Fact and Fallacy of the Looming “Pilot Shortage”

As the pundits have it, our airlines are running out of pilots. But is this true?

WORD OF A LOOMING PILOT SHORTAGE has been making headlines. The Wall Street Journaland most of the major network news channels have carried the story, as have dozens of print and online sources.

The idea that airlines will soon face an “acute shortage of pilots,” as a Journal piece recently put it, is both true and untrue. It depends very much on which part of the airline industry we’re talking about. We need to draw a sharp divide between the major carriers and their regional affiliates. It’s the latter that may have a problem on its hands.

The major carriers will always have a surplus of highly qualified candidates to choose from. They are able to cull from from the top ranks of the regional carriers, as well as from the military. The impending wave of retirements won’t come close to depleting a supply of senior, highly experienced regional airline pilots who would kill for a slot with a major. That is, if and when they are hiring. Attrition is slow, and at the moment there are more than 3,000 pilots on indefinite furlough from the likes of American, United, and US Airways, some of whom have been laid off for ten years or more. A friend of mine who lost his job at TWA and American recently took a position in Dubai because decent US flying jobs are so scarce. He’s one of many.

At the regionals it’s a slightly different story. By regionals we’re referring to the numerous subcontractors who operate smaller jets and turboprops on behalf of the network carriers: those myriad “Connection” and “Express” carriers. This sector of the industry has expanded tremendously over the past twenty years or so, and now accounts for an astonishing one-half (53 percent to be exact) of all domestic departures in the United States.

Pay and working conditions are often terrible at these companies, with salaries starting at around $20,000 annually — sometimes less. And the growth of this sector, together with limited hiring and low rates of attrition at the majors, means that pilots are figuring out that a job with a regional often means an entire career with a regional.

Meanwhile, the FAA is about to enforce tougher hiring standards for entry-level pilots. Over the past two decades, as the regional sector grew and grew, thousands of new pilot jobs were created. To fill these slots, airlines sharply lowered their experience and flight time minimums for new-hires. Suddenly, pilots were being taken on with as little as 350 hours of total time, assigned to the first officer’s seat of sophisticated regional jets. Twenty or thirty years ago this would have been unthinkable. Then came a rash of accidents, including the Colgan Air (Continental Connection) disaster outside Buffalo in 2009. Regulators began taking a closer look at hiring practices, eventually enacting legislation that that will mandate higher flight time totals and additional certification requirements for new-hires.

(The new rules may sound highly restrictive to young pilots, but really all they’re doing is returning things to historical norms. My first job with a regional — “commuters” we called them in those days — was in 1990. Competitive applicants at the time had between 1,500 and 2,000 hours, and most of us had an FAA Airline Transport Pilot certificate as well. And that was to fly an unpressurized 15-seater.)

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An aspiring aviator has to ask, is it worth sinking $50,000 or more into one’s primary training, plus the time it will take to build the necessary number of flight hours, plus the cost of a college education, only to spend years toiling at poverty-level wages, with at best a marginal shot at moving on to a major?

For many the answer is no. A growing number of regional pilots are bailing out of the business altogether, and the replacement pool is drying up.

How much it dries up, however, remains to be seen.

It’s somewhat telling that virtually no regional carriers have raised their salaries or benefit packages to levels that would appear aimed at retaining or attracting pilots.

Keep in mind, too, the willingness of pilots to suffer for their art, so to speak. There will always be pilots – some would say too many of them – happy to endure almost anything for the sheer thrill of the job. If you ask me, there will be plenty of experienced crewmembers out there in the foreseeable future, hungry for work, and airlines big and small can continue to expect a hundred or more applications for every available job.




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29 Responses to “Fact and Fallacy of the Looming “Pilot Shortage””
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  1. Jerry Denim says:

    I feel this article gets it about 90% right, but just like everything else I have ever read on this topic in the business press or general news type publications the author chooses to perpetuate the myth that there is a big difference between regional airlines and the legacy airlines that employ/exploit them.

    Regional airlines are fake airlines. They are shell companies that only exist as the playthings of Legacy airlines. Their sole purpose is to increase the profitability of the legacy carriers by arbitraging labor, sowing discord among professional pilot ranks and encouraging ‘race to the bottom’ labor market dynamics. The sides of the aircraft are painted with the logos for Delta, United and American. The tickets held by the passengers in regional jet cabins are sold by Delta, United and American, and in many cases the aircraft themselves and various other ‘regional’ company resources belong to the parent/master legacy company. The regional sector hasn’t grown, but rather the legacies have successfully maximized profits by expunging thousands of professional pilots from their seniority lists while still getting them to fly their aircraft and passengers for cheap. if the legacies in-house their struggling shell company regionals and give the hopeless regional pilots a seniority number with a decent wage, work rules, and benefits this so-called ‘crisis’ will be over. It’s only a crisis if you are an airline CEO addicted to cheap, exploited labor.

