On the Horizon: Pilots Are Hot Again

The decades following 2015 will go down as the biggest hiring boom in aviation history. Though the years following WW II are recognized as the most dramatic for airline growth, nothing comes close to the massive pilot shortage and hiring bonanza that we are experiencing worldwide today. As of this writing in late 2018, 3,306 pilots have been hired by the major air carriers, with 5,532 total pilots to be hired in all of 2018. Compare this to the 30 total pilots that were hired for all of 2009, or the 540 pilots hired in all of 1993. We are in an unprecedented time of bounty for prospective pilots, technicians, mechanics, and cabin crew.

To understand what is driving both the pilot shortage and the massive hiring projections for the next 25 years, a brief explanation is helpful. Aviation is nothing if not dynamic, and the forces that have shaped the professional pilot career are varied.

Boeing Corporation- currently the major supplier of airliners – publishes a yearly outlook projecting the need for pilots, mechanics, and crew based on the number of airliners ordered internationally. The projection is recognized as highly accurate and has been a driving force in the industry for nearly four decades. Boeing’s 2018 outlook projects a need for 790,000 pilots over the next 20 years across the globe. That projection dwarfs the 2015 projection of 560,000 pilots, which means the need is growing faster than even the industry recognizes. There are many factors driving that demand.


Photo By Marc Lee

First, airline pilots are forced to retire at age 65. This, after an increase from age 60 in 2009 to help curb the then-coming pilot shortage. However, all the increase did was move the shortage out a few years. At current levels, over 10,000 pilots will reach mandatory retirement over the next 8 years; about 42% of the total number of active airline pilots today.

The military, which was once the major supplier of airline pilots, has dwindled in pilots over the last decade. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS or “drones”) have overtaken many of the missions that manned aircraft would handle. In 2017, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said they were short 2,000 pilots- or about 10 percent- and were alarmed that the shortage will deepen further. The Air Force is worried enough that they have offered an unprecedented $100,000 – $400,000 retention bonus to pilots to extend their service commitment.

A huge and demarcating blow to pilots was the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Prior to 1978, airlines were heavily subsidized by the United States government, allowing airlines to offer premium service without financial concern. In those days airline pilots were Rock Stars; they were one step below astronauts in the public’s perception. It was not unheard of to see children with autograph books greeting international captains coming off their Pan American or TWA flights. The career was glamorous, allowed unlimited travel for the pilot and their family, and featured unheard of schedules; many pilots flying 5-7 days per month while earning a salary equivalent to about $300,000 a year today.

Deregulation put the airlines into a free-market economy without subsidies. The only way airlines could offer $79 airfares was to reduce pilot salaries and cram more seats onto existing aircraft. Deregulation also gave rise to the regional airline- a small carrier who contracts with a larger airline to carry passengers from smaller “spoke” airports to the major airliner’s “hub.” To survive, they hired pilots at meager wages. In 2005, a regional airline first officer earned about $24,000 per year at hiring.

Finally, as our society grew accustomed to jets and air travel, the career lost its luster. Much of the public began seeing pilots as glorified bus drivers and, in fact, in the 2000’s, the parking shuttle driver was likely to earn more than the regional airline pilot.

All of this led to a dramatic decline in student pilot starts; the true yardstick of the aviation industry. Today there are 30% fewer pilots than in 1980, with many prospective pilots turned off by the cost of training (typically about $100,000 to go from zero hours to first officer), and the 1500-hour minimum created by the congressional law passed in 2010 following the tragic Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York- a topic for another article.


However, the industry has made a dramatic turn-around. Leading the cause is the mouth-dropping growth of air travel in Asia. As the Asian economy has exploded, billions of people have begun travelling, creating huge demand on international carriers. The Boeing outlook predicts a need for 261,000 pilots in Asia alone over the next 20 years along with 257,000 mechanics. From a manufacturing perspective, the demand in airliners is so great that neither Airbus nor Boeing can build them fast enough. In 2017 alone, Boeing and Airbus delivered more than 1400 new aircraft, compared to 20-30 a year through the early 2000’s.

What this means for pilots is huge. First, new pilots are earning more than they have since deregulation. A new First Officer today might start at $60,000 – $70,000 per year, with signing bonuses. Today, an average American Airlines pilot earns a yearly salary of around $170,000. A senior captain for one of the large cargo carriers like UPS or FedEx could easily earn $300,000 yearly. Some international captains are reporting salaries of $400,000 per year. With demand driving salaries, the next 20-30 years looks like a feeding frenzy for professional pilots.

And the news is as good or better for mechanics, technicians, and flight attendants. The job market outlook for each of those is increasing exponentially. Worldwide, current figures project a need for nearly 800,000 technicians over the next 20 years.

