Airlines Face Pilot Shortage Now (and Why)

I came across a very well written article on the deepening shortage of qualified pilots to fly for the airlines. The article, seen online at FlightGlobal.com, not only speaks to the shortage, but gives a short history of the growing problem.

Author David Learmont begins, “Worry about future pilot and engineer supply for airlines has been around since the 1990s, but something has always happened to postpone the predicted shortage.

Industry experts today, however, look at the number of future orders for new aircraft, predictions of world fleet expansion, and sustained growth and they cannot see a further postponement of forced retirements.

The number of new pilots required to be trained in the next 20 years is 450,000 worldwide, according to the Professional Aviation Board of Certification (PABC). Simulation and training giant CAE estimates the requirement at 20,000 new pilots a year, which is roughly the same as PABC’s prediction.

As an exercise in examining whether the fears of pilot shortage are real or imaginary, Bent lists the milestones in the industry’s pilot supply situation since 1997. He explains why, for the last 15 years, the airline industry has repeatedly been able to scoff at the pilot shortage warnings.

In 1997, the Air Transport Association warned of an impending pilot shortage. In 2001, following 9/11, air travel slumped and large number of experienced pilots were furloughed. The SARS epidemic and fuel crisis reversed recovery in 2003 and 2004, and later the pilot retirement age was increased to 65, extending the careers of the baby-boomer generation of pilots who were about to retire.

In 2007, US regional airlines started to run out of pilots, and flying training organisations to run out of instructors. In 2008, the global financial crisis led to “negative growth”.

Now, a few years later, Bent’s chronicle has started to show some underlying indicators that point the other way.

In 2011, air travel growth resumed and heavy forward orders were placed for all categories of aircrafts. And this year, growth continues and the arrival of non-negotiable age 65 retirements for the post-war baby-boomer generation has begun to make a difference.

Moreover, military-trained pilots and engineers continue to reduce in number as the air transport industry grows and the military ¬sector shrinks.

At the Flightglobal conference, Bent joked that the airlines now would push for a pilots’ retirement age of 70, to delay the day of reckoning – again. Maybe this is not so far from the truth. On the other hand, although it might eventually happen, right now none of the authorities – including the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – has even begun to consider the possibility of extending further the operating life of commercial aviation pilots.”