#BIF: Is the Pilot Shortage Really Looming?

A Blogging in Formation Special!

On the first day of each month, our team of eight pilot-bloggers join forces to discuss an important, cutting edge aviation topic. This month it’s my turn!

But first:

Once Upon a Time . . .


Hotlink: http://vimeo.com/99199549

And now . . .

Blogging in Formation Logo

The topic I’ve chosen to discuss for this month’s BIF is one that’s near and dear to many of our readers’ hearts, hopes and dreams—

0211_pilots_630x420 copy—that of the elusive, the quixotic, nefarious, notorious, dubious, and omnipresent aviation entity,

that vaporous apparition, that cumulo-nebulous silver lining lurking inside a perpetually dark cloud,

that bittersweet, mouth-watering and oh-so-delectable banquet feast whose enticing aroma has tickled our tastebuds for nearly half a century,

that eternal jet-fueled carrot forever hovering inches from our grasp,

Yes, Virginia, I’m talkin’ ’bout Santa’s ultimate aeronautical Christmas present, the



Since before I entered flight school (circa late 70’s,) my enthusiasm for an airline career was fueled, at least in part, by something called the Looming Pilot Shortage (let’s call it LPS.) All the papers seemed to be talking about it.

Pilots are retiring! Air travel is exploding! With Deregulation, dozens of startup airlines and legacy carriers alike will be gearing up to hire adventurous aviators right out of college! The shortage is looming, just around the corner!

At least, reading any number of flight school brochures throughout the country, it certainly seemed that way. And FAPA (Future Air Line Pilots Association, a now-defunct group that used to toot the LPS horn till you were foaming at the mouth) . . . . Don’t get me started on FAPA.

After I pushed, shoved, lied, cheated, backstabbed, clawed and climbed my way into the airline cockpit, I came to realize that the LPS is one of the longest standing jokes among airline pilots (after, of course, “Nice landing, Captain.”)

151929And, YES! Like Shepherd Book’s hairdo, it’s still out there, lurking . . . looming.

And now it’s beginning to feel like Déja vu all over again.

To hear the media say it (you know, those experts of aviation who can miraculously diagnose Probable Cause moments after the crash?), legions of desperate Major Airline CEOs will be pounding on your front door, begging you to dump your lucrative Big Mac Technician career and take to the friendly skies.

Might it—could it—would it—can it possibly—truly—after all these decades—well, actually be—*gasp!*—LOOMING?

So, is it coming? YES! Now the fine print.

OK, enough sarcasm for one post.

Blogging in Formation LogoToday our intrepid Blogging in Formation team will be tackling this ever-moving target, and be giving you our honest, insider’s, best-guess assessment of the situation. And I get first punch.

So, is it coming? you ask.

The short answer: YES!

A status quo projection indicates that there will be a shortage of around 35,000 pilots.UND, ERAU, et al An Investigation of the United States Airline Pilot Labor Supply, 2013

Now for . . .


Just like any economic issue, it’s all about Supply and Demand. How many pilots are out there, vs. how many pilot jobs?

What the upcoming pilot hopes for, of course, is lots of jobs and not many pilots. Ergo, a LPS. That would spell a quick climb up the aviation ladder, better pay, benefits, and job security.

In order to figure out where we stand, then, it’s a simple matter of crunching the numbers on both sides of the equation.



(the good news)


Projections suggest the need for pilots to be between roughly 1,900 and 4,500 pilots per year, on average, over the next decade, which is consistent with airlines’ reported expectations.2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report

As for demand side of the issue, that’s fairly straight forward. For starters, droves of major airline pilots are slated to retire in the next decade. And, barring any economic disasters, another 9/11 or meteor impact, airlines are also expected to grow. More pilots will definitely needed, for both attrition and growth.

“If the forecasts are correct, both in the United States and especially in Asia, there’s going to be a significant need for pilots.”Gerald Dillingham, U.S. Government Accountability Office



Not so fast, Commander.

Once we get to the Supply side of the equation, things get a bit fuzzy . . .




(the wtf? news)

No shortage of trained and qualified airline pilots currently exists in the United States.”ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association)

Huh? How can you have a bonafied LPS without an actual . . . well, S?

There’s a shortage, alright. You’re just not looking in the right place. Because, at the pointy end—both the top of the airline pilot pyramid and the front end of the major jetliner—there’s never been a shortage. I mean, how many pilots does it really take to fly a jumbo jet?

In a 2013 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that it found “mixed evidence” regarding the extent of a shortage of airline pilots—although regional airlines are already reporting difficulties finding sufficient numbers of qualified pilots.

