USA Today, July 2015:

Pilots, airlines and academics are wrestling with how to recruit more trainees into the industry, out of concerns that a shortage looms over the next two decades.

The projected shortfall is debatable because pilots fall in love with the occupation in elementary school and are expected to keep pursuing the profession. But the explosive growth in travelers and planes projected over 20 years prompted the Air Line Pilots Association to explore how to expand recruiting and training during a full-day conference Thursday in Arlington, Va.

The case for a looming shortage comes from the demand for planes and pilots. Boeing Co. projects a demand for 36,770 planes worldwide over the next 20 years, including 7,550 in North America, and 13,460 in Asia.

Airlines hire about 10 pilots per plane, to fly all day every day. Boeing projects a need for 541,000 new pilots by 2034, including 95,000 in North America and 226,000 in Asia (Fig 1).


Worldwide Pilot Demand. Source: Boeing.

Fig 1: Worldwide Pilot Demand. Source: Boeing


“We are talking about explosive growth,” said Capt. Carl Davis, chief pilot for Boeing’s pilot services. “How are we going to find pilots to fill these airplanes?”

One threat is that Asia could hire away U.S. pilots. Any shortage could be exacerbated by a 65-year retirement age for U.S. pilots and tougher training for new pilots.

“We can argue these numbers, but it’s clear there’s a need, a demand,” said Ken Byrnes, chairman of the flight department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “We have a need for pilots in the airline industry.”

Another facet is that it’s become harder to become an airline pilot.

After a fatal crash in February 2009, Congress required co-pilots to have the same 1,500 hours of flight experience as captains. Exceptions were made from aviation students with four-year degrees, who could have 1,000 hours, and military pilots, who could have 750 hours.

Regional airlines have complained that trained pilots are harder to find, forcing a reduction in flights. But the pilots’ union contends that the difficulty stems from wages too low to repay student loans for training that costs $150,000 to $200,000.

“It draws me to the conclusion quite simply that it’s an economic decision,” said Canoll, ALPA president.

In February 2011, the Government Accountability Office found mixed evidence of a pilot shortage. Wages had remained relatively flat for a decade, suggesting demand hadn’t outstripped the supply. But pilot schools reported fewer students entering programs because of concerns over high costs and low entry-level wages.

Strategies to shorten the hurdle of training costs is for pilots to see a clear path through lower-paying regional airlines to more lucrative jobs at major airlines.

For example, Cape Air and JetBlue Airways have a program for promising students to work for a few years at the regional airline with the expectation they could reach the major airline.

“There’s tons of people who have the passion for this industry, they’re just having trouble seeing the immediate return on investment,” Byrnes said.