Where Have All the Pilots Gone?

Empty cockpits are becoming more and more common, but why? [File Image: Adobe Stock]

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a six-part series examining the aviation industry’s pilot shortage and what can be done about it.

Jan. 14: An overview of the issue | Jan. 17: How the military is dealing with its shortage | Jan. 18: Recruiting right from the flight schools | Jan. 19: How to get young people involved | Jan 20: The role of flight schools in creating pilots | Jan 21: Want to get your chops back? Here’s how.    

If you’ve been involved in aviation at all over the past couple of years, you’ve heard plenty about the shortage of commercial and corporate pilots in the U.S. It’s affected travel, business, and everything in between.

Sure, we all know it’s happening, but it didn’t happen yesterday. 

Where did these pilots go?

The Desire for Meaningful Work and Balance

FLYING asked pilots who were changing careers to tell us why. The dominant themes related to lifestyle changes and technological trends.

One pilot, who wished to remain anonymous, said he left his job as a captain on a 135 carrier that had a challenging flying schedule when his family welcomed a new child. He said he switched to a more “fulfilling” career in higher education.

“I found myself around excited student pilots that I could mentor, which was incredibly rewarding, and I kept a close enough relationship with industry that still made me feel that I was ‘in’ aviation.”

When asked if he would return to commercial flying, he said, “I personally am not interested in moving to an airline or going back to flying [for] another operator.”

Another pilot in the rotorcraft sector said he switched from being a full-time helicopter pilot to becoming a UAS operator amid looming trends in drone technology and worrisome promises from emerging eVTOL companies that their airplanes will be pilotless—as well as a desire to lead a more stable family life.

On a macro-level COVID-19 spotlighted this desire. The pandemic prompted people in a variety of professions to revisit their priorities, including how and where they want to work—a phenomenon some are calling “The Great Reshuffle.” 

[Courtesy: McKinsey & Company]

In September 2021, McKinsey and Company published results of a survey on The Great Reshuffle. The survey found that people departed their jobs for a variety of reasons, but high on the list was quality of life and personal fulfillment.

“When employers were asked why their people had quit, they cited compensation, work-life balance, and poor physical and emotional health. These issues did matter to employees—just not as much as employers thought they did. By contrast, the top three factors employees cited as reasons for quitting were that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54 percent) or their managers (52 percent), or because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work (51 percent),” the study said.

Even the military has faced challenges attracting and retaining pilots. In 2020, military.com reported that “Despite high hopes for a program aimed at retaining full-time pilots, there are only two airmen currently utilizing Air Mobility Command's Aviator Technical Track (ATT), also known as the ‘fly-only’ track.” 

In a 2017 hearing before the subcommittee on military personnel of the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, of California, said, “There are many reasons besides money that military pilots leave the service for the private sector, including family concerns and a desire for more stability…”

Airlines can’t find pilots at the regional level.

Speaking at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on December 15, 2021, United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL) CEO Scott Kirby told legislators that it had to ground as many as 100 of its regional planes, due to a shortage of pilots.

"There has been a looming pilot shortage for the last decade in the United States,” Kirby told senators, adding, “that going through COVID, it became an actual pilot shortage."

As Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, quizzed Kirby about how United was working with codeshare partners to maximize service in smaller markets, the United CEO shared, “We have almost 100 airplanes effectively grounded right now—regional aircraft—because there’s not enough pilots to fly them, which means we can’t at the moment fly to all the small communities that we would like to. 

“There has been a looming pilot shortage for the last decade in the United States ... going through COVID, it became an actual pilot shortage.”

Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby speaking at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on December 15, 2021

“It’s really about not having enough pilots.”

More alarmingly, the CEO said he doubts the problem will resolve itself in the short term unless something is done to address the pilot shortage.

Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL), and John Laughter, chief of operations at Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), echoed his concerns during that senate hearing, saying the shortage will become an issue if their own regional partners can't recruit enough pilots for regional aircraft routes.

