In 2022, aviation surveys and reports by leading aviation bodies predicted an imminent pilot shortage, and the situation has been nothing short of these forecasts. These incredible predictions were chiefly informed by the state of the aviation industry, characterised by massive staff layoffs and grounded operations, which left many pilots with no option but to seek alternative income sources to sustain their lives. However, with the rebound in global passenger travel from the first to the last quarter of 2022 and through 2023, many airlines have continued to struggle with high pilot demands and deficits in pilot supply, starting in Asia and Pacific, North America, the Middle East, and Europe where the shortfall in pilot supply is most acutely felt compared to other regions.
Pilots work through a seniority-based system. This implies that these aviation professionals progress through ranks and open positions as they advance in their careers. For many airlines, the recruitment process requires qualified pilots to bid for open positions, after which they receive intensive training to match the skill requirements for a specific position.
On the other hand, the retirement system may create a ripple effect, exposing airlines to unexpected crew shortages, mainly due to unmatched levels of newly hired and adequately trained pilots and those going into retirement. India have been facing similar issues. According to industry sources, some airlines in India will require close to 7,000 pilots to operate around 500 aircraft, supplied in coming years. The current shortage resulted in instances where recent ultra-long flights had been delayed or even cancelled due to the persisting problem. Moreover, as airlines continue to report a recovery in air demand in 2023, the reality is that these carriers are set to experience a growth in pilot demand due to the abovementioned issues. Therefore, airline management must explore ways to reduce this bottleneck, for example, by enrolling more students in their pilot training programmes to alleviate the problems created by early pilot retirements.
It goes without question that the mounting pilot shortage issues have played an immense role in the air travel chaos that many global carriers have witnessed in the last months of 2022 and early into 2023. In actuality, airlines have not been able to suffice the mounting pilot demand, making it challenging to keep their aircraft in the sky despite the increase in air travel demand.
As global airlines deal with the accelerating air travel demand, it is expected that pilot demand will outstrip the current supply in many regional aviation markets in the next two years – the trend will continue to manifest and worsen in the next ten years. Principally, the anticipated growth in pilot demand stems from a confluence of factors, from the increasing air service demand to the growing population of the pilot workforce who have attained the mandatory retirement age.
Additionally, global carriers face another problematic situation of a shrinking pool of trained pilots, making it challenging to recruit new airline crews. The current shifts in the market suggest that the growing pilot demand, amidst strenuous efforts by aviation industry players, will drive a pilot deficit of around 300,000 by the decade. In Asia and Pacific alone, the anticipated pilot demand may drive a deficit of about 111,000. North America could experience a shortage of almost 78,000, with Europe close to 51,000, followed by the Middle East with nearly 30,000 in the same period. Even more critically, many regional airlines may report a skyrocketing demand, primarily due to the increasing number of pilots going into early retirement.
The expanding gap in pilot demand and market supply could increase competition between airlines, with some embarking on contract re-negotiations and implementing pay increases to maintain their pilot workforce. While offering more oversized compensation packages may not adequately address the problem, such measures may eat into the airlines’ profit margins, reducing their net returns.
Airline companies should accelerate their pilot recruitment efforts to remain in tandem with the ever-increasing air travel demand. Where possible, they should consider other options, such as recruiting qualified pilots from other regional markets where airlines anticipate a slower growth in passenger demand and less acute crew shortages. Still, such a change would not entirely address the widening gap between pilot demand and supply. In this light, many airlines would take years to achieve meaningful results even with such measures.
BAA Training, a leading aviation training centre, and a part of Avia Solutions Group, has identified a trend of pilot expanding their type certification. While some of them want to enhance their skills and get additional certifications to strengthen their position in the job market, others simply want to expand their knowledge base and gather more experience.
Another idea put forward for consideration is that frontier airlines should introduce cadet programmes and partner with existing flight schools to train the next generation of commercial airline pilots. Many pilot training schools already offer such programmes and so far, the results have been positive. Airline companies should work out a strategy to increase funding support to ensure that cadets can access the training programmes at subsidised costs. A key advantage of such a programme is that interested students do not need prior flying experience as a precondition for enrolment, eliminating the barriers that make it difficult for individuals to venture into the aviation career. This investment would eventually pay off for the airlines in the long run, as companies would have enough pilots to ensure smooth operations, reduce possibilities for aircraft grounding due to shortage of staff, and cut future costs.