Have you ever dreamed of flying a $350 million plane through beautiful open skies? Well, throw on your captain’s hat, because the airline industry is looking for pilots…a lot of them.
On July 22, Boeing (BA) released its pilot and technician outlook, which makes predictions for the long-term aviation market. As global economies expand, the aircraft manufacturer says the industry will need to hire 617,000 commercial airline pilots worldwide by 2035. That comes out to about 30,850 new pilots every year. In addition, the report projected that the industry would also need 679,000 additional maintenance technicians and 814,000 cabin crew to keep up with demand.
This projection came just weeks after Boeing released its commercial market outlook which predicted a worldwide demand for 39,620 new airplanes valued at $5.9 trillion over the next 20 years.
“The growing middle class in emerging economies like India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia means that people are spending more money on travel and tourism,” says Sherry Carbary, Boeing Flight Services vice president. “So there is more demand for airplanes and for people to fly them around the world.”
Over the next 20 years, it’s expected that North America will need to add 112,000 new pilots, Europe will need 104,000, and the Middle East will need 58,000. The Asia Pacific region will likely lead the world in demand for pilots, requiring nearly 248,000 new pilots.
“About 40% of our commercial airplanes are forecasted to go to Asia,” Carbary says.
For Capt. Paul Ryder, a pilot and resource coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), says growth in the airline sector is a good thing. Still, he clarifies that he doesn’t see a shortage in the number of licensed pilots — the issue is with applicants. “We’re seeing an applicant shortage in regional and fee for departure carriers,” he told Yahoo Finance. “We’re seeing this because they simply don’t offer competitive compensation packages, good working conditions, or a stable career pathway to attract people.”
Regional carriers, like SkyWest and Express Jet, operate small planes and fly on shorter commuter routes. Airlines like these are typically where commercial pilots begin their careers, and according to the ALPA, the current average starting salary for a regional pilot is $27,350. Some airlines start pilots even lower at just $23,000 a year. Once a pilot moves up in the ranks and joins a mainline carrier like United, Delta or American Airlines, ALPA says the starting salary jumps up to $61,000. An experienced airline captain flying a large aircraft can make as much as $250,000 a year.
Considering that a young pilot in training might spend around $150,000 to attend flight school and obtain their license to fly, starting at a regional airline hardly seems worth it.
Instead, Ryder sees plenty of pilots with proper certification sign up to fly for private carriers. “What we’re seeing is that people who can work for commercial carriers pursuing other pilot opportunities, like flying private with a company like NetJets. You have to be competitive in this marketplace,” he said.
While the salary needle isn’t really moving, airlines are now focusing more of their efforts on recruitment. In March, JetBlue (JBLU) announced their Gateway Select program that is designed to train new pilots. The 15-month program costs $125,000, which can be paid in installments, and guarantees a job at JetBlue once completed.
In June, Envoy Airlines, a subsidiary of American Airlines (AAL), announced it would offer new hire pilots a $15,000 bonus when they joined the company. The regional airline also offers its pilots a guaranteed path to American Airlines without having to interview again.
The FAA mandates that pilots retire at 65; the average pilot in the US was 50 in 2014. So in addition to the global projections made by Boeing, the aging baby boomer generation increases the need for new pilots. Even with the new perks at some regional carriers, Ryder says more permanent change needs to be made to ensure a steady supply of pilots in the future.
“Pilots need reasonable and fair compensation, a work/life balance, and a stable career path,” he says. “Until we see some of these root issues addressed, there will probably remain an applicant shortage.”
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