Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pilot Careers 2010: A Brave New World

With the industry showing signs of life, preparation and training soon will meet opportunity for prospective pilots

It probably seems extraordinary to be discussing pilot careers at a time when the worst economic turmoil in 60 years has dragged the airline industry to near-collapse and an insatiable media has spotlighted every ugly aspect of the profession. The questions on the table seem to be: Is becoming a professional pilot still a good career choice? Are commercial pilots still relevant in 2010? The answers, though surprising, are yes.

Career Outlook
In May of this year, the NTSB (National Transportation and Safety Board) held a three-day conference titled "Professionalism in Aviation" that addressed methods of ensuring excellence in pilot performance. The board invited panelists from the airline industry, academia, labor and government in an effort to open frank discussions about everything from pilot screening to selection and training. After several high-profile airline accidents, beginning with 2004’s Pinnacle Airlines flight 3701 that crashed when both engines flamed-out following an unauthorized high-altitude climb, the conference hoped to examine how pilots were being trained and what could be done to improve that process.

The conference took an unexpected tack to discuss pilot numbers and hiring projections, yielding some interesting facts. One of them is the illusion in the public of too many pilot candidates. Because many pilots are unemployed, the thinking is that any number of future pilot openings would be filled quickly from that pool. The NTSB uncovered that, based on attrition and airline growth, there will be a demand of some 42,090 pilots in the next 10 years, over and above the number of current pilots.

In the 21st century, the model of the military providing new pilots to commercial carriers is outdated. It has been replaced by regional, or "feeder," airlines. When you consider that there are approximately 18,714 feeder airline pilots flying today, you can see that the current pilot population would need to more than double to meet the demand projected by the NTSB in just the next 10 years. Regional airlines simply aren’t prepared for that shortage.

Though 2009 was the worst year for airline hiring in history, 2010 is showing improvement, with 66 new pilots hired as of June. Industry experts see this trickle as the inconspicuous beginning of what will become a raging river of demand for pilots. The rule that extended retirement age from 60 to 65 years old is one reason why demand is increasing, as those pilots are now starting to reach 65.

"They can’t just keep raising the retirement age," says Louis Smith, former Northwest Airlines captain and president of, an industry hiring authority. “That pool is drying up.”

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