Can PR Save the Airlines’ Coming Pilot Shortage?

The cockpit of a modern airliner.

What would your company do if your entire industry had to replace nearly two-thirds of its key employees by 2025? How would you go about finding those workers, especially if there simply were not enough people now trained to fill those jobs, or even enough potential employees currently in training programs that take years to complete?

The US airline industry now faces this situation.

Currently the airlines (including regional, cargo, and charter carriers) employ just under 100,000 pilots, many of whom are reaching the government-mandated retirement age of 65, an age increased in 2007 from 60 to forestall the coming pilot shortage. By 2025, the airlines will need another 60,000 or so pilots.

But the number of pilots completing their private pilot training  (the first milestone on the long path to becoming an airline pilot) and those finishing their commercial pilot training (the second marker) continue to decline, and over the past decade have dropped 41 percent and 30 percent, respectively, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Although the total number of pilots in the United States has rebounded after the recent recession to 618,000 (as of 2011, according to AOPA [the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association]), it is far below its peak of 827,000 in 1980. Perhaps even more ominous for the airline industry is that last year only 124,000 of these pilots (compared to 183,000 in 1980) held a commercial license, and many of them are beyond the airline hiring age.

At the same time, the FAA has put into place a new requirement for pilots hired by the airlines. Beginning next year, young pilots will need 1,500 hours of flight time before they can be hired by the airlines. This requirement is six times higher than the 250 hours now required by newly hired pilots.

This greater number of hours in the air will certainly give pilots more experience and, one would assume, make them better pilots—even if much of their flight time will be in small two- and four-passenger Cessnas, Pipers, and similar planes before they move up to more complicated propeller-driven aircraft and then into small jets as pilots for charter services and corporations.

But how many young people can afford to pay up to $200,000 for the necessary pilot training (in addition to paying for college)? Not many I would guess. Fortunately, by becoming flight instructors, some pilots can increase their flight time while getting paid, and some pilots will find other flying jobs to earn flight hours. But those not so lucky would end up facing a huge flight-training debt.

To make the hiring situation even worse, the airlines are relying less on their traditional source of trained pilots: the military. Since World War II, more than 80 percent of those hired by the airlines have previously flown in the Army, Marines, Navy, or Air Force. Now, however, the military overall has fewer pilots than in past years. It requires longer service commitments from those wanting to fly (so fewer are leaving the service to join the airlines). And it offers a career many pilots prefer over flying for the airlines. As a result, less than half of the U.S. airline pilots now come from the military, and this number continues to decline.

The cockpit of a Douglas DC-3, an aircraft, first build in the 1930s, that made air travel popular and comfortable.

The airlines cannot easily solve their hiring problem. So what’s the answer to the coming pilot shortage?

Some believe that reducing the cost of flying would attract more pilots. But the cost is not likely to go down when fuel prices have doubled in the past few years and aircraft prices continue to rise.

Others (and I am one of them) would say the answer is greater PR and promotion of this career choice.

“The only real way to increase interest in flying is to appeal to people who have a strong sense of independent individualism,” says Richard Collins, a highly respected aviation industry observer, who has written about flying for 50 years and has more than 20,000 hours of flight time. “For lack of a better word,” he adds in his recent Air Facts blog post, “we need to appeal to the sense of adventure that some people still have. Put the ‘right stuff,’ or the romance, back into flying.”

The EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) and AOPA—two of the largest pilot organizations in the country—do a terrific job of reaching those who are already part of the aviation community. Both are great organizations with concentrated programs for getting young people interested in flying and keeping them in the cockpit over the years.

But the industry needs greater PR targeted toward those who are not already flying enthusiasts. These potential pilots should have additional opportunities to stumble across articles and videos as well as social and other media that promote the thrill, and joy, and exhilaration of flying.

Without such PR, the number of pilots will continue to decline, and the airlines will go into their greatest pilot-hiring era in history with no one to hire.

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