Pilot Shortage Threatens Airline Recovery


The pandemic-paused pilot shortage will be felt again by 2023 and back with a vengeance by 2025, according to a new study on the pilot supply. The report, by the consulting firm of Oliver Wyman, says the aviation industry could be short as many as 50,000 pilots worldwide by the middle of the decade after full recovery from the pandemic. The study also says North American operators will see the shortage first and feel it hardest. “In North America, with an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements, the shortage reemerges quickly and is projected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023—13 percent of total demand,” the report says.

The U.S. industry has created the perfect conditions for an acute shortage by using early retirement incentives to get rid of high-price senior pilots. Most of those pilots will not return to the industry and they’ll be joined by a cadre of mid-career professionals who are tired of the cyclical nature of the business and have moved on to other work. The situation is compounded by the fact that the high cost of training and the anecdotal reports of the insecure nature of the job are discouraging young people from getting in. Even banks that had recently started financing pilot training are having second thoughts.

The firm says the looming shortage is one of the greatest threats to airline recovery and says carriers must be proactive in attracting, retaining and training pilots and the sooner the better. “How quickly airlines can regrow their operation will be guided by how quickly they can regrow their pilot ranks,” the study says. “Those that take action now increase the agility of the airline to capture demand as it recovers.”

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. It is also compounded by the stupid TSA and other “security” items to go through and deal with. The second paragraph really says it well. Now as to any “pilot shortage” in the US, that remains to be seen.

    • Did you miss this sentence?

      “American operators will see the shortage first and feel it hardest. “In North America, with an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements, the shortage reemerges quickly and is projected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023—13 percent of total demand,” the report says.”

      I’m not certain how the TSA plays into pilot shortages though as something to complain about I guess it’s worth trying. Maybe it’s the FAA requirements that require certain minimums to even apply that drive up the cost of just getting to the right seat of an aircraft. At one point a person could take a career track of FI, check hauler, freight hauler to finally getting to apply to a major (or secondary) airline, but from anecdotal stories, articles I’ve read (even here in AVWeb) that path is going the way of the Dodo.

      The question is also can a shortage recover, because what was one a fair large pool of pilots to pull from, GA, is becoming a shrinking source. Training costs just to get a PPL are limiting access, the cost of rentals cuts further into options, the cost of planes in general really cuts into growth so by the time Instrument ratings are possible the number of potential pilots that could move up is much smaller. There is nothing that will ever bring down costs, but unless we can accept less planes flying (and I’m okay with that), airlines and governments may need to figure a way to work together to create better paths to the cockpit then we have today.

      Either that or we the public will soon get single pilot flights or down the road, remote piloting which is quite possible in the near future.

      • There is also the issues of dealing with the FAA and the medical system. Waiting for months for an answer to even small issues is ridiculous. The FAA medical system needs to get out of the stone age and stop going nuts over whatever is the ailment of the month.

      • Justin H.

        If you knew about the crazy TSA rules I have to deal with you would not be asking that question. Problem is I can’t comment on them for obvious reasons. There are plenty of pilots who’s initial training classes at the various airlines where sent home waiting to be recalled. There are also pilots who are doing pt135 jobs waiting for the airlines to call again. Yes I know plenty of pilots who got fed up and found something else to do. I still keep seeing ads in aviation publications advertising airline type training for newbie’s. Pilot shortage, we are nowhere near that in the US yet. Although the check hauling business is gone the rest of the jobs you point out are still there. You just need to meet pt135 minimums. Pt91 jobs are still there also.

    • The second paragraph does a good job of highlighting many of the issues, but not the TSA. I would put A LOT of the frustrations that pilots must deal with at the feet of the airline c-suite. Pilot pay, especially starting pay for those in the right seat, has not kept pace with the complexity, demands and frustrations of the job. My oldest son is a pilot, and he was faced with the frustration during his first years that he made more money waiting tables at the Olive Garden then he did starting out as a co-pilot.

      • Is that the C suite or the unions? Does SWA have as hard a time finding pilots as the more traditional airlines? They have unions, but the relationship seems different looking from the outside.

