Andy Cross | Denver Post | Getty Images
Even before the coronavirus pandemic grounded U.S. airlines in March 2020, a shortage of qualified pilots was looming. Today, even though air travel has come back much stronger and earlier than expected — and major carriers are returning to profitability — the struggle to maintain enough cockpit crews has developed into an acute problem that many travelers are experiencing in the form of canceled flights.
To help fix it, carriers are aggressively competing for the available pilots. Focusing more long-term, though, airlines are boosting training programs to unprecedented levels and trying to attract a younger and more diverse next generation of aviators.
Last December, United Airlines opened its Aviate Academy in Goodyear, Arizona, the first major airline-owned flight school in the U.S. Other majors, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest, Hawaiian, JetBlue and Frontier, have set up branded training programs affiliated with dozens of independent flight schools across the country. That formula has been adopted by regional airlines, too, such as Mesa Air Group, Republic, Envoy, Cape Air and SkyWest. The pilot pipeline continues to rely on the military, if lately to a lesser degree, and universities that offer aviation programs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 135,300 airline and commercial pilots employed in 2021, a number expected to grow by 6% over the next decade, translating to more than 18,000 new hires annually. As of early July, airlines had hired more than 5,500 pilots this year, already more than in any full year since at least 1990, according to Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a career consulting firm for pilots.
Baby boomers, drones and cost hit pilot profession
Pre-Covid, the supply of pilots was meeting the flying public’s demand, yet storm clouds were gathering along several fronts. The baby boomer cohort of pilots was nearing the federally mandated retirement age of 65. The rapid growth of the airline industry globally was luring U.S. pilots with better pay and perks. The traditional pathway of military pilots transitioning to civilian carriers was slowing, due to fewer deployments and the rise of autonomous drones. Meanwhile, the escalating cost (around $100,000) and time required (minimum 1,500 hours) to obtain an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate was deterring people from entering the profession.
Then the pandemic hit. Air travel demand fell by more than 90%, leading airlines to inadvertently exacerbate the pilot shortage. To offset nose-diving revenue and reduce payrolls, they sweetened retirement deals for thousands of senior pilots. Others were furloughed or just left the profession.
“Then, when air travel bounced back faster than people had planned, and airlines started raising capacity into the marketplace, the airlines struggled to get enough pilots to meet the demand,” said Jonathan Kletzel, airline and travel practice leader at PwC. “That’s why we are where we are.”
Where the airlines are, with regard to pilots, is uncharted territory.
According to an analysis issued in August by Oliver Wyman, a New York-based management consulting firm, the industry in North America faces a shortfall of 8,000 pilots this year, or about 11% of the total workforce. That gap is estimated to grow to more than 29,000 by the end of the decade.
In late October, the firm lowered its shortage forecast a bit, “a product of the fact that regional airlines have dramatically decreased their flying,” by 50% relative to pre-Covid capacity, said Geoff Murray, an aviation expert at Oliver Wyman and co-author of its August report. The regionals have always been an entry point for the mainline airlines’ pilots, providing them the requisite number of hours of flight time needed before advancing.
But as those regional carriers decline, the pilot pipeline suffers, too, as do airline customers. “The pilot shortage has abated to some extent,” Murray said, “but at the expense of lower frequencies and fewer connection opportunities for travelers.” Indeed, vexing flight delays and cancellations this past summer were often blamed on a scarcity of pilots and other aviation staff.
A big reason why the regionals are suffering is that mainline carriers are poaching their pilots, especially captains who can slide directly into the left-side seat of the cockpit. “We’ve rarely seen instances where a [major] airline will hire pilots from one of its non-affiliated regionals, and now that’s becoming mainstream,” Murray said. “It was more ruthless at the beginning of the year, but with the lower levels of regional flying now, it’s become a little more civil.”
Regional economies and small cities suffer
While airlines like United have long-term plans to increase service in smaller cities across the U.S. through advances in low-cost electric planes, a current consequence of the pilot shortage is that many small and medium-size communities serviced by the regionals are seeing their economies falter, said Helane Becker, an aviation industry analyst at Cowen. The regionals were flying 50-passenger jets into those areas, and now that their pilots are being lured away, they’ve had to cancel service. “That has huge implications for economic growth in those smaller communities,” Becker said. “In my view,” she said, speaking more generally, “in order to have a robust economy, you need a robust aviation industry.”
Although airline executives and industry observers concur that a pilot shortage exists, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), a McLean, Virginia-based union representing the majority of commercial aviators, maintains quite the opposite. ALPA has released a report, partly entitled “Debunking the Pilot Shortage Myth,” citing federal data to convey that the U.S. “has produced more than enough certificated pilots to meet airline hiring demands and compensate for retirements.”
The report goes on to state, “So, although we don’t have a pilot shortage, we do have a shortage of airline executives willing to stand by their business decisions to cut air service and be upfront about their intentions to skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay.”
