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Understanding the Pilot Shortage: A Career Outlook for Aviators




At this point you’ve probably heard a news story about the current pilot shortage.

And it’s a well-known fact in the aviation industry—we’re in the midst of the largest pilot shortage in history.

Many pilots are reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65, while at the same time, airlines are expanding their operations and need more pilots. All the while, the number of pilots coming out of flight schools and entering the workforce is not enough to meet the demand. 

Those are the basic facts, but let’s dig deeper into the issues causing the pilot shortage.

And what is the industry doing to address the coming shortage. And is the pilot shortage good news for flight students today?

Factors Affecting the Pilot Shortage

Most studies cite three main factors that have contributed to the pilot shortage:

  • Mandatory pilot retirement
  • Flight school graduation rates
  • Forecasted growth of the aviation sector

Mandatory Pilot Retirement Age

One factor creating the pilot shortage is the FAA-mandated retirement age.

This rule applies to FAR Part 121 air carriers—otherwise known as the airlines. These businesses are prohibited from employing pilots over the age of 65, effectively causing a mandatory retirement age. 

Airline pilot shortage

With the age limit in effect, it’s impossible to retain some pilots when a shortage occurs. The only way to keep the airline’s flight line staffed is by hiring as many new pilots as those retiring.

The issue is even more pressing because many pilots took early retirement during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This reduced an already shrinking workforce greatly, and the aviation industry wound up bouncing back quicker than early estimates predicted it would.

Flight School Graduation Rates

For most of the 20th century, the airlines had plenty of applicants thanks to veterans who learned to fly in the Armed Forces. Today’s military is more focused on drone operators and trains fewer pilots.

It’s now more common for airline pilots to come from a civilian path, paying their way through flight school and becoming commercial pilots. Most will work as a flight instructor while building enough flight time to be eligible for the ATP certificate.

Then, they start applying to the airlines.

The high cost of flight school puts many would-be pilots off from the start. It can easily cost $90,000 to $110,000 to get all of your ratings, a cost roughly doubled from what it was 25 years ago due to higher fuel, aircraft, and insurance costs.

The next challenge is simply the difficulty of flight school. Many incoming students think they just need to learn how to fly the plane. But in reality there’s a substantial amount of book learning that must take place in addition to understanding regulations, and of course, learning to fly the airplane. For some students, flight school ends up being much more challenging then they expected.

This is why, here at Thrust Flight, we put students through entrance exams before they are able to join the Zero Time to Airline program. We want to set our students up for success and make sure those that are admitted into the program have a high likelihood of completing it.

Current pilot shortage

Forecast Growth in the Aviation Sector

The airline industry has rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic far beyond most analysts’ expectations.

According to the current Airbus Global Market Forecast, worldwide passenger traffic is expected to increase by about four percent every year over the next 20 years. This equates to a demand for about 40,000 new passenger and freight aircraft. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for airline and commercial pilots is also growing at about four percent per year.

They estimate that there are about 16,800 job openings for airline pilots every year, and there will be a need for 5,400 more pilots in the US alone by 2032. 

Pilot Shortage Market Analysis

Studies by analysts like Oliver Wyman have indicated that the pilot shortage may be even worse than many people are bracing for, especially for North America.

According to their numbers, the demand for pilots will greatly outstrip supply over the next decade. According to their 2022 estimates, the US market will likely have a shortage of nearly 30,000 pilots by 2030. 

Regional airlines are likely to be the hardest hit.

Mainline airlines nearly always recruit pilots from these smaller carriers, so the regionals are left scrambling to find new hires.

Most pilots consider a position at a regional carrier to be a stepping stone toward a mainline airline, so they’re more than happy to move up if the opportunity presents itself.

Retaining pilots is especially difficult for regionals, who must rely on a steady flow of pilots leaving flight school.

Multi-engine aircraft for training pilots

What Are Airlines Doing About the Pilot Shortage?

The airline industry is well aware of the headwinds it faces regarding the pilot shortage. Several steps have been taken by various companies and the industry overall to get more pilots on the flight deck.

One positive thing is that airlines have focused more on employee recruitment and retention. According to Oliver Wyman, mainline captain’s salaries have increased 46 percent since 2020, and regional salaries have gone up 86 percent.

Airlines have also created pathway programs that guide potential pilots through the process.

Some companies go as far as granting interviews or guaranteed slots based on flight school performance. While these programs don’t change the process much, they provide invaluable networking and mentoring opportunities while clarifying the steps you must take along the way. These connections between the flight school and the airlines didn’t exist all that long ago.

Many of these efforts have largely been successful in shrinking the gap between supply and demand for pilots.

Increased airline pilot salaries mean the “value proposition” of going to flight school is improving. Flight school graduation rates are increasing as pathway programs and a more stable career path unfold. However, there is still a shortage forecast, and the airlines still need more pilots than ever before.

What Does the Pilot Shortage Mean For You?

If you’re in flight school right now, the future is bright if you want to be an airline pilot.

Barring unforeseen economic circumstances, the growth of the industry and the scheduled retirement of older pilots are working to your advantage. And as much as you want to work with the airlines, the airlines want to work with you. 

Look around at pilot pathway programs, like the Envoy Cadet or Spirit Wings pilot pathway programs, which can connect you with pilots and mentors in the industry today.

By completing your training, building your hours, and building up a solid network of contacts in the industry, you can ensure that a career as an airline pilot will be waiting for you.

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