Pilot Shortage Update

Graph showing pilot and other airmen statistics past and projected.
Airmen Employment Statistics
Graph of active pilot numbers from 1999 through 2013.
Active Pilots in the U.S. the past 15 years.

The release of December 2013 airmen statistics indicated another increase in the number of airline-qualified pilots in the United States.  Labor statistics also showed an increase in pilot employment last year.  As a country, we do not seem to be running out of pilots by any numerical measure.

A deeper analysis is always more interesting, of course.  Despite the new hiring for airline pilots, the long term employment projection changed from positive to negative.  The reasoning offered with the projection is very similar to my own comments posted earlier this year: Airlines will increase the capacity and efficiency of their fleets to improve profitability.  Taken a step further, this could result in fewer flights in the future.  This seems to be a pessimistic view, and I do not agree with the idea that airlines would try to effect a long-term reduction of flights.  Overall flight reduction is also contrary to the FAA projection of more aircraft operating each year through 2034.

Trends in pilot certification remain mostly unchanged, with the exception of accelerated divergence between ATP and commercial-level pilots, likely due to the regulatory changes requiring existing pilots to upgrade.  That regulatory effect will stabilize after 2014, but will remain divergent due to the permanence of upgrades.  The overall lack of trend changes between 2011 and 2013 is significant because the FAA continues to project trend reversals for private pilot and commercial pilot numbers.  This casts further doubt on the new projections for private and commercial pilot certification to increase.  Our general aviation sector has been losing around 8,000 private pilots and 2,000 commercial pilots per year since 2003.  Given that momentum, the GA numbers could easily fall another 10% to 20% or more before reversing.

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R-ATP Regulation to Reality

The newly-promulgated FAR 61.160 went into effect last week.  Already, I am seeing positive changes in the aviation industry.  Hiring is on a rapid up-swing, and rumors are starting to circulate about a liberal interpretation of the new first officer qualifications and certification rules.

While discussing the potential for a pilot shortage last year, I didn’t yet mention the combined effects of existing trends and the looming 1,500-hour minimum experience level for new first officers.  What was happening at the time, and slowly becoming problematic, was that the regional airlines were increasing their own hiring qualifications.  Those hiring policies were becoming restrictive faster than the country was producing ATP-qualified pilots.  Remember, before the Airline Safety Act of 2010 there was no requirement for regional airlines to hire ATP certified first officers.  But the Act required by August 1, 2013 that “all flight crewmembers have obtained an airline transport pilot certificate.”  The Act also required the FAA to issue its Final Rule on this by an August 1, 2012 deadline, which it failed to do.  This left airlines in the awkward position of hiring only those pilots who could obtain an ATP before the 2013 deadline.  Hiring slowed to near zero because there was a shortage of entry-level pilots who could accumulate 1,500 hours of flight experience.

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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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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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