Opinion: Pilot Certifications Are Booming, But When Can We Hire Them?

pilots in cockpit
Credit: Kent Weakley/Getty Images

New pilot certificate issuances from the FAA have increased a whopping 77% since 2019, according to recently released data from Jefferies. This is welcome news to the business aviation industry as well as the airlines, who have had unprecedented crew shortages and scheduling interruptions since the pandemic. With pilot salaries booming and companies desperate for skilled aviators, the cost-benefit calculation for future pilots makes more sense than ever. But it raises a key question: Can the industry train enough pilots to solve the shortage?

Jo Damato—a certified aviation manager who serves as senior vice president of education, training and workforce at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)—is one of the key players working on these challenges on behalf of the industry. She highlights that while this boom in certifications is promising, there is a concern that these figures may be attributed to the backlog from COVID, which was also impacted by a shortage of Designated Pilot Examiners (DPE).

“I’m encouraged to see the increase in certifications, but I believe the level of Air Transport Pilot [ATP] certifications that will come through in 2024 may be more telling of where we’re at as an industry—once the COVID ‘cache’ is cleared,” she says.

The FAA realizes there are major bottlenecks to getting new pilots in paid positions, and it has multiple initiatives underway to address crew shortages and the administration’s role in the process. An FAA Air Carrier Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ACT ARC) working group was established in 2022. Damato serves on this working group with representatives from airlines and business aviation to provide solutions to “secure the future of safe aviation training." While group findings have not yet been made public, Damato highlighted that previous FAA and U.S. Transportation Department industry committees have been a great launching pad for developing new programs, such as the Youth Access to Jobs in Aviation Task Force and Women in Aviation Advisory Board.

Flight School Activity

There are two types of training programs: Part 61 and Part 141. Part 141s are typically college programs with students focused on a specific career path, while Part 61s are programs that have a mix of recreational and career pilots. Part 61 serves a critical role in flight training as there are almost 2,000 Part 61 programs in the U.S., compared to fewer than 500 Part 141 programs. Part 61 is more likely to include pilots who are not learning to fly as a career, which can skew certification data.

For Alan Stolzer, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Florida, a key metric to watch is applications to Part 141 flight schools. “Interest in our programs is higher than I’ve ever seen,” he says. ERAU has been at capacity for flight training for almost five years and serves a group of around 2,000 student pilots each year. From 2012 to the fall class of 2023, ERAU had a 150% increase in applications, with the largest increases occurring between 2018-23 (with a brief lull between the COVID years of 2020-21).

“It’s difficult to say that new certifications automatically equate to more professional pilots," says Andrew Schmertz, Hopscotch Air Part 135 operator, co-founder and CEO. “During COVID, we saw a major uptick in private individuals learning to fly for fun.”

Both types of programs are facing challengesto rapidly expand their capacity to meet demand from industry and students. General aviation airports are not growing in number, and those who live near them are often frustrated with aircraft from large flight training programs buzzing overhead, further restraining capacity.

Rising costs are also an issue for both flight program operators and students. Finding the average $100,000 for flight training is simply unattainable for many families. Even for those who can obtain loans, families must be sure the investment will be worth it and that the path to a job is clear. This is a major hurdle for creating a more diverse workforce, as well.

Stolzer is seeing improvements, with women making up more than 20% of ERAU's Aeronautical Science program today. While that figure is growing, there is much more work to be done in the industry, as fewer than 5% of ATP-rated pilots are women and a dismal 0.03% are Black women. The school has awareness campaigns, ambassador and mentorship initiatives, and scholarship programs working on bolstering these numbers.

How Many Pilots Are Needed?

Estimates of how many pilots are needed to supply the industry are hotly debated. Some industry analysts estimate that airline and regional airlines are short of about 17,000 pilots and corporate aviation gaps by 3,750. Jefferies data estimates a current airline shortage of 5,000 pilots, while consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates 14,300. The Air Line Pilots Association, on the other hand, says there are more than enough pilots and that the real problem is inefficient training pipelines.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall employment needs of all pilot types, including non-airline, totaled 142,600 in 2022 and 148,100 in 2023. FAA data shows that from 2022, there were 247,681 active commercial and ATP-rated pilots (airplane only). Of these ATP ratings, however, almost 50,000 are over the age of 65, with the largest age group in the 55-59 range.

From 2015 to 2019, the FAA issued an average of 11,257 commercial (non-ATP) licenses. While a commercial license should indicate the transition from recreational pilot to professional pilot, it does not guarantee anyone with a commercial license is working as a full-time pilot. Gig work and part-time pilots are common in private aviation.

Around 4,000 ATP-rated pilots reach the retirement age of 65 each year, while 6,900 commercial pilots are expected to be added annually. It could take a decade for the shortage to normalize, if the estimated need of 14,300 pilots is accurate. If the lower estimates of 5,000 are correct, the industry could see relief in as little as two years. This is all assuming that training paths and career pipelines are functioning in a balanced way.

Timothy Genc, of Future & Active Pilot Advisors (FAPA), says another key bottleneck in the industry stems from a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” situation, in which major carriers have disrupted training pipelines due to aggressive hiring needs. In the trailing 12 months, the 13 largest carriers hired almost 13,000 crew members, many of them coming from regional airlines, corporate aviation and flight simulator facilities. The shuffle up to the majors has created issues down the line as programs struggle to keep instructors to train the next cadre of pilots, and regional airlines have hundreds of aircraft parked. An already challenged training pipeline is being exacerbated by imbalances between retiring Baby Boomer pilots and less populous generations entering the workforce.”

The Silver Lining For Business Aviation

Despite the green shoots of new certificates, business aviation will need to fiercely compete with airlines, major and regional, for at least the next couple years to fill their ranks. Schmertz of Hopscotch says business aviation does have a secret weapon, if they can figure out how to use it.

“Generation-Z pilots have a deep need for community and to work for a business that’s making a difference,” he says.

Genc, of FAPA, highlights that there are plenty of pilots who do not enjoy flying for major airlines and want a personal connection with their fellow pilots, coupled with making quality-of-life improvements—such as releasing schedules a year in advance, or allowing commuters to travel on their days on—can overcome major differences in pay.

It can be much easier for smaller operators to establish a sense of community in their operations and offer a workplace with more camaraderie. Damato of NBAA mentioned that she often hears anecdotes about "boomerang pilots" who leave business aviation for Part 121 flying and then return to business aviation. They find out it is not what they had hoped, and that it can be a lonely place to work. “To this day, I still have tight-knit relationships from my days at a small aircraft management company where I worked over 20 years ago," she says. “Being a part of an organizational culture that meets your 'why' and your values is as important as compensation and work-life balance.”

Jessie Naor is the author of the Sky Strategy, an opinion column in BCA, and serves as CEO of FlyVizor, an aviation M&A advisory and business consulting firm. She is a former founder and president of GrandView Aviation.


1 Comment
After roughly 200 hours of flying time (and 100 hours of simulator time) the US military sends pilots to additional training in everything from heavy transports to tactical fighters. The Europeans have the Multi Crew Pilot license which puts pilots into the right seat of 737s and A320 with about the same training time. It's not the hours flown, it's the quality of the training and the ability to "washout" those who do not perform to standard.