The accession pipeline in the US for new pilots, increasingly dependent on learning technologies, is being restored, and none too soon, as a pilot shortage is eyed toward the mid-part of this decade. Marty Kauchak reports.      

Civil aviation remains on a turbulent path in the attempt to return to pre-Covid-19 operating levels. With lackluster passenger demand and the unsteady pace of restoring domestic and international routes, the industry is no longer facing the pilot shortage with which it was grappling just a few months ago. Reopened flight training programs, which increasingly rely on distance learning and other technologies to help select and retain aspiring pilots, are part of the strategy to help minimize a predicted next pilot shortage for later this decade.    

Recovery Moving to the Right 

Aircrews at many airlines around the globe continue to face the specter of furloughs and early retirement options as the industry struggles to align the supply of this vital resource to demand. The probability of when the pool of available, trained and qualified pilots will again drop below demand is incrementally creeping to the right on calendars.            

Helane Becker, Managing Director and Senior Research Analyst covering airlines, air freight and aircraft leasing for Cowen & Company, noted, in the short term, a pilot shortage “is not an issue since traffic is down by about 70 percent and is not expected to recover 2019 levels for three to five years.” The veteran analyst added, “We think airlines now have too many pilots and expect them to offer early retirement programs and other inducements to encourage retirements. If enough pilots do not retire, we expect furloughs to take place as early as October 1.” Asked when another pilot shortage may become a reality for this industry, she responded, “Right now we estimate 2024/2025.”

Kit Darby, President of Aviation Consulting, also opined there is no pilot shortage now but there definitely was one at the start of 2020. He emphasized signs that the shortage is over include: the increasing application pool, higher required qualification, lower pay and benefits, reduction in advertising, and pilot furloughs announced. “No airlines are hiring that are not an ‘upstart’ or cargo. Other bright spots are corporate - private companies, ‘fractionals’, charter, government and government contract flying, and flight instruction. There are listings for crew leasing opportunities overseas beginning to reappear, which may be just the expats we cut too deep initially, and now need to be partially restored, with the broader recovery especially in China.”

Darby suggested the industry recovery “to pre-2019 levels is getting further and further away, as actual data shows the recovery has stalled in the US, at least for a while, until a vaccine is found or possibly more effective treatments. Other factors to consider are that most of the data is capacity based, and actual RPM [Revenue Passenger Miles] data does allow for the much lower load factors but not the lower ticket prices. The retirement of over 5,000 pilots and the permanent parking of 10-20 percent of the fleet makes the return to 100 percent dependent on buying new aircraft to replace those removed from the fleet. All of this will take time and ‘put a bend in the recovery curve’ as we approach 100 percent.”

WATCH A Conversation with Kit Darby a five-part video series on Airline Recovery Scenarios and the Impact of Pilot Retirements

Preventing the Next Supply-Demand Mismatch

US-based programs to recruit, train and hire new commercial pilots are primarily responding to market forces. There is no US government policy to coordinate efforts among unions, air carriers, the FAA and other vital stakeholders to prevent another pilot shortage.     

One snapshot of efforts to increase the number of flight-ready commercial pilots in the US and, often by extension, in other nations, is evident at aviation departments at US colleges and universities.  

In one case, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University reopened 6 May, following an approximate five-week closure to conform with government Covid-19 mandates. ERAU further resumed instruction with a reduced presence of students in the classroom 30 June, following social distancing and other pandemic-related protocols and regulations.

When Ken Byrnes, PhD, FRAeS, Flight Chairman and Assistant Dean in the Flight Training Department at the university’s Daytona Beach Campus, spoke with CAT in mid-July, about 600 ERAU students were participating in university flight training programs. That enrollment figure was historically 1,300 at any given time during a pre-pandemic academic year – and which is again the enrollment target being eyed as the university resumes a broader offering of classes this Fall.

Dr. Ken Byrnes, Flight Chairman and Assistant Dean, Flight Training Department, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Image credit: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Dr. Byrnes credits the learning technology infrastructure supporting the “very strong, worldwide university campus” as enabling the “switch to online instruction of all academics, basically overnight, during this Spring semester.”

This is one of many instances where doses of learning technology are being inserted or expanded in training programs to gain efficiencies.  