  2. […] Ask the Pilot article believes the pilot shortage will critically impact the Regional Airlines only, as the large […]

  3. Richard says:

    How easily we forget all the factors that go into hiring a pilot. Are there thousands of licensed commercial and ATP Pilots with valid medicals?? Probably. How are their driving records? Tickets… DUI’s… Too many tickets or a DUI are automatic dis-qualifiers for being hired at reputable airlines. How do your numbers avoid a shortage with those factors in mind. If you can’t drive a car responsibly; you think an airline is gonna let you sit in the right seat?? Yeah right. I agree there are thousands of pilots who could easily start working…however how many would be disqualified once all factors are taken into consideration. It’s like a math problem.. even if the 17 steps you did were correct for one problem, that step where you forgot the negative sign makes the whole problem incorrect! There is a pilot shortage.

    • CPZ F/O says:

      I love how you think that you know how many sidelined ATP guys aren’t flying because of DUIs. Just wow. Are you a pilot at a regional airline? Are you a mainline pilot? I think of the 20 something ATP qualified pilots that I PERSONALLY know who aren’t at an airline right now, aren’t because the career is extremely volatile, the quality of life is terrible, and pay is not commensurate with the stress of the job and the stress it puts on their personal lives. P.S. there are several regional airlines hiring people with multiple DUIs and multiple training failures over the phone because management doesn’t care who flies your plane.

      • Richard says:

        On the how many DUI pilots are flying for regional airlines comment… I am very specific with what I say so please read carefully before adding sarcasm and objection into a response. I said reputable airlines… big difference. There will always be companies who hire from the bottom of the barrel. Yes anybody can fly for GoJet, but go apply to Southwest or Express Jet if you wanna go regional entry level; with all of those traffic tickets or a DUI… good luck. I recently read application criteria which stated if you have two moving violations or a DUI in the past two years, DO NOT apply. So once again reputable is the key word here and in my previous comment.

        • Jerry says:

          2 years is barely any time.

          Honestly, they probably just put that 2 year limit there to make sure the initial, by initial I mean the 1st year after mostly, ass-wringing that the government puts people through for getting a DUI isn’t going to affect their availability for employment.

          After the first year life goes back to normal, and if you’re not a complete moron unable to learn major life lessons may be less likely to have problems in the future than someone else who simply has not learned the hard way, truly.

  4. bobbi says:

    > It’s somewhat telling that virtually no regional carriers have raised their salaries or benefit packages

    No need while there’s still people who are glad to get paid to fly, no matter the pittance, no matter the lousy working conditions, no matter how meager the benefits, no matter how scant the possibility of climing the aviation career ladder.

    Long-haul, over-the-road, 18-wheel drivers are faced with a similar dilemma. They’re making a steady living, but at a high personal and financial price. The major trucking companies ave no need (yet) to replace drivers who job jump, since the competitors’ pay packages aren’t any better.

    Drivers are already becoming difficult to recruit and retain. It’s getting steadily worse, and the future is multi-modal, road-trains and relaxed regulation.

    Which is more important, safety or “shareholder value”? Yeah. Right. Sure it is…

  5. John says:

    Sounds like the regionals are something akin to minor league baseball. Start them out low and dangle the carrot in front of them. This is all too common in American industry today.

  6. Jim says:

    I retire some 7 years ago from a major. Was trained to fly in the USAF 46+ years ago. We were hearing about pilot shortages even back then. Of course, there was a brief period, well before Deregulation, when United did hire some very low-time people… “This is not your Grandfatathers airline industry!” 😉

  7. Martin Mitev says:

    One regional FO actually ran the numbers and explains his process and the result in a podcast for AVWeb:


    Unsurprisingly, his math matches your spot-on article.

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    We in IT have heard the lie “shortage of skilled American IT workers” for going on 15 years, back to the dotcom days. It’s a blatant lie and both Republicans and Democrats make it to kiss up to corporate America. They import H1B workers by the thousands who displace American workers with better skills. We have the added burden that these scabs have somehow got a reputation for being highly skilled, when in fact they usually do crappy work. The only reason for this is corporate greed.

  9. […] article was originally published on AskThePilot.com and is used here with the author’s permission. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel […]

  10. Marshall says:

    And if a CFI shortage ever happens, the legal minimums for a Part 121 FO will probably be reduced back down to 250 hours while no one’s looking.

