In a fascinating story on AIN, we read that now China has to make changes to its pilot rules, raising the mandatory retirement age because they are also feeling a pilot shortage.   China’s growth in air travel is probably the primary reason for this.  As the story points out, China is now using non-Chinese pilots.  China is not alone in this challenge of finding more pilots.  It is not clear if China’s air force would tolerate its military pilots moving out of the service to fly commercially and, no doubt, see a sharp jump in salary.

The pilot shortage is well documented.  But its reach across the globe only serves to highlight that the airlines have not been quick enough to deal with the problem.  Even if a rapid wave of enrollment and training were to start now, it will take years to work through to solve the problem.

Since the airlines have to typically be pushed to change, what could happen next?  Retirements can be delayed, but not stopped.  More retirements are happening than new pilots being added to rosters.

Firstly, airline schedules are going to be impacted.  To maintain service airlines are going to need bigger aircraft to serve their markets.  Carrying more people with the same crew numbers might be economically inefficient.  But that is a better option than canceling a flight.   Secondly, passengers might start to see fewer flight choices.  Travelers may need to be more flexible – which will annoy business travelers the most.  Thirdly, on international flights, airlines will have to exploit alliances far more effectively.  This will ensure the greatest number of seats between points as supply becomes constrained.  Fourth, airlines need to carefully manage the risk of disruption.  As we have seen this week, BA did not cover itself in glory and appears not to have made maximum use of its IAG partners or other alliance assets.

In summary, the industry is already close to going off the rails from any exogenous disruption (again see BA).  So the pilot shortage, as it starts to bite and play out, will reduce that margin further.  Oh, joy.

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