Podcast: Did the Pandemic Solve The Pilot Shortage? What Lies Ahead For Business Aviation?

Before the pandemic, demand for professional pilots was intense and the long-term outlook predicted severe shortages. The pandemic and decrease in air travel has led to widespread pilot layoffs and furloughs. Did COVID-19 suddenly solve the pilot shortage problem? What lies ahead for business aviation once the pandemic subsides? Will the shortage return?

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Rush transcript:

Molly McMillin:            Good day, and welcome to Aviation Week's Business and Commercial Aviation podcast. I'm Molly McMillan, managing editor of Business Aviation for the Aviation Week Network, and editor of the weekly of Business Aviation. Thank you for joining us today. Joining me is Sheryl Barden, president, and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, a renowned business aviation recruiting services company based in San Francisco. Ms. Barton joined the company in 2001 and is an advisor on human resource-related matters. And as an aside, she's waiting on a new grandbaby today, so double thanks for joining us, Sheryl. Today we'll be discussing the pilot and technician shortage, and what effect COVID-19 has had on the issue. So, thanks for joining us, Sheryl.

Sheryl Barden:            Thank you so much, Molly, for having me. It's great to be here. We're talking about some of my favorite subjects, too.

Molly McMillin:            Not long ago, Sheryl, as you know, predictions were for quite the shortage of pilots, technicians, and cabin crew members. Boeing, for example, last year had, in their 20 year prediction before COVID, expected demand for 319,000 new personnel for the business aviation and civil helicopter markets alone. And that didn't even include demand for commercial airlines. And with the pandemic, as you know, business aviation activity quickly fell off, but it's now down only slightly in the United States, and more so in Europe. And commercial aviation hasn't fared as well, the airlines have laid off and furloughed pilots and others. And so I guess the big question is, Sheryl, has the pandemic suddenly solved a shortage problem?

Sheryl Barden:            Well, Molly, that's a really great question. And if we would go back a year ago, I was talking about the fact that if we could just have a little pressure valve release on this pilot shortage. And really, basically, what we had was not enough people coming through flight schools and maintenance schools to feed the demand. And we needed a little bit of time to catch up, and I had some solutions that I thought might be good for that, but I never thought that the global pandemic was going to be what that pressure valve release really was. So yes, we have had a relief on the pressure, but we have not solved the issue. We have just put it on pause for a period of time. I'm going to say, probably a three, maybe a five-year period of time before it will be back. And my prediction is that when it comes back, it is going to come back even stronger, and with more of a vengeance than we had seen going into 2020.

Molly McMillin:            What are you finding in this situation today, Sheryl? Are flight departments hiring in business aviation, or has everyone pretty well stopped hiring?

Sheryl Barden:            Well, it's been very interesting to see what has happened, and I think we need to first talk about some of the shifts of dynamics, and who the business aviation airplane owners are. And since the beginning of the global pandemic, we have had an entirely new set of entrance into the business aviation marketplace. High net worth individuals, smaller organizations that were using charter, that were using fractionals, and that were basically relying on perhaps first-class airline tickets to get from point A to point B to conduct business, and/or to move personally from home to home, have now become owners of business aircraft. Everything from a small turbo prop, to ultra large long-range jet. And so, there has been a big demand in many ways for pilots and maintenance professionals to support those aircraft. Most of those aircraft have gone into management companies, because the brand new owner was needing a very turnkey plug and play solution to get that airplane into the air in service to the new owner.

                                    So while our corporate departments have not been doing as much hiring, our management companies are doing an excessive amount of hiring at the moment. So, and what I'm really seeing with that is that there's just really a movement, and perhaps a shifting, of business aviation pilots and maintenance professionals in the marketplace. So perhaps someone who might have been laid off, or downsized during the pandemic, has a place to move during this period of time. But most of the corporations, the traditional, in-house, Part 91 flight departments, some of them are flying more than they ever had. Those who are in the supply chain, those pilots, many of them are flying more than they ever have before the pandemic. But a lot of other organizations are doing minimal to no flying, and only doing flying to stay current and proficient.

