Demand For Pilots Plunges, But Retirements Will Drive Recovery

Credit: Airbus

In 2019, the business and commercial aviation sectors were promoting career pathway programs as a hedge against the yawning gap in pilot supply and demand expected in the coming decades.

Since then, commercial travel demand has cratered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, planes are grounded and there are more pilots than needed.

Ever aspirational, the aviation industry predicts a gradual return to its previous levels of flight activity and career opportunity; after all, it returned to health after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the global recession of 2008-09. “The good news is that next year the industry will see a large number of mandatory age retirements that are going to come into effect. The excess pilots should be absorbed by that group,” says Nick Leontidis, CAE Civil Aviation Group president. 

“Looking at airplane deliveries, looking at the growth back to more normal levels [of operation] for the existing fleet, we’re actually saying that next year there will be a small shortage [of pilots],” adds Leontidis.

On Nov. 9, CAE released a third edition of its pilot demand forecast that estimates the need for about 27,000 new airline and business jet pilots beginning in late 2021, and 264,000 new pilots over the next decade. The training services provider and simulator manufacturer projects that pilot demand will return to 2019 levels in 2022.

While acknowledging the significant decrease in pilot need this year, CAE attests that age-based retirements, attrition and fleet growth of 11,000 additional business and commercial aircraft over the next decade will restore long-term pilot demand. Pilots over 50 years of age represent 38% of the total civil aviation pilot pool, and 3.8% of commercial pilots are expected to retire or leave the profession every year over the next 10 years, the company says.

When the industry does return to a normal level of flight activity and ultimately resumes its growth trend, it will not have been without considerable pain. Airlines have laid off, furloughed or negotiated pay cuts and reduced duty time with tens of thousands of pilots. Some cadets have seen their training at flight schools stopped in midstream.

The duration of the pandemic remained unspecified, and by fall the hoped-for revival of air travel demand in many countries had sputtered. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration screened 618,476 passengers at airport checkpoints on Oct. 31—157,000, or 25% fewer passengers than a week earlier.

In Europe, the novel coronavirus pandemic has already led to huge upheaval for airlines, with major workforce reduction plans underway as carriers seek to cut costs to ride out the storm. France, Germany, Belgium and Greece were among countries that implemented a second round of lockdowns of their citizenry to stop the virus’s spread.

“The crisis is not only global, it’s deeper and longer lasting than previous crises,” says Jon Horne, president of the European Cockpit Association (ECA). The pilots’ association warned in August that more than 15,000 pilot jobs were either threatened or permanently lost because of the pandemic. 

Among the U.S. legacy carriers, early outs were taken by 821 American Airlines pilots; between 500-600 Delta pilots, 640 pilots at Southwest; and 450 at United (although another round of early retirements will be coming as part of the recent no-furlough agreement). Among domestic and low-cost operators, early outs were taken by 500-600 Alaska Airlines pilots, 72 JetBlue Airways pilots, and 640 Southwest pilots.

Cowen analyst Helane Becker has estimated that roughly 27,000 pilots were due to retire over the next decade at American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. More than 10,000 of those retirements will come over the next five years, including 4,169 at American, 4,100 at Delta and 2,796 at United. 

Should those retirements occur at the same time that younger pilots are on furlough, the industry will take longer to recover. As a result, Becker said she is “not surprised” to see the airlines seeking as many early outs as possible, as it limits the number of furloughs and enables growth quicker on the other side of the pandemic. 

Not all U.S. carriers were able to avoid pilot furloughs. American Airlines involuntary furloughed 1,600 pilots on Oct. 1, while Hawaiian Airlines and Allegiant Air both released around 100 pilots.

One area of concern is the relaxing of time limits on medicals and some training requirements. While giving airlines more breathing space may make sense when the majority of pilots have plenty of recent experience, Horne points to a situation as the crisis persists with flight numbers remaining limited and therefore fewer and fewer pilots with recent flying experience. 

“For those who are still actively employed, being a pilot has become quite a different job, particularly in the passenger transport sector. Rostering has been thrown up in the air; there is less flying but what there is is more unpredictable, with more standby on the rosters,” explains Horne. “A lot of the places that pilots are going to have much shorter layovers as the various fatigue protection rules have been alleviated and we’re seeing a lot of people confined to their room, which is a not brilliant place to be for one’s mental health. And there are some fairly invasive testing procedures required in some countries.”

In recent years, airlines have been trying to boost diversity in their pilot workforces, but the COVID-19 crisis is likely to put the brakes on these efforts, as recruitment dries up and the financial conditions for new entrants to the industry become less appealing.

“We are still seeing some training organizations and even some airlines encouraging people to join up and pay to train for this dream job. That seems highly irresponsible,” Horne says. “Clearly the whole industry has shrunk very quickly and it’s going to stay shrunk to some degree for a while. It will get back up nearer to where it was sooner rather than later, but there simply is not a requirement for more pilots now.”

While the pandemic has reduced the near-term need for new commercial pilots, schools remain focused on long-term trends.

“We are not anticipating a significant reduction of interest in our professional pilot program. The number of applications we are receiving for next academic year remain strong at this time,” says Alan Stolzer, Dean of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “I think people understand the current situation.”