The year 2015 has been one of upheaval with respect to aviation careers. The big news, of course, is the shortage of pilots that began affecting regional carriers last year; that has reached a point where flights are being cancelled. Just weeks ago, Republic Airways Holdings—parent company of Shuttle America and Republic Airlines—notified its partner airlines and investors that it wouldn’t be able to meet contracted schedules over the next 12 months. The reason: problems staffing flights with pilots. At the same time, the U.S. military is offering unprecedented bonuses for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilots, and foreign airlines (especially Asia and the Middle East) are doing just about anything to keep their airplanes flying.
A shortage that has been ramping up for the last five years, and one which few people thought would materialize, has reached a point where even naysayers are starting to wring their hands. While the major carriers aren’t feeling a shortage of pilots yet, the regionals that feed our modern “hub” airline system from smaller airports are feeling it, and because they supply passengers for the majors, it’s a serious problem.
While shortages of pilots will increase demand, extreme growth in air travel around the world is also creating an enormous need for mechanics and other types of technicians. A worldwide fleet of airliners that’s growing exponentially will need technicians to maintain them, especially with increasing technological capabilities. Likewise, the need for flight attendants also will increase as the number of passengers increases. And UAV pilots are needed more than ever, with salaries in the private sector reaching well past $100,000 per year as the military scrambles to find—and keep—UAV pilots. It’s an exciting time.
A Closer Look At The Shortage
For the record, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) doesn’t believe there’s a pilot shortage. However, it’s more of a semantic argument. ALPA asserts that there’s no shortage of qualified pilots in the workforce, but rather, a shortage of pilots willing to work for the wages being offered—especially at the regional level where starting salaries still hover around $25,000 annually, causing fewer young people want to become pilots.
Recently, general aviation has been the “feeder” system for airline pilots. While the military supplied most airline pilots through the 1980s, the number of military pilots began dwindling then, and with budget cuts, retirement changes, salary reductions and advances in technology, the military supplies very few pilots to the airlines. The burden has shifted to GA.
But, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), general aviation has been losing about 6,000 pilots per year for the last decade. As of the beginning of 2015, FAA statistics show a pilot population of about 593,500 broken into several sub-categories: air transport pilots (ATP) number 152,933, while private pilots hover around 174,883 and instructors at 100,933. Of all active pilots today, approximately 39,322 are women. Looking over a 10-year history, student pilot starts are at an all-time low. This lack of new pilots kick-started the present shortage.
A major change in federal law that now requires pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of flying time before earning their ATP certificate added to that shortage, as did new rules on the amount of hours pilots can work and the amount of rest they must get, creating a need for more pilots to fill the same schedules as before. And, contract negotiations between pilot unions and carriers have broken down and created a variety of problems, causing many pilots to throw in the towel.
Mandatory retirement at 65, a dramatic increase in the number of passengers and miles flown around the world, economic growth in Asia and the Middle East, and the non-existent flow of pilots from the military, have all come together to create the perfect storm of a pilot shortage. But that’s great news for aspiring professional pilots.
The aviation industry—especially the airlines—look to annual market projections from Boeing and Airbus to gauge the future. The Boeing Current Market Outlook especially has become something of a crystal ball for the industry, largely due to its uncanny accuracy. After all, nothing predicts airline demand like orders for multi-million-dollar passenger jets.
Boeing’s report, just published for 2015, forecasts a need for an additional 558,000 airline pilots worldwide by 2034. That works out to 28,000 pilots per year. And technicians are an even hotter commodity, requiring some 609,000 maintenance personnel over the next 20 years. Airline giant Airbus forecasts a need for 32,600 new airliners by 2034, while Boeing sets the number at 38,000, for a total value of $5.6 trillion.
Of the new pilots, Asia will need 226,000 of them over the next 20 years, while North America will need 95,000. The rest of the more than half-million pilots will work in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Russia. The demand is driven by a global increase in wealth, increasing the number of passengers who can travel by hundreds of millions. Growth in Asia especially has been surging in recent years with no signs of slowing down. Significant growth is predicted there and throughout the Middle East.
Another area of significant demand is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or “drones.” In both the private and government sectors, drones are huge. Piloting them is a lucrative career choice with great salaries and benefits, along with varied working conditions. However, it’s not all dollar bills and roses. Military UAV pilots are overworked and stressed, especially with all the wars and conflicts across the globe. Still, many non-pilots are flocking to newly created UAV programs across the country (reference Plane & Pilot’s UAV special article in the July 2015 issue).
