Will There Be a Shortage of Commercial Airline Pilots?

A combination of new requirements being imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States and commercial airline pilots expected to retire this year has analysts of the commercial aviation industry predicting a shortage of pilots — especially if additional aircraft are flown due to a greater amount of flights as a result of an increase in passengers wanting to travel if the economy improves.

The new requirements include first officers being required to have as many flight hours logged as captains before they can officially work in the cockpit of an airplane.

Some FlyerTalk members argue that if there really was a shortage of commercial airline pilots in this labor market, starting salaries at the low end of the spectrum would be increased in order to attract new pilots — which is apparently not happening because there is a vast supply of pilots wanting to work in commercial aviation, despite fewer pilots entering commercial aviation as a career.

Consider also the advent of regional aircraft in recent years whose pilots are compensated significantly less than their counterparts who pilot mainline aircraft. While regional aircraft have indeed brought commercial airline service to markets which would have otherwise had none, they have also replaced mainline aircraft on numerous existing routes throughout the United States. I am not sure what the exact numbers are at this time as there are many factors, but I would surmise that the number of mainline aircraft replaced by regional jets exceeds the number of regional aircraft used for service to smaller markets that cannot justify service provided by mainline aircraft. If this is indeed true, this would mean that the number of pilot jobs on mainline aircraft will have decreased over the years.

I actually toyed with the idea of becoming a commercial airline pilot years ago and sought information on what I needed to do to become one. After all, the thought of flying to destinations all over the world always appealed to me — and to get paid to do it with a front-facing panoramic window seat would theoretically be the ultimate experience.

My desire deflated quickly when I saw how expensive it was to be a student in flight school, combined with the ridiculously low starting salaries common with beginner pilots. Add in all of the flight hours you would need to log — combined with keeping up with training, along with the most desired and lucrative routes going towards those pilots with the most seniority — and it was simply not worth the investment of time, effort and money for me after all to become a pilot.

Without going into exact numbers, let’s just say that the cost of flight school can easily be four times the starting salary for commercial airline pilots. This means that it could be many years before pilots with nascent careers in commercial aviation see a return on their investment. Of course, many commercial airline pilots received their training by serving their country in the military armed forces.

The Boeing 777-200LR flight simulator — in use while being piloted by FlyerTalk members — at the world headquarters of Delta Air Lines during the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event. Photograph ©2010 by Greg Johnston.

I have an idea which could alleviate the supposed looming pilot shortage: just have the airlines allow FlyerTalk members to log time in real flight simulators and be used as back-up pilots whenever necessary. This will save the airlines money, avert a pilot shortage, and give FlyerTalk members experiences of a lifetime in the flight simulators — which to some FlyerTalk members would be a dream come true.

Now, before I receive a wave of communications disparaging me for trivializing a respected profession, let me just say that that idea is only meant for the purposes of levity. Being a commercial airline pilot requires dedication, discipline, skill, many years of training and common sense. Commercial airline pilots are not necessarily trained thousands of hours for the mundane work they do every day. Rather, they are rigorously trained for the situations no one hopes will ever happen — such as when Chesley Sullenberger, a captain for US Airways, was forced to land an Airbus A320 aircraft in the Hudson River after it struck a flock of Canada geese during its initial ascent after departing from LaGuardia Airport in New York almost four years ago, disabling the aircraft. The quick thinking and actions of Sullenberger combined with his years of experience and training resulted in a rare yet successful ditching of a commercial aircraft on water where no one died.

Brian Cohen in the captain’s seat of a Boeing 777-200LR flight simulator on approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, preparing to land the aircraft. Photograph by Steven Klamon.

I can tell you, however, that I have logged a number of hours in real flight simulators, which has markedly increased my respect and appreciation for the responsibilities and hard work of commercial airline pilots. I actually would indeed recommend that frequent fliers have some time in a flight simulator to truly understand at least a fraction of what a pilot needs to know and what they have to go through.

Although there are certainly other factors, simple economics play a role in affecting towards whether there will be a shortage of commercial airline pilots: if there is indeed a shortage, I would expect airlines to increase salaries to attract more potential candidates for pilot positions. If not, salaries will most likely remain unchanged.

Either way, I do not believe that passengers will be adversely affected, and any negative effect on the typical flying experience of a passenger will be miniscule and will most likely pass unnoticed.

Am I wrong?

Email:
Twitter:
@flyertalk
Facebook:
flyertalk
More in:

Comments (Showing 2 of 2)

  • TMOliver at 8:26am January 15, 2013

    I’m surprised that you ignored the real “villain of the piece”, the US Department of Defense (and we taxpayers), which for decades provided thousands of young well trained (multi-engine, instrument time galore) pilots to US airlines (at no charge!). In the 30 years after I left active duty (1965), I could rarely board a DL or AA flight without immediately being able to identify the cockpit crew as former military pilots, whether by shoe shine, haircut , inevitable B&L sunglasses, or vocabulary and phraseology, tip-offs to “former Naval persons” such as I. Board a DL flight, and often I recognized an acquaintance from my shipboard days, while over on AA, an old Marine and HS classmate was a “Senior Pilot”, his having broken a couple of F8s not putting a cloud on his career. The Navy Reserve Squadrons down at NAS Dallas were filled with Navy pilots flying for airlines.

    Well a smaller military, fewer pilots trained, flying, separating or retiring, and the airlines are no longer the end of a pipeline of young aviators (admittedly mostly male) in search of civilian careers in a field in which they had already received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of “free” training and experience.

    Speaking of “Corporate Welfare” and government subsidies, the DoD College of Aviation Knowledge must have meant more to airlines than mail contracts and incentives for serving tiny airports.

  • Brian Cohen at 12:07pm January 15, 2013

    I can assure you that the aspect of the article in which you so eloquently articulated was not ignored by me – but then again, I am not certain I could have stated it any better than you, TMOliver. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

Leave Reply

You must be a logged in member to post a comment. Click here to Register.