Pilot Shortage Looms As Global In-Service Fleet Recovers

CAE, the simulator manufacturer and training provider, believes the demand for pilots will recover faster than many in the industry expect.
Credit: CAE

Counterintuitive as it may seem with airlines downsizing and furloughing crews, a pilot shortage problem may re-emerge sooner than most think.

According to a report from consultants Oliver Wyman, even a modest recovery scenario from COVID-19 will see a global pilot shortage occurring in some regions no later than 2023 and probably earlier. With a more rapid recovery, this could be felt as early as late this year.

“Regarding magnitude, in our most likely scenarios, there is a global gap of 34,000 pilots by 2025. This could be as high as 50,000 in the most extreme scenarios,” the report’s authors, Geoff Murray and Taylor Cornwall, say.

Part of the problem: Although passenger numbers are likely to remain below pre-pandemic levels for some time, airlines are ramping up flight frequencies in an effort to re-establish routes and schedules. Load factors may still be below normal, especially on long-haul routes, but pilots will be needed to fly the aircraft, even if half empty.

The Wyman report notes that, by mid-spring this year, the global in-service fleet had already recovered to 76% of its pre-COVID levels. In China—predicted to be one of the regions that will face the most severe shortfalls—it was a back to 99%.

“We think pilot demand will come back faster than most people expect,” said Simon Azar, VP-strategy marketing at simulator manufacturer and training provider CAE.

Underlying growth in the world economy will continue to drive parallel expansion of air traffic. Robin Glover-Faure, L3Harris VP-sales and marketing, commercial aviation, points to the growing wealth of populations in the Asia-Pacific region, notably China and India.

“When people get to a certain income level, there’s two things they do; one is, buy a smartphone. The other is fly,” he says.

IATA regional director, safety & flight operations Europe, Giancarlo Buono concurs: “The pilot shortage isn’t going to go away. It very much depends on what will happen to those pilots who were furloughed. It’s clear that some will retire.”

Pilots in the 50-60 age bracket often consider themselves too young to retire, but they may find it challenging to get hired because of their seniority.

“Airlines have not solved the problem yet, but they need to make a strategic decision on whether they hire back the pilots or perhaps hire younger pilots at lower cost,” Buono said.

“That’s not really a matter for IATA to discuss, it’s more a discussion between the airlines and the unions. It depends on the ability of the industry to re-absorb this group of senior pilots.”

Regional shortages

The Wyman report spotlights North America, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East as those regions most likely to see shortfalls of flight deck personnel. Europe, Latin America and Africa are predicted to remain closer to equilibrium.

In North America, for example, the report notes, “With an aging pilot population and heavy early retirements, the shortage re-emerges quickly and is projected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023—13% of total demand.”

Pilot attrition, meanwhile, has almost tripled through the past 12 months relative to normal years, with close to 30,000 pilots exiting the market.

Many airlines have cut costs by offering early retirement packages to senior pilots. The potential loss of this echelon of flight deck personnel, with their accumulated years of airmanship, may prompt a need for enhanced training because airlines “rely on more senior pilots transmitting their experience to younger pilots,” Buono said. “Of course, it’s clear that airlines and our members would never employ a pilot if they don’t think he or she is safe, but there’s always a learning curve for a pilot. Airmanship is always a bit difficult to define and evaluate, but it’s passed on by previous generations.”

The pandemic has seen the training of new pilots sink to a low ebb, but there are indications from the US that the market is picking up again, Buono says.

Will the flow of new pilots through the training pipeline slow down? Many newcomers to the profession qualify through airline-sponsored cadet schemes, some of which have been trimmed during the pandemic, the Wyman report notes. Others go the solo route, which is typically expensive. And some banks are re-evaluating the loan risk profiles of would-be commercial pilots. As a career prospect, the widely publicized downturn may also dissuade students from pursuing a pilot career, which could further sharpen a shortage.

“There will certainly be a portion of people that will be led away from the industry,” Buono acknowledged. However, he added that the passion for flying that drives many youngsters toward the industry will mean that most will continue their efforts. The main problem with young pilots, he believes, is that some who lost their jobs will become disillusioned with the industry as they struggle financially to retain the currency of their licenses.

UK-based consultant John Strickland agrees with the Wyman report that the greatest problems will be in markets that were growing strongly before the pandemic, such as in China and the Middle East.

In the latter area, for example, airlines such as Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways have said their Airbus A380s are unlikely to return to service. They will be replaced by smaller widebodies. Those may be more fuel efficient to operate than the A380, but their smaller capacities will mean that more frequencies—and thus more pilots—will be required to carry the same number of passengers.

The pandemic has seen entire fleets of older aircraft retired by airlines. While some, such as British Airways’ Boeing 747-400s, were destined for retirement in the next few years anyway, and some older pilots would have retired as a result, younger 747 flight deck personnel would have expected to retrain for service on newer types, such as the Airbus A350 or Boeing 777 and 787.

“Maybe that option is unlikely to be there,” says Phil Seymour, president of UK-based consultancy IBA. He agrees with Buono that young entrants who wanted to be pilots could be put off from joining the industry.

“What was always seen as a growth industry for the next 20 years … people are making decisions on what they’re going to get into. People are thinking, ‘That’s so insecure, maybe I should stick with IT or something,’” he said. “I think the industry is potentially really going to suffer.”

What can be done to head off, or at least mitigate, the resurgent pilot shortage? The Wyman report suggests three courses of action:

  • Reduce pilot demand by rethinking crew operations and improving productivity, thus reducing the total number of pilots needed.
  • Continue to invest in training programs and pilot recruitment, including resolving the financial challenges faced by young pilots.
  • Recognize the likelihood of increased competition for personnel, particularly furloughed pilots, and actively engage to improve retention.

Failure to take such measures could hurt airlines as they restore their networks.

Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.