While ERAU had significant internal expertise to make the transition to university-wide online learning, he also called attention to the FAA’s support, specifically how the agency “worked pretty quickly to get approvals for us to teach our Part 141 ground schools online.” The department chair revealed university courses for this Fall semester will have a mix of in-residence and online instruction.

On the topics of a next pilot shortage, Byrnes first pointed out that prior to the start of the pandemic, he “was hiring flight instructors nonstop for the last 10 years.” Of the approximate 200 flight instructors historically on the Daytona Beach campus staff at any time, “the annual turnover was in the 80 percentages,” he recalled and added, “They would just come through, build their experience, which is a good thing and was supported by our good system, and move on.” Byrnes emphasized, “Now that is shut off and things are going to get stagnant for some pilots because there is not going to be a lot of movement for a few years.”

Beyond ERAU are emerging or revitalized US-based aviation departments, including one at Purdue University Global. Thomas B. Frooninckx, Interim Head, School of Aviation and Transportation Technology, Purdue University, noted the university’s Global division’s new program provides advantages within the current C-19 environment by furnishing students with more flexibility to work toward their degree at a well-defined pace, and balance their time against other priorities and life challenges – while also reducing risks inherent with face-to-face traditional classroom instruction.

Frooninckx further presented the business case to launch an aviation department in this challenging era. “There is evidence the commercial aviation sector is already recovering, although the recovery will have its own peaks and valleys. We have no reason to believe the long-term health of the sector, and the need for newly trained pilots, won’t return to pre-C-19 levels within 2-3 years, which is the time it would take for many new students starting the program to finish.”

Purdue University Global’s online undergraduate aviation courses operate on the Brightspace platform, with each course being 10 weeks in length. The organization added, “The courses have a variety of assignments that align to the course outcomes and program outcomes. The aviation courses include weekly asynchronous discussion boards as well as weekly synchronous seminars using the Bongo seminar tool. Instruction is furnished by a variety of multimedia activities.”

While students are completing their online degree curriculum through Purdue University Global, they will simultaneously be completing their in-person flight training with Jacksonville, Florida-based Sterling Flight Training.

These prospective aviators have access to a high-quality fleet consisting of Piper Arrow II, Archer III, Archer TX, Warrior II and Seminole models, in addition to Cessna 172s and the 172M. In addition, the training organization “offers simulator training options as well, including a Redbird FMX and Frasca RTD [Reconfigurable Training Device]. The Purdue degree program has a 25-hour flight simulator lab built around the RTD capabilities.” All students enrolled in the program will further utilize an iPad-based electronic flight bag, equipped with ForeFlight planning software and other technology tools.

ATOs as a Pilot Source

Increasingly capable ATOs around the globe will remain another conduit of trained and ready personnel, helping to preclude a next pilot shortage.

CAT spoke with Bob Rockmaker, President & CEO, Flight School Association of North America, (FSANA) in mid-summer, as most of the US was emerging from Covid-19-mandated business closures and other restrictions, and the nation’s civil aviation community was slowly, incrementally, moving beyond the near-total shutdown.

The Allentown, Pennsylvania-association executive focused on the day-to-day operational environment, and estimated that “based on an association survey of its member training organizations, 75 to 90 percent of the schools were open and operating at some level.” He further noted that through the pandemic, “somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of the schools stayed open in one form or another.” Rockmaker related that FSANA had not told its member schools to open or close, but rather, served as a resource to permit institutions to make informed decisions – weighing government closure or reduced operating directives against the federal government’s classification of flight schools as critical infrastructure, and other factors.

Any discussion about a next pilot shortage in civil aviation must address the number of airline training organizations available to maintain a supply of accession pilots to meet air carriers’ demand signals. Rockmaker provided one significant datum point. He noted there were about 1,600 flight training schools in America before the pandemic, and added, “we could see a contraction of flight training providers due to the virus, and we could see between 50-100 schools not reopen, or opt to not reopen. Some schools, especially large schools, closed down because they were delivering training mostly to foreign students.”

The industry executive briefly segued into the international context: “America is the number one place for ab initio flight training. I am estimating about 35 percent of student pilots in the US are from other nations.” Rockmaker predicted that as coronavirus-related, government-imposed international travel restrictions are lifted, foreign students will return to US flight schools, helping to restore the organizations’ revenue streams and profitability.

