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: