The uproar following United’s June 10 announcement that it would change its frequent flier program is a reminder of our growing dependence on aviation to connect communities, people, and businesses. In the last decade, airlines have added thousands of new routes and in 2014, and the aviation industry will move 3.3 billion people, nearly half of the world’s total population. But flying wasn’t always this common.

Until the middle of the 20th-century, few people had ever flown, and with good reason: flying was extremely expensive. In the United States for example, airfares between New York and Los Angeles that today may be as low as $270 would have cost no less than $1,400, when adjusted for inflation. After deregulation in the U.S., new competition drove down ticket prices and made flying more affordable. Yet, this competition, coupled with skyrocketing fuel prices and security concerns, saw airline profits shrink. To remain afloat, airlines sought ways of cutting workforce costs (which after fuel, is their second largest operating expense).

United Airlines is a prime example of this. In 2005, the airline abandoned its $9.8 billion employee pension obligation; one of the largest defaults in U.S. history. United also embarked on an aggressive outsourcing campaign, most notably by moving its Boeing 747 and 777 maintenance centers to lower cost China in 2010. And in 2013, Denver International Airport was the scene for protests by United employees when the airline announced wage and health benefit cuts. Yet, these measures appear to be paying off. United’s stock has more than doubled since its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines and the airline recently posted record profits. A company spokesperson said in an email that the cuts were difficult but necessary to run a "more efficient and financially sustainable business."

Maybe so, but they also risk alienating workers at a time when it can hardly be afforded. Demand for air travel is soaring and meeting this demand will mean recruiting nearly a million new aviation professionals. Yet, a recent survey suggests that a historically low number of people are considering aviation careers. Among aspiring pilots alone, only half of those interviewed say they will seek commercial airline careers, citing concerns over industry working conditions. “If I can walk down the street and get a better paying job which provides a better quality of life, that’s what I am going to do,” one young aviator said. And there are plenty of jobs to choose from. Aviation increasingly is competing with industries such as energy and medicine for the same talent. Those industries have made more concerted efforts to attract potential recruits with hefty signing bonuses, comprehensive benefit packages, and generous wage hikes.

Aviation needs to follow suit, and soon. The consequences of inaction are already playing out in China and Indonesia, where the growth ambitions of national carriers have been held back due to shortages in the aviation workforce. To avoid this, airlines like United must view their workers as an investment rather than a liability. Cost-cutting measures that target these workers may provide short-term relief to balance sheets, but endanger the long-term sustainability of the aviation industry.

Passengers searching for the lowest fares must also remember aviation offers a level of connectivity and convenience that no other mode of transport can match. Yet this benefit is dependent on the recruitment and retention of dedicated professionals. Flying on the cheap at the expense of these individuals’ well-being means that ultimately, frequent flier mileage accrual may be the least of our concerns.

Ashley Nunes is a Principal Scientist at ISA Software, where his research efforts focus on operational performance and behavioral economics in aviation. He is based in Paris.