Opinions Differ On Pilot Shortage


The world’s biggest pilots’ union says there’s no pilot shortage, just a shortage of management skills to deploy them. The Air Line Pilots Association has created a webpage in which it contends there is actually a surplus of pilots. “So, although we don’t have a pilot shortage, we do have a shortage of airline executives willing to stand by their business decisions to cut air service and be upfront about their intentions to skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay,” the ALPA page says. It also says some airlines prepared better for the post-pandemic recovery and those that didn’t are the ones canceling flights and facing pilot protests.

Meanwhile, airlines themselves are at odds over whether there’s a shortage. Forbes gathered up CEO statements on the issue from earnings calls and Spirit CEO Ted Christie seemed bullish on the pilot pipeline even though his airline is cutting flights and citing the shortage. “We anticipate you could interpret that data to suggest it will probably be closer to what you’ve experienced in the past,” Christie said. “Supply and demand will work itself out over that period of time.” United CEO Scott Kirby had a polar opposite view. “The pilot shortage is real, at least for the next five years. “Most airlines will not be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five years,” he said. Kirby said airlines need 13,000 pilots a year and output is now no more than 7,000.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. On aspect of the “Pilot Shortage” is the nonsensical Age 65 rule passed by Congress and perpetuated in some other countries.
    There is no logical reason for an age limit; Airline Pilots are the most scrutinised profession in the world; those not competent, or medically unfit cannot work; period.
    Eliminate the nonsensical age restriction; keep the experienced ones to mentor the less experienced.

    • I presume 65 was chosen as matching the standard retirement age in the US and like countries.

      Reminds me of politicians of British Columbia pandering to Chicken Littles by requiring medical examination of automobile drivers who reach the dreaded age of 80 at which all become dangerous of course.

      Never mind the many young people racing around the streets in evasion of what they were supposed to have learned to get a DL.

      Sictoria’s excellent police chief nabbed one recently, motorcyclist raced by him. 20yo who had only recently got a license.

      And of course medical condition is legal justification for grounding before age 65, and to some extent with automobile drivers.

      Solutions are up to voters to elect stewards instead of pandering stupids trying to buy votes while angering other voters.

  2. I was forced to retire last June, though I would really have preferred to fly for a few more years. The

    • mandatory retirement age makes no sense, removes skilled, motivated pilots from the system and costs the airlines more in training.

      • It was 60 for many years in this country when it finally went back to 65. All the medical evidence points to age 65 being the reasonable limit.

        • Indeed, some readers knew John who had to retire from airline flying at 60 unless he was willing to only be copilot.

          He was able to fly big business jets afterward.

          However I challenge your ‘medical evidence, I think you are shotgunning.

          And overlooking judgement. A check captain told me one day in the office of PW that he had flown with his son the night before, a trip illustrating the difference between basic flying skill and wisdom from experience. (Flying the twin Convair in rain.)

  3. I see EasyJet have taken a back row of seats out the cabin. This makes their cabin staff requirement 3 instead of 4 as it is predicated on seat count. Might be a cabin crew shortage…..

  4. I don’t pretend to know what is the “ideal” mandatory retirement age for airline pilots: 65, 67.5, 70, 75 etc. The advantage of a standard retirement age is that it is objective with universal applicability. For the proponents who would prefer to eliminate a forced retirement age, they need to provide a detailed process that includes who, when and how a decision is made for an individual pilot to hang up his/her proverbial headset.

    Should the decision be made by one physician and if so, should the physician be a geriatrician, neurologist, cardiologist, psychiatrist, any AME or any state certified physician? Or should it be a board of physicians? Should the FAA designate such physicians? Or perhaps the decider should not even be a physician but a psychologist? How often must the assessment be made? What objective criteria would be used? Can the decision be appealed and/or reversed in negative outcomes. And so on. Will there be a universal agreement on the process?

    Please instead of complaining about mandatory retirement age, focus your efforts on solutions and answer: how to make the decision on when a particular pilot should retire from airline flying.

    Or there might be other solutions such as captains becoming FO’s (again). Will that work?

