here, passengers, the economy, and even our military are feeling the effects. AWA is committed to engaging with any and all stakeholders to find and advocate for solutions to this critical problem.
Several factors have conspired to create a shortage of qualified pilots in the US and worldwide.
Inability to finance training:
Typical pilot training cannot be financed with traditional federally-backed student loans. With costs running well over $100,000, training and time-building is financially out of reach for most would-be pilots.
The American airline industry experienced serious downturns in recent history. Nearly every airline went through bankruptcy, many went out of business, thousands of employees lost their jobs and pensions, and the glamour associated with the early days of jet travel was replaced with frustrations. As a result, fewer and fewer young people showed an interest in the piloting profession. Now that the industry has stabilized, there are great demands for qualified aviators.
Mandatory retirement age:
Commercial pilots in the US must retire at the age of 65. As a result of industry cycles, major airlines in the US will retire approximately 50 percent of their pilot workforce over the next ten years. The resulting “brain drain” will be the single greatest intergenerational transfer of technical knowledge the industry has ever experienced.
Extreme industry growth internationally:
In other parts of the world, East Asia in particular, the aviation industry is growing by leaps and bounds. To meet their ever-expanding human infrastructure needs, growing countries turn to the US. Qualified pilots are hired away by foreign carriers and flight schools are packed with international cadets. America’s long tradition of excellence in pilot training makes it a natural source for new pilots. Unfortunately, the interest from foreign carriers puts a strain on the training pipeline for American carriers.
Less hobby flying than previous generations:
Previous generations featured a much greater number of people for whom piloting was a hobby from a young age. As that hobby has become increasingly expensive and much less popular, airlines are recruiting fewer and fewer pilots who accrued their necessary flight experience as hobbyists.
Increased training requirements:
In 2013, the training requirements to receive an Air Transport Pilot license (ATP), the license required to fly commercial airliners, increased from 250 flight hours to 1500 flight hours. With very few ways to accrue 1500 hours for pay, young pilots struggle to attain the requisite experience in a reasonable time frame. For young pilots, it could take years working as a certified flight instructor (teaching even less experienced pilots the basics of flying), crop duster, or banner tower to reach 1500 hours in the air. The alternative is paying for time in the air, which is prohibitively expensive for most aspiring pilots.
The lack of qualified pilots has many and varied serious implications. The safety of America’s flying public, the country’s economic viability, and our military’s readiness are all at risk.
As airports lose service, passengers are forced to drive to larger airports, often hours away from their homes. Highway travel is ten times more dangerous per mile than aviation, meaning passengers are put at greater risk just getting to and from their flights.
More to the point, it is unclear how the industry will manage the onboarding of a new generation of aviators safely. Experienced pilots, perhaps the industry’s greatest training resource, are retiring at a much faster pace than new pilots are joining airlines. For that reason, the transfer of technical knowledge from those aviators with many years of experience at the controls to those with very little real world experience is not happening.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the quality of aviator joining commercial air carriers today is degrading. Airlines are reporting higher rates of wash outs (new hires who do not make it through initial airline training) and more pilots arriving with bad habits. A comprehensive approach to addressing the pilot shortage will ensure that pilots are well-prepared to take the controls when they are hired.
Traditionally, many airline pilots began their careers as military aviators. While that is still the case, the shortage of pilots has increased demand dramatically. The US military is having a very difficult time retaining pilots due to the attractive pay and lifestyle associated with working at a commercial air carrier. If we are unable to shore up the supply of aviators from civil pipelines, the military will continue to experience unsustainable pilot turnover.
Each pilot job supports at least seven other airline jobs and 65 jobs outside the company. Consider everyone who makes the airline industry work: flight attendants who secure the cabin, ground workers who maintain the plane, ticket agents, gate agents, concessionaires, bus drivers, wheel chair valets, custodians, law enforcement personnel, parking attendants, and airport administrative staff. All of those jobs are at risk when there are not enough pilots to fly airlines’ schedules. At the current pace, an estimated 1 million American jobs will be lost by 2026.
Air Service and Connectivity:
With a shortfall of qualified pilots, regional airlines are forced to cancel routes and frequencies. Airports serving small communities are the first to lose service, but as the problem grows, more and larger airports are experiencing service reductions. Over 60 percent of US air carriers are already cancelling flights due to a shortfall of qualified pilots.
Businesses nationwide depend on air service. Indeed, we have already seen companies relocate in order to be closer to a reliable airline network, taking their jobs, tax base, and investment away from smaller communities. Over the next ten years, the US will lose over $760 billion in GDP if the pilot shortage is not addressed.
Some airports have been completely cut off from commercial service. After years and millions of dollars in taxpayer investment, many airports are at risk of becoming obsolete due to a lack of service. Since 2013, 36 cities and towns have been disconnected from the US air transportation network.
Without enough pilots to operate their fleets, airlines are parking aircraft. Manufacturers are concerned about future demand, particularly for smaller airliners. Aircraft manufacturing represents thousands of American jobs. By 2026, there will be an estimated 15,000 pilot jobs left unfilled, forcing airlines to park as many as 1,500 planes.
For years, industry and government ignored the warning signs of the pilot shortage. Now that the crisis is upon us, there is no “silver bullet” solution to solve the problem. Industry and government need to recognize that human infrastructure is essential to America’s overall transportation system. AWA is advocating for a package of solutions which focus on three key areas while maintaining the minimum training standards enacted by Congress:
Lowering financial barriers to the profession. Currently, training to become a pilot is very expensive, and there are limited options for student aid in technical education. That means prospective pilots must either fund training independently, or finance it through expensive consumer debt. Either path severely limits the pool of potential pilots.
Increasing pathways to required flight hours. Before flying for a commercial air carrier, pilots must accumulate a federally-mandated number of flight hours in non-airline environments. However, due to a changing economy and technological advances, there are fewer methods to gain that experience than in previous generations.
Modernizing pilot training. The highest priority of AWA and its supporters is safety. For a host of reasons, the American aviation system is the safest in the world, but we cannot afford to be complacent. According to the Flight Safety Foundation, “A data-driven approach to pilot training is an essential element in continuing to improve the industry’s safety performance. Training must target real-world risk and ensure a progressive and satisfactory performance standard.” AWA supports pilot training and evaluation based on competency, utilizing the best available technology and most effective methods.