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 Journal, National Public Radio and most of the major network news channels have carried the story.

It’s amazing how the media can pick up and run with something, regardless of how unclear or inaccurate the premise is.

What does “pilot shortage” really mean?

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.)

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.

 

FOR A DEEPER LOOK AT THIS TOPIC, INCLUDING ITS IMPLICATIONS ON SAFETY, SEE THE AUTHOR’S EARLIER COLUMN IN SALON.COM

 

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20 Responses to “Fact and Fallacy of the Looming “Pilot Shortage””
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Ed says:

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

  4. [...] 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, [...]

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  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. 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….

  15. 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.).

  16. 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.

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

  18. 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.

  19. Martin Mitev says:

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

    http://www.avweb.com/avwebflash/news/Study_Challenges_Pilot_Shortage_208333-1.html

    Unsurprisingly, his math matches your spot-on article.

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