So You Want to Be a Professional Pilot


Emerging from the depths of the Great Recession, the aviation industry has rebounded in a most unexpected way. Aircraft sales have improved, aircraft manufacturing has shown sparks of life similar to a prerecession environment, and many of those airports out there seem to be a bit busier than they were just a few short years ago. There is only one thing missing…pilots.

Despite all the positive trends in the aviation industry, who would have ever thought pilots would be the limiting factor. In fact, airplanes are grounded as I write this, for lack of sufficient numbers of pilots. Flight schools are experiencing difficulty retaining instructors. Commercial operations other than airlines are facing turnover rates that are eroding their experience base. Ultimately, airlines are beginning to feel the pain of a long- term shortage with serious revenue stream ramifications.

This is not the first time in history a particular industry has struggled with a workforce challenge. However, it is a bit unusual for this to happen during a relatively strong economic upturn, in an industry that has long since attracted a plethora of prospective employees. There are three elements contributing to this professional pilot perfect storm. (1) Hard retirement dates for Vietnam era pilots, (2) 2010 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) extension of mandatory retirement for airline pilots, (3) Shrinking pool of professional pilot candidates.

The Vietnam War generated significant numbers of pilots who easily transitioned into any number of commercial pilot jobs. This trend continued for almost two decades, providing the aviation industry with a limitless supply of highly trained pilots. Flash forward forty years, and those young dashing pilots are now approaching senior citizen status, and the end of their flying careers.

In 2010, the FAA extended the maximum retirement age for professional airline pilots. The extension added five years to the mandatory age of sixty. Many retirement eligible airline pilots elected to take advantage of this opportunity, delaying the inevitable, and preventing sufficient levels of new hiring.

During the decades following the Vietnam War and into the 21st century, technology reduced the number of pilots necessary to operate our military’s aircraft. Additionally, pay and benefits made full military careers more attractive over time, so fewer former military pilots are making themselves available to the commercial market. Add to this, a general lack of interest in entering a professional field that promises volatility, and lacks security.

Allow me to connect a few dots to drive this point home. Add forty years to 1975 and you get a sixty-five year old pilot in 2015. Add five years to 2010 and you get a sixty-five year old airline pilot in 2015. Throw in all the junior pilots that were always first on the furlough list whenever the industry needed to shed weight in order to sustain revenue. The math adds up to an industry that has relied on a high level of experience from external sources with no real long-term strategy to grow that experience from within. The gap left by retirements in a time of increasing need, further aggravated by high cost of training and low entry-level pay, is projected to generate an estimated 20,000 pilot shortage over the next seven years, in the US alone. Additional factors like population, migration, economic growth suggest worldwide shortages as high as 500,000 pilots over the next twenty years. Aircraft maintenance fields will experience even greater shortages. Might not be a bad time to reconsider that career choice!

Karl Baldessari, Program Director
Central Oregon Community College Aviation


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