        Between the FAA, the unions, and the crazy expectations of the traveling public, I’d never take a job in airline management. It’s like politics. Who wants to live like that?

        • Definitely the C suite. People are getting laid off, entire families without paychecks, the company as a whole may be reporting quarterly losses, and yet somehow their compensation never seems to decrease. Quite the opposite, at most airlines the C suite is still walking away with quarterly and annual compensation packages in those situations that the average employee wouldn’t see in a career.

    • Not a factor. Working conditions and a healthy life/work balance is the motivator for new entrants into the career. Pay does not alleviate chronic fatigue, flip-flop schedules, work stress, and the inability to have control over their schedule. The industry’s work-life balance has gotten completely unhealthy over the years. Employers in other industries are slowly learning that pay is not the motivator; Being valued, empowered, and a good work/life balance (flexibility) are more important than the digits on the direct deposit.

  2. This study assumes a ‘V’-shaped recovery and return to the original demand curve as if Covid never happened. Easily the most optimistic and high-demand assumption.
    Reality is probably going to be a more gradual return to a lower demand curve – more people are working and meeting remotely for one thing. In addition, a lot of wealth has been consumed or destroyed by the Covid response, so I expect there will be lower demand from holiday makers for a long time as well.

    So I’ll believe there is a pilot ‘shortage’ when I see one. It’s a much rarer thing than many groups would have us believe.

    • You would be right, except the Fed is interfering. Looks more like we actually will start on a V shaped recovery. The question will be whether the strategy works or whether it blows up in the mid or long run.
      I suspect we are about due for a new airline, with a new career structure for pilots. If successful, it will start a trend of bankruptcies again because the existing companies are trapped by legacy issues.

  3. The pilot shortage is based on a percentage of the population not just the airlines’ wants. This nation should have better than 10 percent of it’s population holding a pilot’s License. Until we get the 30 plus million pilots aviation as a whole is doomed.

  4. There have been projected pilot shortages periodically since United was on campus recruiting back in the late 60’s…when I started applying in the late 70’s, applicants needed at least two lunar landings to get considered…the FAA,TSA and work rules will be able to create a true pilot shortage if given enough rein…

  5. Seems to me that the end of this pandemic is open-ended until if, or when, the variants are controlled and also the world achieves herd immunity.

  6. “This nation should have better than 10 percent of it’s population holding a pilot’s License.”

    No thank you. That’s the thinking that got us a steering wheel-shaped yoke instead of a stick. Have you been on a freeway recently? More than 10% of the nation are not meant to be pilots, nor should they be. It’s a systemic, cultural problem thar stems from digital natives, babies with ipad tablets, and not playing in the dirt as a kid. When more people can think in 3D, than maybe more pilots. Sadly, the amount of people with that ability is trending in the other direction

    • Each year we have less pilots meaning less of everything aviation. We may not like sharing the skies with millions of other aircraft wondering in every direction but, no industry can survive with the prices we are paying today. The cost of operation of the simplest aircraft is just too high today and going higher rapidly. Aviation can not rely on flight simulators for training. Only real life experience in a real aircraft give the life and death experiences required to truly train and make a calm knowledgeable pilot.

      The airlines are hiring pilots with 500 hours. To me, an airline pilot sitting in the right seat on their first flight should be able to seamlessly take over the aircraft if anything goes wrong. It’s not happening and passengers and aviation as a whole is paying the ultimate price.

  7. They need to return to the 250 hr first officer. The move to the 1200 and 1500 hr pilot was when we had a military that was pumping out high time pilots. This is no longer the case. A commercial pilot with 1200 teaching in a Cessna is not the optimal pilot for a 737 or Airbus. Those pilots need to be completely retrained anyway.

    • So, a 1,500- hour pilot whose time is mostly ASEL is “not optimal,” but a 250-hour newbie right-seater IS?


