Since regional airlines provide 40% of the major airlines’ passengers, pilot shortages there will affect major carriers, as well.
Pilot careers are nothing if not tumultuous. Right now, we’re in uncharted territory, as regional airlines are experiencing the worst pilot shortage since regional service in the 1950s. The biggest change in the airline industry since deregulation happened when Congress mandated the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, which tightened minimum requirements for airline first officers. The result has been what insiders are calling “a perfect storm,” that is causing a serious pilot shortage that’s reaching around the globe. For those seeking a career in aviation, this is significant. But, the aviation industry offers far more than just pilot jobs, and those seeking careers in the myriad areas of aviation have a bright future ahead. If a career around aviation is your goal, there are many roads to choose from.
The driving force behind the optimistic outlook for aviation careers is the predicted growth in the aviation market. Boeing, the leading manufacturer of airline jets, has a keen interest in the future of air travel, and conducts deep and detailed research into the state of the industry. Each year, they publish the Current Market Outlook, projecting calculated figures about the aviation industry. It turns out this Market Outlook is one of the most accurate tools for predicting airline growth, which directly affects jobs in aviation.
Boeing is projecting an overall 3.2% annual growth in the global economy, which will result in a 4.1% annual increase in airline passengers. What was once called the “emerging economy” of places like China, India and the Middle East has given way to a thriving economy. For the first time in history, the nearly two billion people in China are starting to undertake leisure travel, owing to that country’s $8.2 trillion gross national product. Markets such as China are fueling what Boeing projects as a 5% annual growth in airline traffic. All this growth will result in the need for 35,280 new airliners between now and 2032. Most of those airliners (70%) will be high-efficiency, single-aisle jets. Someone will need to pilot, maintain, control, administer and support them.
The value of all these new airliners is about $4.8 trillion. Of those new airplanes, 14,350 (41% of the total new deliveries) will replace older, less efficient ones, reducing the cost of air travel and decreasing carbon emissions. The remaining 20,930 airplanes will be for fleet growth, stimulating expansion in emerging markets and innovative airline business models. Wide-body jets will increase in number in the coming years, inching from 23% of today’s fleet to 24% in 2032. The 8,590 new wide-body airplanes will allow airlines to continue expansion into more international markets. Efficient jets, such as the 787 and 737 MAX, will continue to grow in number.
Of course, the airline industry isn’t the only avenue for an aviation career. General aviation (GA) continues to be a significant contributor to the economy. GA encompasses all the revenue-generating models that the airlines don’t cover. Jobs like pipeline patrol, wildlife spotting, air taxi, freight operations, air ambulance, flight instruction, banner towing and more are squarely in the realm of GA.
Today, GA includes over 360,000 aircraft worldwide, ranging from two-seat training aircraft and utility helicopters to business jets. Of those, 209,000 aircraft are based in the United States. GA contributes more than $150 billion to the U.S. economy annually and employs more than 1.2 million people. Though most people in the nonflying public don’t realize it, GA flies almost 25 million flight hours annually, of which two-thirds are flown for business purposes. We GA folks fly to more than 5,000 U.S. public airports, while scheduled airlines serve less than 500 airports, and major airlines serve just over 300. In Europe, the GA fleet can fly to more than 3,900 airports. And, with the military supplying less and less pilots over the past several decades, GA remains the primary training ground for most commercial airline pilots. The career outlook in GA depends on the job area.
Boeing projects a need for 35,280 new airliners by 2032.
The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) publishes an annual General Aviation Statistical Databook & Industry Outlook that’s well-respected in the industry. That publication defines GA as all aviation outside of military and scheduled commercial airline operations. GAMA’s latest outlook showed some convincing evidence that GA remains a robust area of aviation, though it’s smaller than it was during aviation’s heyday between 1950-1980.
In 2013 (the latest year covered by GAMA’s report), airplane shipments increased by 4.3% to 2,256 airplane deliveries, while billings increased 24.0% to $23.4 billion, the second-highest industry billing number ever recorded. Increased deliveries across all airplane types helped fuel this increase. Piston airplane deliveries totaled 933 shipments in 2013, which was an increase of 2.8% from 2012. Though business jet sales stabilized after some bad years, turboprop sales increased by about 105 over the previous year.
Though many in the industry claim otherwise, GAMA shows that the United States’ active pilot population continues to shrink. According to their report, there were only 180,214 private pilots at the end of 2013. To give readers an idea of the overall trend, the private pilot population peaked in the early 1980s at 357,479 pilots. We continue to lose between 5,000 and 10,000 active pilots each year. There were a total of 599,086 total active pilots (all ratings) in the United States in 2013, of which 40,621, or 6.78%, were female—the highest ratio of female aviators on record. Let’s look at how these statistics impact the career outlook within the aviation industry—both GA and commercial carriers.
We spoke with Paul Templeton, Director of Airline Relations and head of the regional jet training program for ATP, one of the nation’s largest aviation academies and one of the leading sources of pilots for regional carriers. “The pilot shortage is here and has been here for nearly two years,” says Templeton. “You don’t hear much about it on the media yet, because it is hitting only the regional airlines at this point.” Templeton says that he sees the effects of the shortage firsthand. “I’m seeing regional airlines hiring pilots that they would not have hired five years ago.”
