Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Airline Pilots: Coming Up Short

Regional and foreign carriers are worried as industry projects deepening pilot shortage

Large numbers of new pilots will be needed globally, with strongest demand in China, Europe and North America.
The Boeing Effect
Cohen's keynote address came on the heels of Boeing's release of their yearly "Current Market Outlook 2012-2031." The Boeing report is one of the most respected—and accurate—airline market forecasts in the world. In the almost 50 years that Boeing has been compiling and publishing this forecast, its uncanny accuracy in predicting air-traffic volumes and demand have made it an indispensable tool for industry watchers.

"As global economies expand and airlines take delivery of tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners over the next 20 years, the demand for personnel to fly and maintain those airplanes will be unprecedented," reads Boeing's report. In tangible terms, the report forecasts the need for 460,000 new airline pilots by 2031; that's 23,000 per year for the next 20 years. The demand for maintenance technicians will be even higher at 601,000.

For pilots, the biggest growth area is—no surprise here—the Asia Pacific region, swallowing up a big chunk of 185,600 pilots. Europe will be second, requiring more than 100,000 pilots by 2031, and in North America, the demand will be for 69,000 new pilots in the next 20 years.

The industry is worried about those numbers for several reasons. One problem is student-pilot starts. The year 2010 had the lowest number of student-pilot certificates issued on record at 54,064—down from 65,421 10 yearsprior. Historically, about 20% of the total pilot population holds an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate, so a decrease in student starts means a decrease in total pilots, and thus a decrease of ATP holders (read, airline pilots). This year, the FAA issued just over 8,500 commercial pilot certificates. The gap between the 23,000 pilots per year needed and the number coming through the system is what's causing such alarm.

Foreign Opportunity
A shortage is already in full swing in certain sectors. According to the Boeing report, "A pilot shortage has already arisen in many regions of the world. Asia in particular is experiencing delays and operational interruptions due to pilot scheduling constraints." There are reports coming out of China of airliners being parked for extended periods because there are no pilots to fly them. The problem is getting worse. The Civil Aviation Administration of China just issued a report projecting a need for more than 15,000 new pilots just by 2015.

Airlines based in Asia and in the Middle East have been aggressively recruiting American pilots through job fairs in the U.S., and with lucrative "signing bonuses" that offer a monetary reward for pilots willing to live overseas and fly for a foreign carrier. A first officer for an overseas carrier could get promoted to captain in half the time it takes in the U.S., and they can do it at twice the pay. Many foreign airlines are offering attractive housing packages to boot.


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