The post-pandemic pilot shortage in the aviation industry

Information verified correct on March 25th, 2021

A major milestone for U.S air travel – the TSA screened more than 1.5 million passengers on Sunday, the most in more than a year though still short of pre-pandemic levels. While demand is snapping back, a new study highlights a different problem for the aviation industry – a pilot shortage. Consulting firm Oliver Wyman predicting there could be a shortfall of more than 30 thousand commercial pilots by 2025. It’s nearly 10% of the total workforce.

One of the authors of that study, Jeff Murray, a partner at Oliver Wyman and a former commercial airline pilot, said that COVID served as the catalyst for this shortage, and it has to do largely with early retirements.

One of the strategies that most of the U.S. and some of the international carriers adopted and immediately postcoded was to exit the pilot ranks. You don’t need as many pilots flying the line anymore, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through early retirements.


What’s interesting about that – relative to previous turndowns when pilots have just furloughed is once a pilot leaves the workforce and he retires, he doesn’t come back. At some airlines, we’ve seen as much as 15 or even 20% of the pilot workforce except in early retirement because it’s an incentive-based scheme that a lot of pilots accept.

So, when the recovery returns, it’s not like you can bring those guys back, you need to find new pilots, and that’s the challenge. They could come back, but it’s very unlikely that they would come back to the carrier they left because being a pilot is a seniority-based system, so you would start at the bottom of the list.

Most of those guys would likely go to other carriers or other airlines that are looking at more rapid growth so they could still be in the workforce, but the study has actually demonstrated that many of them, once they exit the workforce, historically do not come back.

There’s an opportunity reduction in the workforce, but North America and Asia are going to have the biggest crunch. In North America, it’s largely related to the early retirements and what we’re anticipating to be a rapid snapback and growth for domestic travel.

And in Asia, it’s largely driven by the growth of the middle class because more people in Asia are traveling, which is going to bring back that recovery. In fact, in China, it’s already back from a domestic perspective.

They’re going to start traveling, and that travel is going to drive more departures and aircraft hours have flown, and more pilots needed to fly them. Does this mean that it’s a good time to be a pilot? Right now, it doesn’t mean that it’s a boon for flight schools, but in a year or 18 months from now, it will because in the U.S., in particular, the regional airlines that feed the major airlines are going to be desperately looking for pilots.

So it’s going to be a fantastic time to be in the flight school business, and the university aviation business or individual who’s considering being a pilot is looking at a career projection that is unlike anything we’ve seen in decades.

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