Commentary: How To Address The Pilot Shortage Problem
The crisis in recruiting pilots into commercial aviation is real and it’s global. While much of the blame can be justifiably laid at the door of the coronavirus pandemic, industry leaders saw the pilot shortage coming well before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. More than three years ago, the global airline industry anticipated huge growth in the number of passengers over the following 20 years, with more aircraft and pilots needed to meet demand.
Today, delivering on that need is a challenge faced by airlines of all sizes, and by training organizations and academies. Not only does the industry need to fill current gaps left by pilots who have retired or who found alternative careers during the pandemic, we also need to recruit, train and deploy the next generation of commercial aviators.
There is significant scope for flight-school-led action that could help our industry break through this shortage in the cycle. In my view, this begins with inspiration, welcoming and seeking out diversity, and removing financial barriers to entry as much as possible.
In a US job market overshadowed by the weight of inflation, a pending recession, and a rising cost of living, young people considering their futures need to be shown how a career as an airline pilot can be rewarding and secure.
The key to this has always begun with flight-school-led outreach, such as speaking at local schools, hosting open houses, and sending certified flight instructors to speak at key industry events, including those dedicated to underrepresented groups in aviation.
However, social media channels have become primary conduits for curious young minds who wish to see a day in the life account of what flight training and an airline career look like. As much social media content as possible, straight from the mouths of our enrolled student pilots, is an important tool that flight academies can provide.
It is of equal importance to inspire individuals to take this passion for aviation to a professional level by providing evidence of the security and personal fulfilment an airline career offers. Airline pathway programs can play a pivotal role in demonstrating this by outlining a clear way forward to the flight deck and a specific aiming point for student pilots. At Skyborne, we’ve developed partnerships with major carriers like Delta Air Lines, as well as regional airlines such as Avelo and SkyWest Airlines, not only to ensure a range of solid career prospects for our graduates but to attract new pilots as well.
According to Data USA, fewer than 8% of US pilots are people of color, and just 7% are women. Lawmakers have rightly criticized this situation and have pledged to take action.
The aviation industry is also pushing for change by raising more awareness of aviation career opportunities and building partnerships and educational initiatives that encourage students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. In parallel, more data is being collected, so that we can better understand where the obstacles to a career in aviation lie.
The US National Business Aviation Association puts it well when it says: “Listening to diverse voices and promoting practices that enable everyone to excel isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s how our industry will remain on the forefront of innovation.”
It is clear that we must level the playing field and open up pilot training to a more diverse group of applicants, sooner rather than later. As an industry, we need to do more to celebrate the achievements of women and people of color, to raise the profile of role models and to demonstrate that learning to fly airliners is a realistic choice for everyone who has the aptitude, regardless of their background.
Training to become a commercial pilot is expensive and the cost is a clear deterrent to those who don’t have access to this level of funding. While this problem is often thrown into industry and public sector dialogues, there are still actions flight schools can take to have an immediate and powerful impact. This begins with the leaders of training institutions adopting a more proactive approach to collaborating with financial institutions and other stakeholders that could make a difference.
One example is the Skyborne Certified Flight Instructor scholarship that provides $2.5 million in training value to program graduates who wish to become flight instructors at Skyborne. We’ve also teamed up with some of America’s leading financial organizations, including Sallie Mae, Meritize and Discover to provide loan support for training, sometimes without any need for a co-signer.
Further funding may also be available from a range of aviation or student organizations, some of which aim to increase diversity within aviation. Even when flight schools are not in a position to offer in-house scholarship programs, they have a responsibility to make new student pilots aware of the financial support resources out there for them and foster partnerships with organizations willing to help.
Disrupt The Status Quo
There is no doubt the current pilot shortage is creating real problems for the aviation sector in the short term. However, a more long-term take may be to see the current situation as an opportunity to disrupt the traditional recruitment and training pattern.
If we can reach out to a much broader range of young people, remove as many obstacles as possible from the aviation career pathway and find creative solutions to funding barriers, employers will have an opportunity to create a far more sustainable, resilient, and representative pool of talent from which to recruit.
And, vitally, we will be able to make many more young people’s dreams of taking a seat in an airliner’s cockpit come true. As an ex-airline pilot and current Boeing 757/767 trainer and check airman, I still passionately believe that being a professional pilot is the best job in the world. Our industry is dynamic, challenging and professionally rewarding. Like many of my peers, I want to find a way of reaching out to tomorrow’s generation of aviators and create an environment that makes their career goals attainable.
Lee Woodward is CEO and a co-founder at the Florida-based Skyborne Airline Academy. He is a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society with more than 30 years’ experience in airline operations, recruitment and selection, and in multi-pilot license and integrated pilot training programs. The views expressed here are his own.