Major airlines and regional carriers in 2019 were promoting career pathway programs as a hedge against the yawning gap between pilot supply and demand that was expected in the coming decades. Since then, travel demand has cratered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, aircraft are grounded and there are more pilots than needed.
The aviation industry still predicts a gradual return to its previous levels of flight activity and career opportunity; after all, it returned to health after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the global recession of 2008/2009.
“The good news is that next year the industry will see a large number of mandatory age retirements that are going to come into effect. The excess pilots should be absorbed by that group,” CAE Civil Aviation Group president Nick Leontidis says.
“Looking at airplane deliveries, looking at the growth back to more normal levels [of operation] for the existing fleet, we’re actually saying that next year there will be a small shortage [of pilots].”
On Nov. 9, CAE released a third edition of its pilot demand forecast that estimates the need for about 27,000 new airline and business jet pilots beginning in late 2021, and 264,000 new pilots over the next decade. The training services provider and simulator manufacturer projects that pilot demand will return to 2019 levels in 2022.
While acknowledging the significant decrease in pilot need this year, CAE attests that age-based retirements, attrition and fleet growth of 11,000 additional business and commercial aircraft over the next decade will restore long-term pilot demand.
However, when the industry does return to a normal level of flight activity, and ultimately resumes its growth trend, it will not have been without considerable pain. Tens of thousands of airline pilots have been laid off, furloughed or seen negotiated pay cuts and reduced duty times. Some cadets have seen their training at flight schools stopped in midstream.
In Europe, the coronavirus pandemic has already led to a huge upheaval for airlines, with major workforce reduction plans underway as carriers seek to cut costs to downsize and ride out the storm. France, Germany, Belgium and Greece were among countries that implemented a second round of lockdowns to try to stop the virus’ spread.
US commercial airline pilots have fared somewhat better than other frontline work groups in avoiding involuntary furloughs following the Sept. 30 expiration of the congressional Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Payroll Support Program, which funded airline labor costs between April and October.
A handful of large carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines, reached short-term agreements to avoid furloughs with their respective pilots, largely based around shared schedule reductions and early retirements.
Among the US legacy carriers, early outs were taken by 821 American Airlines pilots and by 500-600 Delta pilots, 640 Southwest pilots and 450 United pilots. Among domestic airlines and LCCs, early outs were taken by 500-600 Alaska Airlines pilots, 72 JetBlue pilots and 640 Southwest pilots.
Still, not all US carriers were able to avoid pilot furloughs. American furloughed 1,600 pilots on Oct. 1, while Hawaiian Airlines and Allegiant Air each released around 100 pilots.
On the pilot training side, Germany’s Lufthansa put all ab-initio pilot training on hold early in the crisis, assuming that it would not need junior pilots for some time. Then, in September the airline told the 700 cadets currently in school that it would be better for them to look out for another career and terminate training forever.
Lufthansa was willing to let about 150 cadets finish their training in-house nonetheless. Those had completed both theory in Bremen, Germany, and practice in Phoenix, Arizona, with only the jet training component left, typically spanning four to six months. The other cadets can continue, too, but they will be outsourced to other flight schools.
In the US, university flight-training programs are a consistent source of newly trained pilots to airlines, often via pathway programs that give graduating students a direct line to a regional carrier. While the pandemic has reduced the near-term need for new commercial pilots, schools remain focused on long-term trends.
“We are not anticipating a significant reduction of interest in our professional pilot program. The number of applications we are receiving for next academic year remain strong at this time,” Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University dean of aviation Alan Stolzer said. “I think people understand the current situation.”
Embry-Riddle has nearly 2,000 students enrolled in flight training programs at its Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona, campuses. During the 2019/2020 academic year, nearly 300 of them graduated. Stolzer believes that while the pilot job market is challenging today, the surge in retirements of experienced pilots could exacerbate a shortage once demand returns to pre-pandemic levels.
“There is no doubt there is a temporary oversupply of personnel across the industry, but once normal activity levels are restored, that will evaporate pretty quickly,” he said. “The demand for highly qualified aviation professionals will still be there once the health and economic crises are over.”