  5. Let me add: Is passing an FAA first class medical every six months after 60 or 65 proof enough that a pilot has the mental and physical capability to be the PIC with 300 passengers? We are not talking about skills, those are tested in simulator rides.

    • As I have progressed through my career as a pilot I have found that when moving to a crew environment and into transport category planes it takes more brainpower to do these jobs. Add to that a motivated FO who works with you to make sure the flight goes safely. Having to take a first class FAA medical and pass it along with a check ride every 6 months and pass that should be more than enough to catch any issues that might present a safety of flight issue. All three items require that those individuals who are the FO’s, doctors, and check airman do their jobs in making sure to bring up items or that the standards that are being checked are up to par. There is no need for further checks for pilots just because they happen to be of a certain age.

  6. 1) Airlines are setting (or revising) their flight schedules based on the number of available crews. This indicates that there is at least some kind of shortage of crews now/already. For the last few years, it could be the abnormal number of employees who are “off the playing field” due to COVID quarantine restrictions, but I think we’re mostly past that now. In normal times, the limiting factors for airline schedules are the number of aircraft available (or soft market demand, but we seem to have plenty of that).

    2) The world’s airlines need more pilots than the world produces every year. If there isn’t a shortage now, there will be at some point rather soon, and it will persist for some time.

    On the flip side, it’s not as cushy a job as it used to be. Compared to the time period before 1990 (before the large airline mergers and bankruptcies) today’s airline pilots fly more hours in generally less-friendly or less-nice conditions for less money. In the past I’ve said that there would never be a shortage of PILOTS, there would only be a shortage of good, qualified people who are willing to do the job on the cheap. We may be reaching the point where there will be an actual shortage of pilots in total.

    • The flip side is today’s airplanes have much better navigation and safety devices than the typical flight deck before 1990.

      • Not as much as you might think. And David B. comment on working conditions and the “shortage”only of experienced pilots willing to work for nothing is spot on. I’ve been saying that for years!

    • Are you claiming that deregulation caused the rigors of flying for small operations flogging freight runs, which are the source of pilots moving up to airline seats?

      (Had an educational experience decades ago sitting in Navigator seat behind pilots, we did avionics test flight then check rides.
      Airline hired early into third seat, forward facing in Hercules with some duties typical of FEs in B707/DC8. Person being checked out in right seat made instrument approach to a big airport, to 600 feet and one mile minima. When board yanked out of window the runway was not visible ahead – it was a half mile to one side.
      Person in third seat had hinted to the checkee by asking him where he was, checkee just pointed to instruments.
      OTOH, the person hinting soon went on to be youngest Captain on the type for that airline, very skilled.

  7. The Avweb flash message stated Airline Pilots Association. Good to see you got it right in the article, Air Line Pilots Association.

  8. Lest we forget that airlines fired people for not taking a “vaccine” and then sent others packing because of reduced number of flights. Airlines can’t just snap their fingers and make flight crews re-appear after fiirst forcing them away into other jobs.

    • Indeed.

      Some have easy options, might choose to just stay at home minding children – a guy I know home-schooled his after wife got the family started and went back teaching. (She taught business, emphasizing ethics.)

  9. Times have changed – Ryanair used to have a rather rude notice telling pilots not to use their site to beg for jobs — now it has started a cadet pilot scheme with a French training school.
    Still, if some of the airlines and their unions got pilots to fly for more than 70 hours a month, their scheduling problems would be less.

  10. When the current price of jet fuel hits the airlines, they will need to reduce schedules and increase prices. The price of jet fuel has increased 146% over a year ago and the industry fuel bill has increased $115.3 billion just this year. This will make more pilots available.

  11. FAA air traffic controllers must retire at age 56. But they can then turn around and work at a contract tower until age??? Huh?

  12. I retired at 65, against my will. I then taught sim for another year. I never realized how much better I would feel having a regular sleeping and pooping schedule. Now at 70, I’m teaching kids how to fly gliders and feeling better than I did in my last 10 years of flying the line.

  13. Those who say that age shouldn’t matter are either still young (and so don’t know what Old Age is really like) or are now too old (and so have forgotten how well they flew when younger).

