Guest Commentary: 'Pilot Shortage': For the Airline Industry, It's an Inside Job

By Michael Boyd, President, Boyd Group International

There’s no argument that there’s a constriction on the flow of candidates seeking entry to the airline piloting profession. This is what it really is—a constriction in new entrants to the profession, not a “shortage.”

Practically every airline has made note of it. Great Lakes Airlines recently shut down, ostensibly due to inability to crew airplanes. Republic filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, reporting that it couldn’t meet contracted flying for Delta and other carriers. In our work, major airlines have advised us that they’re hamstrung by lack of pilot resources and can’t fly as much as they want.

It’s easy to attribute the cause to the FAA’s implementation of the “1,500 hour” rule and other changes that have increased the experience levels necessary for prospective candidates to enter the profession.

But this is 180 degrees from accurate. The reasons for this situation have been bubbling for years, regardless of whether the minimum requirement is 100 hours or 100,000 hours.

Until now, most of the focus has been on airlines and how they’re struggling under these conditions. They can’t expand as much as they want. Some smaller communities aren’t getting the service levels that they otherwise could support. Okay, there’s money on the table, and lack of pilots keeps airlines from grabbing it. So whose responsibility is it?

Airlines may be “hamstrung” by lack of pilot candidates. But what about the challenges facing the individuals who want to make a career as an airline pilot? It’s here where the problem is, and it’s here where the solutions will be found. The reason there may be shortages is that many aspiring pilots don’t see the profession as competitive with other options.

So it’s time we focus on the issues facing individuals coming into this profession. One obvious factor is the cost for flight training and later building the experience to be able to apply for a position at an airline.

Up until the last 10 years or so, the airline industry has been riding the benefits of the Cold War (and a couple of hot ones) with flows of ex-military candidates. But that’s largely over, and now airlines need to rethink how to develop a career flow from the civilian world.

In some cases, this is being pursued but ineffectively. Hiring bonuses and incentive packages based on experience are now routine at most “regional” airlines. American Airlines’ subsidiaries are now claiming that a newly hired first officer will see $60,000 in his or her first year.

Today, the biggest barrier to entry to the airline piloting profession isn’t the cost of gaining the requisite hours and qualifications. It’s the sacrifice these individuals must make after they’re hired.

Take the $60,000 that Envoy Air, Piedmont, and others are promising...for the first year or maybe two. Then it’s back to the basic $40,000 plus benefits, only to grow slowly until the pilot gets to transition to the major carrier. It might be two years, or maybe five, but it’s way down the line.

Let’s look at competing careers. In the legal profession or the engineering profession, as well as others, graduates can earn immediate annual incomes close to or above $100,000 per year, plus benefits. It makes that one-year promise of $60,000 look like chump change. Plus, they don’t have to domicile where the airline or their seniority dictates. Oh, and another thing. They’re home with their families each night.

That’s the core reason we have insufficient numbers of pilots to fill airline needs. The airline industry’s problems are therefore mostly self-inflicted. Until that’s resolved, the airline industry will be at a severe disadvantage in attracting new pilots. It also won’t be able to make as much money, either.

Here’s a bit of unproven—but I believe accurate—heresy: if the industry immediately raised entry-level pilot compensation by 100 percent, it would likely be revenue-positive.

After all, the common refrain is that because of a lack of pilots, the industry can’t operate where it knows it can make money. Get more pilots on the property and that revenue is a slam dunk.

It’s a trade-off that benefits everybody—pilots, the airline, and the consumer.

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)