Even before 9-11, and especially with the continuous growth of commercial aviation since the financial crisis of 2008, every conference and every aviation publication, even business publications, would debate the pilot shortage. This shortage was triggered by the unprecedented expansion of the airline industry together with the retirement of “boomer”-generation pilots.
Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer: they were all predicting a need for the next 20 years of 600,000 or more pilots. The next 10 years were going to be especially challenging because of the retirement boom. Training specialist CAE predicted a need for 355,000 new and replacement pilots worldwide over the next decade.
Buoyed by such positive forecasts, thousands of young people started their education, most at their own expense, to become an airline pilot.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered these forecasts and with it many youngsters’ dreams. With scheduled passenger services reduced as much as 95%, veteran pilots are being offered voluntary early retirement packages (more than 600 pilots took American’s recent offer). Many of those who don’t or cannot opt out will be furloughed to await the return to operations, which is of course a huge unknown at this time.
Traffic recovery figures from IATA suggest a return to 2019 levels by 2023 in a “V-shaped” recovery cycle. Others think there may be a quick bounce-back upon resumption of flights in the summer/fall, followed by a longer, slower “L-shaped” recovery to full 2019 levels. How the airline business will grow beyond that is not clear.
For sure, it does not look good for the next generation of pilots in the short term. Especially those who have recently graduated or were about to.
But wait a moment before you assume the dream is gone forever.
Consider, for example, the US domestic market, which is expected to rebound more quickly than some other markets, and certainly more rapidly than international travel. There were about 4,100 senior pilots expected to be required to retire each year over the next 20 years from the four major carriers. That’s more than 80,000 retirements, many of whom may leave sooner. If 10-20% of remaining pilots are furloughed (10,000 to 20,000 out of about 100,000), that still leaves a gap of 60-70,000 pilot seats when the industry recovers to present levels.
With the current FAA requirement of 1,500 hours of flight experience, new university and flight school graduates typically become instructors to build the necessary hours to be hire-eligible. The process can take several years … roughly similar to the time it will take the airline industry to fully recover.
Aviation consultant Kit Darby believes, “The need for pilots will return well before the full market recovery.” He encourages young pilot aspirants to be patient, build their hours and variety of experiences, and “be first in line” when hiring of new pilots resumes. “If you can get your training and build the experience you need during a down period, that's an excellent time to do it. The pilots with the most experience will be on the top of the pile when hiring returns.”
We have seen similar situations in the past: from the first oil crisis in 1972-74, the Gulf War, 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008. Each time the hiring stopped, thousands of cadets had to wait two to three years, but the job market always opened up.
And it will again. For those involved, it can be pure misery. Loans to be repaid, qualifications to be maintained, refreshers needed when hiring picks up.
Some ATOs may struggle as students drop out and new recruits (and their parents) become more difficult to convince of the viability of an airline career.
But contrary to the assumption that flight training is dormant, we’re seeing many schools restarting and adapting to the challenge. Some immediately turned to online training to fill the gap. An ad hoc group of university flight programs in the US secured quick approval from the FAA to award more credit for online lessons, according to Ken Byrnes, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Assistant Dean for the College of Aviation and Flight Training Department Chair. Byrnes told CAT the Florida and Arizona ERAU campuses are currently using a combination of online courses, in lieu of classroom, with in-aircraft flight instruction (taking appropriate sanitization precautions, of course).
Byrnes said about two dozen university flight programs have already resumed training after an initial hiatus in many states. More are expecting to again offer instruction in the near future.
BAA in Lithuania has resumed in-aircraft flight training. Qantas and FTA proceeded with launching a new ab initio flight school in Queensland. Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre in Ontario, Canada is anticipating FTD and aircraft instruction in June.We are hearing more such stories every week around the world.
But for those contemplating a career in aviation, the timing is not as bad as it may have first seemed. For those starting a three to four-year journey to become an airline pilot, things could be looking pretty good by the time they are ready.
“We can’t turn off the switch. We need to keep a pipeline flowing,” added Byrnes.
Darby agrees: “The pilot shortage will return as soon as the market recovers.”
If we believe there is a future for aviation, then we believe there is also a future for young pilots.
Part of CAT Magazine's Restarting The Engines series.