Airlines Could Find Experienced Pilots in Short Supply

Airlines seem to be starting to order aircraft in
respectable numbers again after a period in which cancellations or
postponements dominated. Airlines are ordering new airliners in increasing
numbers in what has become a steady stream of new contracts.


As orders accelerate, however, less thought seems to
have been given to who is going to fly the new aircraft. Hardware requires
skilled “liveware” to operate it, but airlines seem to be assuming
that appropriately qualified pilots will just materialize as required.

There are still some furloughed and recently trained
pilots, but that supply will not last long when the recovery is established. Airlines
have been running roadshows looking to recruit new pilots, but need the more
experienced pilots. The ab initio pilot supply is the problem in the medium and
long term.

But action by big airlines, which are seeking
experienced aircrew, starts a viscious cycle. When some of the regionals or
smaller scheduled carriers start to lose pilots to the majors, the regionals
recruit from low-hour pilots with commercial licenses, maybe bringing them
straight from graduation or pulling them out of instructing and other general
aviation jobs.

The evidence of the looming global need is there for
all to see. The current firm order backlog for the global airline industry
stands at well over 7,500 aircraft, as listed by Flightglobal’s Insight
Fleetwatch from its ACAS database, and although a few monthly cancellations
still feature, they are now dramatically outnumbered by new orders.

Boeing forecasts a global need for 448,000 new
airline pilots to enter the industry over the next 20 years, and more than half
a million new maintenance engineers. But many carriers are performing no pilot
and engineer supply planning.

Long-term forecast demand for airline pilots and
mechanics is significantly higher than it was before the global economic
recession, according to new figures from Boeing’s Training and Flight Services
division. The company estimates that the average annual airline pilot demand
for the next 20 years will be for 22,500 new pilots and 28,000 new mechanics to
replace those retiring, and to cope with growth in the global airline fleet.
Just two years ago in 2008, the Training and Flight Services division’s
forbear, Alteon, forecast that the average annual global industry needs for the
20 years from 2007 would be 18,000 pilots and 24,000 maintenance engineers.

Boeing’s projection of the totals for the next 20
years brings home the size of the task: the need to train 448,000 pilots and
more than half a million mechanics. This raises the question as to whether the
training infrastructure to meet demand can be created in time following the
slump in airline investment in ab initio training since the recession began,
which has seen capacity in the flight training sector reducing, and investment
at flight training organizations put on hold.

The International Air Transport Association, the US
Federal Aviation Administration and the International Federation of Airline
Pilots’ Associations are all voicing concern about medium- and long-term pilot

Although a pilot shortage is not without precedent
in the USA, this time it will arrive while the FAA is carrying out an
unprecedented review of the whole process of preparing pilots for airline

The FAA’s review of pilot qualifying skills may have
been prompted by the same accident that caused Congress to mandate the minimum
1,500h rule, but the aviation agency has more of an open mind about what makes
a competent pilot, and it is clear that flying hours alone is not seen as the
answer. It is, for example, considering whether certain proven academic
credits, or time in simulators, can substitute for some of those hours in the

While times are tight, flight training organizations
are having to do what it takes to survive the drought while awaiting the return
of the rains. But when the rain does come, it might turn out to be a monsoon.
The time is ripe for anyone with flight training completed and prepared for the
opportunities that will be available.