Is there a pilot shortage?
An independent look at the truth behind the much talked about pilot shortage
Is There a Pilot Shortage?
Prior to Covid-19, the answer was yes there was a global pilot shortage but the situation was a bit more complex than the straight forward answer might suggest. However, at present in 2021, there is no pilot shortage due to the impact on aviation of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whenever you hear reports of ‘pilot shortage’ it is usually referring to a world-wide shortage, not necessarily a shortage in Europe or the UK. The shortage is always specific to a region, type of operation and pilot experience.
Covid-19 Pandemic & Aviation
The impact on of the Covid-19 pandemic on commercial aviation has been catastrophic. With huge portions of fleets being grounded for almost a year, tens of thousands of pilots around the world have found themselves out of work. IATA do not anticipate airlines recovering to pre-Covid levels of operation until 2024 and beyond.
However, flight training provider CAE have stated that due to natural attrition (such as retirements), the world will require 260,000 pilots over the next 10 years. This suggests that whilst the immediate outlook is bleak, when the industry recovers, employment opportunities will start to open up.
Pilot Shortage Pre-Covid
The remainder of this article was first published prior to the Covid-19 pandemic but address the age-old questions that come up when this topic is discussed.
First of all, let’s get the statistics out the way. In 2016, Boeing have forecast that the aviation industry will require 679,000 new pilots between now and 2035. Airbus have said that between 2016 and 2035, there will be a requirement for in excess of 500,000 new pilots. Keep in mind though, that this is a worldwide forecast.
It’s a general point, and I don’t want to tarnish all flight schools with the same brush, but if you are considering starting your flight training, be aware that lots of Flight Training Schools will always tell you there is a looming pilot shortage regardless of the market state. To them, ultimately you are profit, and to make profit, they need people to train with them. It’s not going to be good for business if they tell prospective students that there is no point training as there are no jobs! It’s not the case at the moment, as the market for freshly graduated low hour pilots is better than it’s been in a long time, but keep it in mind.
Secondly, the airlines want to avoid a pilot shortage from occurring, in fact they want the exact opposite; lots of pilots on the job market. It’s simple economics. Pilots cost a lot of money to airlines. They get paid a lot and have lower productivity than other personal due to flight time limitations. If you have lots of unemployed pilots, it puts a downwards pressure on wages as you have lots of applicants for one position. The opposite occurs when there’s a shortage; airlines have to put up terms and conditions to attract the best candidates. Lots of pilots looking for employment suits airlines.
Terms and Conditions
In 2008, we saw a recession across Europe and other parts of the world. This put a lot of airlines out of business and left a lot of pilots unemployed. As a result, the last 10 years have seen pilot wages stagnate in many regions as pilot supply has outstripped demand. This pressure on terms and conditions wasn’t helped by an increase in the retirement age in Europe from 60 to 65 being introduced. This meant that pilot who were planning to retire, could stay on for an additional five years if they wanted to.
More recently, airlines have again been expanding, and the major carriers have been recruiting heavily. When the major carriers recruit, it tends to shake up the employment market as people move up the next step of the ladder. As a result, there are less pilots to choose from and we are now slowly starting to see terms and conditions improve at mainly airlines, as they look to generate interest from the most capable crews.
As airline financial performance has started to improve, their pilots have started to demand a share in the profit through increased wages. Lufthansa pilots have been striking throughout 2016 to fight for a better increase in their salaries as they haven’t had a pay rise since 2012. Delta Airlines pilots recently secured a whopping 30% increase in their pay.
Middle East & Asia
The pilot shortage is more notable across the Middle East and Asia. Airlines in this part of the world are expanding rapidly and don’t have enough established and experienced local pilots to fill the seats. Therefore, they need to recruit pilots from parts of the world where aviation has been established for a longer period, such as Europe, America and Australasia. They are offering huge sums of money to attract crew, in some cases in excess of $20,000 a month.
However, whilst there is clearly a pilot shortage in these parts of the world, it isn’t for inexperienced cadet pilots straight out of flight school, it’s for experienced First Officers and Captains. An experienced Captain takes years to train and build up the required experience whereas a cadet pilot can be ‘on the line’ in as little as 18 months.
Who does the pilot shortage affect first?
In general, a pilot shortage would usually hit the regional carriers first, as they are unable to offer the terms and conditions found at the charter, low cost and legacy airlines.
Naturally, most people aspire to improve their living standards throughout their career, and this means moving up the ladder to the next job. Once working for a legacy carrier, there isn’t a step up, and therefore pilot retention at these companies is very high and generally only recruit when they expand and to replace retired or medically unfit crews.
Regional Airlines in the United States
The pilot shortage is particularly notable at regional airlines in the United States. In the US, the FAA introduced a requirement for pilots to have 1500 hours total flight time before operating for a commercial transport operator. You graduate from flight school with around 250 hours, but you now need to build those hours up through instruction, banner towing, general aviation etc. The regional carriers have traditionally recruited the cadet level entry pilots, and this has significantly stemmed the flow of available candidates.
The European market is currently doing pretty well with recruitment for pilots of all experience levels from legacy carriers through to the regional operators. It’s debatable whether you could call it a shortage, rather than just a good employee’s market for the moment. Flybe did however suggest last month that a shortage of pilots was holding back growth.
To assess if or how bad any pilot shortage in Europe will get, you need to look at potential expansion opportunities and how saturated the market currently is. Much of Europe is well connected to Europe and millions of people now have access to air transport thanks to the success of low-cost carriers over the past ten years.
Can there be more expansion?
How much more room is there for airlines to expand in order to offer services to new destinations and untapped markets? That’s yet to be seen but it’s certainly nothing like those opportunities in developing counties with huge populations like India and China. That being said, airlines like Ryanair, Wizz Air and Norwegian Air Shuttle have impressive numbers of aircraft on order, and many of these frames are for expansion rather than fleet replacement.
Looking at it independently, now is a good a time as any to start your flight training. You must however, consider this. Just because you have a licence, you don’t have the right to secure employment as a professional pilot. The airlines want more than just a licence, they need a competent commercially minded operator and a frozen ATPL doesn’t guarantee this. Just because there is a job opening, meeting the minimum requirements doesn’t mean you’ll get it, even if you’re the only applicant. Yes, there is a pilot shortage across many parts of the world but this isn’t a job guarantee.
Choose your training route and flight school carefully, and be aware of the qualities that airlines are looking for in their pilots. It’s much more than just stick and rudder skills.