Yes, Virginia, There Is a Pilot Shortage!

by Patti Squire

Say what you will about why, how, and who is responsible, but from an aviation perspective, business is booming. The competition is fierce for qualified aviators. To cover current and future aviation needs, Boeing states that over 637,000 new pilots need to join the workforce in the next twenty years. That means that eighty-seven trained, and qualified candidates must begin their pilot training and aviation career, every single day, to meet the forecasted growth.

The concern for a pilot shortage has been discussed for several years, but no one could have been ready for the impact it is currently having.
In a 2013 article in Robb Report’s Private Aviation Sourcebook, Pete Agur (chairman and founder of the VanAllen Group; an aviation consulting firm in Georgia) wrote about the potential downside to a continued economic upswing following the Great Recession: a pilot shortage. He spoke of the ability of older more experienced pilots whose 401Ks and retirement accounts had been adversely affected by the recession becoming solvent again and able to retire. As this predicted mass exodus of older pilots is occurring, fewer young people have been choosing aviation paths for a multitude of reasons.
Historically, most pilots were trained by the military. Today, the use of drones and lack of large-scale military buildup has drastically reduced the number of pilots, pilot jobs, and flight training in the military. The navy has predicted a 10 percent shortage of pilots by 2020, and the air force is expecting to be 1,000 pilots short of its target number by 2022. Further, the industry has neglected to market to a huge demographic — women. Currently, only 3-5 percent of pilots worldwide are female. “At least 50 percent of the population is female, but very few women pursue a professional pilot career,” says Ron Rapp, an experienced corporate pilot, and prolific aviation writer.
Another reason is the length of time to train is a long and expensive road. The salaries and working conditions at regional airlines—essentially the minor leagues for pilots looking to move up to major carriers or corporate-jet jobs—used to deter people from entering the pilot profession. They started around $20K with lousy schedules and worse benefits. Considering that aspiring aviators could conceivably spend $100K in training costs, you begin to see the problem. But that is changing significantly. For example, Piedmont, a feeder for American Airlines, is advertising for pilots:

  • $60,000 the first year pay for first officers with all signing bonuses
  • $39.37 per hour for 1,000 hours
  • $16,200 signing bonus
  • $5,000 signing bonus for current Part 121 experience

They show a graph that says in 15 years they’ll be making over $300K.
Envoy, another feeder for American Airlines is advertising a potential $45K signing bonus.
Airlines are targeting business aviation pilots specifically because they’re a known quality.
While this shortage is great for aviators, it is having an adverse effect on smaller business operators. The industry as a whole has not adapted in a timely manner. While the larger operators and the airlines have lowered their minimum flight time requirements and increased their beginning salaries and signing bonuses the auditing companies have not adjusted their requirements for their higher ratings. Large corporations view safety auditing companies like Wyvern and ArGus as the standard bearers for private aviation. These auditing companies charge tens of thousands of dollars to audit companies on their procedures & crews. They also have flight time minimums for pilot experience for those higher ratings. As the more experienced pilots go to bigger companies who can afford to pay the higher salaries being demanded, the smaller operations have to scrabble over the entry-level aviators. This is not to say that entry-level aviators are NOT safe. In over 25 years in the industry, I’ve seen 500-hour pilots who were much safer in the cockpit than 2000 hour pilots who thought they were infallible.

However, the auditing companies say differently, and the big corporations listen.
Eventually, the industry will balance out. Pilots will make a decent wage, charter & airline prices will rise to cover them & perhaps even the auditing companies will be more realistic about what constitutes a safe operation. But it’s going to be a while.

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