Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pilot Outlook 2010-2029: A Shortage Looms

Latest industry statistics point to a pilot shortage that will dwarf those that came before

Like the pendulum on a giant grandfather clock, the availability of aviation jobs goes back and forth in giant, lazy swings. In 2007, regional airlines saw an enormous jump in pilot hiring, sucking flight instructors out of every corner of general aviation, and leaving gaping CFI positions at local FBOs everywhere. Flight schools scrambled while aviation industry pundits breathlessly exclaimed that there were no flight instructors left. Meanwhile, airline training centers bulged at the seams with fresh-faced recruits, some of whom had maybe 250 hours of time under their belts. In 2007 alone, 2,766 domestic airline pilots were hired.

Contrast that scenario with 2009. A scant two years later, and the entire airline industry crashed. During that entire year only 30 domestic airline pilots were hired—30! It was the lowest point in the airlines’ history. So it is with that ominous mist hanging heavy over the aviation profession that we bring up the subject of a looming pilot shortage.

If you spend time on airline pilots’ chat forums, you’ll find the argument raging. One side maintains that a pilot shortage is impossible. “Look at all the furloughed pilots,” they say. “Fuel is too expensive,” adds another. Meanwhile, concerned aviation recruiters and industry experts are wringing their hands, pointing to the growing international demand and the lack of new pilots entering the fold. So, who’s right?

The Stats

Hard statistics are plain enough for anybody to see and understand. According to Flightglobal’s Insight Fleetwatch—which is based on their ACAS database and airline monitoring system—the current firm order backlog for the global airline industry stands at over 8,000 aircraft. The recent trend (beginning in December 2010) has been consistent month-over-month increases in backlogged airliner orders.

Boeing publishes a well-respected World Market Outlook that has been a comprehensive industry standard for 40 years, and is known for its accuracy in projecting commercial air service demand. Their recently published 2010-2029 outlook supports a huge pilot shortage. Extensive research by Boeing has concluded that the most powerful driver of growth in the commercial airline industry—and the resulting demand for airplanes and pilots—is the global gross domestic product (GDP), which reflects worldwide economic activity. The global GDP is projected to grow at an average of 3.2% per year for the next 20 years. As a result, worldwide passenger traffic will average 5.3% growth, and cargo traffic will average 5.9% growth over that period.

Research also confirms that the demand for commercial aviation services follows worldwide economic growth. To meet this growth, the number of airplanes in the worldwide fleet will grow at an annual rate of 3.2%, almost doubling from approximately 19,000 airplanes today to more than 36,000 airplanes in 2029. To replace aging airplanes, and to accommodate growing fleets, new airliner deliveries will total 30,900 over the next 20 years, with a total value of 3.6 trillion U.S. dollars.


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