The Increasing Airline Pilot Shortage Problem – What’s the solution?

Airline Pilots - by Captain Jetson

The increasing airline pilot shortage problem is floating on the horizon like the sun going down on a westbound evening-flight.

Where do you find the required number of pilots with the qualifications and flying experience required? Someone qualified needs to safely fly that next US$189-200 million dollar Boeing 787-9 passenger jet that you will be flying on in the future.

Boeing forecasts that 790,000 new airline pilots will be needed worldwide within the next 20 years.

That gives the outlook for a continued shortage problem a grim view!

U.S. Mandatory Retirement, Age 65

An airline pilot is bound by his or her airlines’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operating rules, Part 121. The rule stipulates that an airline pilot’s current mandatory retirement age is 65.

The F.A.A. mandatory retirement age before December 13, 2007, was age 60, at which time the max age was raised to 65.

The age-required retirement mandate has already seen large numbers of pilots permanently leaving the cockpit.

The next few years will see a continued wave of pilots entering their golden years, myself included.

Here’s a graph illustrating the upcoming mandatory pilot age-retirements at American, United, and Delta until 2037.

US pilots mandatory retirements until 2037. Airline pilot shortage.
Source: Airline Pilot Forums

Finding qualified airline pilot applicants

But where will the pilots come from? Major airlines aren’t just looking for pilots. Experience is also needed!

Actually finding the qualified and experienced pilots the airlines need is the main challenge of the airline pilot shortage.

The Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license is just a piece of paper saying you are a “fly-boy” or “fly-girl” who passed an FAA check ride, and that you have a minimum of 1,500 hours of total flight time experience.

You also have to be a minimum of 23 years of age before you can take the ATP license F.A.A. pilot check ride.

The Commercial Pilot license is a lower level of a pilot’s license to be allowed to fly for hire. To become a commercial pilot you would need 250 hours of total flight time. A commercial pilot license is no longer a valid qualification to get hired with a major U.S. carrier. You need an Airline Transport Pilot license for that.

That is not enough qualifications to get hired by most major U.S. carriers, however. Plus, do you have a minimum of a college Bachelor’s Degree? How about, let’s say a minimum of 3,000 hours of pre-hire experience flying jets?

Well, now we are talking! At that time you may submit your application for Major U.S. Airlines.

Who influences the qualifications & experience standards in the U.S.?

Of course, each airline wants the best qualified applicant for the pilot job. The F.A.A. decides what the minimum qualifications are at a regulatory and safety level. However, there is one organization more influential than any other in leading the crusade for airline safety.

The great ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) is the largest pilot union in the world representing more than 62,000 U.S. airline pilots, myself included.

ALPA is credited for the impeccable safety standards upheld by airline pilots, along with the F.A.A. in the U.S.

Other smaller airline pilot unions in the U.S. include the in-house unions of:

  • American Airlines Allied Pilots Association (APA), and
  • The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA).

Airline pilot backgrounds

San Diego, California
Naval Air Station North Island (U.S. Navy), Coronado, San Diego, California. Upper right: San Diego downtown and harbor. Lower left: Point Loma. Top middle: San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field). © Captain Les

In the old days of airlines, most airline pilots originated from the military ranks. And, no wonder. Post World War 2, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War left a surplus of ex-military pilots. They rapidly joined the airline ranks after the wars ended.

Today the background of pilot new-hires at the airlines are heavily intermingled between the military and civilian backgrounds.

Both categories of pilots are highly qualified for the airline pilot job.

Military versus Civilian Pilot Education

Obtaining the qualifications to become an airline pilot is not easy. The common basis for both methods of becoming qualified is that education does not come cheap.

For civilian-educated pilots, after spending money on a college degree more money has to be spent on “pilot graduate school”.

After pilot school is over with you need to acquire experience before a major airline will consider you for pilot employment.

Military pilot training

*Sample basic US$ training cost of one USAF-pilot, by airplane-type:

  • F-16: $5.6 million.
  • F-35A: $10.7 million.
  • F-22: $10.9 million.

*Source: USAF

But fret not, that is a free education on behalf of that future airline pilot. That training was paid for by the taxpayer’s money.

Civilian pilot training

Civilian pilot training is no pleasant experience in your pocketbook. Becoming an airline pilot by paying for your own education can set you back financially for years. Of course, this is also the case with money spent on any higher education.

After a civilian education, you are often faced with a pilot job with terrible working conditions. The pay will most likely be low, with low to no benefits. There are no guarantees of ever getting hired with a major carrier, even after getting the flying experience.

Foreign countries’ solutions to the worldwide airline pilot shortage

Some foreign countries’ airlines have airline pilot training programs, training their pilots from scratch.

Lufthansa and Ethiopian are examples of this. Lufthansa’s program, conforming to the strict European standards, is considered a good and safe program, among most industry professionals.

An airline like Ethiopian, for example, have their highly in-experienced pilots (trainees) act as first officers (co-pilots) on regular passenger flights!

The recent Ethiopian Airlines B737 Max-accident is an example of Ethiopian’s practices. Here a 200 hour total flight time pilot trainee in the cockpit constituted one of the two-man flight deck crew.

This would be a totally unacceptable safety-risk per our very high U.S. safety standards.

Airline versus the Military: How the military tries to prevent pilots from fleeing to the airlines

The military is short of pilots too.

Long gone is the post-Vietnam era where the military had an excess of pilots while the airlines gladly swallowed them up.

Today’s military pilot incentives to stay, up to six figures big is being offered to retain senior military pilots with a lot of experience.

But, the lure of a future, retiring for a major airline at age 65 with a wide-body aircraft captain-salary up towards $300,000 a year is a big incentive.

Airlines tend to hire pilots when the economy is strong

Airline Pilot and Medical Doctor commonalities

It’s like my medical doctor good friend Peter C. always said:

“You go from medical school to intern to a doctor (and financially broke) for 10 years before you know the heck what you are truly doing. Books can never beat hands-on experience!”

How do we fix the airline pilot shortage?

Repeated airline crashes by inexperienced pilots worldwide have awakened the awareness to the need for qualified, experienced pilots to join the major airline ranks.

But with demand exceeding the supply of qualified candidates where do we go next?

The solution is not solved by offering an easy answer.

Some suggestive ways to fix the airline pilot shortage problem?

  • Perhaps the major airlines need to implement programs similar to that of the European Lufthansa-model? That should ensure a steady supply of qualified applicants, but at a high initial investment cost for the airlines.
  • Make a civilian pilot education investment worthwhile by compensating entry-level pilot positions properly. The pay and benefits at those commuter airlines are often at an unskilled labor-level!
  • Airline managements should listen to airline pilot shortage solution-ideas and pilot safety and work-rule enhancement solutions. Organizations, such as ALPA, are experts within the field.

Airline Pilot Shortage Reflections

In my opinion, and after 32 years as a major airline pilot, it takes about 10 years of pilot schooling and training to achieve a proficiency worthy of a fully experienced, competent airline pilot. Even after that, you learn new things every day for the rest of your pilot life!

What are the airlines plan of action to keep the millions of passengers they fly every year safe by finding only highly qualified, experienced pilots?

So what do you think can be done to solve the pilot shortage? Please let me know here.

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