All over the Internet and out in the marketplace, the aviation landscape is buzzing about a pilot shortage. Some companies say there is a shortage and some pilots report that they cannot get the time of day for a job interview. Part of the problem is the source of the reports on the so called pilot shortage. In a nutshell, I guess it really depends on who you ask.
The first place I would NOT ask, is the airlines or their human resources departments. In my opinion (yes mine) these individuals are out of touch with what is really going on in the industry. You cannot have a finger on the pulse of the industry unless you are at the airport. And those individuals are not, so keep that in mind. You can ask other pilots but you have to weigh your responses appropriately.
The best example I can give is the website Amazon. Let’s say you want to buy a product and you naturally look at the reviews that Amazon provides. Some reviews rave about how good the product is and how easy it was to order. Others give the product a complete opposite review relating how horrible they think it is. Why is that? Well some people that order something, actually know how to use it and some don't.
Some people are educated about certain things and some are not. The reviews give everyone the same level ground of an opinion, because of that, it does not always mean its right. The same goes for aviation facts.
In my opinion I do believe there is a pilot shortage but I also believe that there are some really good and qualified pilots that are left behind. Those are pilots who have gobs of time and experience but did not get hired for some reason. This could be either they were nervous and flubbed the interview or it could even be the synergy aspect of who was interviewing them.
Not everyone gets along or magically clicks, if that exists in the interview, it can mean that someone does not get hired. So to be fair, there is a need for pilots in the industry, it will be up to individual companies to get creative enough to find the ones they really want.
During my last training event, we got to hear from a management pilot that was talking about hiring trends from all the airlines and more importantly, attrition. Attrition is how many pilots are going to be retiring in the next set amount of years. Because of the flat hiring trends of the last 10 years due to the economy, pilots that are currently employed at the airlines are getting older. When they get to the now magic age of 65 they have to retire whether they want to or not. This creates the shortage that the industry is talking about. One source said several airlines will be losing 70% of their pilots in the next ten years. That is staggering but it does create some great opportunities for new pilots to come in and fill this pilot shortage.
So did we kill mandatory retirement?
During the pandemic we had a crisis going on in aviation management. The two biggest costs of an airline are employees and fuel. When demand falls, so does the amount of fuel the company uses, that is natural. But when demand falls and you still retain the same amount of employees, then that becomes a problem. So how do you solve that problem? You offer an Early Opt out program.
The best candidates for the early out?
The very best candidates for the early opt out are the ones that cost you the most regardless of retirement age. These would be your most senior employees because they cost the most money. If you can offer some sort of incentive package to senior customer service agents, ground crews, flight attendants and the pilot groups, the savings will really add up. This makes sense on paper.
So why would a senior pilot take an incentive?
The answer is not always absolute, but the reasons do vary. Some (not all) say they have had enough and this is their opportunity to go. A nice little incentive package makes the decision to leave easier. The senior pilots cost the most of any employee group, so this is a big win for a manager on paper.
It is a cycle
But like any good crisis, it will have a cycle. Just like the stock market, housing costs and health care, prices and availability go up and down. The real bonus is someone who recognizes that in the planning department. Senior pilots are veterans in the company, they command a higher paycheck because they also have more mileage. It takes quite a few years to develop a pilot from zero hours to the hiring minimum, but it takes longer to develop experience and wisdom.
So when they leave, chances are they are not coming back. Most of them are pretty tired of the aviation industry by now but you could have squeezed a few more years out of them. The crisis just made it clearer for them to eject, a tool that lowers their retirement age for an exit.
So who are the pilots that are best qualified to make this a goal that gets them a flying job AND some decent seniority in the next ten years? Will it be a guy starting out from scratch with no flying time and no experience?
In my opinion (there I go again, your mileage may vary) I don’t think so and here is why. If you are starting from scratch and have no ratings, it takes time to build up the hours that you will need to be eligible for one of the prime airline jobs. This time eats into the time frame when the bulk of the pilots are retiring. You don’t want to come in at the end of the hiring boom because you will build seniority slower as the airline staffs itself.
The golden group of pilots that will take full advantage of the pilot shortage are the ones that have already started their flight training and are perhaps halfway or three quarters done with that process. All those pilots have to do is find jobs to build hours needed to get the interviews they desire.
The good news is that just as airlines are going through a pilot shortage, so are the building block aviation companies such as flight schools, regional airlines, Part 135 carriers and the like. They all will be needing to replace pilots as they move up the food chain ( figure of speech) in the industry.
If you are not wanting to go to the airlines but still want a professional pilot position, then the journey to that goal is even shorter. This is a good time to be in that position. However it is worth saying that all things are symmetrical, for every upward trend in hiring there is a downward one, there are no guarantees in the aviation landscape.
In light of not being able to attract qualified and experienced pilots, you may see companies do some things that they have never done before. Airlines HAVE to have crews, not enough crews means they will have to cancel flights or forfeit growth. That effects the bottom line all the way to wall street.
This will be the time to get creative, you may see hiring incentives across the whole aviation community to attract pilots and get them to stay for specific amounts of time. Other avenues may be a bit more extreme.
Over the course of time, airline mergers have always been fairly normal as airlines clamor to get new routes or grow their fleet. But it has been suggested and discussed that perhaps acquiring another airline because of their pilot base is quite an attractive idea. Does it have merit? Maybe, maybe not, only time will really tell. But the airline business is very competitive for a very small margin of money. Hiring departments are going to be forced to acclimate to whatever measure it takes to make money and keep things running. Do not rule this out of your mindset but rather use it as fuel for making yourself more competitive.