The Airline Pilot Shortage: Charting the Route Forward

The Airline Pilot Shortage: Charting the Route Forward

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The airline industry has been rocked by the current pilot shortage, just as travelers have begun to return to air travel in the wake of pandemic peaks. The shortage has affected many aspects of the airline industry.

GLG’s Alec Gustafson recently hosted a teleconference with Captain Jim Thomas, GLG Network Member and the former Managing Director of Flight Training and Standards at American Airlines. Jim spent 35 years at American, and his training expertise gives him an interesting point of view. Alec and Jim discussed the shortage, the ripple effect retiring pilots have, and how the industry will manage through the crisis. This article is an edited excerpt from that longer conversation.

Can you quantify the current pilot shortage?

There are studies that show we’re going to be 80,000 pilots short in the industry globally by 2032, and roughly 8,000 to 10,000 just in North America. So often we are asked why we didn’t predict this, and why it is so significant now.

When I was at American Airlines, we increased pilot recruitment in the past few years because of the number of pilots that had mandatory retirement at 65. Pilots were being hired, getting ready to backfill the coming retirements, and then COVID-19 hit. In the resulting financial distress, there were furloughs, layoffs, and early retirement offers. Not knowing how long it would last or what the comeback would be, airlines shed enormous amounts of pilots.

As COVID waned, and the comeback was more robust than projected, all the pilots that took early retirements were gone. We can’t get pilots in the pipeline fast enough. In the short term, there are plenty of pilots, but there’s a training bottleneck. You can’t bring a pilot off the street, or someone qualified but who hasn’t flown for a while, and put them back on the line with a few days of training. There’s also a finite number of simulators, and a finite number of instructors. That’s how we ended up where we are today, and it’s going to take time to fix it.

How are pilots allocated, and how do they move around the industry? What are the ripple effects that occur when one pilot retires?

Pilots are in a seniority-based system. As they navigate through their career, they progress based on open positions. The pilot bids for a new role, and if they get it, they’ll be trained in that specific new position.

On the reverse side is the retirement ripple effect, and some people think, “Well, what’s the big deal, a pilot retires, you hire a new pilot, and everything is good.” But much of it depends on the number of fleets an airline has. At American Airlines, there are four fleets — two narrow bodies, the 737 and A320 family, and two wide bodies, the 777 and the 787.

Let’s say a pilot gets hired as a first officer on a narrow body, and then — as positions open — they upgrade to a first officer on a wide body, and then upgrade again to captain on a narrow body, and then eventually upgrade to captain on a wide body. The pay is better for captain and better for the wide-body aircraft. When a pilot retires, it happens in reverse. Let’s say a 777 captain retires. American has to replace them, and let’s presume it’s by a narrow-body 737 captain. Now someone has to replace the 737 captain. That’s most likely going to be a wide-body first officer. So now the wide-body first officer becomes a captain on the narrow body. Now that wide-body first officer position is open and needs to be filled. One pilot retirement typically causes a ripple effect of between four and six additional training slots required. That adds to the bottleneck.

How long is training, and how does it affect overall operations timing?

When a pilot goes to train on a new aircraft that they haven’t flown before at that airline, ground training is typically 8 to 10 days. Before that, they will have done distance learning to learn the new aircraft’s systems.

After ground training, and days off in between, they go to the simulator phase. The total footprint is 22 to 25 days for those phases, after which they get a type rating. Now they have to fly the aircraft, which is called the initial operating experience, where they go out with a check pilot. After that, they take an FAA observation ride with the FAA in the cockpit. Once they pass that, they are a productive pilot on the line. It takes about 45 days from a pilot starting training to becoming productive on the line.

Raising the retirement age has been suggested as one way to combat the shortage. What do you think about that, and how likely is it to happen?

It would have an impact. If it was changed to 67, the pilots that are 65 today could choose whether they want two more years of productivity or retirement. It’s an unknown, though, because those pilots that were expecting or hoping to retire at 65 might do that anyway. There’s no way to predict how many would stay. The bigger issue is political. When the age was changed from 60 to 65, it was done first in Europe, and it took several years for U.S. adoption. There were safety concerns, and all kinds of risk mitigation was put around that. I wouldn’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Legislation would take a while.

