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May 24, 2024
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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.

2016-07-05_12-11-37While 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.

2016-07-07_8-14-47The 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.

2016-07-05_12-13-44It 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.

222Whereas 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.

3 thoughts on “Reviewing and evaluating the pilot shortage – Part 1 – Demand

  1. As a CSeries fan boy, I’ve always wondered if Bombardier used the attractiveness of the plane [for pilots] as a sales point. Airlines need to attract pilots and what toys they have might dictate how many candidates knock on their doors (or existing pilots leave to work for more attractive/fun companies). Remember that these are the Millennials we’re talking about; much negatives has been said about them but if you truly understand them, you KNOW that they will live/work in an inverted demographic pyramid in which there will not be enough people to fill all the jobs in ANY field (not just aviation) and in a world where more people will be retired that actively working. To say that Millennials act this way fully consciously, I’m not sure.

    I grew up during the “no future” 80s and kids sure acted like the nuclear bombs were about to drop (why should we stay in school, punks, etc). So, to at least do what they think is cool and not take any crap while supporting the inverted demographic pyramid (income taxes, access to care, etc), I wouldn’t blame them to at least have some controls over their life and how they will live that life (expect more work balance, times to cool off, etc.).

    And, speaking more on the economic side, supply and balance just means that they would be able to dictate how they’ll work and where they’ll work. Google gets a fire-hydrant of resumes every single day. Airlines will need to attract pilots using whatever tools they have. But I would go one step up: need to make sure that the pilot JOB looks good. Because in an inverted demographic pyramid, they’ll pretty much get to decide WHATEVER they want to do. If the answer to “how about pilot for a job?” is “meh” then that will be a bigger problem than trying to steal those pilots from each other. Take the trucking industry for example (this is a true example here in Canada): Purolator (kinda like: FedEx, UPS): the “18 wheeler” trucks between Montreal and Toronto meet midway and drivers switch trucks. That way, drivers go midway and go back to their homes to sleep. No annoying sleeping in hotels away from the family, etc. And this actually saves the company in per Diem and hotels. Airlines need to start thinking that way (I think; my 2 cents).

  2. “We remain a long way off from fully automated passenger flights.” But we are ready technically and socially for single-pilot, highly automated passenger flights, and fully automated cargo flights. That will solve the problem quickly. DARPA has been working on it with their ALIAS program for years, and is ready to save the industry and the economy from this pilot shortage. The swipe of a pen is all the industry needs. Young people know this, and they are smart to avoid the profession of commercial pilot.

  3. “How does the airline industry find the people who will fly these aircraft?”

    How about a closely related, yet very different question. Why is there not a healthy influx of pilots, given the position still pays quite well for those with experience, and is still widely respected by the general public?

    Almost certainly one of the major factors is the high cost of earning a commercial rating and the low pay most pilots start out at. Forcing your employment candidates to take on 6-figures in training debt (the military path can provide maybe 1/4-1/2 of the nation’s pilot demand) and paying them less than they’d earn after a 2 week traffic flagger’s course is strong incentive to take their talents somewhere other than the airline industry.

    Pilot candidates need some confidence as they consider taking on the expense of the 1500 required hours (a separate matter for discussion, but not the fundamental problem), they will be able to find a job that pays well enough to not only cover payments on loans they take out to fund that education, but also allow them a reasonable standard of living as they rise through the ranks.

    That means either entry level pilot pay has to rise, or the airlines have to figure out some way, perhaps similar to the way promising university students are awarded scholarships, to assist candidates with those costs.

    The nursing industry went through a similar labor shortfall a decade or two ago. In response, I know of some hospitals that began making large scholarships available to bring in more graduates. Students described their interest and aptitude on their application, and if accepted, were expected to maintain a certain minimum GPA to maintain eligibility each year. Upon graduation, the contract their scholarship was granted under required them to apply for a position at the sponsoring hospital and work there for 5 years.

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