Well, folks, we’re well underway towards a severe pilot shortage. We’re expecting a pretty bumpy ride, so make sure to fasten those seatbelts.
Whether the recent delays and cancellations have impacted your travel plans yet or not, the pilot shortage has just made its arrival into your nearest airport. And it’s right on time for the busiest travel season since 2019.
According to the 2022 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, passengers are already noticing the lack of reliability – and they’re not happy about it. According to the study, “passenger satisfaction with cost, flight crews and aircraft all decline in this year’s study.”
Here’s what went all so wrong, and what we can do to fix it right now.
No good deed goes unpunished; a shortage of dollars and now of pilots
The pandemic was hard for all of us, but few suffered as much as the travel industry. At the height of the pandemic, airlines were individually losing 10-15 million per day. To put that into perspective, until 2015 most airlines were happy to make 10-15 million in profit per year.
With the tumultuous debates in Congress about payroll support funding and a certain uncertainty about the bills being passed, some airlines flung into panic. Labor costs, including training, accommodation, and logistics, typically account for 20% of airline expenses. And what’s one way to reduce labor costs?
By reducing labor!
To furlough, or not to furlough
While airlines with a smaller international footprint like Spirit were able to come to agreements with their respective unions to avoid furloughs, larger international ones like American, Delta, and United had more exposure.
Some did better than others. United, garnering a much more sympathetic relationship with their pilot group, came to an agreement to avoid furloughs very early on.
Delta, with its far more aggressive anti-union stance, told its pilots “to secure [another] job that will pay your bills for the next 12 to 24 months”. They reneged on some furlough-preventing provisions already agreed upon with the pilot union, as they did not want non-unionized workgroups to perceive any unfair benefits were being given to unionized pilots. This lead to many stressful and uncertain months of back-and-forth between the union and the company before the pilots ultimately agreed to pay-cuts to keep their jobs.
And American Airlines actually did furlough some pilots and flight attendants – far, far worse of a scenario than at Delta or United.
A better solution: early retirements
Most airlines proposed early retirement programs to alleviate labor costs. Some were successful, like Delta and its 1,800 early retirements. Others were not, like United with only 502.
For United however, this low number of 502 was enough to come to agreement with the pilots on a way to prevent furloughs. For American, it was not.
And for Delta – despite a record 1800 early retirements – plans still continued to furlough nearly 2,000 junior pilots, reduced only by 500 from an original number of 2,500. As you can imagine, this created enormous contention that is still felt through the ranks today.
This amounted to an additional 15% reduction in staffing after the already enormous number of early retirements. As a result Delta is still training pilots back to currency because of that now, 2 years later.
All three airlines planned to, and indeed successfully shrunk down during the pandemic.
It costs a lot of money to furlough, and almost furlough
Although airlines like Delta and United did not ultimately furlough, they were prepared to. Let’s take Delta as an example.
Despite the massive number of early retirements, Delta decided to nonetheless designate the 2,000 most junior pilots as “unassigned” to any aircraft. This strategically prepared the airline for furloughs of those 2,000 pilots.
As these most junior pilots normally fly the smaller domestic airplanes, they were the ones actually still flying during the pandemic. Senior pilots, on larger international airplanes, were staying at home watching their flights get cancelled. As a result, the company had to reassign those senior pilots to fill the domestic small airplane slots, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in additional training costs.
Snap to the recovery in 2021. As fliers began rejoicing about reclaiming their travel, airplanes began to fill up. Many airlines, such as American and Delta, were quite slow to start hiring again. In fact, they were stuck processing the training downwards of senior pilots into smaller airplanes from the pandemic!
The 2000 junior pilots, alongside thousands of more senior pilots that hadn’t been flying for a while, all needed retraining to regain currency. But during the pandemic, a huge number of training instructors had been furloughed or taken early retirement. This created a huge problem – how can you bring pilots back online if you can’t find them an instructor?
This cascading effect created massive training backlog and hurdles that were impossible to recover in any immediate fashion. There simply wasn’t enough training throughput available to hire new staff as it was already consumed entirely.
How one airline’s relationship with its pilots is paying dividends for the shortage
Obviously, you can’t blame these airlines for taking immediate action to stop the wound from bleeding. They did whatever they needed to ensure survival.
But you can look at how important management-personnel relations are, and how that has played a role that is currently proving itself hand over fist.
United Airlines was first in coming to agreement with their pilots to stave all furloughs, and this enabled the airline to keep them in position – and ready to pounce when demand came back. They did not have to shuffle their pilots around nearly as much as Delta did. This ultimately allowed United to start hiring pilots far earlier than both Delta and American. In fact, United had already announced its plans to hire pilots by April 2021.
Delta wasn’t able to start hiring until August that year – and American didn’t start until Fall. Both have been playing catchup ever since. And we’ve seen it in the unheard of numbers of delays and cancellations we’re all struggling with today.
Was it worth it in the end? That’s doubtful. It’s extremely likely that the mega training costs far exceeded any savings at both Delta and American – and ultimately lead to the tumultuous shortage we’re contending with today.
Why the pilot shortage should matter to you
Cancellations, delays, safety of flight, flight availability, the ways a pilot shortage affects aviation are serious.
