Tackling the Pilot Shortage: Business Aviation

Credit: Matthew Orloff

Business aviation has evolved into a feeder for the airlines and is therefore not immune to the pilot shortage plaguing the rest of the aviation industry. 

In fact, the business aviation sector faces many of the same challenges as its regional airline counterparts, particularly with the turnover of new pilots seeking to move on to a mainline carrier.  

With multiple predictions saying the shortage will last well into the remainder of the decade, it is important for business aviation operators to have an idea of where they stand in competition with the increasingly lucrative incentives airlines are creating, along with the old, but common mindset that most career pilots see themselves working for the same airline for 20-30 years.
“It’s an industry-wide problem, not just a subset of the industry,” says Janine Iannarelli, president of Houston-based business aviation consultancy and brokerage firm Par Avion Ltd. “For the pilots who are in the workforce, it isn’t uncommon for them to be poached by other service providers, so retaining them is also a battle.”
Determining whether the market is responding to the shortage with more student pilots who commit to the completion of their ratings is an important gauge that dictates what flight departments should be doing now to retain current pilots and recruit future pilots. 
Figures from the past three years have been fairly flat, although there are promising signs in 2022. 
The FAA keeps monthly records of pilot certificate issuance data for each type of pilot certificate. In 2021, the agency issued a total of 50,871 student pilot licenses, compared to 49,933 in 2020 and 48,476 in 2019. It also issued 23,527 private pilot licenses in 2021 compared to 27,008 in 2020 and 24,631 in 2019. And it issued 14,086 commercial pilot certificates in 2021 and 5,139 ATP certificates, compared to 15,780 and 4,157 in 2020. 
During the first four months of 2022 figures are up in all categories. The number of ATP certificates issued, however, increased the most with 3,315 issued--a 245% increase from the same four-month period in 2021. When compared to the same period, it was the largest number issued for the most employable certificate type over the last four years.  
With an estimated need for 14,500 pilots over the next eight years for the airlines alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following trajectory is not looking good, but still, the data may not paint the full picture. 

“We’ve certainly noticed an uptick of interest of those wanting to pursue flight training,” says Shane Braddock, a partner in the Los Angeles-based flight school, First Take Aviation. “Business is better than in past years, and this increase in business is consistent with the increase in students who see their training through to completion.”
Perhaps another good sign comes from the number of pilot certificates held nationwide.  
In 2016, the number of total active pilot certificates totaled 584,362, according to statistics from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. At the end of 2021, that number grew to 720,605, including 250,197 student pilot certificates, nearly double the 128,501 estimated student pilot certificates held in 2016.  
Moving up the chain of certificate level, however, the delta begins to narrow. In 2021, 104,610 pilots held commercial pilot certificates and 163,934 held ATPs, up from 96,081 commercial certificates and 157,894 ATPs in 2016. 
The number of total ATP certificate holders in 2021 was lower than in 2019 and 2020, possibly because many pilots accepted early retirement due to the pandemic. 
It remains to be seen whether the increased number of student pilot certificates today, which represents the highest number in the past decade, will soon lead to large increases in commercial and ATP certificates. 
Braddock, in his experience with operating a flight school in one of the busiest flight training markets in the country, has seen greater graduation rates than in the past. 
As business aviation operators think long-term, Iannarelli recommends focusing energy on appealing to a demographic that may get overlooked in this sector of the industry--teenagers. 
“Honestly, I believe trying to recruit pilot candidates in their 20s is already too late,” she says. “Why would someone in their 20s, who may have already put themselves through four years of expensive higher education and can start making money right away want to undergo the long commitment of expensive flight training if a spark hadn’t already been established? It can happen, but it’s an uphill battle.” 
For that reason, Iannarelli says the long-term solution lies in reaching high schoolers, who may not have the knowledge that flight training is something they can do.
Marketing to teenagers may be a valid long-term approach, but what about the immediate relief that may be needed? 
One competitive advantage business aviation operators can have is the ability to hire pilots with less flight time under their belts compared to their regional airline counterparts. 
The 1,500-hr. minimum rule does not necessarily apply to Part 135 operations, however, many employers aren’t willing to budge on this, as they promise their high-spending clients a top-notch safety guarantee that comes with the high price tag they pay to fly private. Not to mention, it’s expensive to provide training to someone with less experience. 
In any case, there must be some compromise, and choosing that compromise is ultimately up to each operator’s individual circumstances. Whether it is paying experienced pilots more, or paying less for a lower-time pilot, something must give. One thing is for certain, however, given the current state of the workforce: a pilot with a certain amount of time and experience is not an easily replaceable resource.
For more data on pilots in the workforce, visit the FAA’s civil airmen statistics website here: https://www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/civil_airmen…