Following terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001 and the recession, pilot jobs were scarce in the US. Giants like American Airlines went 13 years without hiring, according to David Tatum, who reportedly said: “There was little progression, so there was not a lot of motivation to fly.”
Hiring has increased however, in recent years, mostly due to the demand in travel. It does though, face the challenge of a wave of upcoming retirements. Airlines will need to replace thousands of current employees. In fact, Boeing estimates that airlines will need to recruit around 131,000 commercial pilots in North American alone. The global figure lies at around 514,000.
As airlines fight to rebuild the pipeline, they’re tackling the issue early, by increasing compensation, and educating students on a career in flying.
Ryan Phillips, co-chair of the aviation and transport department at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill, said: “Back when I was in school, you would leap at whoever offered you a job first,”
“Students definitely have way more options now.”
But how achievable is a career as a pilot when one of the most common issues is the cost it entails? There’s more than one way to become a pilot at a major airline, though all require a lot of commitment from the individual. Some people will undergo intense and expensive training at a flight school, or university program before rising through the ranks at a smaller carrier – a process which can take a number of years to achieve. Others choose to join the military.
What are airlines doing to tackle the shortage?
While American Airlines and United Airlines have suggested they aren’t having trouble filling job openings, the concern is the need to keep a constant flow of recruits entering the profession. Airlines say they’re hiring fewer pilots from the military, so are relying more on regional carriers to fill their ranks – but this could impact a shortage of pilots for regional airlines – an issue they wish to avoid.
Some regional airlines cut flights between 2011 and 2017 as the carriers had a shortage of pilots to fly all their routes, but members of the Regional Airlines Association are now having an easier time hiring, partly due to rising salaries for pilots, according to Faye Malarkey Black, association president and CEO.
Just four years ago, starting salaries at regional carriers were as low as $25,000 a year, according to Wendy Evans (via email), aviation program manager and recruiter at Parkland College’s Institute of Aviation in Champaign, Ill. When the challenge to hire new recruits increased, that made the career much harder to sell to aspiring pilots, who would be faced with expensive training and little certainty about career progression as a pilot.
Base salaries today, however, start around $45,000 to $55,000 annually, with some airlines offering extra signing bonuses, she said. The Regional Airlines Association says members’ typical entry-level compensation is much higher, at around $63,000 including pay and bonuses.
“We have seen a boost this year and we’re working hard to keep it going, but it’s the calm before the storm with all those coming retirements,” Black said.
Both United Airlines and American Airlines have introduced recruiting programs that could provide their regional airline partners with a pool of prospective pilots.
A new program, launched by United Airlines, will allow aspiring pilots to apply to join a pipeline to United at any stage of their career – even while they’re still in training at a flight school or university.
United has already has career pathway programs with some regional airlines, however the new initiative is more structured with the idea it provides pilots a better understanding of how to progress in their career at United, with more coaching and mentoring.
“For prospective airline pilots, it’s a huge financial commitment and a time commitment, and you’re kind of on your own… “ said Mike Hamilton, a United pilot who was involved in the program’s development.
“What we’re trying to do is fill the gap between initial flight training and the goal of getting to a major airline,”
United expects to hire over 10,000 pilots over the next decade, with numbers reaching around 650 this year. Nearly half of United’s 12,500 pilots are expected to retire over the next ten years.
American Airlines chose to focus on aspiring pilots with little or no flight experience with its Cadet Academy program, which launch in April 2018. Applicants who successfully complete flight school training via the program are guaranteed an interview at three regional airlines owned by American, including Envoy, PSA Airlines and Piedmont Airlines. Students (provided they are hired) would also be able to transfer from the regional airlines to American when they have gained enough seniority.
American Airlines will hire 900 pilots this year, and expects to continue hiring similar numbers each year, as it tries to battle the greater retirements figures of around 8,000 pilots.
Costs for potential pilots
While entry-level salaries have no doubt increased, the cost of training pilot jobs require still remains a hurdle, said Black, at the Regional Airline Association. Flight school can cost up to $85,000. University programs are also more expensive, with tuition costs at around $25,000 a year for a four-year program, plus $75,000 to $80,000 for flight training. Graduates however, don’t need to complete as many hours of flying before earning the certificate that qualifies them for an entry-level airline job. They can also receive scholarship assistance.
Major airlines are trying to reduce the financial burden to avoid losing applicants who feel they can’t afford to pursue a career as a pilot.
Institutions & pilot training
At Lewis, Phillips said hiring and recruiting have improved. Lewis has 700 students in its aviation programs, its largest since 1931. This includes 275 flight majors, or prospective pilots, up to 235 from last year.
Parkland also offers associates’ degrees, and also suggests steady growth. The college had to turn away students over the past three semesters because it didn’t have the capacity to accommodate them. It has around 80 flight students and 20 more in its drone programs.
However, if airlines’ growing demand for pilots makes it easier for institutions to attract students, it’s making it harder to find people to train them.
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