The pilot shortage and pilot compensation, explained

By: Toby Martin-Kohls

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was the start of a worldwide pilot shortage. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the issue. A study was done by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman, and it projected a 79,000 pilot deficit by 2032 if current trends continue, absent a downturn in future demand and/or strenuous efforts by the industry to bolster the supply of pilots. 

North America as a region also needs more in the numbers department. The region already has a shortage of around 11,000 pilots, around 11% of the pilot supply, and this gap will only widen throughout the decade. By 2032, North America will be short 30,000 pilots if current trends continue.

Through a large part of the 20th Century, flying was a luxury reserved for only those who could afford it. Pilots were more prestigious than they are today, as the job commanded as much respect and pay in the 1950s as doctors. Aviation has become more commonplace and affordable for the average citizen, so the job has become less flashy. 

Main factor

That leads to the main factor of the shortages: the barrier and cost of entry to this profession are incredibly high. Before pilots can perform their first takeoff with passengers in the back, they must get many required licenses, ratings, and certifications. 

However, many airlines heavily favor those with a college degree, so those who want to get into the field usually have to start by getting a degree. According to data from Statistica, the total cost of attending a university for four years in the US is $133,000. 

Prior to the pandemic, some major US-based airlines required college degrees for applicants. However, most have dropped the degree requirements, but candidates with a college degree are strongly preferred.

Every aspiring pilot needs to get a private pilot license. This is essentially the aviation equivalent of your everyday driver’s license. As of 2022, this license requires 40 hours of flight time. These flight hours are with an instructor and are expensive. 

According to pricing estimates from the Illinois Aviation Academy, getting your private pilot’s license costs a total of $10,680. This includes flight hours with the instructor, plane rental, FAA exams, and ground training. 

To start actually making money as a pilot though, you need 15 additional hours of instruction for an instrument rating, and 215 hours of flight time to obtain a commercial license. According to St. Charles Flying Service, this costs, on average, around $25,000. There are also numerous other factors that add cost such as books, housing, and transportation. 

Even after all this time and money invested, If you desire to work as a commercial airline pilot, you still need to obtain another license. To become a commercial airline pilot, you need to get an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license. This is the biggest required flight time hours of them all, you need 1,500 flight hours to get this license, with some exceptions. 

This 1,500 hour requirement was a huge increase from the previous requirement of 250 hours, and drove many away from the industry. The FAA changed the requirement in 2015, after a deadly plane crash in 2009 near Buffalo, NY. In response, Congress passed the FAA Extension Act which provided the FAA with authority to establish training requirements for commercial pilots. Airlines have lobbied the FAA to lower the requirement, possibly down to 750, but there has been no changes so far.

The United States is unique in this way, with other established countries such as Germany, the UK, and Canada all being at the 250 hour quota. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the total number of fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours has dropped from 1.10 to 1.05 between 2015 and 2020, a roughly 4% difference.

If one were to pay for all that flight time themselves, they could be looking at around $135,000 in rental costs, so pilots usually let someone else pay for these fees by working at a job that doesn’t require a full ATP license. The most common job to fill the flight hours requirement is as a flight instructor, but other common gigs include flying skydiving planes, towing banners, or flying for airlines who are using small single engine planes. 

After spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over a couple years for education and training, you can finally apply to fly a commercial airliner. On average, it takes four years to finish all the necessary training and requirements but can be done in as fast as two years.

Secondary factors

Commerical airline pilots in the United States have to adhere to many of the FAA’s strict safety rules, which include a medical/psychological exam every 12 months for pilots under 40 and every 6 months for those 40 and over. The FAA has a mandatory retirement age of 65, and they can’t continue after that no matter their health or ability. 

Around 6,000 pilots per year retire before they hit the mandatory retirement age. By 2029, not a single baby boomer will be legally allowed to fly a commercial plane in the US. 

The pandemic hit the aviation industry especially hard, and many airlines offered early retirement for pilots. This made the shortages worse when demand returned, and the airlines couldn’t keep up with staffing needs. Commercial pilots’ job is all seniority based, so those who took early retirement, and tried to come back, would be starting at the bottom of the pay scale and other things like scheduling.

On average, commercial pilots fly 900 hours per calendar year in the US, which is 75 hours per month, and about 17 hours per week. FAA regulations cap the number of hours at 1,400 in a calendar year. This also puts a restraint on the number of pilots available on any given day.

The US also loses a number of pilots to foreign countries such as China because they do not have enough local pilots to fill their fast growing airline industry. It is estimated that 10% of China’s pilots are foreign. The average starting salary for China’s airlines is $312k to foreign pilots, and some make up to $500k per year.

The obvious solutions would be in to increase pay and improve the working conditions, but the airlines are usually concerned with their bottom line. Another solution for the industry would be to try and recruit more female pilots, as they only make up 6.7% of the world’s supply. 

Airlines are also now opening their own flight schools, where cadets can train for a reduced cost, and then are sometimes guaranteed a job upon completion of training with the specific airline. I think that this is definitely the best long term solution.

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