Pilot Shortage: Just the Facts

Graph showing the number of active pilots from 1999 through 2011.
Pilots in the U.S. the Past 12 Years

The aviation industry is famous for its booms and busts.  While all industries are subjected to business cycles, aviation is unique for its cries of a “pilot shortage” looming or existing during each boom.  Airlines leverage this perception of a “shortage” to lobby for relaxed hiring rules, while flight schools use this in sales pitches to convince students they are in high demand.

This often leaves pilots wondering: Is there really a shortage?  How long will a shortage last?

In my opinion, this concept of a pilot shortage, real or not, is disseminated by the media.  It seems somewhat implausible that the same problem is occurring again and again for the same reasons, with the same forecasts, in different political and economic circumstances.

Consider, for example, a 1989 article in The New York Times that describes an imminent shortage that was caused by:

  • “An aging corps of pilots.”
  • “A decline in the number of new students.”
  • “A lack of growth in the airlines’ customary supply of aviators from the military.”

Compare that to a 2012 article in USA Today that describes a pilot shortage that will be caused by:

  • “A wave of pilot retirements at U.S. airlines.”
  • “Tougher qualification standards for new pilots.”
  • “The pool of military-trained pilots that airlines have relied upon in the past has largely dried up.”

Well have I got a news story for you!  Pilots always get older, students never want to pay for anything, and World War II ended a long time ago.

For the sake of presenting pertinent facts about this topic, I’ve gathered up several small piles of numbers.  The first, graphed above, is the number of pilots estimated to have active certificates in the United States for the past 12 years.  This information comes from the U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics compiled by the FAA.  Below are my observations:

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General Aviation in China

Have you heard that the Chinese market for pilots who want to fly privately (as in general aviation) is growing?  Well, this particular market is not one in which China will outgrow its competitors any time soon.  The reason this growth is occurring now is that it was essentially illegal to fly privately in China until very recently.  According to Xinhua, pilots must apply for a flight approval from the Chinese Air Force before every flight.  As of January, this requirement was lifted for the first time in airspace above six cities and 32% of overall Chinese airspace, up to an altitude of only 1,000 meters.  This plan was announced in 2010, and it includes the opening of additional space in future years.

Another aspect of the boom in China is the export of general aviation aircraft manufacturing jobs from the United States to China.  In 2007, Cessna announced it would start manufacturing its new light aircraft in China.  This would have the advantage of making the aircraft more affordable both in China and the United States.  This became a trend during the 2008 recession and it now looks inevitable that all Cessna aircraft will be made in China some day.

Last week, a deal to sell Hawker Beechcraft to a Chinese investor fell through on concerns about an international conflict of interest, according to the Wall Street Journal.  This will force the company to follow through with bankruptcy proceedings and perhaps keep its operations in the United States.  Beechcraft may find itself in direct competition with Cessna’s lower price point and need to focus on a “Made in the USA” label or on military contracts to stay in business.  With the trend of moving business to China, American-made airplanes and American aerospace jobs could become scarce commodities.

Detroit Airspace Redesign

Diagram of the proposed Class B airspace configuration
Proposed Airspace Configuration

This is a heads up for anyone interested in commenting on the new Detroit airspace.  NPRM comments must be received by the FAA deadline next Monday, October 15.

I was able to get a sneak peek of the proposal back in March, so I’m already psyched up to start flying in a much larger and more complex terminal area.  Here are a few observations about the changes:

Over Ann Arbor, 3,400 ft will be the only usable level without a clearance.  On the bright side, the ambiguous sector where Class B at 3,000 ft overlaps Class D at 3,300 ft will be eliminated.

At Willow Run, it will no longer be possible to depart the Class D airspace VFR to the south without a clearance to do so.

The FAA makes an interesting remark about Eastern Michigan University training traffic.  According to the NPRM, “the FAA does not agree, therefore, that the proposed Class B airspace area would render the EMU training area south of ARB unusable or force a concentration of VFR training aircraft in EMU’s north training area.”