In the military, recent changes illustrate the depth of UAV pilot shortages. This July, in response to UAV pilot shortages, the U.S. Air Force introduced its plan to fix the problem. It announced bonuses for UAV pilots of $15,000 per year beginning in fiscal year 2016, along with automatic placement of undergraduate pilot training graduates in remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) squadrons beginning in August. The Air Force will also be investing more than $100 million to buy more ground control stations, simulators and contract instructors.
“We now face a situation where if we don’t direct additional resources appropriately, it creates unacceptable risk,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. “We are working hard to put solutions in place to bring needed relief to our Airmen and ensure our actions show their value to our mission.”
Meanwhile, in the private sector, a Boston-area online startup is signing up pilots to work as independent contractors piloting UAVs under a special FAA exemption. Fly4.me is a company started by Adam Kersnowski and Dmitry Sharshunskiy that’s among more than 500 operators granted an exemption from rules prohibiting commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The company hopes to launch a nationwide network of pilots who can fly a variety of UAV missions, from agricultural mapping to real estate to wedding videography and many others.
Fly4.me will develop standardized training for certificated pilots who haven’t operated unmanned vehicles. According to Kersnowski and Sharshunskiy, training will take approximately three days and will include a practical test. Pilots with UAV experience could take jobs without any additional training. The whole operation is based on terms of the Section 333 exemption granted by the FAA in April.
An Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management (UTM) conference in July at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., presented a possible vision of our drone future. The founder of Amazon’s new “Prime Air” drone delivery service, Gur Kimchi, proposed a high-speed drone corridor stretching from 60 to 120 meters above cities. Access to the corridor would only be permitted to drones equipped with 3D maps, an Internet link and the ability to reroute to avoid birds, buildings and other drones without human assistance. More basic consumer drones would have to stay below 60 meters.
Since the FAA began loosening its grip on commercial drone operations, hundreds of startups have experienced tremendous growth operating advanced small UAVs in a variety of missions. Contract UAV pilots are earning well above $100,000 per year plus bonuses and benefits. There seems to be no end to the growth in UAVs, and many predict their numbers will far surpass manned aircraft in the decades to come.
Air Traffic Control
The FAA is in hot water right now after radically changing its hiring rules for new air traffic controllers in 2014. Prior to that, the FAA recruited its air traffic controllers from either the military or from the pool of people who had graduated from the highly specialized multi-year FAA program called Collegiate Training Initiative or “CTI” school. However, FAA now uses a walk-in process combined with a biographical questionnaire asking questions such as, “How many sports did you play in high school?”
The FAA is in the midst of a years-long effort to discard the World War II-era radar technology currently used to manage airplane traffic in favor of a new satellite-based system known as NextGen. According to the FAA’s “10-Year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce,” it plans to hire at least 6,200 more controllers over the next five years. Though controversial, the agency’s new hiring practices have opened the career to a larger number of people.
Under the FAA’s newest requirements, 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 nationwide that use controllers). 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.”
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 per year (as of 2013). 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.
Though not everybody wants to be a pilot, the lure of aviation—with its easy travel and exotic destinations—hits some people hard. For many, becoming a flight attendant is a glamorous way to fly. There hasn’t been a better time to pursue a flight attendant career in decades.
Several airlines are accepting applications for the first time in years, including major carriers. Delta plans on hiring 1,800 new flight attendants this year, American and Southwest are hiring, and Spirit Airlines is looking for 500 new flight attendants. Across the board, major carriers are projecting 3% to 5 % increases in flights and passengers, requiring newer airplanes and more flight attendants.
As of May 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median salary of a flight attendant at $46,300 annually. Meanwhile, flight attendants who work for private charter companies or executive flight crews earn a median salary of $81,120. Though the BLS outlook is for a decrease in demand in this career, more current numbers from Boeing indicate a significant growth over the next 20 years.
Candidates for flight attendants undergo a rigorous selection and interview process, and must meet certain physical requirements with regard to weight and stature. Physical mobility, availability for travel, personality, and the ability to work under pressure and in emergency situations are all factors that will be considered. One of the most thorough flight attendant hiring sources is the website www.flightattendantcareer.com.
It will be interesting to watch how demand for pilots, technicians and support personnel will affect current salaries in the aviation world. While the cost of training skyrockets and salaries continue to stay flat, the pilot shortage will likely change things for the better. For anybody who has a passion for flight and the patience to deal with the ups and downs of a job in aviation, it remains one of the best times ever to pursue a career in the sky.