ATP Pilot Certification Peaking Again; Aging ATP Population

The number of ATP certificates issued each year is something that helps us identify how many potential pilots are being qualified each year for service in airline operational environments. With active hiring over the past couple of years, the pressure to deliver ATP-certificated pilots has been strong.

Our industry has been delivering increasing numbers of ATP-certificated pilots over the past years, something that can be seen from the chart below.

Increasing ATP Certification Trends

While there was a spike in 2014-2016 in ATP knowledge test and certificate issuance when regulations changed, the overall trend has been largely similar through the last decade or so.

Until 2021.

Since then, we have seen continued increases in ATP knowledge test completion and certification. Much of this is completed through the process of airline hiring and onboarding, beginning with completion of the ATP CTP course and finally with their ATP certification that coincides with a type rating for an aircraft they will be operating.

As many have indicated that there is a pilot shortage, this trend of increased certification would seem to indicate an increased ability to serve demand, decreasing the pressure of a pilot shortage. The longer this trend continues, the more our industry should be able to meet all hiring needs, and potentially even be more selective in hiring in terms of quality versus just quantity of hiring.

Through 2023 we saw a trend of certification that was outpacing all recent years on a month-by-month basis

Will the trend continue?

This is a valid question as we enter the third month of 2024. Numerous airlines have reported slowing or even pausing of hiring at this time. It very much appears some fleet restructuring is happening that may change the mix of how many pilots are needed compared with passengers flown. Larger aircraft will take more passengers for fewer flights.

Secondarily, as airlines right-size their hiring, and cut back class sizes, this means we may see some dropoff in the flow of ATP certification. If the airlines slow hiring, especially those that are regional airlines that conduct much of the training and certification for initial ATP pilot certification, we may see the month-to-month trend begin to not pace as high as it has over the past two years. This is a trend that I will monitor in the upcoming months and share if I see any data of interest.

Aging ATP Pilot Population

Another interesting point that I think is worth looking at when it comes to our ATP pilot population is that it is aging.

Well, kind of.

From the chart below, we can see that from 2001 through 2021, the average age of an ATP certificate holder rose from just over 46 to a peak of over 51. In 2022, that average began to drop, and it did it again in 2023.

This is the average age of ALL  pilot certificate holders who have an ATP certificate.

As we certificate more per year, those begin to weight our average downward with younger pilots. But it also seems to be an indication that our ATP pilot population may be dying off also. This may sound a little crass, but its actually pretty simple demographics. Our baby boomer generation of pilots is aging out and dying off. With that, we will eventually reduce the number of ATP pilot certificate holder numbers due simply to age.

This is where some discussion also takes place in our industry about the age of ATP pilots and who may be allowed to fly in the airline operational environment.

The chart to the right here shows a snapshot of some of the demographics regarding the age of ATP pilot certificate holders at the end of 2023.

Fully 15% of those pilots are over the age of 64, which means they are subject to the mandatory retirement age of 65 for airline operations. While some discussion is taking place at the national level regarding proposals to extend the mandatory retirement age to 67, until such a time as that were to be made reality, we have at least 15% of our ATPs who are ineligible to provide service in airline operations.

Some will argue that those pilots may then move over to private or charter operational activities, but our industry has seen significant movement in those markets to limit pilots of more senior ages from service. Whether it becomes company policy that a pilot will not be employed after the age of 70, or insurance restrictions that mandate a pilot not be allowed to fly in an operation at a certain age, any attempt to gain further pilot service by just increasing age tolerances is likely to gain minimal positive benefit. Even if it does gain some, the gains are likely short lived.

I actually expect we will see the age of our ATP pilot population trend down from an averaging calculation over the next few years as our older pilots pass along and our higher certification numbers of younger pilots offset the larger populations of senior pilots we have had in our system over the past decade or two.

Pilot Certification Numbers Increase Again in 2023

Tracking pilot certification numbers each year allows us to understand how robustly our training system is producing potential future employable pilots for our aviation system. In a continued trend, and with demand for hiring strong, it again appears that certification events climbed in response according to recently released FAA Airman Certification data.

A total of 134,057 pilot certificates were issued in 2023, up from 106, 662 in 2022 and 93,775 in 2021. You can see the increased trend over the past years, and one that has largely continued since 2010 in the graph below with a small dip in 2016 and 2017.

When we look at more granular detail, we see that in the core primary pilot certificates, the initial private pilot certificate, instrument rating, and commercial pilot certifications, each is showing an increasing trend, with 2023 showing higher certification numbers than any other years in recent history.

To accomplish the certification of pilots, we also need to have instructors. Commensurately, we are seeing equivalent trends of increasing Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) certificate issuance. Our issuance numbers of CFI certificates are at levels not seen in nearly 40 years as depicted in the below graph.

Some of you reading this know that I pick at the U.S. Civil Airman statistical data every year, digging in and trying to understand what some of the trends and data points are telling us. Things we might use to understand better our training industry, our pilot community, and our professional career paths. These quick data points are the first of some of the data I am going to be sharing over the next couple of days as I fill in my spreadsheets and graphs. Hopefully, you find some of it as interesting, and potentially helpful as I do!

