The words ‘Pilot Shortage’ are generally on the front cover of aviation magazines, at least once per year. Flying Schools will repeat the headline in almost every advertisement, and the aircraft manufacturers shout it out with the release of every new passenger jet, or trainer aircraft. But is the claim completely true, or is there actually a twist?
Girls and boys all over the world grow up with their eyes scanning the sky whenever they hear a ‘plane’ go by, regardless of whatever normal thing should be deserving their attention on the ground. For the percentage of them who continue to be afflicted with this aviation disease, they will mature and actually persevere with their dreams of becoming a pilot, whether it be via the military, airlines, or GA route. I say ‘mature’ but the jury is still out as to whether pilots ever achieve that status.
Airline pilots are generally considered to be the highest paid, and the once glamorous lifestyle is still considered to be an end goal for many aviators. Twenty five years ago, the goal of many GA pilots was to quickly acquire 1000 hrs, 500 of which was multi-engine, so that they could be considered for a right seat in an airliner. Instructing was a method used to log those hours, as was scenic flights, charter and survey work. Within a few years the nomadic lifestyle of eating two minute noodles whilst living remotely and moving for yet another larger aircraft type, paid off with a new shiny career in a jet. Nowadays the requirements to join an airline are much lower (excluding the USA lately) and cadetships can see self funded or airline funded teenagers the opportunity to rapidly learn the syllabus of skills required to sit in the right hand seat of an airliner with less than 300 hours.
Airline pilot career via the military route
After the end of World War Two, there was a lot of well trained and highly experienced military pilots that were willing to continue flying in Commercial Aviation. The large radial multi-engine types soon gave way to the jet age, and commercial flying as we now know it continued to gain air miles. (Although pilots of the day were much more experienced in high performance flying, spin recoveries, and passengers dressed up in their Sunday Best clothing – but let’s talk about that another day).
It’s no secret that many of the world’s air forces have been struck by financial cutbacks, drastically being cut down in size for new budgets. The ‘Do more with less’ type policies can see the remaining staff having to work harder than ever, and consequently more of them resign earlier than expected. Entire squadrons disappear, aircraft types are retired, and some entire bases are abandoned all together.
It’s not just the staff that are expected to do more, but the aircraft as well. Whereas aircraft used to specialise in just one area (eg fighter), the new multi role aircraft aircraft are designed to be truly flexible in more aspects of warfare operations. The problem is, their development time is increased, training of crew takes longer, airfield support has to be specially built, and the aircraft cost is drastically increased. Flying cost per hour is increasing, as well as the training mission risks, so simulators are increasingly used whenever possible to mitigate these factors. Are you prepared to spend hours honing your skills and being pushed to your limits? A two hour mission in a simulator may be the culmination of 12 hours of study, preparation and hard work in the office.
Pilot career via civilian route
Whilst the military has always been a source for the airlines, there is also an equally fascinating options for careers via the civilian route. General aviation requires pilots for charter, flying instruction, survey, news coverage, law enforcement, farm work, surveillance, oil worker transfer and the like, with larger companies even flying jets for cargo operations, firefighting and aeromedical purposes. That list is only scratching the surface, and there are many more roles available in aviation today.
Pilot shortage – some causes
There are many factors which have influenced the current pilot shortage; including high training costs, regulatory burdens (red tape) and hoop jumping, increasing difficulty in securing the top jobs as well as the adversity in feeder jobs like General Aviation. Another simple factor is the number of pilots retiring and not being replaced. Like many careers these days, the prestige associated with being a pilot is being lost and its simply not something everyone wants to do these days.
Increasing cost of training
The cost of learning to fly is slowly increasing, not only because of the oil prices and general inflation. Whereas a Fabric covered 1940’s technology Piper Cub was a very simple aircraft to build, the later designs from the Cessna and Piper companies were more practical, with more cabin capacity, and engine size. Many of those aircraft had to be replaced with newer modern versions, at greater expense, and new regulations demand greater safety enhancements and new avionics which rapidly drive up the purchasing and installation fees. That’s only a part of the story, as you also have increased medical expenses, government and airfield charges, security card issues (ASIC in Australia), and even your instructor costs more (because they also have greater expenses). So to qualify for your Air Transport Pilot Licence may see you spend more than $150k.
The difficulty in getting a dream flying job
If you’ve spent this rather large amount, there is a distinct possibility that you won’t get your dream flying job in your preferred location right away -you may have to try your luck in a different role to start, for example remote charter or even throwing parachutists out of a Cessna 208 Caravan over the beach. The hours you accumulated in a shiny fibreglass diesel powered twin equipped with all glass screens and an air conditioner, may not be as valuable in the bush as you thought.
GA’s hard work hurdles in challenging environments
Chances are that your beginner job in GA, may necessitate you to move outback a few thousand miles from home, to fly a rusty Cessna 172 with analogue steam gauges out of a dirt strip! Whilst also collecting the charter passengers from the hotel in an old bus, weighing their bags, pulling the aircraft out of the hangar, and refuelling it yourself. The Boss may tell you to come in and work on your days off (for maybe just a few hours), and the minimum wage will also mean that your part time job pouring beers at the local pub excludes you from any meaningful time off. But it’s rewarding hours, experience in a challenging environment, and it gives you character. This is the kind of hard work you will need to do to succeed as a pilot.
Recent societal emphases is reducing interest in piloting
With the emphasis in some societies for higher education, cheap Degrees, higher paid jobs in computing or social media influencers, many careers are losing numbers due to lack of interest, conditions and pay. Apprenticeships are getting harder to fill, and many building industries are concerned about the lack of plumbers and bricklayers and the like, who will be available to construct and fix things. Lawyers, doctors and nurses, IT, many careers are seen as better pay and an easier progression than flying now is.