Though there’s still a shrinking minority that won’t admit to a shortage, signs are all over the industry. Republic Airways, for example, has grounded 27 Embraer EMB-140 aircraft. Republic flies these as a regional carrier for American Airlines and United Airlines. Republic told its investors the decision was based on “the significant reduction in qualified pilots who meet the congressionally mandated 1,500-hour pilot experience rule and the company’s rigorous qualification standards.” Republic Chairman, President and CEO Bryan Bedford recently testified to the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, saying, “Had we been able to keep those aircraft flying, we would need nearly 800 more employees.” According to Templeton, Republic recently parked all of its 50-seat aircraft and will no longer compete on 50-seat routes because it has no pilots to fly those aircraft.
United Airlines recently dropped Cleveland Hopkins International Airport as a hub and eliminated nonstop service to more than 40 cities. The carrier even reduced peak-time departures from 199 to 72 and completely left the city of Cleveland. Rahsaan Johnson, a United Airlines spokesman, cited regional-carrier pilot shortages as the reason. Meanwhile, American Eagle and ExpressJet say that while they often received “tens of thousands” of resumes for pilot positions just two years ago, those have dwindled down to the hundreds. Silver Airways, based in Florida, stopped scheduled service to five cities in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia in February, then another five in Alabama and Mississippi in April. The airline blamed “increased requirements related to new hire pilot certification,” which has had “the unintended effect of creating a nationwide shortage of regional airline pilots.”
All the dour news is great for those seeking a career as a pilot. “Pilot candidates—and the public—need to stop focusing on the low starting salary of regional airline pilots,” comments Templeton. “Though the first year salary is low, the fact of the matter is that a regional first officer will upgrade quickly, taking them to a $60,000 annual salary in a few years, and rising quickly, resulting in a six-figure salary and multi-million dollar career. “
Boeing says there will be some 41,240 airliners flying the skies by 2032. The freight fleet will grow to 2,180 aircraft, from 1,730 today. They project a need for 498,000 pilots by 2032. The widening gap between the current supply of pilots and the number needed in the future means a boon for those wanting to become pilots. The industry will have to find ways to accommodate the surging need for qualified pilots.
At 2014 AirVenture, attendees might have noticed Boeing’s overwhelming presence at GA’s largest gathering. That’s because Boeing is leading the charge in changing the way ab initio training programs work. At AirVenture, Boeing announced a worldwide ab initio airline pilot training program that will qualify pilots to go directly into the right seat of airliners. With its subsidiary, Jeppesen, Boeing will provide a supply of pilots with an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATP certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, Vice President of Flight Services.
The first phase of Boeing’s program is run by Jeppesen. It takes a “cadet” (Boeing’s term) through a strict screening process (the cadet must already possess a first-class medical certificate). Those who pass will go through a 12-18 month flight training curriculum resulting in an ATP certificate. During the second phase, cadets go through full-motion jet simulator training at a Boeing facility for two months. David Wright, Director of General Aviation Training for Boeing, says the cadets will graduate with a type rating in a Boeing jet, along with 200-250 hours of flying experience, and be ready to step into the right seat of an airliner. Wright anticipates graduating cadets will then be hired into the program as flight instructors to complete the 1,500-hour U.S. requirements. Those flying internationally don’t currently require the 1,500 hours.
Technology advances have created a need for technicians of all types.
According to almost every industry outlook, global demand for technicians remains significant. International markets are recruiting maintenance technicians from the U.S., and that trend will continue. Meanwhile, a growing fleet in both the airline and GA realm will require more technicians. An untapped market is the burgeoning UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, or “drone”) sector. Within all three sectors, Boeing is projecting a need for 556,000 technicians by 2032. The Bureau of Labor Statistics places growth at a slightly lower 2% rate and reports a current median income of $55,230 per year. However, many aviation universities are projecting higher salaries for technicians, owing to the greater need and dwindling supply of current technicians. They predict international demand will remain strong, especially in emerging markets like Asia and the Middle East.
Air Traffic Controller Outlook
According to the FAA’s “10-Year Strategy for the Air-Traffic-Control Workforce,” since 2007, the FAA has hired more than 7,500 new air traffic controllers and plans to hire at least 6,200 more controllers over the next five years. The big news for would-be air traffic controllers is the FAA’s revamp of hiring requirements, making them more open than in decades past.
Under the FAA’s requirements enacted in February of this year, successful applicants must be U.S. citizens, able to start training before their 31st birthday and willing to relocate anywhere the FAA needs them (there are 315 FAA facilities with controllers nationwide). Under new requirements, applicants must have “three years of progressively responsible work experience, or a Bachelor’s degree, or a combination of education and work experience that totals three years.”
Retirements, tougher minimum training requirements and a growing global travel market are fueling shortages of pilots and air traffic controllers.
Controllers who meet initial education and experience requirements undergo 12 weeks of training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where they start at the FG-1 pay scale. Once training is completed, new controllers start at approximately $37,070 (as of 2013) per year. Experienced controllers earn a median annual salary of $122,530 (as of May 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Ten percent of controllers earn more than $171,340. William Coyne, Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Air Traffic Management for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University says, “Air traffic controller is the greatest job in the world. The FAA needs to better align its requirements with the candidates it hires, but the career is an excellent one.”
As we arrive at the closing months of 2014, we see more pressure on the aviation industry overall. The FAA’s new first officer training requirements and a shrinking pilot population are fueling unprecedented demand for pilots. While major airlines will always have their pick of pilots (usually senior regional captains), the regional carriers that feed them are in trouble. Global demand and increasing passenger traffic mean the outlook for aviation-related careers is bright. In the coming years, we’ll likely see increased salaries and better benefits as the piloting profession regains the luster it had in aviation’s golden era. For those looking for a career in aviation, the news is all positive.