The following week, on December 22, United confirmed that it would suspend 14 regional routes in March of 2022 from Washington Dulles International Airport (KIAD), one of its regional hubs, for the same reasons. These cancellations directly impact sales for the major airlines as they can’t realize any earnings from their regional partners.

Then in its fourth quarter and end-of-year earnings results, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said that while his airline wasn’t having any trouble hiring pilots, the difficulties existed at the regional airlines, which typically lose their pilots to mainline carriers.

So, where have all the pilots gone?

Speaking at the 2021 Skift Global Forum on November 17, Parker said, “While there is no shortage of people who want to be pilots, we have had to put some incentives in place for regional pilots.”

Several regional carriers have offered incentives and earn-out bonuses based on flows and upgrades to attract pilots. In fact, Envoy Airlines, one of American Airlines’ wholly owned regional carriers, offers as much as $175,000 in bonuses—albeit with many fine-print clauses—to attract and retain pilots.

A 2020 active civil airmen statistics table showing the number of original airman certificates by category. [Courtesy: FAA]

Has general interest waned? 

Parker might be right, but his comment is only a part of the story—yes, there are people who still want to become pilots—but the FAA’s U.S. civil airmen statistics tell a broader story. While there have been peaks and valleys, the number of student pilot certificates issued by the FAA in 2020 (49,933) was 13 percent less than the total issued in 2010 (56,008).

Interest in becoming a pilot, while still existent, had its ups and downs. While that interest seems to be trending up now, airline executives are aware that the upturn hasn't caught up to the corporate and commercial sector. In a 2016 Bloomberg Business article, Greg Muccio, then a senior manager at Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) who now serves as the company’s senior director of talent acquisition, said, “The biggest problem is a general lack of interest in folks pursuing this as a career anymore. That’s what puts us in the most jeopardy.”

Business Aviation Fights Old-School Mindset

Business aviation companies have also been faced with the challenge of recruiting pilots. 

Corporate flight departments are trying to stave off the airlines from grasping their staff. In a January 2022 Business Aviation Insider article, Jad Donaldson, director of aviation for the Harley-Davidson Motor Co., shared with the National Business Aviation Association: “Despite the often-cyclical nature of the airline industry, pilots still believe they’ll be at the same airline for 20-30 years and then retire out. It’s difficult for business aviation to compete against that mindset, even if history shows airlines must often reorganize and furlough employees. The math doesn’t always work out as planned.”

What the Future May Hold

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projections (EP) program develops information about the labor market 10 years into the future. Its most recent outlook for airline and commercial pilots predicts that overall employment will grow 13 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than average.

According to its website, about 14,500 openings for airline and commercial pilots are projected each year, on average, over the decade. That means nearly 150,000 new airline pilots will be needed by 2030.

That number seems stark, but a November 2020 pilot job outlook by CAE (NYSE:CAE), the global commercial training provider for airlines and other private entities, not only corroborates this, but doubles it, saying the global requirement for new pilots over the next decade could be as high as 264,000. 

CAE attributes this to two things:        

  • Airline pilots retiring at a rate of 3.8 percent a year, due to pilots reaching the FAA mandatory retirement age of 65.
  • Projected growth in leisure and business travel.

The aviation industry has faced major disruptions each decade. These include:

  • The OPEC oil embargo and deregulation in the 1970s
  • The air traffic controller strike, bankruptcies, and airline mergers in the 1980s
  •  The Gulf War and the U.S. recession in the 1990s
  •  The 9/11 terrorist attack, the SARS epidemic, and the great financial recession of the 2000s.

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, a pilot shortage could be the greatest challenge of this decade.

Michael Wildes holds a master’s degree in Logistics & Supply Chain Management, and a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science, both from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Previously, he worked at the university’s flight department as a Flight Check Airman, Assistant Training Manager, and Quality Assurance Mentor. He holds MEI, CFI & CFII ratings. Follow Michael on Twitter @Captainwildes.

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