Forbes estimated that almost 50% of pilots flying today are about to retire. This is because their generation (Baby Boomer) makes up the largest percentage of actively employed pilots today. The retiring pilots simply aren’t being replaced fast enough. Whilst not all predictions agree, one of the largest professional pilot training companies CAE forecast that over the next ten years, 255,000 new pilots are required – and 40% of those pilots are needed just to replace those outgoing on mandatory age requirements and other attrition
Why is there commercial pilot shortage in the US?
A few years ago, after some very frightening aircraft accidents, America raised the minimal pilot hours for airline jobs to 1500hrs. American companies are now hiring from overseas in an attempt to address their shortage of qualified pilots. A major problem is, that although they are offering a bonus, the base pay is still around only $40k. Which is not much to live on after the expense of living nearby. This is one example of ‘Pilot Shortage’ actually translating to “we can’t find enough pilots to work long hours in return for the lowest wage possible”. Compare the low wages domestic American pilots are paid with the incredibly high salary packages of established international carriers such as Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Etihad, Emirates and Qantas, and you can see the issue; the highest qualified and best pilots migrate to the highest paid jobs.
Aviation is a recency game, and pilots tend to jump from ‘rung to rung’ moving from one flying position to another. Airlines can be sometimes not be backwards in coming forwards about this, and responses I’ve heard from airline recruitment companies include that unsuccessful candidates have been either too experienced, too old, or not experienced enough on the latest machine. Sometimes they are turned down, because the Chief Pilot is threatened by a high experience level; they know that you are less likely to ‘stretch the safety rules’ than a young applicant hungry for their first job.
Pilot shortage in non-airline companies
Meanwhile larger non-airline companies (like aeromedical or cargo) may have trouble keeping pilots (especially female) because the airline career seems easier, pays better, and it means their family can live somewhere better. In Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) it’s been revealed that the pilot is paid less than the medical staff that they transport. Not that the comparison is the issue, but they are likely to have better work and living conditions if they accepted an airline job based in the city. Again, there is not a shortage of pilots, just a shortage of experienced pilots willing to live in a remote area and work hard, for less than they’d make outside.
Pilot shortage news and forecasts
Looking at future pilot forecasts, aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus have both significant claims pointing out the pilot shortage. Based on airline orders for their aircraft between 2016 to 2035, Boeing estimates the aviation industry will require almost 680,000 new pilots, and Airbus claims 500,000.
The majority of these pilots will need to be based to operate in Asia and the Middle East – these areas cannot generate enough pilots, so they look to poach pilots from overseas from places such as the United States, Canada and Australia. To do so, they need to offer a hefty premium; and many foreign pilots end up taking high paying jobs in Asia and the Middle east on short term contracts
An interesting point to consider is the motivation behind the airlines supporting the idea of a pilot shortage; could it be due to inadequate pay? If airlines fail to recruit pilots under existing pay and conditions structures, then they can lobby the government to allow skilled labour visas for foreign pilots who will accept lower wages. This is a highly political topic and is something that is in the spotlight and investigated seriously by industry regulators due to safety concerns.
Australia’s pilot shortage
According to the deputy chair of aviation at Swinburne University “A pilot shortage is present within Australia – and it is serious”. This is caused due to skyrocketing training courses; university accredited flying degrees can be up to $200K. Based on todays labour market, young aspring pilots earning $20-$30 in part time employment can end up with years worth of debt to fund their commercial training. Even when taking loans students to undertake flight training, student’s often need to find tens of thousands of dollars upfront to cover equipment, uniforms, medicals, textbooks and exams – for some, thats too much.
Recent strides to match the rising demand for airline pilot
It was recently released that the two biggest airlines in Australia, Qantas and Virgin Australia, had announced large brand new training facilities. These academies are to be based in Regional Australia in NSW and QLD, and take advantage of the largely free and uncrowded airspace and good weather in Australian skies. These companies aim to graduate hundreds of trainee pilots each year; but it still isn’t enough to cover the shortage. These cadet-ship courses are not fully funded by the Airlines and can cost applicants up to $100,000 with only a small percentage of cadetships being offered full time flying positions from the outset; again this means students may find themselves having to look for work post their initial pilot training.
Global pilot shortage – Any hope?
Kids will still look skywards and dream of becoming pilots, and some of those are going to remain passionate enough to succeed. So no, in that respect, there will never be a pilot shortage. However I think it is less likely that as many of them will soon bother with the long uphill journey, with the possibility that paying back expensive training costs by flying may never eventuate. So yes, in that respect, I agree that there is a pilot shortage. Until the industry invests with better pay and conditions.
So there is a shortage; in part this is due to high training costs and poor pay and conditions. The more serious shortage is with experienced pilots; Airline First Officers and Captains. Most pilots leave flight school with 250 hours, however the larger carriers require those with typically over 1500 hours; where do you get the difference of 1250 hours? It means inexperienced pilots are facing extreme levels of competition for entry level jobs such as scenic flights and charter.
This also presents an opportunity; if you are able to knuckle down, save hard and then work even harder to get your first few pilot jobs, that you have a potentially very rewarding and lucrative career opportunity down the track. Once you meet minimum hour requirements for airlines, you can potentially earn a good flying position, especially if you are willing to relocate to the Middle East and Asian regions which are desperate for pilots due to their rapid population and industrial growth.