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

But more than the negative effects, these issues have proven that the commercial aviation industry is extremely resilient, and that our globalized economy needs air service to function. Business concepts in the 21st-century like “just-in-time” manufacturing, and the increasing level of international sourcing of goods and services doesn’t cease to exist because of wars or recessions. Sure, that family of four in Topeka might defer their trip to Disney World for a few years until gasoline prices stabilize, but global businesses require passenger and cargo services by air daily. Remember the volcanic eruption in Iceland and what it did to global economies? Our reliance on commercial air service is so ingrained that it has no choice but to grow. If it did cease altogether, we would have much bigger problems than not finding pilot jobs.

Air travel increases every year, regardless of economic uncertainty. Airline pilot projections for the next 20 years are significantly higher now than before the worldwide economic recession. In 2008, Boeing projected an average need for 18,000 pilots per year and 24,000 maintenance people. The latest figures project 22,500 pilots per year and 28,000 new mechanics.

Another interesting development of late is the newly proposed FAA pilot rest requirements (Docket No. FAA-2009-1093 “Flight crew Member Duty and Rest Requirements”). The proposed rules require a minimum of nine hours’ rest between shifts, and 30 consecutive hours away from work each week. In a response to the proposed FAA rule, American Airlines—one of many who responded—said it would need to hire an additional 2,325 pilots at a cost of $514 million per year. That’s in addition to the pilots needed to meet increasing domestic demand. American Airlines hit the bull’s-eye when they responded that, “The industry figure will be so large as to raise the question of from where they (pilots) all will come.”

The International Air Transport Association, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations are all voicing their concern about medium- and long-term pilot supply. The IATA launched its prescient “Training and Qualifications Initiative” (ITQI) in 2007 to deal with this issue. Describing the need for the ITQI, IATA said, “While the present economic downturn has brought a temporary reprieve to the urgency of this situation, IATA believes the (pilot) shortage is a long-term issue. Therefore, we have not changed our goals or commitment to addressing this issue.”

There are several initiatives that could be changing our industry to help meet growing pilot demand. AOPA has launched its “Flight Training Student Retention Initiative” as a long-term, industry-wide effort dedicated to increasing the percentage of students who earn a pilot certificate. The idea is to grow the pilot population through “positive flight-training experiences.” AOPA convened a major flight-training summit in November 2010 at its Expo in Long Beach, Calif., to focus on the problem of a decreasing pilot population.


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