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The global pilot shortage is getting worse

Aarthi Swaminathan
Finance Writer
Ethiopian Airlines’ first female captain Amsale Gualu prepares the plane for takeoff at Bole international airport in the capital Addis Ababa. (REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri)

The world needs more pilots.

According to Boeing’s (BA) latest Pilot and Technician Outlook released this week, there is a need for 790,000 pilots over the next two decades to keep up with the demand from commercial airlines. The estimation is up from 637,000 in 2017.

The world’s largest airline manufacturer revealed how the doubling of the global commercial airplane fleet, record-high air travel demand, and a tight labor market are all contributing to a massive shortage of pilots in the near-term.

Demand for pilots surges

The biggest demand will come from the Asia-Pacific region — which is looking to add 261,000 more pilots — followed by North America, which is looking for 206,000 pilots over the next the next 20 years.

Screenshot from Boeing’s website.

The number of airline passengers is expected to triple over the next 20 years, according to a study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) last year.

China is the fastest growing market; the U.S. is the second. IATA forecasts that the North American region will grow by 2.3% annually and in 2036 will carry a total of 1.2 billion passengers, an additional 452 million passengers per year.

IATA forecasts that demand for air travel will grow exponentially over the next 20 years.

Pilot poaching

Smaller U.S. regional operators are already feeling the heat as they get bumped because of the lack of manpower.

In Yuma, Arizona, a small region with a population of 200,000, airline departures have dropped by more than 50%, with most flights now going out of Phoenix.

At Willard Airport in Illinois, United is canceling flights barely a year after adding 3 daily outgoing flights between Willard and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

And the shortage has gotten so bad that down under, one carrier has blamed Qantas and Virgin Australia of poaching pilots.

In a letter written by Australian airline Regional Express’ chief operating officer Neville Howell on July 13, Virgin Australia and Qantas were accused of collectively recruiting 56% of Rex’s captains over the last two years, and 17% of its first officers over the same period. 

“These two airlines are causing widespread chaos and disruptions to regional air travel by their selfish and irresponsible actions,” Howell wrote.

Higher wages, more women

The increased demand and competition has caused airlines to ramp up wages to recruit employees.

“We’re definitely seeing an impact of the salaries on new pilots — fresh pilots who are just graduating,” Elizabeth Tennyson, vice president of aviation program operations for Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), told Yahoo Finance.

“They’re getting a lot more signing bonuses.”

For existing employees, there is talk of extending the mandatory retirement age set by Congress in 2009. In the 2016 version of the Boeing report, 42% of pilots flying for major airlines were found to reach their retirement age in the next decade.

Dalia Yashar, one of the first Saudi students who registered to become a commercial pilot, stands in front of the registration centre, CAE Oxford ATC, where Saudi women can pursue their carrier as a commercial pilots, at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2018. Picture taken July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

The shortage could also offer an opportunity for more women to enter the traditionally male-dominated industry.

“We’ve long had a very low number of women in aviation — as long as we’ve been able to measure and track.” Tennyson said. “In the past, women were maybe not steered towards aviation as a career,”

Only 7% of pilots are female, according to Women in Aviation. Out of that number, only 6.38% are commercial pilots.

However, several countries are now making a focused effort on training women to become pilots. For example, last year, Ethiopia ran a flight from Addis Ababa to Lagos, Nigeria that was entirely operated by women. And more recently, Saudi Arabia recently launched a set of sweeping reforms that have opened up flight schools to women.

Image from Statistia.

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