the pilot shortage grows

July 5, 2018

Within the aviation industry, pilot shortages are typically a by-product of supply and demand. In recent years, the expansion of commercial air travel has steadily outgrown the number of available pilots, helping create one of the most profound shortages to date. Kirby Harrison reports

The reasons for today’s pilot shortage are varied and, for the most part, valid. At the top of the list is the relatively healthy economic environment that many of the world’s largest markets are currently enjoying – including Africa, China, the European Union, Middle East and the United States.

With a healthy economy follows increasing demand for air passenger travel. In fact, according to the 2017 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook, a well-respected forecast of personnel demand, 637,000 commercial airline pilots will be needed to fly the world fleet over the next 20 years. Further breaking down this number, Boeing forecasts that within this period the Asia/Pacific region will lead worldwide growth in pilot demand, requiring 243,000 new pilots. Meanwhile, North America will require 117,000, Europe 106,000, the Middle East 63,000, Latin America 52,000, Africa 24,000 and the CIS and Russia 22,000. Want a second opinion? Canadian simulation and training services provider CAE says it expects that the world’s commercial aviation industry will need an additional 255,000 pilots by 2027.

Articles and experts have been forecasting the pilot shortage for years, with some suggesting shortages of up to 3,000 pilots this year alone. But the time for forecasting is over. To be blunt, the shortage isn’t coming – it’s here, and there is little promise of the any improvement in the near term.

A Business Aviation Problem Too

Let’s be clear. The pilot shortage isn’t limited to commercial aviation. While growth in commercial air has been gaining momentum, there are signs that Business Aviation activity is also increasing. As a result, bizav, like other segments, is beginning to feel the pilot shortage squeeze.

Argus CEO Joe Moeggenberg recently told that in 2017, for the first time since 2008, Business Aviation flight activity reached over three million flights – an upward trend expected to continue into this year. ARGUS’ TRAQPak analysis has forecast flight activity for the first quarter of 2018 to increase 5%. “In 2017, Part 135 activity saw the largest year-over-year operation category increase of over 9%, and large cabin aircraft saw the largest year-over-year increases in the industry, up almost 15%,” he said.

In the NBAA’s Insider magazine, the association gets right to the point about the industry’s pilot shortage, saying that it is the result of both the airlines offering pilots what is perceived to be a better deal and an overall decline in the number of people choosing aviation careers. As to the first point, in an effort to retain current pilot employees and hire new ones, the airlines are putting together monetary bonus packages. For example, the Horizon Air pilot recruiting website offers hiring bonuses of $20,000 for Embraer 175 pilots and $25,000 for Dash-8 Q400 pilots. As of March this year, Compass Airlines (which operates as Delta Connection or American Eagle) was offering a $17,500 signing bonus. Envoy (American Airlines Group) is offering a $45,000 signing bonus “when they walk through the door” to those pilots with a clean training record, up to 600 hours of Part 121 experience and a reliable attendance record.

As a side note, according to European global private jet charter broker PrivateFly, the pilot shortage in Europe has not been so severe, thanks in part to the collapse and closure of Air Berlin and Britain’s Monarch Airlines in October 2017, the effect of which is that a large bloc of pilots are now available.

Contributing Factors

While much of the pilot shortage is attributed to growth in the global economy and the corresponding growth in the commercial aviation industry, there are other contributing factors, such as retirement. According to a study by the University of North Dakota, over the next decade between 15,000 and 18,000 air carrier aviators whose careers were previously extended when the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age for Part 121 pilots from 60 to 65 will be set to retire. Add to this the FAA’s 1,500-hour minimum for regional first officers, implemented in 2013, plus a declining number of people holding air transport licenses, and the long-forewarned pilot shortage becomes a harsh reality – with a 15,000-person gap by 2026.

More so, when OEMs begin delivering new aircraft there is likely to be an additional impact on the pilot shortage. These aircraft include Bombardier’s Global 7000, the Citation Longitude from Cessna, Gulfstream’s G500 and G600 large-cabin jets and the Pilatus PC-24 light jet. Add to this, albeit in smaller numbers, the Airbus ACJ319neo and the ACJ320neo, as well as the BBJ Max – all single-aisle VIP jets. To add figures to this, at this point, Global 7000 orders are sold out through 2021, 25% of 2018’s planned production for Cessna’s Longitude is sold out, and 80% of Gulfsteam orders for the 2nd quarter of 2017 were for the new G500 and G600. As of early 2017, Pilatus was reporting orders for the PC-24 of more than 84 aircraft. The combined total of Airbus and Boeing next-generation VIP jets now totals more than 26 airplanes.

