You’d think with all this industry growth, the number of pilots would be growing to meet the demand. But over the past few decades, the number of commercial, business, and private pilots has continued to shrink.
According to the FAA, there were about 827,000 pilots in the U.S. in 1987. Since then, the number of pilots in the industry has gone down by 30%.
Boeing predicts that the aviation industry will need 790,000 new pilots by 2037 to meet growing international demand, with 96,000 of these pilots needed in business aviation.
Although major American airlines aren’t experiencing the consequences of the pilot shortage yet, smaller regional airlines are starting to suffer. Flight schedules have been reduced, and some have already gone bankrupt due to low pilot staffing.
What’s Causing the Pilot Shortage?
A “perfect storm” of factors over the past three decades has helped to create the pilot shortage the industry is now facing.
From baby boomers reaching retirement to the Airline Deregulation Act, here are 5 reasons for a global pilot shortage and solutions to bring more pilots into the fold.
1. Baby Boomers are Retiring
Baby boomers make up almost 50% of pilots flying today. And almost half of Boomer pilots who are currently flying for major U.S airlines will reach the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots in the next 10 years (65 years old).
Congress changed the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65 in 2009. Although this may have helped the aviation industry in the short-term, some younger pilots believe this change blocked career advancement opportunities, causing them to seek other positions outside of aviation.
2. Airline Deregulation Act
Many airlines are still being affected by the consequences of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act. Before the act, the Federal Government controlled airfares, routes, and the entry of new airlines into the market.
The deregulation act created a free market for commercial airlines, which decreased fares and increased the number passengers and available flights. Many new low-cost carriers popped up, allowing more Americans to fly more often.
This act also led to many carriers going under who couldn’t keep up with the new competition. Between 1978 and 2001, 8 major commercial carriers (like Eastern, Midway, Braniff, Pan Am, Continental, and Northwest Airlines) and over 100 smaller airlines went bankrupt or were liquidated.
3. Stricter Safety Requirements (AKA the 1,500 Hour Rule)
In 2013, the FAA upped the required training hours for pilots looking to get their Air Transport Pilot certificate (ATP). The new 1,500-hour rule required all commercial airline co-pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of accrued flight time, up from just 250 hours.
The new rule also requires that pilots earn an additional 1,000 flight hours before they can serve as captains.
Congress also changed the duty-time rules in 2010 to help relieve pilot fatigue. Airlines had to increase their pilot staffing by 5% to 8% to cover the same schedule, meaning they needed to hire even more qualified pilots — at the same time that extra required hours were putting more barriers between pilots and positions with commercial airlines.
4. Fewer Pilots Provided by the Military
In the 1980s, around two-thirds of airline pilots had received their pilot training serving in the military. Now, that percentage has shrunk to less than one-third.
This decrease in trained military pilots aligns with the military’s increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles. A lower demand for military pilots means aspiring pilots will have to pay for their own flight training, which is far from affordable (and can easily exceed $100,000).
5. Financial Impacts of 9/11
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all airports were closed and flights were canceled for weeks. But once airports were reopened, airlines suffered a 30% decrease in demand for months after the attack.
Canceled flights, decreased passenger demand, and higher spending for security measures led to major loss and bankruptcy for many American airline carriers. Even carriers without any past financial issues were forced to lay off hundreds of employees (or in American Airline’s case, up to 7,000 employees).
Increased TSA measures and baggage screenings led to an almost 6% decrease in airline passengers and a 9% decrease in the nation’s busiest airports, creating a nearly $1 billion loss for the airline industry as a whole.
How Can We Fix the Pilot Shortage?
Several airlines are taking the initiative to try and combat the pilot shortage. Airlines like JetBlue are offering employees the opportunity to train for the specific aircraft types that they use.
Other nationwide initiatives are focused on encouraging more women to become pilots. But training new pilots takes time, and entering the field can be cost-prohibitive to some women candidates.
Another industry idea is to recruit AI-enabled automation to help relieve the growing demand. But safe, reliable AI technologies are likely more than a decade away from being ready for use on commercial airline flights.
In less than a decade, the pilot shortage may begin to put the growth projected for global aviation at risk. Whether Congress needs to change retirement age for commercial airline pilots to 70 or lower training hours for new pilots, or whether the industry as a whole needs to increasing wages or develop faster technology, something needs to change — and fast.
As we look to the future of aviation, it’s important to remember the inspiring individuals who have done incredible things for the world of flight at its early stages. From record-makers to groundbreakers, read on to learn about the lives and legacies of 5 pilots who changed the world of flight for the better »