I think both EMU and the FAA have good points here.  The FAA suggests training may continue in the south practice area so long as a Class B clearance is obtained by each pilot operating above 4,000 ft.  This is true, however those clearances are issued on a workload-permitting basis, and Detroit is sometimes unable to take VFR requests even in the current configuration.  EMU may be correct that this would occasionally lead to congestion north of Ann Arbor.

There is also one statement I have to disagree with, where the FAA says, “the other half of EMU’s training area remains completely useable; either under a proposed Class B airspace shelf with a 6,000-foot MSL floor or outside the lateral boundary of the proposed Class B airspace area altogether.”  The only portion of the training area that is actually outside the proposed airspace is a tiny triangular corner, approximately 1.5 miles on each side.  I hope for a more precise consideration of this point if it gets mentioned in the final rule.

Next Post: New Detroit Airspace Effective April 2014


This week, the topic is Comair, and the so-called regional airlines.  These businesses are sometimes difficult to identify because their operations are owned or at least re-branded by major airlines.  Comair flew for Delta Air Lines from 1984 until 2012.  They used hundreds of “regional jet” aircraft, with the Delta logo, to take passengers on short haul flights.

Originally, Comair was just a tiny operation based in Cincinnati with three little airplanes.  It started in 1977.  The company went public in 1981, and was bought out by Delta in 2001.  Delta went bankrupt in 2005 until 2007, putting enormous pressure on costs.  It was at that point Delta was forced to begin dismantling Comair.  The basic reason was that Comair had a successful business model for the short haul market of the 1980s, but it failed to adapt to changing conditions over time.

This move to shut down Comair doesn’t mean the regional airline market is going away any time soon.  SkyWest, another regional airline, is still in business and currently hiring pilots.  Some of their recent hires are showcased by ATP Flight School.  According to Airline Pilot Central the starting pay is $22.

First Officer Epoch Next August

Rob visiting the captain's seat in a 747.
What are airline pilots really made of?

Pilot employment qualifications are changing.  For the potential first officer at a regional or major airline, this change will be huge.

Currently, the requirements for acting as a first officer or second in command (SIC) of an airliner are simple.  All it takes is a commercial pilot license.  The captain is required to have an airline pilot license, but not the first officer.  This is all laid out in the two paragraphs of the applicable regulation number 121.437.  A commercial pilot license can be obtained after meeting the minimum 250 hours of flight time experience.

Starting on August 1, 2013, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 will remove all commercial pilots from domestic, flag, and supplemental operations.  By itself, sec. 216(a)(2)(B)(i) of this Act would require “all flight crewmembers” to hold an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate, which in turn requires at least 1,500 hours of pilot time experience.  That’s six times the current requirement to become a first officer.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is wisely using the time before August to develop a regulation that does not require 1,500 hours.  Its latest proposal, dated February 29, 2012, allows graduates of a 4-year degree program to obtain the needed license by meeting the following requirements:

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Leveling Airline Taxes

Boeing 757 Interior
Taxes causing less demand?

The topic for discussion this week is competition between United States airlines and foreign airlines.  Where these businesses simultaneously operate international routes, they create a market for ticket sales, cargo revenue, and the increasingly popular fees for checked baggage, meals, and other amenities.  Or, if no U.S. airline is able to operate competitively on a given route, the market supply consists of foreign airlines only.

In June, the Air Line Pilots Association published a set of recommendations for strengthening the position of U.S. airlines among global rivals.  First on their list of ideas was reforming U.S. taxes imposed on airlines, or in other words, making the U.S. more like “countries with low or nonexistent tax and regulatory burdens.”

U.S. airlines currently charge a variety of federal air fare taxes directly to passengers.  For example, seven of these taxes were described in a recent government report about airline fees.  For further reading, see GAO-10-785.  It is interesting to note that some of these taxes “are collected by U.S. and foreign airlines.”

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FAA Airplane Categories

Aircraft categories, with respect to the certification of aircraft, are defined as “a grouping of aircraft based upon intended use or operating limitations.”  This is a topic in need of disentanglement.  I will focus on airplane categories to establish a concise point-of-reference.

Before today, searching for this information could be very frustrating because, officially, it falls under the heading of “Airworthiness certificates: classification,” better known as 14 CFR § 21.175.  This is the only place I could find all eleven categories mentioned.

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