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

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and IATA are focusing on modernizing and revolutionizing flight training to meet airline demand through the ITQI. The initiative is looking at competency-based training, the Multi-crew Pilot License (MPL), and new ways of attracting young people to aviation to help kick-start the pilot population. Meanwhile, airlines are discussing ideas like subsidized training, training in exchange for employment contracts, long-term recruiting from university flight-training programs and academies, and other ideas to attract talent.

Recent changes in the legal requirements for flying time in the United States as a result of the February 2009 Colgan Air crash, have yet to yield enough impact to determine how they will affect pilot numbers. The new law requires both pilots of any commercial airliner to have a minimum of 1,500 hours flying time and an air transport pilot (ATP) certificate. If even regional airlines require higher-time pilots, the existing pool of pilot applicants will be a drop in the bucket compared to insatiable domestic demand.

So, as grim as the present may look with regard to the availability and desirability of professional pilot jobs, the future looks like a ray of sunshine burning through the overcast. That’s great news for those of us who love to fly, and for anyone who has the passion to follow his or her aviation dream. If you thought the hiring boom of 2007 was dramatic, imagine what the coming shortage will look like.

As of March 1, 2011, 203 airline pilots have already been hired. That’s half of all the pilots hired during the entirety of 2010 and a consistent increase from the 2009 low point. Airline travel continues to increase, and has increased 5% per year since 1977. As airlines and aviation industry leaders hold summits and meetings and enact law changes to deal with a shortage of pilots, it becomes clear that pilots will continue to be needed. If the numbers hold true, flying will continue to offer a great way to make a living. The unmet demand will offer tremendous opportunities for those who are prepared and seek the unique magic of life in a professional cockpit.

Regardless of anybody’s opinion about a pilot shortage, raw numbers are alarming. According to the FAA, 2011 will yield roughly 69,000 student pilots in the U.S. (lowest on record). Meanwhile, recent AOPA studies show that only about 30% of those students will finish their training.

Since roughly 12% of today’s 613,746 active pilots are ATP rated, that yields a potential 2,484 airline pilots out of this year’s crop of finishing aviation students. With industry projections of 5,600 airline pilots per year needed in the U.S. alone over the next 20 years (112,000 total), it illustrates that, at best, current pilot supply will be less than half of what’s needed. And that’s domestic only. If you apply those numbers to the worldwide demand, a scary shortage emerges. Those seeking careers in aviation will certainly be in for a wild ride.


Boeing, Current Market Outlook

Flightglobal Insight Fleetwatch

International Civil Aviation Organization

Air Transport Association


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