Waking up to the pilot shortage issue... the problem is now

28 August, 2017

For years there has been much talk about the looming shortage of pilots, but it is becoming clear that unless some immediate action is taken to develop a pipeline of trained air crews the industry will not be able to achieve the growth rates being predicted for the next 20 years.

Apart from some pockets of serious shortage - and the number of aircraft grounded due to unavailability of pilots is growing - the issue may have been contained, for now, but recruiting or training pilots is becoming "fundamental" for any airline seeking to expand.

Air travel continues to show its resilience to external shocks and continues to grow inexorably. The sector has grown around 60% over the last ten years and doubled in size since the start of the decade. Passenger traffic grew 6.3% in 2016, continuing a trend of growth above the long term average of 5.5%. While an expected rise in the cost of jet fuel could slightly dampen growth rates in the coming years, there is a general belief that they will not reach the heights seen in 2008 and between 2011 and 2012.

The industry is showing its resilience to slow economic growth by substantially outperforming global GDP, demonstrating the importance of the industry and global connectivity and this will drive further growth across the next two decades. Airbus predicts global annual air traffic growth of 4.4% over the next 20 years, including a 4.9% annual rate across the first decade and 4.1% across the second. Boeing is more positive with an outlook for 4.7% growth rate between now and 2036.

But challenges are mounting as skilled human resources promise to become a serious constraint on growth.

The new aircraft requirement numbers are phenomenal. Airbus projects demand for 34,170 additional 100 seat plus aircraft in the 20 year window, while Boeing puts that number at 40,110, including around 2,400 regional jets. A proportion of this total will be to replace the existing in-service fleet, but Airbus says around 21,230 and Boeing forecasts approximately 23,470 aircraft will be purely to support market growth. That is over 1,000 additional aircraft per year.

The big question is who will crew and maintain these aircraft and where are they going to fly? With pilot numbers already reaching saturation point it may be difficult to find the additional 500,000+ new pilots that will be required to fly the new equipment. The shortage of trained staff is not a new issue, but it is increasingly becoming a problem.

A doubling of the commercial fleet over the next 20 years implies a need for approximately 530,000 new pilots and 550,000 new maintenance engineers. CAE, a global leader in training for the civil aviation, defence and security, and healthcare markets has released a global pilot demand study to highlight the industry's needs over the next ten years.

This analysis identifies a global requirement for 255,000 new airline pilots over the next 10 years to sustain and grow the commercial air transport industry. Rapid fleet expansion and high pilot retirement rates create a further need to develop 180,000 first officers into new airline captains, more than in any previous decade.

These numbers realistically mean that over 50% of the pilots who will fly the world's commercial aircraft in 10 years have not yet even started to train. CAE says this record demand will challenge current pilot recruitment channels and development programs and in turn, new and innovative pilot career pathways and training systems will be required to meet the industry's crewing needs and ever-evolving safety standards.

CAE forecasts the industry will need 255,000 new airline pilots over the next 10 years, for a total of 440,000 active pilots by 2027 - 60% for fleet growth and 40% to offset retirement and attrition. In addition, 180,000 first officers will need to be promoted to captain, over half of which will be to replace retiring captains. Effectively, airlines and their training partners will need to produce an average of 70 new type-rated pilots per day globally to match the record high aircraft delivery rate and account for pilot attrition.

This article was adapted from a feature that appears in the new issue of Airline Leader - the strategy journal for airline CEOs. Visit Airline Leader to find out more.