“….if history is any indicator, there will be enough pilots for the major airlines because the(y) will take pilots from that second tier, the regional airlines, and that’s indeed where we’re seeing some issues alreadyGerald Dillingham, U.S. Government Accountability Office

Yep, the challenge—especially in the coming years—is in the lower ranks. The main reason for this pending lower-tier shortage is threefold: skyrocketing training costs, entry-level food stamp wages and the FAA’s new 1,500 hour rule—a somewhat knee-jerk, political reaction to the Colgan Air crash. The unintended, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot consequence of this arbitrary hurdle: far fewer pilots willing to jump it.

MeCockpitBPTraditionally, the circuitous route to the airline cockpit—at least for civilians—has always been rife with pitfalls. Training costs, time-building challenges, and an industry enslaved to economic whims have always been impediments to the upcoming pilot.

LBP book-cover-with-award 350dpi LoAnd what’s more, just as DC and Allen in my novel, The Last Bush Pilots, on every rung of the aviation ladder, every upcoming pilot is faced with the classic Catch 22: you can’t build the experience without first having the experience.

In short, the higher the hurdles and the longer the race (not to mention the cheaper the prize), the more likely a candidate will drop out.

”When initially considering a career as an airline pilot, approximately 78% of potential candidates make a . . . . risk-reward evaluation.”UND, ERAU, et al: An Investigation of the United States Airline Pilot Labor Supply, 2013

In today’s environment, therefore, when assessing this risk-reward ratio, the potential pilot must keep in mind. . .


Thousands of highly qualified and experienced U.S. airline pilots are either furloughed or working overseas and eager to return to U.S airline cockpits.Capt. Lee Moak, president of ALPA, Air Line Pilots Ass’n

article-0-0E1D765400000578-497_634x422According to ALPA—and I agree—there is not necessarily a shortage of pilots—merely a shortage of pilots willing to work for the absurd food stamps wages forced upon us since—well, since the beginning, but especially in these recent, tumultuous years.

WSJ ChartIndeed, pilot pay has plummeted for the past three decades, even at the top. I do believe the tide is turning—in part due to the perceived LPS—but it still has far to go to recover from the havoc that Deregulation, the economy, and 9/11 has wreaked upon this industry.

In its scathing criticism of the GAO Report and the industry’s self-induced shortage, ALPA points out that:

  • 1,154 ALPA members are currently furloughed from their airlines.
  • Since 2012, Comair, ASTAR, Evergreen, and Ryan have all ceased operations, putting approximately 1650 pilots on the street.
  • Thousands of U.S. pilots now fly for foreign airlines because those airlines’ stability, pay, and benefits are much greater than those offered by U.S airlines.
  • Example: Average starting salary for a first officer (copilot)—U.S. regional airline: $21,285/year—Delta and United: $61,000/year plus benefits—Emirates Airlines : $82,000/year plus other extraordinary benefits.

So, the Big Question becomes, if pay actually begins to rise, will there actually be a LPS? Or will those thousands furloughed and expatriated suddenly flood back to the U.S. of A? And, even if they do, will they be enough to stave off the LPS?


Declining Grads 01-12 GAO

Availability of a sufficient number of qualified pilots is vital to the U.S. airline industry….the supply pipeline is changing as fewer students enter…and fewer military pilots are available than in the past….If the predictions for future demand are realized and shortages continue to develop, airlines may have to make considerable operational adjustments to compensate for having an insufficient number of pilots.GAO Report

Supply is the sticky wicket. And the wildest card is the expat pilot.

The demand is there. Pilots will be retiring in droves.

As for supply, well, that’s the sticky wicket. For the near future, legions of ex military and regional pilots that are already “paying their dues” are looking at enjoying clear blue skies and tailwinds. Beyond that, however, the wildest card is the expat pilot question. The second big question is, Are the regionals willing—and can they afford to?—up the pay to entice new pilots to come in at the bottom? Even if the expats fill those slots, that supply will somewhat limited.

Regardless of the answer, over time, any industry is in constant need of new blood.


(It’s all about YOU)

EpauletsThe true answer lies in this: just how many fledgeling aviators out there are willing to roll the dice, bankrupt themselves on flight training and live like starving college kids for years in the hope of bagging that Holy Grail of aviation jobs, the major airline pilot seat?

In this regard, nothing has changed in decades. This was always the path for the civilian pilot.

What has changed is the intensity. The hurdles have been set higher, the marathon finish line a little farther.

Dreaming of Olympic gold—and knowing full well they may be forced to settle for a bronze-level career—how many runners will have the stamina?


Only YOU, the newly-minted pilot, can answer that question for yourself.

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