Molly McMillin:            I see. So, it sounds like there's some shifting of companies, and shifting of pilots and technicians around where they need to go, rather than a lot of expanding or new hiring out of the airlines.

Sheryl Barden:            Well, business aviation is very shy to hire out of the airlines, I think for a number of reasons. One, while a pilot does the same function, the job is incredibly different. Being a business aviation pilot, versus being an airline pilot. Most business aviation organizations would have to make an incredible investment in an airline pilot to get them rated, and able to even fly the aircraft that the company is flying. And so, you've got an investment that you have to make, and a great fear that as soon as things turn around in the airlines, people get called back. They are going to go back to the airlines. So, what we're not seeing is a mass of airline pilots coming in and taking business aviation pilots' jobs.

                                   Molly, what's very interesting is that many of the corporations that are not flying robustly at this period of time, since March, they've had retirement, and they know that they have positions that they are going to need to fill, but they're holding off on that because they are not flying at this moment. So, I project that once our country opens up and people start to move for business again, which they will, and people start to move for business internationally, I think there will be a flurry of hiring in the business aviation community here in the United States. So, I think we're just... Kind of a lot of people are in what I have been coining as a period of inertia, not able to move forward, not able to move backwards, and just waiting until things open up a little bit. And then everybody's going to come to the table all at once.

Molly McMillin:            From what I've been hearing, it's more leisure flying in the business aviation world, instead of flying for corporate flying, or business flying. Is that kind of what you're seeing?

Sheryl Barden:            Well, it depends on what the organization does. So organizations that are in the supply chain, so large retailers, they are flying continually. And many of those directors of aviation are saying, "My team is overtaxed, and I can't get people schooled up fast enough to get some relief." And then others are not flying at all, or they have repositioned their passenger, that their passenger is no longer the executive. Their passenger might be an engineer who goes from a plant in South Carolina, to a plant in Fresno, California, to perform an inspection, or fix a piece of equipment, or retool. So, we're using the business aircraft differently. And then we have many entrants into the business aviation market through charter, through jet cards, through fractional membership, that have never been a part of this community that now are, because they are wanting to move from point A to point B. Again, much as you said, for leisure travel, or moving from home to home, going to see family, going to see that new grandbaby, and not wanting to do it on the airlines. So, I think we're seeing just a major shifting in the marketplace.

Molly McMillin:            You mentioned when we spoke earlier that some of the military pilots are now considering business aviation when they leave the service.  That’s a change. Can you tell us what you're seeing there?

Sheryl Barden:            Yeah. This is really exciting, I believe. Because business aviation has always done very, very well with retiring military pilots, military aviators, joining the business aviation community. And as things really heated up with the airlines starting in about 2016, we saw less and less military aviators interested in coming into business aviation. And I kind of felt like it was a straight line, they were retiring and taking a straight line to the airlines, whether that be the passenger airlines, or the cargo freight airlines. And we are now seeing great military aviators looking at business aviation and saying, "Wow, what a great career this is." I truly think that one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been to show what a great career business aviation is. And we have not seen the major disruption to a pilot, or a maintenance professional's life and income that the airline pilots, the airline mechanics, have experienced as a result of the pandemic. Most business aviation organizations have kept their people, kept them on board, kept them paid, and even though they're not flying.

Molly McMillin:            That is good news for business aviation.

Sheryl Barden:            It is. I think this is our time to really shine and say, "Why are we staying? Why are large Fortune 500 corporations keeping their pilots on when they're not even flying? And it's because that business aviation is integral to the success of the corporation, and the corporation knows that as we return to business, the safest and most efficient way to do that is through the business aviation assets that they have.

Molly McMillin:            Sheryl, what would you tell a student who's just learning to fly today? If he or she is looking at the airlines, and looking at some of the furloughs and layoffs, that could be discouraging for someone. What would you say to someone in that situation?

Sheryl Barden:            I would say that I would look at some of the data. I would look at some of the data that came out from Boeing's 20 year survey, even though it's down slightly, the need for pilots, for aviation maintenance professionals, and even the need for cabin safety attendants, is huge. In the United States, around the world, in the airlines, and in business aviation. I truly think that someone who is learning to be a pilot today, or learning to be an aviation maintenance technician today, by the time they roll out and roll into the marketplace, the marketplace is going to be opening up again. And they're just going to hit it right at a real sweet spot.

