RFT 461: Is The Pilot Shortage Over?


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By George Nolly and Captain George Nolly. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

“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.

Temporary Relief

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.

Despite an industry slump that has seen mass pilot lay-offs, the global civil aviation industry will still require an estimated 27,000 new pilots from the end of 2021, or 264,000 over the coming decade.

That forecast comes from Canadian training and simulator provider CAE, which on 9 November released its latest prediction covering the demand and availability of pilots through 2029.

This year, the number of active pilots has declined year on year by around 87,000 to about 300,000, but will bump up to an estimated 374,000 by the end of 2021, says CAE.

Though still less than 2019 levels, by the end of next year “age-based retirements and attrition” will leave the industry short 27,000 flightcrew, says the study.

That figure will balloon over 10 years to a requirement for more than 264,000 new pilots, CAE says.

“Despite the short-term decline in the number of active pilots due to the impact of Covid-19, the civil aviation industry is expected to require more than 260,000 new pilots over the next decade,” CAE says.

“Fundamental factors influencing pilot demand prior to the Covid-19 outbreak remain unchanged. Age-based retirement and fleet growth were, and are expected to remain, the main drivers of pilot demand.”

CAE predicts the civil aviation industry will require a total of 484,000 pilots in 2029: an estimated 426,000 for airlines and another 58,000 business jet crews.

Of those, 167,000 pilots will be needed to replace those who are retiring or otherwise leaving the workforce, while the remainder will be needed to meet industry expansion, CAE predicts.

“Thousands of pilots have been furloughed in recent months. Many of them have pivoted to other professions and might not want to resume their pilot careers,” says the report.

The Asia-Pacific region will require the most new pilots – about 91,000 over 10 years, equating to about one-third of total demand. North America will need a combined 65,000 new pilots; Europe 42,000; the Middle East 25,000; South and Central America 16,000; and Africa 4,000, CAE projects.

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