Some Reasons the Pilot Shortage May Be Worse Because of COVID-19

COVID-19 has put a major hiccup into our aviation system. Professional pilots are not flying and training providers are shut down and their customers have had to stop training. This is going to make the pilot shortage we have seen worse over the next couple years.

Some will say that there will be a bunch of furloughed pilots who will fill the needs when we get back up and running. On the surface, this may appear to be something that will stem the pilot shortage, but in fact, there are systemic factors that may actually exacerbate the pilot shortage when we come out of our shutdown.

Many pilots will not return to service.

In any major industry downturn that has historically seen pilots get furloughed, a certain percentage of these pilots do not return to working as airline pilots when, or if, they are called back. There are many factors that lead to this from an inability to wait out the “callback” for financial reasons, to career changing options, and many more. But this time there is a major piece that is going to affect this. Early retirement options.

Most of the major airlines are offering pilots who are above the age of 62 early retirement packages whereas they will pay out a described minimum set of hours monthly until that pilot reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65.

This makes financial sense for the airlines. It puts their most expensive (high seniority) pilots on lower hours and reduces the overall cost to the airline over those years while they can back fill those vacancies with pilots who are lower on the seniority list cost less to the airline.

This is going to be balanced with an overall drawdown of employed pilots at some of these major airlines. In one instance, it was conveyed to me that an airline was going to try to come back to service with about 10,500 pilots instead of the currently employed over 14,000 pilots. This sounds like a big drawdown, but if they offer an early retirement and 800-1,200 senior pilots accept that, the difference in numbers quickly gets eaten up. If all the major airlines start to do this, a big number of senior pilots will retire earlier than any of us expected in this industry, speeding up the effect of retirements on the pilot supply/demand pipeline.

You may be asking, why would these senior captains accept these early retirements? Think about it. Would you rather get paid $300,000 a year to work 75 flight hours a month, or take $200,000 a year to not have to work at all?

I know what I would take. That $200,000 a year sounds pretty good, plus the pilot who accepts that could start working on that retirement second career while still getting paid by the airline.

Major airlines are going to be moving pilots up from the regionals.

As these major airlines attrit senior pilots, both with the early retirements and as all forecasts have shown with the aging load of pilots who will reach mandatory 65 year old retirement ages over the next couple years, they will be hiring or moving up through flow agreements pilots from their regional carriers.

I have no doubt the major airlines will be able to staff their needs. They pay the best, they have the best retirement plans, etc. It’s the peak of the professional pilot pipeline. Qualified pilots will flow to it. But at the cost of the pipeline below them. This is likely to hurt regional airlines again.

As the major airlines hire their pilots, regional airlines will find their pilot resources reduced. If that is further affected by inability to hire qualified pilots to refill the regional airlines positions, they may have an even worse shortage than before.

Foreign student loads will be slow to return.

Many foreign airlines have significantly reduced flights or even shut down much as our airlines here in the United States have done. Along with this, most have stopped hiring and training new pilots. Related to this, and to travel restrictions to foreign nationals, most cadets who were in the United States have been sent home and new ones are not coming here. This is likely to be the case for a while. Many flight training providers have based much of their business on the provision of training for international students.

Why is this important? We can just train more U.S. pilots, right? Kind of. Until our COVID-19 slowdown, approximately 45% of the pilot certificates/ratings being issued in the United States were being given to non-U.S. citizens. This is where flight instructors gain experience to be qualified to fly at airlines. Without them, they won’t have the opportunity to build time.

Leveraging business and experience building aspects of foreign students who get training here in the United States has been a major, albeit underrecognized, factor in our aviation training and experience infrastructure.

Regional airlines have been aggressively hiring CFIs who reach minimum ATP hours requirements. If there are less of these who meet those requirements, they may not be able to fill their classes.

Training capacity will be reduced and slow to return to full production.

To the point above, many flight training providers focus much of their business on provision of training for foreign contract students. If that business goes away, many of these flight training providers are in jeopardy of needing to scale back their businesses, or worse, close them. This will reduce training capacity.

Additionally, and from a purely infrastructure standpoint, getting training back going to full capacity will take time. One example of this is the University/Collegiate systems.

In conversations I have had over the past couple of days at places around the country, academic training staff have indicated that even if we said start back up today it would take 6-12 months to get back to at least 50% of the training capacity we were at before our shutdowns. Why, you might ask?

Well, some of this is just a function of how the training is delivered. Many of the staff upon which these large scale training institutions depend are also students. They fuel the aircraft, they clean them, they do the dispatching, and they are the instructors. If you tell these students that their classes will remain online until the Fall of 2020 (or longer) and they can do them from home, where they have gone when their dorms were closed, they are not likely to come back to campus until in-person classes are back up and running. This means these flight training institutions will have critical staffing shortages which will limit their physical ability to deliver services. This is just one example of how the major stoppage will take time from a structural infrastructure standpoint to get back up and running. The train may be able to stop fast, but it takes a while to build up the head of steam to get to full cruise again.

This will result in additional reduction of training capacity for a period of time.

This assumes all training providers will be able to start back up. Once stopped many will never start back up again. We are already hearing of flight training providers, mostly private FBO based so far, that are expecting if they are not able to get back up and running within 30 days they will shutter their doors for good. A few have even already done it.

Some of these may not be producing big numbers of pilots, but as an aggregate if we lose 200, 300, or even more smaller providers, it will have an effect.

Perception will likely reduce interest.

Parking a bunch of airplanes, furloughing pilots, and grinding the national air travel to a halt may make would-be pilots think again about the career as an option. I can’t help but think that people thinking about aviation careers are seeing their local plumber or doctor still making a living right now while the “non-essential airline pilot” next door is trying to figure out just how long their furlough is going to be or how long the airline will pay them part time before they run out of money to pay their house payments.

Unstable career paths scare people. They start shying away from them.

While I fully believe we will get back to a time when the general public and business travellers are again criss-crossing our skies to meetings and vacations, that can be hard to see if you are 18 years old and thinking about a career in aviation right now. I can’t say I would second guess that gal or guy who just graduated who made the choice to become an electrician right now instead of going to flight school.

Depending on how many people make these choices, interest in our next generation of pilots may go down. And that will reduce input of new talent, further enhancing the workforce shortage for the future pilot needs of our industry.

There are a lot of factors going on right now. The best messaging I think we as an industry can tell people is be patient and really watch what structural moves are happening in the industry over the next 30-60 days. I honestly think the pilot shortage we started with before the COVID-19 crisis is going to be worse after it has passed. And that means there will be plenty of jobs for those who want to pursue pilot careers.

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About Jason Blair

Jason Blair is an active single and multiengine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours of instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with the work focusing on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications with a focus on training and safety.

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