As airlines continue to refine business models, additional demand for cabin crew will result from denser seat configurations and innovative cabin sectioning to increase revenue. Over the next 20 years, the largest projected growth in cabin crew demand is in Asia, with a need for 321,000 new flight attendants. Across the board, there will be 890,000 new openings for cabin crew.


Along with the pilot shortage come all kinds of new training programs across the industry to attract young, new pilots. Lufthansa – the renowned international air carrier based in Germany -has created a full-immersion program that takes top-notch high school students and, if accepted, grooms them into a first officer for the airline together with an employment commitment from the candidate. The idea is to identify promising youth and turn them into airline pilots from day one.

Just months ago freight carrier, UPS announced their new “FlightPath” training program. Traditionally, piloting freightliners has been the “golden ring” of aviation jobs; highly paid with flexible schedules and ample time off. The demand for pilots has been very low because those positions are highly sought after. Today, UPS – which employs about 2,800 pilots – is feeling the shortage and is projecting an urgent need for new pilots, thus the FlightPath program.

Through FlightPath, pilots first complete a year-long internship with UPS. If they meet all the requirements, they move into a 3-year flight training curriculum run by Ameriflight, a regional carrier in Texas. UPS is purchasing $10 million dollars’ worth of advanced training simulators and other equipment for their FlightPath program. When pilots complete the program, they are guaranteed an interview with UPS for a full-time pilot position.

JetBlue has created two innovative training paths; their “Gateway Select” and “University Gateway” programs. The Gateway Select program trains prospective airline pilots by offering early exposure to multi-crew/multi-engine operations, full motion simulator training, crew resource management, and threat and error management. Once meeting all program requirements, including the FAA’s 1,500 flight-hour requirement, pilots will become a new hire at JetBlue. Graduates then go through the same orientation and six-week instruction that all E190 first officers complete.

JetBlue’s University Gateway program is a college-based program that couples aeronautical university students (at AABI-accredited schools) with a flight internship and training through CapeAir and ExpressJet. Candidates undergo flight training and then serve as flight instructors for one year, followed by a three-year internship with CapeAir or ExpressJet. This leads to a pilot position with JetBlue- traditionally a difficult airline to get hired into. It’s just one of many industry-changing programs luring pilot candidates.

The Job-Finding Challenge

Finding a job as a pilot, technician, mechanic, or any other aviation-related position has traditionally been difficult because there is no easily-accessible centralized job source that contains even a small majority of openings. Different companies list their job openings on a wide variety of websites and publications. Some (like many major airlines) only list openings on their own company websites.

The usual Internet sources like Indeed.com or Monster.com list only a miniscule number of the available aviation job openings. To make it worse on already budget-squeezed candidates, several aviation-only job sites charge fees for access or require an expensive membership.

That’s where AeroSearcher.com comes in. It’s an entirely new way of finding aviation job openings that uses an intelligent engine to search a huge number of aviation job sources and combine them into a single resource. Job-searchers type their search criteria into the site and AeroSearcher delivers results from across many platforms, sites, and sources. It saves an enormous amount of time and gives users information right away. The best part is the service is completely free.

Whatever path a prospective pilot, technician or cabin crew member takes, the future looks laser-bright, with opportunities abounding in every corner of the industry. Whether you are attracted to law-enforcement flying, charter, cargo, military, or any of the other corners in aviation, there is not and has never been a better time to jump into the cockpit as a professional pilot, mechanic, or cabin crew. With AeroSearcher.com, the task is easier that it has ever been. The future is yours!

Marc C. Lee is a Commercial, seaplane and instrument-rated flight instructor specializing in tailwheel and vintage aircraft. He is an FAA Safety Team (FAAST) representative for the Southern California area as well as an adjunct professor of aviation at a Southern California college, and he holds an Advanced Ground Instructor rating. Marc is an aviation journalist, having spent 10 years as a contributing editor for Plane & Pilot Magazine, and has over 200 published articles in publications worldwide. He is a member of SAFE (Society of Aviation and Flight Educators), Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and Southern California Pilots Association (SCPA), and is a frequent Young Eagles pilot. Marc often presents aviation topics to the industry, and his Catalina Island instructional video is used by the Catalina Conservancy to train visiting pilots. Marc earned his Private Pilot certificate at age seventeen while working for famed movie pilot, Frank Tallman, at his “Movieland of the Air” facility. Currently Marc runs his own flight school and instructs full-time at busy John Wayne Airport and gives tailwheel training around the Southern California area. In 2017 Marc was honored to receive the “Distinguished Flight Instructor” award by AOPA. 
“Once you become a pilot – and I believe anybody can make that dream come true – you are forever changed. Adventure becomes your way of life.” – Marc C. Lee
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