The Pilot Shortage

The FAA keeps copious records and statistics of licensed and active pilots. An “active” pilot is one who is both licensed and maintains medical currency.  The data includes all sorts of information like pilot ages, how long they have been licensed, geographic areas, types of certificates and ratings held, etc.  Anybody interested can download the data from the FAA website.  The 2018 data was recently released and indicates a swing in the right direction. The good news: The number of younger “millennial” pilots (age 20-34) has recently increased. Compared with ten years ago, this subgroup is now 197,493 vs. only 150,907 a decade ago – or 34% of today’s total pilots.  These are the pilots who will be keeping the industry aloft, both general aviation and commercial. So, the trend has reversed. The reasons are not entirely known but some speculation would obviously point to career opportunities, a strong economy, and discretionary income.  People are buying airplanes and learning to fly.

But compared with 40 years ago that same age-sector is still a significantly smaller cross-section of total active certificates – it was about 48% in 1980!  [I’m guessing some of you reading this fell into that category.]  And in 1980, a high point, there were approximately 800,000 active pilot certificates in the US; today there are about 623,000 – a 22% drop!  Overlay that fact with recent forecasts by Boeing and the FAA for required pilots going forward and the shortfall looks dire; the world-wide traveling public is expected to double in the next 20 years.  The reason we keep hearing about a pilot shortage is that in fact, there is a pilot shortage – and it’s not just here in the US, the Far East has an even bigger shortfall.


Military pilots are still among the most highly coveted for the airlines – the best training on the most complex equipment. But the supply of military pilots to the industry has plummeted over the years.  Required commitments are longer and pay increases have not kept pace with the civilian world. The post 9-11 period found reservists suddenly on active duty in “the sandbox”, pulled from their families and regular jobs.  UAS (drone) utilization has skyrocketed, decreasing the need for “real” pilots.  In short, the military hasn’t been as attractive for prospective pilots and they are not pumping out as many as before.

Retirement age.  11 ½ years ago, the mandatory retirement age for Part 121 carriers jumped from 60 to 65.  This was a blip on the radar – a short term bandaid that only postponed the problem. There are always rumors in the industry that it may change again – perhaps to 67, but there is presently no organized effort and any future changes would be similarly short-term fixes.

Required ATP.  After the tragic Colgan Air crash in Buffalo 10 years ago, the FARs were amended to require an ATP to work for a Part 121 carrier.  This further reduced the pool of available pilots to the regional airlines whose loud protests were ignored.  Since then, they have been lobbying to eliminate that stricter qualification, but with no success.

In the airline industry, “the lost decade” is that post September 11th period in which major airlines took their operations (and employees) through the bankruptcy laundromat, slashing pensions, perks, and pay.  Thousands were furloughed; some never responded to their recall letters. Others returned to the cockpit…10 years older. 

In the past seven or eight years there has been a course reversal with airlines world-wide being forced to increase total compensation significantly – either at the bargaining table or in the boardroom. U.S. carriers have consolidated through mergers and are making profits like never before.  The CEO of American Airlines stated that he didn’t think the major airlines would ever lose money again. So this has rekindled an interest in the profession but the numbers don’t lie.  There simply are not enough new pilots out there.  The major airlines claim that they are having no problem attracting qualified and experienced pilots but American Airlines, the worlds largest, recently made a statement buried deep in their SEC 10-K filing that sounded far more ominous.  All the major airlines are retiring pilots at the rate of 30-60 per month and in just ten years, 55% of their pilots will have retired. In 15 years, it’s closer to 70%.


There are dynamic changes afoot in the industry. Regional airlines, the gateway to the majors, have doubled or tripled starting salaries from what they were seven or eight years ago.  They had to; they simply couldn’t attract applicants. At one point, some regional pilots qualified for food stamps with starting salaries around $20k/year. New hire first officers start closer to $60k now. And still, some regional airlines are unable to fill their cockpits. This is where the real pinch is being felt. A few have actually closed shop and this problem will likely get worse.  This is a good thing for a young pilot because they can basically pick where they want to work and salaries and working conditions are now livable and will  continue to improve.

Today, when a young ATP is looking for a regional airline job, they decide where they want to work and apply for the job.  This is a sea change from any past practice.  You could say that the competitive landscape has turned 180 degrees. That same young ATP used to send out a dozen resumes and then pound the pavement and man the phone, hoping for the best and accepting the first.

So, the recent increase in active certificated pilots is a good thing for our industry.  There is still a need for far more pilots – from CFIs and DPEs to corporate jet pilots, fractional ownership companies, regionals and majors.  [The only place not looking for new pilots is BSAA!] Let’s do our best to encourage the next generation of pilots to get started.  Do you know any teenagers looking to find themselves or thirty-somethings looking for a career change?  There’s nothing better than aviation to teach motivation, self-discipline, and an honest work ethic. And right now, the sky’s the limit.

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