With that, more data to come in the upcoming days…

2023 Airman Knowledge Test Numbers Show Increase Year-to-Year, Again.

The FAA’s airman knowledge testing numbers for 2023 were just released, and to little surprise, increases in testing volume were again experienced in most categories. With active hiring, a very positive outlook on the career path being spread, and training providers ramping up to meet demand, 2023 again looks to include peak pilot production levels.

Across the most common tests, we saw increases in volume as can be seen on the following chart tracking some of the most common tests in our industry including private pilot airplane, instrument rating airplane, commercial pilot airplane, ATP multi- and single-engine airplane, CFI airplane, and sport pilot tests.

This increasing volume trend has been seen over the past few years and is an indicator that we are likely to see the same in corresponding airman certificate issuance numbers (which we will likely see out in the near future). Knowledge test volume trends historically have corresponded closely with the next step in the airman certification process, practical test volumes, and airman certificate issuances.

When we compare year to year, we see that most tests saw double-digit percentage-based increases in volumes even from 2022-2023. The only of these main tests that did not was the ATP airplane multi- and single-engine tests, although that additionally saw a significant increase. These points can be seen in this table.

These data points are just that, points, and can’t tell us everything about our industry. But they can show us that with increasing volumes flight training efforts are doing their part to continue to expand capacity to training pilots to meet future employment demands these pilots may be seeking to fill.

Sport Pilot numbers are flat, but can MOSAIC change that?

With the comment period on FAA’s MOSAIC NPRM ( closing just yesterday, there is some hope in the industry that a final rule when issued will allow greater numbers of aircraft to be utilized effectively for sport pilot training. While we have seen very flat numbers of sport pilot testing over the past couple of decades, this potential change might finally make a change in the numbers of pilots seeking sport pilot certification. This will be an interesting point to watch over time and as a final rule is issued and becomes effective.

For those who would like to see more detailed numbers, here is a table of the issuances on a year-by-year basis and included the total FAA knowledge test volume for all tests the FAA offers.

A Great use for DPIC in Commercial Pilot Certification

Commercial pilot certification is a process that requires pilots have specific and somewhat varied experience tasks completed to be eligible for the commercial pilot certificate. One of the requirements listed relates to night flying experience.

Specifically, a commercial pilot must have at least “5 hours in night VFR conditions with 10 takeoffs and 10 landings (with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport with an operating control tower.” How this experience is designated is worth digging into more deeply as we consider a very specific application of part of the regulation that is commonly misunderstood.

14 CFR § 61.129 – Aeronautical experience indicates in part of the section that a pilot must complete:

“Ten hours of solo flight time in a single engine airplane or 10 hours of flight time performing the duties of pilot in command in a single engine airplane with an authorized instructor on board (either of which may be credited towards the flight time requirement under paragraph (a)(2) of this section), on the areas of operation listed under § 61.127(b)(1) that include—

(i) One cross-country flight of not less than 300 nautical miles total distance, with landings at a minimum of three points, one of which is a straight-line distance of at least 250 nautical miles from the original departure point. However, if this requirement is being met in Hawaii, the longest segment need only have a straight-line distance of at least 150 nautical miles; and

(ii) 5 hours in night VFR conditions with 10 takeoffs and 10 landings (with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport with an operating control tower.”

I bolded three parts of this section of regulation to help us highlight how this might be relevant in a way not as commonly considered.

The intent of the regulatory text here is that a pilot seeking a commercial pilot certificate be able to fly on their own without the help of a flight instructor to complete some cross-country and night flying experience. But this clause is commonly used when pilots are seeking initial pilot commercial certification in multi-engine aircraft and for insurance reasons are unable to allow low-time students to solo the aircraft to meet these requirements. It allows for the pilot to “perform the duties of pilot in command” while an instructor rides along on the flight. While this might be the most common use of this clause, another might be equally valuable.

Imagine the case of a pilot who has a medical certificate with a night restriction due to color blindness. Such a pilot would not be able to solo an aircraft at night to meet the requirements. As such, without this clause, they would not be able to meet all the requirements of a commercial pilot certificate. This clause offers the ability for a pilot who finds themselves in such a scenario the option to complete their commercial pilot certificate by allowing a CFI to conduct the flight with them as the PIC while they “exercise the duties of pilot in command” to meet the night flight requirements.

While a pilot who finds themselves limited to not being able to fly at night due to a medical certificate restriction may not end up flying commercially as an airline pilot or a charter pilot, they certainly might choose to make use of a commercial pilot certificate to fly skydivers, give rides, tow banners or gliders, or even be a CFI. This unique clause is a small, infrequently used, but potentially very helpful option for a pilot who needs to complete the requirement.

This is a great option for CFIs to know about if they encounter a pilot who is restricted from flying at night and might need to make use of this niche application of the rules.