  11. Marshall says:

    I’d take the analysis one step further. The question isn’t whether there will be an airline pilot shortage, the question is whether there be a CFI shortage in the US. As you point out, the majors will always have 300 apps for every pilot position. Applicants will include ex-military, regional pilots with 2000+ TPIC hours, and furloughees. Similarly, the regionals can always rely on a steady applicant pool of Part 91/135 pilots, CFIs, and FOs from other regionals. If hiring ever picks up in a big way, the shortage will not be in the 121 world, it will be in the CFI world. Only after the supply of experienced CFIs has dwindled would regionals start to feel a supply pinch, and that would probably take many years as there seems to be a steady supply of folks willing to fork over $50k+ to get their CFI ticket (plus CFII, MEI, ATP, etc.).

  12. Sean S. says:

    The question is, will the “upgauging” of legacy carriers and the rest requirements require the legacy’s to open up hiring again in any significant way? While I highly doubt it will result in a major dent in the sheer supply, it may result in the transfer of significant people at the regionals who have been working a longtime the chance to get into the majors.

    • Patrick says:

      It depends what you mean by significant. There will be, or should be, hiring by ALL of the legacy carriers in the next decade. But it won’t be on the scale that we’ve seen in years past — if for no other reason than regionals now account for such a huge share of the flying….

  13. BoDean says:

    Quote: “but it’s somewhat telling that virtually no regional carriers have raised their salaries or benefit packages to levels that would appear aimed at retaining or attracting pilots.”

    Nailed it!

    Spot-on and well-written article.

  14. Raffi says:

    it is disgusting the level of coruption in our media, when airlines can project absolutle lies to the general public, without any regard for objectivity. There is no shortage when wages are low.

  15. Ranzabar says:

    “We have met the enemy… and he is us”

    If you spend any time in corporate America, you’ll see that the decision making process involves posturing, politics and voodo economics. The airline braintrusts are leading the cause to a the ultimate unsustainable industry.

    When you penalize a human being for attempting to become an airline pilot by using the supply and demand model of “pay-newbies-as-cheap-as-dirt-is-good”, you can expect just what you have. A pilot shortage you’ll never resolve.

    Explain how that works for the industry you Einsteins of commerce.

    Nice to be retired, though I would have liked a shot at the 787…after the battery debacle of course.

  16. Keith Walker says:

    I know at least 4 young people who have spent about $75,000 each to get to commercial licence standards and they cant find jobs.

  17. Eric says:

    “Shortages” of various professionals are manufactured in the media by interested stakeholders to manipulate supply and demand. In the case of pilots, the stakeholders appear to be the airlines who desire a larger and cheaper supply of pilots.

    I am a veterinarian and I have been hearing about a “shortage” of veterinarians for the last 20 years. The fallacy of a veterinary shortage has been promulgated by veterinary schools who desire larger enrollments and therefore larger volumes of tuition, and by corporate veterinary chains who desire a plentiful inexpensive work force.

    Meanwhile veterinary salaries are dropping. Many veterinary graduates are unable to find work as veterinarians, defaulting on student loans, and taking jobs in fast food.

    There will never be a shortage of starry-eyed kids who will do or pay anything to become pilots or vets. I pity the poor dumb young people who throw their lives away by choosing these careers in these times.

  18. Mike says:

    Most enjoyable job I ever had. However, after two years of 18 hour days and selling stereos on the weekend to pay rent, it was time to move on. I could not commit to ten years more of this with only a slight hope of making the majors. What if I failed my medical? What if there was a downturn in the economy? Pilots pay a high price to sit up front.

  19. Brett Greisen says:

    It’s another version of “we don’t have enough software engineers” which really means that the employer wants H-1 specialist workers (lower pay & visa tied to the employer) & don’t interview the senior people who are also up on current software, etc.

  20. Siegfried says:

    As long as the wages for pilots are low when compared to comparable other trained professionals, even at entry level, I don’t think there is a sign of a significant shortage.

  21. Avery Greynold says:

    US businesses have become crybabies who want it all, and for free. An unlimited supply of fully trained and experienced applicants to be hired at entry level pay without benefits. And if Americans won’t take the lowball offers, they want to be able to import foreigners.

  22. […] another part to the story too, told by pilot blogger Patrick Smith, who points out that how a solution will unfold.  Furloughed pilots will be brought back to work, […]

  23. Ed says:

    Sounds kind of like the overabundance of phds/doctoral students trying to get tenure-track jobs in academia…

  24. Simon says:

    Isn’t this basically the result of the US aviation industry’s race to the bottom?

    What are the airlines doing to recruit good pilots? How much are they investing into future aviators? I know that ‘wealthier’ airlines like Swiss or Lufthansa have their own flight schools. They pay for their future pilots’ education (or parts of it) and in return these young pilots sign for a job with the airline for a certain number of years.

    How much does AA or United pay towards flight school? Exactly. I’m afraid you DO end up getting what you pay for.

  25. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    It’s incredulous that so many pilots make so little and have such horrible conditions in which to try to rest, eat, etc. I want my pilot well paid, well rested, fed, and ready to go. I think most of us do.