What is working well on the training side?

The training is the linchpin, because if something were to happen, an incident or an accident in a commercial airliner, the first thing asked is how that pilot did in training. The robust training programs these airlines have speaks to their safety and standardization. The dynamic today is fascinating. Airlines have replaced the traditional kit bag that contained approach charts, manuals, and everything else the pilot carried with iPads. It used to be pilots would meet up in flight operations at the airport, get to know each other, and talk about the flight. Nowadays, because everything is on the device, a pilot literally shows up at the airport, goes to the gate, walks the jet bridge, turns left into the cockpit, and there might be another pilot there and there might not. That’s often the first time they meet. In 30 to 40 minutes, they’re going to be on a takeoff roll, rotating at 150 miles an hour with 200 people behind them. That’s why the training is so important.

When something does happen in the cockpit, each pilot knows what the other one will do, even though they don’t know each other. When it comes to flying airplanes, it’s all about standardization.

At American, flags go up when someone struggles or fails in training. The key is to identify that right away and not let it seem normal. When someone is struggling, maybe something’s going on emotionally, or cognitively, or medically. You pull the pilot aside, perhaps work with the union, work with the medical folks, and figure it out. If everything is okay, but the pilot can’t get through training, that’s not acceptable. Airlines will not turn a blind eye to a pilot that struggles.

How will the industry manage this shortage, in the near term and in the long term?

The airlines understand the pilot shortage is real. They upped their capacity and schedules coming out of COVID, and too aggressively in many cases. It’s taken about a year for all of them to regroup and say, “This is not doable.” Changing the gauge of the aircraft, reducing schedules. Near term, the airlines are making the right moves. It’s going to take at least another year for the capacity models and the pilot supply model to match up to where we no longer see canceled flights. Long term, we’ll see growth, but we’re not training fast enough. We end up at a standstill until it gets figured out.

About Jim Thomas

Captain Jim Thomas most recently served as Managing Director, Flight Training and Standards at American Airlines, the world’s largest commercial airline. In his role, he led a more than 1,000-person team responsible for training and evaluating American’s more than 14,000 pilots. Jim successfully integrated three separate training groups and programs represented by independent unions following the American Airlines and US Airways merger. In his role, he led operations of two training facilities, in Texas and North Carolina, that included 40 full-flight simulators. Jim had oversight of a $500 million flight training budget.

This airline industry article was adapted from the GLG Teleconference “Airline Pilot Shortage Update.” If you would like access to events like this or would like to speak with airline industry experts like Jim Thomas or any of our approximately 1 million industry experts, please contact us.

Questions Asked During the Teleconference:

  • Can you quantify the current pilot shortage in the industry?
  • What are the ripple effects that occur when one pilot retires?
  • How long will training one pilot from one aircraft to another take? How long will it affect the overall timing of operations for the airline?
  • What would happen if we were to raise the retirement age? How likely might it be that this retirement age gets raised?
  • Where are we at right now as far as current recruitment?
  • What are the training and recruiting differences for regionals and legacy airlines? Are there distinct differences by the way of the two models?
  • What is working well on the training? What isn’t?
  • Is there any ability to abolish the 1,500-hour rule?
  • How do airlines compete with exclusively cargo airlines for talent? Is there something more attractive about flying cargo instead?
  • How about private air? How does that compete as well?
  • Is there anything that LCCs can do to try to retain pilots for a longer period of time? Or are they content with the current turnover right now?
  • How will the industry manage this shortage in the near term and in the long term?
  • Do you get the sense that Republic and SkyWest have become the flight schools for the majors? Is there any way to gauge whether this jeopardizes the viability of the noncaptive regional business model?
  • Republic went bankrupt before because of a pilot shortage. Could this happen again? And then, on a percentage basis, how understaffed do you think SkyWest and ARJet will be by year end?
  • How often do international airlines poach domestic pilots and vice versa? Could the United States try to poach more international pilots?
  • If a pilot trainee fails a few check rides, but ultimately passes and gets his or her ATP, how do the airlines look at a person like that?