Editor’s Note: The Journal of Civil Aviation Training (CAT) magazine presents Guest Commentary on important issues facing the community. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

This commentary is offered by human factors consultant Lex Rock Heemstra, who is based in Dronten, The Netherlands. He is a former Senior Manager and Vice President Human Factors for Qatar Airways.


IATA stated recently that the 2019 commercial flight numbers will not return until around 2024. This is where we need to make three important assumptions: The first is that flights will return to the numbers prior to Covid-19; second is that Covid-19 restrictions will no longer affect load factors or yield; and third, that the world economy recovers to 2019 figures or better.

So what about our redundant pilots? They could sit at home, hoping for a quick return and re-employment, but that's not a realistic probability given the current situation. Their only other option, if income is required, is an alternative job outside of aviation, something the majority of pilots are unqualified and often unprepared for. The question then is how many of these pilots will be in a position to ramp up their flying skills and ratings once the situation returns to normal? The pre Covid-19 pilot shortage may compound this challenge.

Three independent and separate studies on pilot numbers in each age group conducted in Europe (2014), the Middle East (2014), and South Africa (1998) show remarkable consistency in the results. The number of airline pilots in each age group grows steadily from age 20 until the age of 43 to 44. The numbers peak here and then start decreasing at the same rate up to the age of 65. 

Discussions with pilots, relating to this anomaly, reveal that many pilots decide to stop flying once they are about 43 or 44. From this age onwards they may proceed into management, change their job role (training or ground-based duties) or seek employment elsewhere. From the peak age group of 43 to 44, over the next 16 years or so, there is a steady decline resulting in just under 11% of the original group of 43 to 44 year olds remaining by the time they're sixty. 

So there is a natural tendency for about 90% of pilots to drift away from flying over the age of 43 to 44. The plus-60 rule, passed in 2009, appears to have only increased the average pilot pool by about 2% (both 2014 studies on pilot age groups support this figure, i.e. 1,87% and 2,13%).

What Covid-19 and its subsequent restrictions have done is bring people and families closer together. Families have found more time for one another and, with ongoing travel restrictions, are conducting more family outings in and around their homes than previously. Discussions with various businesses also reveal an increase in expenditure in the home décor and improvement market, garden improvement, higher sales in jewellery as people spoil one another, and other sales contributing to a more generous and harmonious lifestyle.

A metaphor shared with me about Covid-19 is that the ugly worm of Covid-19 has done its damage and is now slowly building a cocoon around itself. Opening the cocoon now will reveal an ugly and chaotic inside, but with patience the cocoon will eventually open up and reveal a beautiful butterfly. So Covid-19 may have its ugly side, but the end result may be a more caring and sharing society.

Pilots who have been retrenched and now spend more time with their families will not escape this effect. Given 2-4 years to adjust to their new lifestyles and careers, the question is how many of them will be willing to give up, or potentially sacrifice, their new lifestyle and return to the demands that aviation places on these individuals and their families. This may be even more evident in married pilots (or perhaps not) or those in a long-term relationship, especially those in that critical group of 43 to 44 and over. 

In the current crisis, it's unlikely many young people will be enticed into a career as a pilot. Therefore, the number embarking on this career path will only decrease, unmotivated by a lack of flying jobs in an already saturated market of highly qualified and experienced pilots awaiting re-employment. Many flying schools reported a complete cessation, at least temporarily, in flying training due to the requirement for one-on-one instruction with reduced social distancing. How long this will last is anyone's guess, but its impact on possible new entrants is hardly a positive one. 

The question then is how many of the pilots that have been retrenched will be available or suitable to return to flying once the aviation industry normalises again? 

First, we need to consider the existing pool of pilots worldwide that still have a job. From the studies on pilot age groups, we know there is an average attrition rate of pilots out of an airline in all age groups of about 5-6% annually. Next, what about those pilots who decide to leave the aviation market once they have surpassed age 43 to 44 and change their careers? Current losses in this group can be supplemented by the existing retrenched pilots, but the pool will diminish as we reach 2024. 

The retrenched pilot pool (if I may call it that) will have to find suitable jobs to supplement their salary, and while many will openly welcome an invite to fly again, the likely reduced terms and conditions and salary may affect their willingness to accept. There will be those that become comfortable with their new roles, careers and lifestyles, opting not to return. Most expat pilots who were retrenched due to the financial effects of Covid-19 underwent a traumatic time. Not only were they having to deal with a major job loss, but also the disruption of family life with new housing, schools and even a change of countries to manage. Compounding this stress was the uncertainty of constantly changing emigration and immigration laws, which made it difficult and lengthy to return home. With somewhat unique financial and emotional consequences for expats, many of these pilots may be reluctant to risk a repeat. As per the old saying: “Once bitten, twice shy”.

Many airlines have offered pilots over the age of 55 an early retirement or have merely retrenched those pilots over 55. These pilots would be at least 59 in four years time and therefore no longer a viable option to the airline to be re-employed since most airlines have a cut-off age between 55 and 58 years of age. The age group studies reveal that the pilots in the 55 to 60 year age group represent 4,6% of the pilot pool. Add the plus 60 pilots to this group (2% of the pool) and 6,6% of the pilots may not return at all. A small percentage, granted, but significant if an airline has to park 6,6% of its fleet due to a lack of suitable airline pilots.

As the situation improves over the next four and half years with a return to the 2019 numbers or better, it will affect all airlines worldwide. The competitiveness to return to normal will be high and only those airlines who can obtain the required suitable airline pilots to fill their aircraft will come out on top. Those airlines that make it easier and more attractive for pilots to join, or re-join, will be at an advantage. 

So what can the current airlines do to ensure that they can return to normal and have sufficient suitable pilots to meet their flying demand? For sure not an easy task with a few unpredictable years ahead. Perhaps some of the following points may aid them: 

  • Conduct a demographic study on the pilot pool prior to the Covid-19 redundancies/furloughs based on a 10-year history to assess the attrition rate in each year group. Conduct the same on the present pool of pilots and project this ahead for the next five years. This would provide some idea as to where the shortages would be in the years ahead.
  • Initiate or continue to maintain a cadet pilot training scheme to provide new entries the ability to join aviation.
  • Maintain regular communication with the retrenched pilots. Assess their willingness to return. Assess their ability to return and when.
  • Provide some aid to maintain currency (a pilot with no income could hardly afford the twice yearly sim checks to maintain currency on type).
  • Start the groundwork to assess what process will have to be followed if a noncurrent experienced pilot would re-join the airline. There will be a time and financial penalty in this regard.
  • Provide an estimated return date (difficult in an unpredictable environment and also stressful if the date is not met or the pilot is put on further hold).
  • Review whether return to seniority is a viable option and communicate the findings.
  • Identify those pilots who would not be suitable to be offered a return due to their age, or alternatively, offer them ground flight training positions. 
  • Review the overall package they would be able to offer the joining pilots (not only salary and flying pay, but additional benefits such as pension, housing, medical, education for children, time off, vacation, etc). Those airlines offering a better financial and domestic package would be more attractive. 

There are many others and a combined meeting with human resources, flight operations and recruitment should provide those aspects which need to be identified.

While the next few years will be challenging to all airlines to return to normal, those airlines who invest in their potential pilot pool now will be better geared up to return to normal in the future.