By Patrick Arnzen
“So much for that pilot shortage” is a headline that can be found right now on an article posted by AOPA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which — according to their About Us page— exists “to protect and to grow the incredible privilege that we call general aviation.”
They must certainly have earth-shattering data to make such a sensational claim, considering their position as a protector of the industry. The pandemic has certainly hit the industry in a big way, but to put the last nail in the coffin of the entire industry there must be some sort of data, studies, or hard evidence to substantiate such claims… right?
Articles like this can be found all over industry-friendly websites. Headlines such as “Should We Worry About the Future of the Airline Industry?” and “How Coronavirus Will Change Aviation In The Next Decade” are widespread and apparently they are getting clicks, because they keep coming.
The very groups whose mission is to help this industry are evangelizing false claims that echo the fear and panic we see every day on the five o’clock news. All this fear and propaganda have been generated without any real analysis and are designed to illicit an emotional response.
It’s time for everyone to calm down, behave like adults, and have a real conversation about what has happened historically to aviation after major events. It’s also time for the industry professionals to have a dialogue about the real health of the industry rather than outsiders telling us what our future holds.
I started my aviation career before 9/11. I worked as an airline pilot during the crash of 2008, and I own and operate a successful flight school. I am an active A&P IA mechanic and a Designated Pilot Examiner who evaluates pilots from Sport through ATP. I understand this industry. I have lived and breathed aviation for more than 20 years.
I have been fortunate enough to surround myself with some of the most talented aviation professionals in the industry.
Without exception we all agree: all of this conjecture is detrimental to attracting new talent to the aviation workforce.
This industry needs a positive message right now. But even more than a positive message, the industry needs a true and accurate message, a real study of what to expect in the future— otherwise we run the risk of artificially making the aviation industry look less attractive as a career choice than what is reality.
In no way do I mean to diminish the sufferings of those afflicted with COVID-19 or minimize the seriousness of a virus without a treatment. I am, however, saying that most of what I have read related to aviation and the virus is click-bait, pure and simple.
Here it is folks…the data. I believe all of you reading this are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions from the facts highlighted below.
Two Causes of Reduction in Airline Travel: Fear and Economy
There are historically 2 causes of a decrease in air travel— fear of air travel and a hurting economy.
We have an example of each of these from the past 20 years.
Although one could argue that the decline in airline travel after 9/11 was caused by a weak economy coupled with fear of flying, it can be inferred by the market trends of the time and the number of air travelers month to month that fear played a much larger role (the market proceeded to go down even further after 9/11 while the number of air travelers steadily increased.)
By July of 2003, the number of air travelers had recovered to pre 9/11 numbers. The fear caused by the novelty of commercial airliners being used in terrorist attacks only slowed air travel down for a few weeks, and completely returned to normal in 2 years.
It is important to distinguish the difference in the fear being experienced today vs the fear we all felt after 9/11. Our fear today is of a virus whose threat extends everywhere we go— grocery stores, church, work— this is not intrinsic to air travel. After the 9/11 attacks, the fear people experienced was related directly to flying.
Once consumers begin traveling again, it is safe to assume air travel will quickly return to normal, just as it has before. There is no inherent fear of flying in this case as there was after 9/11. And once regular travel resumes, the trend we’ve been seeing in global air travel can be expected to continue.
If fear of flying is not a concern, one other factor that could hinder air travel is the economy.
The Great Recession of 2008, the worst economic recession since the great depression, barely made a dent in the total number of air travelers. 10 million less travelers for one year in 2009, and then the trend went right back to continuing upward at a dramatic rate.
To summarize- it is a safe bet that more and more people will continue to fly after consumer confidence is restored. Nothing that we’ve seen in the past has slowed the upward trend, and this will continue. People WILL continue to fly.
What About Pilot Hiring?
The trends in air travel are just one factor that contribute to pilot hiring. Retirement numbers have a huge effect on the number of pilots that need to be hired each year. Therefore, the increase in the need for pilots is often greater than the increase in air travelers. This is evident from the numbers that were being touted just a month ago.
These were the predicted retirement numbers prior to the pandemic. Recently, airlines have offered early retirement packages that only account for a fraction of the total future need for new pilots. Age 65 is a hard number for retirement, and the airlines historically have retired a percentage above the hard numbers listed above.
Think of the early retirements and lay-offs the airports have had due to the pandemic.
What does this do to the already inevitable pilot shortage once regular flying returns to normal? What will this mean when the number of air travelers continues to increase?
Consider the following: When the pandemic hit, the major airlines were about to lose a significant number of pilots to retirement.
This was anticipated and was not a major concern— the majors have an endless source of pilots they can hire from via the regionals. Because of this dynamic, pilot shortages are a problem first experienced and solved by regional airlines.
So when the pandemic resulted in a sudden halt in airline travel, the majors had an opportunity to offer early retirement to the pilots who were about to retire. Pilots close to retirement age cost the majors more to employ, so it makes financial sense to retire them early during a temporary lapse in air travel. After all, the regional pilots are always there when you need them.
But what does this mean for the regionals? They aren’t flying right now either. Hiring has been halted at nearly all regionals.
What many may not know is most of these regionals have not stopped interviewing and have continued their “cadet” programs at their partnered flight schools. I’ve seen this first hand. Thrust Flight’s regional airline partners are still prepared to start hiring as soon as needed. The regionals are setting themselves up to be able to hire a large number of pilots once people start flying again.
With all of this considered, a picture of our industry in the next year begins to form that is contradictory to many of today’s headlines. Once regular air travel starts up again, majors will hire a large number of the experienced pilots flying for the regionals, and regionals will be forced to increase their recruitment efforts from the most reliable source they have for pilots- Flight Schools.
Therefore, I maintain that now is a phenomenal time to consider a career as an airline pilot. While it admittedly is a bad few months to be a student just finishing their required 1500 hours, this lapse in hiring pilots will surely result in a surge once normal flight operations resume. A student starting today won’t be eligible to be hired at an airline for approximately 2 more years.
By that time, I predict hiring numbers will be higher than they were before the pandemic hit.
Even though airlines are in a temporary rough patch, the world still needs more pilots.
My call to action to each of my aviation constituents: This industry has been good to all of us. It is time to think of future aviators. Fear mongering does them a great injustice. This is not the time to stomp our feet and get emotional- pilots are logical by nature, so why are we reacting without thinking? Pilots are better than this. This industry is better than this.
We need to come together and support this industry so that those that come after us have the chance to reap the same benefits that we have.
Patrick Arnzen is a former airline pilot, has been a DPE since 2013, is an A&P IA, and owns and operates Thrust Flight, a flight school that trains and prepares students to be airline pilots. He has been involved in the aviation industry for more than 20 years.