What Pilot Shortage? Part Two
Flying|September 2017

Three Years Later, It’s Really, Truly Here

Sam Weigel

I don’t know about you, but I sure love being proved right. Lord knows it happens rarely enough at home, so I have to look for small victories elsewhere. As it so happens, writing a monthly column for a widely read aviation magazine makes for a potentially rich vein of retrospective sagacity. Thus I was recently perusing a few of my early Taking Wing columns when I came across this gem from March 2014: “What Shortage? It’s Kinda, Sorta, Maybe Here.” Despite the blithely noncommittal title, I drew a few strong conclusions about the nascent pilot shortage in that piece that have, quite happily, since been borne out by industry developments.

OK, perhaps my humble little article wasn’t quite a Nostradamus-level piece of bold prognostication. Given the easily available, incontrovertible data that juxtaposed skyrocketing pilot retirements against historically low levels of flight training, recent predictions of a pilot shortage might now be treated on par with statements regarding papal doctrinal inclinations or ursine toilet habits. But as late as 2014 there was still an enormous amount of skepticism among pilots who had seen many such predictions ignominiously fizzle out against a backdrop of persistent industry turbulence. Really, one can argue the main reason this pilot-shortage prediction panned out while others did not is that the newly consolidated U.S. airlines have remained disciplined, stable and profitable for a longer period than any since deregulation. Let the good times roll, I say.

So here’s where we’re at right now, a “State of the Shortage,” if you will. The so-called “legacy” U.S. airlines (American, Delta, United) are still on the front edge of a spike in mandatory retirements that will continue to ramp up over the next few years before peaking in 2023. Nearly half their current pilot force will reach age 65 within the next 10 years. “Low-cost carriers” like Southwest and JetBlue, and cargo companies like UPS and FedEx, face a steadier pace of retirements but will nevertheless lose a historically large percentage of their pilot groups. Meanwhile, global demand for air travel has continued to grow at a pace not far removed from industry forecasts (for once), and mainline carriers have reversed the prior trend of outsourcing their domestic feed by bringing a larger portion of it in-house. The result is that major, low-cost and cargo carriers have already started hiring pilots in numbers not seen since the 1997-to-2001 period — more than 10,000 in the past three years — even before mass retirements have really kicked in.

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