Viewpoint: Stringent Selection Will Help Prevent Pilot Shortage

Credit: Skyborne Airline Academy

The pilot shortage.

Three words that have become commonplace among journalists in recent aviation reporting, forcing some airlines to cancel flights owing to an apparent disconnect between the post-COVID rapid return of air travel and the availability of pilots, or lack of them.

The pandemic saw sweeping early retirements, career changes, and a freeze on recruitment. According to the Regional Airline Association, the supply of new pilots is 36% of pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

Oliver Wyman projects North America will face a shortage of 12,000 pilots by 2023. In business aviation, there’s a similar picture, with pilots in short supply even as the industry booms due to health concerns and an increase in global wealth. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. The last two years have given flight ops departments within airlines and business operators an opportunity to rethink the way they recruit and onboard new pilots. Now is the time to reinvigorate their pilot programs. 

Pilot Selection 
It could be argued that to date, emphasis on pilot selection in the U.S., particularly within flight schools, has been lacking, to the detriment of both the student’s career development plans and the potential employer.

Enrolling with a flight school with the intention of becoming a commercial pilot should be a much more rigorous process than merely filling out a form, securing funding, and completing an often-informal interview. 

Instead, a greater emphasis should be placed on identifying embryonic skills along with attitude and deficiencies for each applicant from the start through aptitude testing, behavioral profiling, and analysis of both technical and non-technical abilities.

Team skills play an increasingly important role in the safe operation of today’s multi-crew aircraft.

At Skyborne Airline Academy, we use a combination of tried and tested methods and the latest technology to assess competence, suitability, aptitude, attitude, and resilience.

The aim is to minimize additional training, reduce failure rates and provide airlines and business operators with better-trained pilots. We employ similar methods when we recruit, train and deploy cabin crew.

If a prospective pilot is not put through a rigorous selection process, washout rates spike and training overrun can surge to 30% or even 40%, at a huge financial cost to the individual.

It also places stress on flight school resources and can demoralize instructors. I also believe it is immoral for any flight school to take sums of $100,000 or more from a student pilot without firmly establishing that an individual has the inherent skills and qualities to succeed.  

In addition, training overrun can mask potential weaknesses in graduate pilots that later show up on the line.

This problem can be even more acute if weaker pilots move directly from flight schools into Part 135 operations.

I am not suggesting that airlines and business operators don’t have robust selection practices when they onboard pilots. In most instances, they do. However, if flight schools don’t filter out weak candidates at the start, we place unnecessary strain on the system and potentially expose individuals to significant debt that they will struggle to repay. 

If we get pilot selection right, there is little reason why trainee pilots should not complete their flight training within the prescribed hours stated in their Training Course Outline (TCO) and go on to have a successful career.

Removing Barriers To Entry 

Having a stringent selection process also provides safeguards for financial sponsors – with banks and financial institutions able to extend loans more confidently to those on pilot training programs.

This, in turn, leads to a greater number of funding options for applicants from a range of backgrounds. 

As an industry, we need to think differently about the way in which we recruit people into a flying career. I strongly believe there will not be a pilot shortage if we set about removing barriers to entry, widening the talent pool, and appealing to a more diverse group.

We want the career of a commercial pilot to be desirable and achievable. In the U.S., the appetite for the development of more creative and equitable funding solutions is growing.

In the future, we will also see airlines and business operators contributing more towards the cost of training for prospective employees, investing in them from the very start.

Case in point is SkyWest’s Professional Pilot Pathway with Skyborne, which offers up to $15,000 in tuition, and United Airlines’ Aviate program.

The pilot shortage is here, but it doesn’t need to stay if flight schools, airlines and business operators represent the career to would-be pilots and support innovative and equitable funding solutions.

The pilot training process alone is not a great determinant of whether a student can efficiently and safely operate in their chosen career. Instead, stringent front-end selection leads to lower attrition rates in training, a better financial outcome for all, and a fairer approach to trainees. 

Innovative funding models and thorough selection processes provide airlines and business operators with better trained, resilient pilots from a larger talent pool that better represents society today.
Lee Woodward is co-founder and CEO of Skyborne Airline Academy, an airline training academy based in Vero Beach, Florida, and Gloucestershire Airport in the UK. Woodward has more than 30 years of experience in airline operations as a pilot, trainer and examiner and in pilot recruitment and selection.