                                   Delta has recently come out with the fact that they talked to their large corporate clients, and they feel that by 2022, 40% of their business clients anticipate that they will be back to a pre-COVID, 2019, business travel level. And I think that once some corporations start traveling again, those that say, "We'll never travel again," I don't think that's really possible. Because it's going to be a... Why do we travel? We travel to be competitive, to be ahead of our clients, of our competition. And I think we will see it come back, and I think there'll be a lot of pent-up demand for personal travel as well, whether that is on the airlines, or in something like a Wheels Up, or NetJets.

Molly McMillin:             Are there any challenges or concerns now that you're having concerning compensation levels or benefits? Have any of that changed, or has that remained the same?

Sheryl Barden:            Well, there's always organizations or individuals that want to take advantage of market downturns. And this would certainly be considered, possibly, a market downturn. And I have had employers come and say, "Do we need to make changes? Can we hire at a lot lesser level than we were doing just a year ago?" My advice is, no. This is a temporary pause. Business aviation made such amazing strides since 2017 in compensation levels, to be able to be a competitive employer in relation to the airlines. And I hope that we continue on that path, and I think now we have a story to tell that not only can we be competitive, but we can be an employer of choice.

Molly McMillin:            You mentioned that this pandemic hasn't solved a shortage problem, it's just pushed it back three to five years. What would be a long-term solution for trying to address future needs?

Sheryl Barden:            I think a number of the things that were happening in pre-COVID 2019, we were seeing things like airlines beginning cadet programs, United Airlines buying a flight school so that they could train their own people. Even business aviation and NBAA (National Business Aviation Association) in early February, I was part of a think tank on how we, as business aviation, could develop a pipeline of professionals coming into our industry, and coming into business aviation earlier than we typically bring pilots and maintenance professionals into our industry. I think those things, they've been put on pause, but they're going to have to be reinvigorated. And I think once it starts to turn, I think it's going to turn very, very quickly. The same problems are going to come back, and we started on the solutions. Let's keep those solutions alive and able to be take action quickly when we need them.

Molly McMillin:             Was part of the problem a number of pilots are going to be retiring over the next decade or so?

Sheryl Barden:            Yes, absolutely. Becoming a pilot again became a very attractive career within the last five years, but the 15 years leading up to that, with the return on investment, becoming a pilot was not very attractive. And so, we didn't make a lot of pilots; we didn't develop a lot of pilots; we didn't train a lot of pilots. The military dropped training, and  flight schools were down, and so we didn't keep up with what was eventually going to be demanded.

                                    All of this really happened because the increase of the retirement age from 60 to 65 just stagnated an entire industry. Nobody retired. I mean, nobody retired for five years. Also at the same time, we had a downturn in the economy, and there was no place for someone new to come into the marketplace. So it was very, very stagnant, and then it became unattractive. Now, it's very attractive again. In 2019, our flight schools had record enrollment, and I just hope each one of those young people who was wanting to be a pilot, wanting to be a maintenance professional, will keep that dream, keep that goal, because we are going to need them.

Molly McMillin:             Any other comments or ideas that you'd like to mention?

Sheryl Barden:            Just that I think this is a great career. If I were talking to directors of aviation, employers of pilots, I would do everything I can to keep my best people on my payroll, keep them engaged, keep them in my organization. And I would be looking now, as much as I could, to the opportunity to hire the best and the brightest that I can. Because I think it's going to become very competitive once again, in a pretty quick amount of time.

Molly McMillin:             Well, that was a great discussion. Thank you, Sheryl.

Sheryl Barden:            Molly, thank you so much for inviting me to have this conversation and talk about one of my very favorite subjects. It’s been really fun. Thank you.

Molly McMillin:            Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us today. If you have any comments, feel free to contact me at [email protected]. You also can subscribe, and download Aviation Week's podcasts on iTunes. So, thanks for listening, and thanks for joining us today.

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.