WATCH the webinar, ATO of the Future, part of CAT’s #RestartingTheEngines coverage.

And check out the Q&A follow-up by John Bent and Chris Ranganathan.

North of the US Border Perspectives

Nicholas Robinson, Director General of Civil Aviation at Transport Canada, outlined his organization’s role in helping civil aviation “restart its engines” and, concurrently, strengthen the accession pipeline for new pilots well into the future.     

At the overarching policy level, Robinson emphasized it is important to recognize aviation’s role in economic growth, job creation, delivery of goods and services, and global connectivity. “Restoring air connectivity will be a key contribution to a successful and rapid recovery of the global economy post-Covid-19,” he said.

Nicholas Robinson, Director General of Civil Aviation, Transport Canada. Image credit: Transport Canada.

Transport Canada has worked closely with industry partners and stakeholders to offer flexibility in how Canadian aviation operations cope with the consequences of the pandemic. This work has included an extensive granting of exemptions for a wide variety of requirements such as extensions on existing certifications.

A snapshot of these exemptions/extensions relate to: distance learning provisions for basic and type training courses and organizations; 24-month recurrent training requirement; written examinations for recreational and private pilot licenses; flight instructor rating tests; flight simulation training devices; AME license renewal processes; and renewal of existing medical certificates via telemedicine consultations.

A full list of Transport Canada’s aviation exemptions is available on the department’s Regulatory Exemptions webpage: /en/initiatives/covid-19-measures-updates-guidance-issued-transport-canada/covid-19-measures-updates-guidance-aviation-issued-transport-canada#toc3.

Looking beyond the pandemic epoch, Transport Canada is in continued discussions with industry partners and stakeholders to identify opportunities from the list of Covid-related exemptions, which may be used for future consideration in the development of new policies and/or regulations with regard to the use of digital tools, modern approaches and new technology.

Robinson added that TC is committed to ensuring that, if any new measures impose costs or burdens on the aviation industry, they will be carefully considered and justified by safety, public health, and confidence of the public, and concluded, “Transport Canada is also working to leverage and expand existing training programs and to modernize regulations to better address barriers to skills development and training. This work includes research into best practices in competency and evidence-based training and the integration of new learning technologies, as well as proposed regulatory enhancements for approved training organizations.”

Heading Off a Next Pilot Shortage

The civil aviation sector’s current supply of pilots is harmonized with the demands of the operating environment. The likely prospect of a next pilot shortage is linked to the sector’s more complete return to the pre-C19 operating environment – by most accounts, toward the middle of this decade. University and flight school conduits will complement the hire of former military pilots, recall of furloughed aircrews, and other sources.

Stakeholders in the US and Canada have a common strategy of enlisting an increasingly eclectic mix of learning technologies to increase the quality and quantity of future aircrews, and meet the challenges of a next pilot shortage.

Check out CAT’s comprehensive coverage of the airline pilot employment situation, including:

The Million-Dollar Question

The ripple effect of civil aviation’s fiscal challenges during the pandemic has also engulfed the maintenance sector. Mirroring training programs in the adjacent pilot sector, classes of instruction for aspiring maintainers were fully or partially closed, with some institutions reporting slight decreases in enrollment.     

The Aviation Technician Education Council (AETC) conducted a survey in May, and subsequently led a webinar.

Crystal Maguire, AETC Executive Director, said, “At that time, around 20 percent of schools had suspended classes. I would imagine that number has decreased; we’ll probably run the survey again.” Beyond suspended classes, the survey asked about enrollment predictions and trends. “At that time, schools were expecting a 30 percent decline in enrollments (on average).”

ATEC’s outreach learned that, similar to adjacent sectors in civil aviation, maintenance training programs were more fully embracing learning technology. “There were only a handful of schools that were doing any type of distance learning for AMT prior to C-19,” she observed, and added, “After the C-19 outbreak, more than half of the schools said they would seek necessary distance learning approvals from the FAA moving forward. Suggesting a big shift in the way we teach technical content.”

Maguire was asked whether ATEC institutions will be able to meet the expected mid-decade increase in demand for maintenance professionals. She responded, “This is the million-dollar question I do not have an answer to. Generally, we’d expect to be in the same place we were pre-Covid once travel demand picks back up. Especially given all the furloughs and early retirements.”