    • That is the last thing we need. I don’t mind showing someone new to my airplane how to handle it. But I am not interested in being a flight instructor teaching a 250hr wonder things they should have learned before sitting in the right seat of a type rated plane. The other issue would be the return of starting pay levels not seen since the Colgan/ Buffalo,NY accident. Fortunately in the pt 135 world insurance has pretty much eliminated that issue.

    • Agree 100% flying Cessna around the pattern all day don’t make you better safe pilot let’s get for real people WW2 pilots flew 500mph airplanes close to the
      Ground I take my hat off for those young pilots

  8. I have been made aware of the huge diversity push by the airlines to let women and minorities have priority in hiring and training slots. Some good candidates for the flight deck get pushed aside and get put at the back of the list so they quit and go find other flying positions elsewhere. If this is the focus of the airlines…I’ll drive.

  9. Lower the hiring minimums to 750. Any time above and beyond that is not helping you for an airline job anyway.

  10. The flight crew re-calling/hiring will be driven by market demand.. And, nobody knows for certain what market demand will be into the future..

    Hiring standards were set after the Colgan Air Crash near Buffalo, NY, along with congressional testimony from Sully.. Chuck Schumer, a New York State Senator, and majority leader in the US Senate.. Will never agree to lowering hiring standards because it’s a very political and local issue for him..

  11. If there were truly a pilot shortage the free market system would take care of it. Shortage means demand is higher than supply. This would cause the price (wages) to increase which would cause people to enter the field. The problem is not lack of pilots but lack of financial incentive to become a pilot (and/or remain in the airline industry).

    Year 737-500 737-700 737-800 737-900 757-200 757-300 767-200 767-300 767-400 777 A319 A320 787
    12 186 186 193 193 193 200 200 200 240 240 186 193 240
    11 184 184 192 192 192 198 198 198 238 238 184 192 238
    10 182 182 190 190 190 196 196 196 236 236 182 190 236
    9 180 180 187 187 187 193 193 193 233 233 180 187 233
    8 178 178 185 185 185 191 191 191 230 230 178 185 230
    7 174 174 181 181 181 186 186 186 225 225 174 181 225
    6 169 169 176 176 176 181 181 181 219 219 169 176 219
    5 165 165 172 172 172 177 177 177 214 214 165 172 214
    4 161 161 168 168 168 173 173 173 209 209 161 168 209
    3 157 157 164 164 164 168 168 168 204 204 157 164 204
    2 134 134 140 140 140 144 144 144 174 174 134 140 174
    1 91 91 91 91 91 91 91 91 91 91 91 91 91

    Year 757-200 777 A319 A320 737-7 737-8 737-9 757-3 767-2 767-3 767-4 787
    12 283 352 272 283 272 283 283 293 293 293 352 352
    11 281 349 270 281 270 281 281 290 290 290 349 349
    10 279 347 268 279 268 279 279 287 287 287 347 347
    9 277 344 265 277 265 277 277 284 284 284 344 344
    8 275 341 263 275 263 275 275 282 282 282 341 341
    7 273 339 261 273 261 273 273 280 280 280 339 339
    6 270 336 259 270 259 270 270 278 278 278 336 336
    5 268 333 257 268 257 268 268 276 276 276 333 333
    4 266 331 255 266 255 266 266 273 273 273 331 331
    3 264 328 253 264 253 264 264 271 271 271 328 328
    2 262 325 251 262 251 262 262 269 269 269 325 325
    1 260 323 249 260 249 260 260 267 267 267 323 323

    This is the posted UAL pay scale negotiated in 2019. Not too shabby, and the recent payroll protection probably mirrored most of that.

    • Keep in mind those are flight hours. If an airline pilot doesn’t fly, he/she doesn’t get paid over whatever minimum that airline pays. These pay rates are for those who make it to the big time in their career. How about posting rates at regional airlines. I’ll bet they are nowhere near these levels for FO’s. And there are/were plenty of high seniority captains who stayed at regionals because the loss of seniority or pay wasn’t worth the change. And a lot if not most airline crew members commute since they don’t live in base. I could go on and on with the downsides of an airline job and why so many including me would not have an airline position no matter how much it paid!