For the first time in history, route network planners are having to reach out to crew resource planners, the people that manage which pilots are flying which airplanes, to ask them how much flying can be scheduled. In the past, this has always been the other way around. Normally, crew resource planners allocates pilots based on where networking says they need the flying covered.
Even so, trimming the flight schedule is against an airline’s best interest. They have the airplanes, they have the ground staffing and flight attendants, they have the gate space and maintenance taken care of. And the airlines have to pay for all of that whether or not the airplanes are in the air.
This means that trimming the schedule is an airline’s last choice. So even if they do, they’re going to do it to the smallest extent possible. Ultimately, this means that any hiccup in the operation – weather, ATC issues, maintenance delays – will have greater effect on the already strained operation.
What can I do to protect myself from the pilot shortage?
Well, for once, be as flexible as possible with your travel plans. Maybe book flights with the flexibility of taking a later or earlier one in that day, or keep an extra day as a buffer for the worst case scenario.
Book flexible tickets, and avoid the basic economy fares, even if they come with a free changes. The “changes” likely aren’t really free – you’ll have to shell out the price difference, which can be very high last minute. In the event of a cancellation, basic economy passengers are last in line to be placed onto the next available flight.
Avoid airlines that are recently facing greater operational issues – use FlightAware as a resource. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics is an even better tool – if you know how to use it. You can actually look at the realtime month-by-month statistics of airlines within the United States.
It’s a great place to check out on-time arrivals, cancellation rates, and more.
Lastly, be aware that picketing is not the same thing as going on strike. When pilots are picketing, they are sharing a very important message – on their days off from work. Picketing is always simply informational and has no bearing on the operation.
The future supply of pilots: is it enough?
So we know where we’re at today, but what future are we looking forward to?
According to the FAA, we see an average of about 5000-10000 new pilots a year. But with as many as 16,000 pilots retiring each year, there’s clearly a deficit. Indeed, Boeing’s Pilot & Technician Outlook projects that over 200,000 pilots are needed in North America from 2022-2040.
So what can we do to boost that number? Well, one way is to remove some of the obstacles and impediments that exist to become a pilot.
Whether these involve the super high training costs (as high as 100K out of pocket), uncertainty of a return on investment, or just simply representation, airlines are going to have to get creative.
Interesting in learning to fly? Here's The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Pilot
Pathways to major airline employment: a good first step
Most of these work by giving you an initial interview (or two) before you head to training. Afterwards, you have a clearly defined pathway to a job at a legacy airline, with certain requirements such as working for an affiliated regional career for a certain amount of time.
Though these are good, and many tie directly into the university system, alone they are not enough.
Representation and outreach matters
Partnering with organizations like the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and Women in Aviation, International is a great step towards better outreach and representation. After all, if you don’t know that a career is available to you, how are you supposed to be interested in it?
United’s Aviate program is even better. This is because United Aviate has actually opened up its own flight school, with an ambitious but tenable goal of 50% women and minority pilot students. Currently, the airline industry only sees about 5-6% of minority pilots and women. What better way is there to attract excellent and diverse talent than by having your own flight school?
And there’s no better way to garner loyalty and ensure a long career filled with mutual respect and fidelity than training and guiding your future employee from day one.
Ideally, airlines like Delta and American will open up flight schools of their own and maximize this push towards a more diverse, open, and welcoming career.
Pay and quality of life matter
With a clear deficit of nearly 10,000 pilots a year, the only possible short-term approach is to attract already established pilots from other airlines.
Most non-military airline pilots begin their airline careers at a “regional”/feeder airline, flying 76-seat jets. As we’ve already seen, pay has increased by as much as a factor of 5 for newbies at these airlines. And as soon as the larger airlines start feeling the pinch, they too will have to respond.
With pilots protesting fatiguing schedules making national headlines, attracting new talent to the profession is even more difficult. Why would you want to corner yourself into 40 years of fatigue and stress?
And the tough years pilots faced, and the actions the airlines took against them (whether necessary or not) certainly did not make this occupation any more attractive.
Plus with several major airlines abstaining from improving pilot pay and quality of life for years beyond the expiration of their Collective Bargaining Agreements, even now, what proof is there that things will change?
A good-faith effort by the airlines to improve pilot morale, quality of life, and pay is not only the best short-term solution to attracting experienced pilots from other airlines, it’s the best way to promote the airline industry as a viable career path to the next generation. United once again leads the pack here with an Agreement in Principle for a new contract between the union and management.
Let’s face it. Flight training is EXPENSIVE. Sure, there are scholarships and funding opportunities. But these can only move the needle so much.
Pilot pay is a great way to motivate people to take out loans, since they know that the return on investment is there. After all, why do so many people spend hundreds of thousands to go to university and medical school? But not everyone has easy access to loans. And most people aren’t aware that student loans can be used for flight training.
That’s where the airlines should step in. Whether it’s creating easy access to financing opportunities or actually providing the financing themselves, airlines have such a great opportunity to guarantee a steady stream of future pilots.
Hopefully some day in the not-too-distant-future, airlines will actually commit themselves to paying for some flight training. That could mean paying only for the later portions of training or even all of it, tightly-bound training contracts, and some risk for both the airline and the student. But it would free up so much existing potential talent to give flying a flying chance. And that might be our only hope.