Yet with the number of air travelers on the rise, the number of pilots continues to shrink. And as new aircraft enter the international fleet, the pressure for more pilots is that much higher.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were about 827,000 pilots in the U.S. in 1987. But over the last three decades, this number has decreased by 30%.
Many factors have contributed to the massive pilot shortage the aviation industry is now facing. Baby boomers are reaching mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots, while the military is increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles and training fewer pilots who would later enter the business or commercial airline industry.
Additionally, massive industry changes such as the Airline Deregulation Act and the effects of 9/11 still carry financial repercussions for the airline industry as a whole.
Here are 5 reasons there are fewer pilots than ever before, and what the industry is doing to curb the shortage before it threatens the growth of global aviation.
1. Baby Boomers are Retiring
Baby boomer pilots make up the largest number of pilots who are flying today — almost 50%. And most of these pilots are about to retire.
A 2016 report by Boeing shows that 42% of the pilots currently flying for the major U.S airlines will reach their mandatory retirement age of 65 in the next 10 years.
Congress changed the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65 in 2009. Although this would seem to be a short-time Band-Aid for the decreasing amount of pilots, some younger junior pilots believe this change crippled their career advancement opportunities, causing them to seek careers outside of the industry.
2. Fewer Pilots Provided by the Military
The number of pilots provided by the military has declined due largely to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
A lower demand for pilots means young aviators will have to pay for their own flight training, which can easily exceed $100,000. And in the light of an uncertain career future, many aspiring pilots may simply be unwilling to take the risk.
3. Airline Deregulation Act
In 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act completely changed the aviation world forever.
Prior to the act, the government controlled things like fares, routes, and market entry of new airlines. Deregulation introduced a free market in the commercial airline industry, leading to an increase in the number of flights, number of passengers and amount of miles flown, with a decrease in fares. The result was a rise of low-cost carriers, allowing more people to fly more often.
However, this act also led to a consolidation of carriers — and many that couldn’t keep up with the competition.
Between 1978 and mid-2001, eight major carriers (including Eastern, Midway, Braniff, Pan Am, Continental, Northwest Airlines, and TWA) and more than 100 smaller airlines went bankrupt or were liquidated — including most of the dozens of new airlines founded in deregulation’s aftermath.
“Since the 1978 economic deregulation of the U.S. airline industry, airline bankruptcy filings have become prevalent in the United States, and airlines fail at a higher rate than companies in most other industries.” – U.S. Government Accountability Office.
4. Financial Impacts of 9/11
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, airports were closed and flights were canceled for weeks. But even once airports were reopened, airlines experienced around a 30% decrease in demand during the initial shock period following reopening.
A week after 9/11, Congress gave suffering airlines up to $10 billion in loans. Yet several big-name American airlines declared bankruptcy not long after the 9/11 attacks.
Decreased passenger demand, canceled flights, and increased spending for security measures led to major financial losses for many airlines. Even those without prior financial issues were forced to renegotiate labor contracts and lay off high numbers of employees — like the 7,000 employees laid off by American Airlines.
Not only that, but increased TSA measures and baggage screenings in the wake of the attack led to about a 6% decrease in airline passengers, with a 9% decrease in the nation’s busiest airports, totaling a nearly $1 billion loss for the airline industry.
5. Stricter Safety Requirements (AKA the 1,500 Hour Rule)
The FAA mandated the 1,500-hour rule in 2013, which requires all commercial airline first officers (or “co-pilots”) to have at least 1,500 hours of accrued flight time to get an Air Transport Pilot certificate (ATP). Before this change, first officers needed just 250 hours.
The new rule also requires that ATP pilots earn an additional 1,000 flight hours before they can qualify to serve as captains.
Congress also changed the duty-time rules in 2010 to help relieve pilot fatigue. Airlines had to increase their pilot staffing by 5% to 8% to cover the same schedule, meaning they needed to hire even more qualified pilots.
How is the Airline Industry Combating the Pilot Shortage?
Most U.S. major airlines are not yet directly experiencing the pilot shortage. But smaller regional airlines are already feeling the burn. Many flight schedules have been reduced, and some have already gone bankrupt due to low pilot staffing.
There are several initiatives to recruit and train more pilots in the U.S. For example, Airlines like JetBlue are offering employees an opportunity to train for the specific aircraft types they use. Other initiatives are aimed at encouraging more women to become pilots, while another idea is to recruit AI-enabled automation to help relieve demand.
But training new pilots takes time, and entering the field can be cost-prohibitive to some women candidates. As for automation, it’s likely that safe, reliable AI technologies are more than a decade away from being ready for use on commercial flights.
Whether it’s heightening the retirement age or lowering training hours, increasing wages and benefits or developing faster technology, something’s gotta give. In less than a decade, the pilot shortage may begin to put the growth projected for global aviation at risk.