Pilot shortage adds pressure
GOODYEAR, ARIZ. >> Until last summer, Ashley Montano had never flown. Now she was preparing to land a small plane with three passengers after a previous touch-and-go that had been rough.
“The plane is a bit heavy, so give it just a little more power to make a smooth landing,” flight instructor Jason Fink told her.
There was the tiniest of bounces as the plane’s nose came down, then a smooth touchdown and taxi in to end Montano’s training flight late last year at a United Airlines school in the Arizona desert.
On the ground, Montano was happy with her progress. “You guys were my first real passengers!” she gushed to a reporter and video journalist who had been in the rear seats.
Montano hopes that in a few years she will be flying airline jets and carrying many more passengers. If she does, she’ll be helping solve a critical problem facing the industry: not enough pilots.
Airlines have complained about a shortage for several years, but they made it worse during the pandemic by encouraging pilots to take early retirement when air travel collapsed in 2020. Helane Becker, an analyst for Cowen who has tracked the issue closely, estimates that 10,000 pilots have left the field since then.
Meanwhile, airlines have been in a hiring frenzy that is likely to continue for several years as the carriers replace pilots who reach the federal mandatory retirement age of 65.
The government estimates that there will be about 18,000 openings per year for airline and commercial pilots this decade, with many of those replacing retirees. However, the Federal Aviation Administration issued on average only half that number of pilot licenses from 2017 through 2021.
Private forecasts are dire, too. Consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that despite efforts to close the gap, airlines in North America will face a shortage of nearly 30,000 pilots by 2032. The supply of new pilots will grow, but not enough to offset a continuing wave of retirements, the consultant says.
There is cause for hope, however. Last year, the FAA issued 9,588 airline-transport licenses — the type needed to fly for an airline. That topped even the recent peak of 9,520 in 2016.
The key question is whether that pace can be maintained. Some of last year’s spurt might have been catch-up from low numbers in 2020 and 2021, which were held down by the pandemic.
“The airlines are doing their best to move things along, but it’s an uphill slog,” Becker said.
Southwest Airlines has more than 700 planes but parks 40 to 45 of them each day because it lacks pilots to fly them, said CEO Bob Jordan at a recent media event. That amounts to more than 200 flights a day or up to 8% of the Dallas-based airline’s flying. Southwest expects to hire 2,250 pilots this year after adding about 1,200 last year, mostly by drawing from smaller airlines.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says the lack of pilots will continue to prevent airlines from expanding as much as they would like to take advantage of strong travel demand.