There is a theme among industry followers that the airline industry is facing a growing pilot shortage. Generally, this has been a US-focused issue (link1, link 2). But the problem exists in Asia as well. The issue is important to the future of commercial aviation as a whole. The growing use of UAVs is not going to solve the problem, as we remain a long way off from fully automated passenger flights.
Let’s start Part 1 with the demand for pilots. Airbus and Boeing both foresee strong traffic growth continuing, the former 4.6% and latter 5%, as the chart below, based on their latest forecasts, shows. IATA estimates traffic growth at 4.15%.
With traffic growth, the world will need more seats on more aircraft to carry that traffic, and of course, additional crews to fly these aircraft. The following chart shows fleet growth from the Airbus and Boeing forecasts, and even Airbus, with more conservative numbers, shows substantial fleet growth.
While there is a significant deviation between the two in 2035, the bigger issue is how many pilots will this fleet require? To illustrate how forecasts for the four major OEMs vary, take a look at the following table.
The OEMs have different definitions of what fits into the three categories we list. We have taken some liberties to make things fit. The bottom line for each company is consistent with their totals. It is from this table that we need to project the expected number of pilots the industry needs. As one would expect, the OEMs have forecasts that are colored by their world view – all those orders are going to be delivered. Others in the industry are less sanguine, and with good reason, twenty years out is a very long time.
The next table lists the fleet size and active pilot numbers for the biggest US airlines. We will use this as a guide for the demand ratio for pilots.
It appears that a general guideline for airlines varies by fleet breakdown – the more an airline flies long hauls, the more pilots it requires. We assume 12 pilots (or one flight crew) per aircraft as an average ratio.
Currently the global supply of commercial airline pilots is estimated at 281,000. Boeing undertakes its own pilot demand forecast and projects global demand for 558,000 pilots by 2034. Based on the Airbus fleet numbers, and 12 pilots per aircraft, we calculate the global airlines require 428,988 pilots by 2034. The numbers are astonishing, even using the lower Airbus forecast, and means 53% growth in the need for pilots from today’s number.
There is another twist to this story. The following table from the US FAA and lists the number of licensed pilots (see 2015 table 12) as of December 2015. On July 15, 2009, the FAA issued a Final Rule that raised the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots from 60 to 65.
To retire at 65 in 2035, that pilot has to be 46 years old today. That means the numbers in yellow represent the currently available pool from which to draw pilots in the United States. Note that most of those in the oldest yellow category would be excluded since that bracket goes up to 49.
The US airlines listed previously have 55,559 active pilots. Splitting the 45-49 category equally into five sub-segments, we see the pipeline has 56,229 pilots available. Essentially the pipeline could replace what the industry has now, ignoring other US airlines not listed in the blue table. Even if the OEM forecasts are “rosy”, there will be fleet growth. This means the pipeline isn’t robust enough to supply what the industry needs. The first impacts of the pilot shortage are being manifest already. The problem is therefore significant.
How does the airline industry find the people who will fly these aircraft? A clue from the FAA data suggests an idea. One way the industry could supply the people it needs would be a massive, and rapid, recruitment drive among women.
Whereas women aged 50-54 account for only 4% of FAA active airline pilots (and this drops off quickly to 1% as the age rises), among the younger ages from 20 to 44 women are at 6%. While that number is improving, there is an opportunity to significantly increase that number. Without bringing women into the profession, it is an open question as to whether the industry can ever meet its needs. Some are already working on this. easyJet is a leader in this thinking.
Part 2 will deal with the supply of pilots.