The pilot shortage crisis is not new news in the world of aviation, but with new aircraft set to enter the global fleet, the demand for pilots is expected to rise dramatically in the next two decades. Boeing predict that 790,000 new pilots will be needed by 2037 to meet demand, with 96,000 of those required for the business aviation sector alone.
Airbus set their predicted figure at 450,000 by 2035 – although considerably less than Boeing’s prediction, the gap between demand and supply will only furthermore add to the crisis. CEO of Alerion Aviation, Bob Seidel has warned that the pilot shortage could seriously threaten the private aviation sector.
Traditionally private aviation required the most experienced pilots who could provide the highest level of service, including being extremely flexible, to their VIP passengers. They would thus be paid handsomely for their services. However, as the private and commercial airline sectors battle to attract the same pool of qualified pilots, the commercial airlines are currently triumphing by offering higher salaries and benefits that private jet operators just can’t match.
Why is the problem getting worse?
Over the past 30 years, a number of dynamics have occurred on the commercial side including social economic factors such as aging. The demographic of ‘Baby Boomer’ pilots who make up 50% of today’s pilots are due to retire soon – significantly reducing the amount of qualified and experienced pilots available to employ.
Another factor affecting the industry is the ‘1,500 hour rule’ which took effect in the U.S in 2013 as a safety measure after the Colgan Air 3407 crash in 2009. The new rule stated that First Officers needed to have accrued 1,500 hours of flight time to qualify for their Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate – 1,250 more hours than the previous 250 hours rule. Furthermore, ATP pilots were required to gain an additional 1,000 flight hours to qualify as a captain. While well-intentioned, the new rules are only adding to the pilot shortage crisis. With higher levels of experience required, competition to attract experienced pilots is fierce.
Seidel said “At 1,500 flight hours, that’s the level of people that we have as a minimum. Airlines have been stealing pilots from the private jet industries with higher salaries and free flights. They are winning the hearts and minds of a lot of pilots. We’ve even lost captains with 4,000 hours and more; airlines lure them away with offers of fixed schedules, fixed days on and off, as well as high salaries and free travel. It has gotten to be very competitive.”
He continued, “It’s a perfect storm: demographic shift, regulatory changes, and socio-economic factors.”
What about the rest of the world?
As expected, the pilot shortage crisis resonates right around the world. However, commercial airlines in areas such as Asia-Pacific and the Middle East are attracting pilots with inclusive packages in sunnier climates that are hard to refuse.
Some Emirates packages include furnished accommodation, utilities bills, relocation costs, education allowances (for your children,) medical insurance, personal accident insurance, your pension and loss of license insurance – and that’s on top of tax-free earnings. Seidel said, “A lot of people have jumped ship to be expats to places that are flush with cash that will pay exorbitant amounts. That’s also a drain.”
However, he also noted, “The flip side to that is that it wears on you after a few years unless you are really adapted to a new culture. After you do it for three or four years, you need to get back to whatever it is that you miss.”
So what’s the solution?
One of the biggest factors affecting the crisis is time, as the age of retirement for many current pilots is creeping up. There are many initiatives to recruit and train more pilots in progress right around the world, but as with any training period, it does take time. Also, while the new recruits will alleviate some of the pressures long term, it won’t compensate for the impending decline of experienced pilots who are set to retire soon.
Seidel suggests that a possible option to alleviate the issue is relaxing the rules around the age of retirement. He muses, “People are very healthy and active and interested in continuing to work past their 60s” these days.
While safety will always be of paramount importance, he also flagged that flight hours alone might not be the best way to measure experience. He said, “There is a whole spectrum of capabilities represented [in the market]. Some are pretty young and green but outstanding, and some very experienced but not that good. We have to come up with different ways that recognise skills other than flight hours.”
Whether there becomes some flexibility around retirement ages or shifts on measuring experience remains to be seen, but what’s sure is that this problem isn’t set to fully resolve itself anytime soon – and how that will affect the growth of global aviation in the future is a question which remains unanswered.
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