This all adds up to a lot of new aircraft that will require pilots to fly them. Unfortunately, many of the potential pilots are going to the airlines. The most attractive aspects of flying for an airline is typically salary, followed by 401K pension plans, profit-sharing, medical insurance, dental insurance and other benefits. While attractive inducements, many Business Aviation pilots are also tempted by what is perceived to be fixed schedules that facilitate a more stable family life. Furthermore, in recent years, airline pilot unions have leveraged the pilot shortage against the airlines’ return to profitability, securing sizeable increases in pay and benefits for their members. For example, between 2011 and 2016, airline pilots saw their pay rise by an average of 26%.

According to the NBAA, senior captains flying business jets have an average annual salary of between $106,536 (aircraft weighing 10,000 to 20,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight) and $176,288 for a Jet V (80,000 to 120,000 pounds max takeoff weight). A 2017 NBAA pilot salary survey noted that a captain flying a mid-sized corporate aircraft like the Bombardier Challenger 350 made about $130,000 annually. By comparison, according to an Airline Pilots Association document, an American Airlines captain flying the Boeing 373 or Airbus A320 earned just over $268,000 in 2017.

Pay for business aircraft pilots in some operations has also increased, though hardly comparable to that of airlines. For example, two years ago a major fractional provider bumped pay packages up by 28% over five years. According to the NBAA’s 2017 Compensation Survey, the average increase for chief pilots during the previous year was 5.5%.

Looking for Solutions

So, what can be done? To start, the NBAA recommends lowering minimum hourly requirements for high-quality new-hires and, at the same time, providing these recruits with enhanced training within the company’s safety culture. There’s also the issue of providing more attractive compensation packages. For example, charter operator XOJET is investing more in compensation, pilot quality of life, and recruiting and training. To make the company an even more attractive place to work, XOJET has increased compensation for the past four consecutive years, instituted flexible schedule options, greatly expanded leadership opportunities, increased commensurate pay for Standards Captains, expanded training programs, and invested more in quality of life initiatives.

Companies should also act early by encouraging pilot candidates early on. For example, Clay Lacy launched a pilot scholarship program in 2003 and added a second scholarship in 2008. Today the company is working with existing aviation schools and granting scholarships to as many as six candidates annually. The company is also working with ATP Flight School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, whose Airline Career Pilot Fast Track Program is designed to take the student pilot from zero experience to 1,500 hours of flight time in just nine months.

In an effort to bring more students into aviation, Ron Rapp, an experienced corporate pilot and aviation writer, says the industry has essentially ignored a major demographic – women. In fact, statistics compiled by Statista say just 5.1% of pilots worldwide are female. “At least half of the US population is female, but very few women pursue a career as a professional pilot,” says Rapp.

According to Rapp, the solution to increasing the female pilot population is to start exposing them to the wonders of aviation at a young age through such programs as the STEM curriculum by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “This means encouraging field trips to the local general aviation airport to let them see what goes on there and ensuring they get that critical first airplane ride with the right person, which is to say, someone who will make sure it’s a smooth, enjoyable experience,” he adds.

Filling the Gap

The professional pilot being sought by business jet owners and operators is more than a competent pilot. According to Rick Wilson, assistant chief pilot with Clay Lacy Aviation, the Business Aviation pilot is a highly accomplished professional with a combination of technical, people and management skills. “The job of the corporate pilot is as much personality-driven as it is technical,” he says. “We need pilots who have multiple skill sets, not just great piloting ability [and] there are many elements to consider when hiring that go above the required flight hours and training that is listed on the resume.”

After all this discussion, the bottom line is simple: there are not enough qualified pilots to meet this demand. And considering the anticipated growth in commercial aviation over the next two decades, this isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

ALPA — There is No Pilot Shortage in the United States

While most of the aviation industry is in agreement with regard to the existing pilot shortage, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), International has a different perspective.

In a posting on the union website earlier this year, ALPA stated bluntly: “The facts are clear – there is no pilot shortage in the United States.” In fact, it added that more than 25,500 certificates have been issued since July 2013, which is “a rate of issuance that continues to exceed the most optimistic pilot forecast.”

ALPA further said that it has promoted the pilot profession as a career of choice and conducted outreach in schools and universities throughout the United States and Canada. “In 2016, ALPA reached an estimated 10,000 students [striving] to inspire the next generation of pilots through discussion of technology, innovation and the myriad of benefits of choosing this career.”