Where have all the pilots gone?

That is the question the military,  some regional airlines and private operators are asking as they contemplate what they believe to be a shortage of professionals able to man their cockpits. To keep the pilots they have, and attract new recruits, they are offering hefty signing and retention bonuses, or promising a guaranteed interview with a major carrier after a certain amount of military service.

Without immediate corrective action or another demand-dampening event such as 9/11 or the recession, the world is facing a serious pilot shortage now and for the next two decades. The reason is simple: It takes years to train pilots and the profession is hierarchical, so the supply is relatively inelastic. New regulation has also made it even harder to become an airline pilot than it used to be.

Here’s how the pilot ecosystem is supposed to work: At the top of the food chain sit the major carriers. Typically, they hire experienced pilots from the military, regional and private carriers. The military, regionals and the private carriers, in turn, train inexperienced pilots looking to move up the ranks. (Private carriers have historically augmented experience levels by using older, experienced pilots post an airline career. These pilots however are retiring in greater numbers as ill health and age limitations take effect).

But the base of the pyramid has been shrinking for decades. In 1980 there were 610,490 people in the U.S alone with private, commercial or airline transport pilot certificates. By 2014 the number had withered to 432,138. In 1980, there were 557,312 student and private pilots; in 2014 there were about 240,000. This decline in numbers has been reflected worldwide.

Complicating matters, regulators have passed a laws that make it more difficult to become a commercial pilot. For instance, US Congress changed the law that went into effect in 2013 which raised the required hours to 1,500 from 250 to become a co-pilot. That requirement, known as the 1,500-hour rule, was intended to address concerns over pilot inexperience raised after the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which killed 50 people. Elsewhere pilot experience has become a big issue such as AF447 and numerous other accidents have cited inexperience as a contributory factors.

However, despite the overall increase in demand for pilots the cumulative effect of the increased training requirements and the subsequent increase in training cost has meant a dramatic decreased the number of qualified pilots. The average cost for a new pilot via an TRTO is in excess of 100,000 UKP and several years invested in to the process of becoming an airline pilot. Take into account also that following this period the average starting salary for new pilots is either a ‘non-paid’ term while leased from a TRTO for ‘experience’ followed by abysmally low pay of 15,000 – 20,000 UKP if and when employed full time.

Over the next 20 years, growth in commercial aviation and an unprecedented wave of pilot retirements—the average age of airline pilots is roughly 50, up from 44 in 1993—will exert huge pressure on the industry. The problem can only be addressed by introducing more young people to aviation and solving the cost-benefit dilemma of high training costs and low salaries. So far nothing has been done or is being considered to dress this concern.

So, everyone benefits from a strong and vibrant aviation industry especially the flying public but no one, especially the industry itself, is prepared to do anything about it. However, regulators and the insurance industry simply cannot afford to compromise safety by lowering standards to fill cockpits. Instead, if the pilot supply keeps shrinking, airlines will reduce capacity, cut back flight schedules and both the commercial and private aircraft will be grounded.