Why the World is Running out of Pilots

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In the 1960s, the job of a pilot was seen as equal to that of a doctor. Pilots were treated like celebrities and paid almost as high. But that has since changed.

According to Boeing, the world will need 790,000 pilots by 2037. However, a decreasing level of interest has made airlines nervous about the future. Furthermore, the salary of an entry-level pilot in the U.S. is barely more than that of a fast food worker.

High Training Expenses

Most airlines look to hire pilots with a college degree. A four-year tuition for college averages around $133,000. To begin, an aspiring commercial pilot must obtain a private pilot license. This requires 35 hours of flight time and costs about $8000. The next step is to get an instrument rating, which costs $900. For a commercial license, a pilot needs additional flying time, costing $23,000. In total, flight training costs total to $80,000. However, a pilot still cannot be hired by an airline.

The Colgan Air 3407 crash in 2009 resulted in a 2013 law requiring first officers to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time. Before, a pilot would need only 250 hours to qualify for an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. After receiving their commercial license, many pilots fly skydiving planes, for airlines that fly single-engine aircraft, or serving as flight instructors.

After spending more than $200,000 for total flight training, a pilot can finally start working for an airline, earning a meager $30,000 per year. Many pilots find themselves in a tough financial position.

The Difficulties of a Regional Pilot

Pilots are limited to 17 flight hours per week (900 per year). However, these hours are strictly limited to flight hours. Time such as getting to the airport, pre-flight planning, taxiing, post-flight paperwork, or getting home/to a hotel are not counted in these hours. As a result, regional pilots perform more flights during a week than a long haul pilot. For example, a crew could fly from Boston to Pittsburgh and back, then to Raleigh, stay the night, fly to Buffalo the next day and back, then Fort Lauderdale, and so on until they have met the 17-hour limit. On the contrary, a long haul crew would fly from New York to Amsterdam on Monday, take a full 48 hour break, then fly back to New York on Thursday.

Younger pilots also do not choose their flight schedules. Since airlines are all about seniority, older pilots have priority when bidding for routes and times. Young pilots see tough schedules, such as having to fly red-eye flights.

The Worldwide Shortage

This problem doesn’t only exist in the U.S. In the past couple of years, Emirates, one of the two major carriers for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has seen route cancellations due to a pilot shortage. Pilots have also accused the airlines of overworking them. However, the Emirates has denied having a pilot shortage.

Asia also faces problems as well. China, a country with a fast-growing airline industry, will need around 120,000 new pilots within the next two decades.

Both Asia and the Middle East depend on expats, or foreign, pilots. In order to attract interest, these airlines pay significantly higher than U.S. airlines do. On average, a starting salary in China is around $312,000. Older, experienced pilots can make up to $500,000. It’s no wonder why 10% of pilots in China are foreign.

With higher pay overseas, the U.S. now faces a challenge. If something isn’t done, the problem will only get worse.

Potential Solutions

There have been many proposed solutions, each with their own challenges. One such proposition is to automate the cockpit, requiring fewer pilots present. However, this solution faced heavy criticism. Many argue that cockpits are already automated and pilots are present to troubleshoot. Furthermore, having one pilot in the cockpit is potentially dangerous, as shown in the crash of GermanWings 9525.  

Another solution is to lower the costs of training. Many aspiring pilots cannot finish their training due to financial difficulty. If they do finish, the pay of a regional pilot still leaves them with a lot of debt. In addition, people are not willing to spend all the effort to get through the tough beginning years. The risk simply outweighs the reward. If conditions were better for young pilots, then airlines would potentially win back the public interest.

About the author

Julian Yang is a boarding student from North Chelmsford, MA, and a member of the VI form at St. Mark’s. He has a strong interest in aviation and general technology. Julian is a flight sim enthusiast, self-proclaimed foodie, and an iPhone photographer. He hopes to share his interests in aviation, technology, sports, and global issues with the Parkman Post. Julian plans to be an economics major in college.

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