    This is like old husbands who insist that they still perform well in the bedroom. It would be more accurate to have an objective performance evaluation from their wives. In the same way, neither can an old Airline pilot unequivocally say that he still performs well in the cockpit.

    For example, while I myself (now 66) am becoming foggy brained (you should see how many misspellings/basic grammar errors I make nowadays typing these comments), I am still aware enough to know that I am making mistakes. And so I can still correct them. (Even so, the kids roll their eyes as I struggle to write.) Unfortunately, history shows that there’s likely to come a time when I will not remember my mistakes, let alone be aware that I’m making them. Hopefully I will have stopped writing (and flying) by then, so as to not embarrass myself. (Or harm others.)

    Yes, it’s true that with about 10,000 hours I’m wiser and all that. But, mentally, I’m slower to react. I can’t remember all the Regs like I used to. I’m not adapting to new technology as well as I used to. (I still look at the DG to hold an assigned heading instead of the GPS Track.)

    Physically, I can’t turn my head as easily as I used to. And when I do turn my head, I can now induce paroxysmal positional vertigo. (I found this out quite by accident, when I lifted and turned my head to find a dropped screw while laying on a creeper under the airplane. It was like the Leans on steroids!) So I don’t like doing Unusual Attitudes anymore. In fact, since I know that I can become dizzy from PPV in the cockpit, I don’t fly IFR anymore.

    And, of course, it’s harder (and nosier) climbing into a cockpit nowadays.

    I realize that, statistically, some Old Pilots will be better than I am at my age, and are still sharp enough to fly Hard IFR, etc. (Or all our modern automation hides their decline/deficiencies, which is a whole nuther discussion.) So I can understand why a set age of 65 might seem arbitrary.

    But since God set an age limit of 55 for the Levites whose job it was to prepare (heavy) bulls for sacrifice, I’m okay with setting an age limit. Better to be Safe then Sorry / Err on the side of Safety. And isn’t that what being an Airline Pilot is all about?

    • Truth… you are not foggy brained, you just write more now in post than you ever wrote in your life before. Spelling… the funniest part of my fathers PhD thesis is the misspellings on the title page… by the way, we wouldn’t have made it to the moon without his math and programming skills… English makes no sense… math does.

      I guess sex skills matter to keep the flight attendants happy on over nights… but really. Do you have to have sex with every flight attendant on every over night?

      • I don’t understand why most older pilots argue with me when I tell them that I am (and, by extension, they are) aging. Is it denial? (Is it that they don’t want to admit it to themselves?)

        Well, as I wrote, I DO make a LOT more mistakes now. Both in flying and writing.

        And the truth is, I wrote MORE when I was younger than I do now. (Some of my articles in KITPLANES, AvConsumer, LPM.) Why won’t you believe me when I tell you that, like every other old person, I am falling apart as I grow old? (I’m even going to die someday. Sooner with each day that passes. Best not to happen while piloting.)

        As an aside, my AME told me a story about memory tells: You know how they chat you up during your exam, asking questions about your flying/life, as if interested? They’re not. They’re doing the metal part of the exam.

        My AME told me about an applicant who told him the exact same story 10 minutes apart. (As happens with Alzheimer’s or dementia.) IIRC, the AME had to fail the applicant.

        But if one thinks that old age doesn’t matter, that someone can safely pilot an Airliner into their 70’s – 80’s, that Brandon would make a good pilot as he makes a good President (even tho he can’t pronounce “Kleptocracy”), then there’s nothing more that I can say.

        Whew. I’m tired now. Time for a nap.

  14. There are not enough inexpensive starving pilots to hire for cheep… that is the problem.

    • Sure there are.
      This might be a push by US Airlines to change the law so that they CAN hire starving foreign pilots to sit left seat on US airlines.

      • I think you’re on to something. This would be consistent with everything else that is happening in our country to undermine it.

  15. When Republic Airways is trying to get an FAR exemption to hire RATP at 750TT, there has to be a shortage at the entry level too. It really isn’t just the “pay is peanuts, pilots won’t work those jobs” that is the shortage problem, there truly is not enough pilots to fill the flight decks of airliners.