ALPA declined CNBC’s requests for an interview or comments on the matter and instead provided links to the report and a press release containing updated data.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union that represents only American Airlines pilots, is less vociferous regarding what APA spokesperson Captain Dennis Tajer referred to as a “forensic debate” over the shortage. “The numbers say there are enough licensed pilots,” he said, echoing ALPA. Tajer conceded, however, that “there are pilots with ATPs who choose not to fly” for the airlines, a common rebuttal to ALPA’s position.
Both unions are in contract negotiations with the mainline airlines to not just substantially increase pilot’s pay but also offer a wider array of quality-of-life benefits, especially more flexible schedules that allow them to be home at night. “Also, new to [mainline] industry, is overtime flying,” said Tajer. Younger pilots have been raised on flying for the regionals, “and they are interested in continuing to do that and raise their families. Work-life balance is the number-one issue for pilots, because pay will be commoditized.”
Other suggestions for filling the pilot gap include raising the retirement age to 67, as proposed in a bill introduced by South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in July — and supported by the Regional Airlines Association, presumably to keep pilots at the mainline carriers longer and thus curtail the poaching dilemma. Another notion is to lower the 1,500-hour requirement for an APT, set by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in 2013 as a safety measure in the aftermath of the 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people and was attributed to an inexperienced flight crew. Most other countries, including those in the EU, require a minimum of just 250 flight hours, which was the previous standard in the U.S. Neither of those actions are expected to be approved.
Flight school business is booming
Experts agree, though, that recruiting and training a fresh cadre of pilots is a surefire solution. While independent flight schools have been a reliable feeder network for the airlines, many carriers are now establishing closer partnerships with the schools, offering aspiring aviators with no flying experience a direct pathway to a seat in their flight decks.
Since 2018, American has nurtured relationships with students at flight schools in Arizona, Florida and Texas, enticing them with financing options and mentoring. In March, Alaska Airlines and its regional affiliate, Horizon Air, launched Ascend, a similar program. Regional airline Republic has its own flight school, the Leadership in Flight Training Academy, in Indianapolis. Other such programs include Southwest’s Destination 225°, Delta’s Propel, Frontier’s Pilot Cadet and Spirit’s Direct. Allegiant runs two training facilities, in Las Vegas and Sanford, Florida.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the influx of novice flyers is ATP Flight School, the nation’s largest. Headquartered in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, ATP currently operates 75 locations across the country and has 37 airline partners. “Enrollment decreased during the pandemic, but has since returned and surpassed pre-pandemic levels,” said Michael Arnold, director of marketing, in an email. “Since last year, ATP has opened three new training centers and increased enrollments by almost 50%, with a goal of training 20,000 airline pilots by 2030,” he said.
ATP has placed 1,219 graduates at airlines in the last 12 months, Arnold said. Students earn their pilot certification and graduate from its Airline Career Pilot Program in seven months, then work as flight instructors for about 18 months to gain experience and meet airline hiring minimums. “Recently, ATP introduced direct programs with Avelo, Breeze, Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country, which allow graduates to go straight to a first officer [co-pilot] position with these majors at 1,500 hours of flight time,” Arnold said.
More women and minority pilots are needed
The airlines, whose pilots have traditionally been older, white and male, recognize that to widen their pipeline they need to attract more women and minorities. Their training programs reflect that diverse outreach. “Breaking down barriers to entry is really the solution for us going forward,” said Nancy Hocking, director of pilot and AMT development programs for JetBlue’s Gateways program, which partners with CAE and other flight schools, as well as university aviation programs. Gateways offers several different pathways to the flight deck for both outside candidates, through its Select program, and its internal flight attendants, mechanics and other employees.
“It’s about casting a wider net,” Hocking said. “We have been incredibly successful in diversifying our candidate pool. Well over 50% of people in Select are from underrepresented groups and women.” In conjunction with the JetBlue Foundation, which is focused on STEM education for young people, the airline is promoting Gateways in high schools and middle schools, she said.
The first cohort of students in a classroom session at United Airlines’ Aviate flight school.
When United launched its proprietary Aviate flight school, it set a goal of training 5,000 new pilots by 2030, half of whom would be women or people of color. “In our current class of 220 students, over 70% are women or people of color,” said Aviate director Captain Michael Bonner. “And in our pool of more than 20,000 applicants, more than 80% are women or people of color.”
Lowering the high cost of pilot education is also considered paramount in achieving diversity. Many of the airlines provide tuition reimbursement, low-interest private loans and scholarships to assist flight school students. “Through JP Morgan Chase, we offer $2 million in scholarships and multiple loan programs,” Bonner said.
Murray suggested that sponsorships would be another option for defraying flight school costs. “What sponsorship means is, an entity — it could be a public institution, an airline, a pilots’ association — identifying candidates very early in their career, and getting them through school in exchange for a portion of their income” as a certified flight instructor, he said. “Europe and most every other part of the world has had these models in place for decades.”
Persistent inflation has led to higher airline fares, somewhat tempering the industry’s comeback, but the push to train more pilots remains high. The pipeline is already improving, said Murray, pointing to the surge in students at flight schools and university programs.
“It’s such a great job, it pays well and awareness around it is increasing,” he said. “The question is, will it be enough to address the shortage? The short answer is no, because there’s still so much demand for flying. We are predicting a pilot shortage that will continue for the next 10 years.”