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Job-Hunting Pilots

Is There a Pilot Shortage?

By Tim Genc
May 16, 2022

I'm willing to bet that some of you, upon reading the title, emphatically answered the question out loud; some of you almost shouted out, "yes" while others shook your head as you passionately resounded, "no!"

If you ask industry veterans and airline or charter management individuals the question, it's not surprising that you may get a very emotional response. Why is this such a sensitive topic and why is the answer different from person to person? How can the CEO of one major airline report no problem finding pilots while another can cry out the shortage is real? How is it t some airlines are struggling to fill their classes while others are stating they have more than they can effectively train?

The phrase "pilot shortage" is a complicated one. It's a phrase that inspires feeling and can take seasoned aviator's back to very different and difficult times. It wasn't long ago pilots were barely making a living wage, and furloughs – at least one if not more – were a part of the first years of their first cockpit job. Fast-forward twenty years and, while companies have made huge strides toward improving the compensation and quality of life for their pilots, there is still work to be done.

To those who champion the cause for professional pilots to be paid commensurate with the cost of their training and more in line with the awesome responsibility with which they are charged, the term "pilot shortage" can be an offensive one.

To airlines and carriers cancelling flights, overworking their pilots, offering ever-increasing sign-on bonuses and even looking to foreign pilots to fill their cockpits, the term "pilot shortage" is a call for help.

Twenty years ago, airlines weren't visiting college campuses to recruit pilots; they didn't need to! Fast-forward to today and, while some regional airlines and carriers are doing this with almost-desperate regularity, others aren't. Some carriers are competing in the "bonus wars" and some aren't. Why the different approach? What does it all mean? It means that different companies have different sets of circumstances, different needs, and different levels of difficulty when it comes to sourcing talent.

I think it's safe to say companies advertising sign-on/upgrade/retention bonuses, paid or reimbursed CTP training, commuter hotels or monthly commuter bonuses, home or virtual-basing opportunities, or announcing any other increases in compensation, soft pay or quality of life benefits are trying to attract a greater number of willing and able pilots to their flight decks. Some of these companies need more pilots due to growth while many others are faced with pilot attrition. Perhaps some of these airlines or aviation carriers aren't what some would call "destination" airlines or companies, and they find themselves losing pilots to more seemingly-favorable or long-term carriers. Whatever the circumstances and whatever the history, these are companies that are challenged with supplying the pilots necessary for their operation. Would we be comfortable calling their particular situation a "pilot shortage"?

United Airlines and Republic Airways own and operate their own flight schools. In addition to providing safety-critical standardization much earlier to pilots to offset training challenges, not to mention the perk of a much longer interview process, both companies have created the opportunity to get ahead of the pilot recruiting game by connecting with interested – but not yet qualified – individuals at the point of inception. Almost all the other airlines and business aviation carriers have developed pathways, relationships, training agreements and even flow-through agreements with flight schools and universities. The result is pilot recruiting is starting much earlier. If United and Republic can indoctrinate these pilot hopefuls into their company culture when they start their training, there is a greater chance that they can create a lifelong pilot for their company. This makes good sense but, if it is such a good idea, why weren't more airlines buying flight schools or establishing partnerships and pathways back in 2002 when there were more pilots than jobs and pilots were being paid less than $20,000/year? Rhetorical question, we all know why. So, is this recent strategy possibly in response to a current or forecast greater need to get in front of pilots earlier to hire more of them? Would we be comfortable calling the event that catalyzed fostering these relationships a "pilot shortage"?

The term "pilot shortage" implies that there are not enough pilots within the US to meet the current demand. Some statistics suggest that this is not correct, that the current population of able pilots is more than enough to meet the immediate demand. It is further argued that it is the willingness of these pilots to work for a perceived lower wage, or the unwillingness of pilot employers to provide "adequate" compensation and benefits that is keeping certain pilot jobs vacant. And when these carriers reach out to European and Australian pilots to fill these open cockpit positions, there are raised voices asking why these US-based airlines are unwilling to hire US-based pilots to fill the vacancies. Airlines and aviation carriers are businesses, and they're businesses that make good and bad financial decisions. However they got here, independent of any factors, some of these companies are unable to attract and/or retain enough pilots who are willing and able to fly their fleets. Without pilots to fly, these companies will go out of business. They need to aggressively hire more pilots. They are experiencing a "pilot shortage".

Some of the larger carriers are reporting a very different story, claiming they're getting more than enough applications to staff their needs. This isn't surprising, as these major/global airlines are at the top of the "poach chain", capable of sourcing their pilots from all the rest of the carriers. I used to watch how the flight training industry followed the stock market and always noted how a downturn in the economy would often not affect the number of people pursuing flight training for several months. The explanation was that the people who could afford the cost of such an expensive hobby wouldn't be affected as quickly as others were. This same observation could be made of the larger carriers, not currently experiencing the supply issues that are plaguing their smaller, "non-destination" brethren. But, as was the case with flight training, it will catch up as there are only so many pilots available to go to the larger carriers.

Is the US currently experiencing a "pilot shortage"? To be honest, it depends on whom you ask and what the term "pilot shortage" really means to them. A less-controversial question might be, are many carriers experiencing a challenge recruiting, training, and retaining pilots? The answer is yes. All of them? The answer is no. There are many proposed solutions, reasons behind and blame to be cast on how the US aviation industry got here, but it doesn't change the fact that some major and almost all regional airlines and private aviation companies are aggressively incentivizing and hiring as many pilots as they can – and not slowing down one bit – because they need more pilots.

"Pilot shortage" or not, the industry needs more aspiring pilots to start their training. And companies who fly airplanes need to attract, interview, hire and train more pilots to respond to the demand.

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