KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The United States is facing its worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to make drastic cuts as more travelers return from the pandemic.
Chances are, fliers who have traveled recently on the airways have experienced or witnessed flight delays and cancellations.
Industry experts says this is because thousands of pilots were furloughed or retired early when the demand for air travel plummeted during the pandemic.
The industry also stopped hiring and training new pilots around the same time. Many of those who were given early retirement packages are now too old to return.
“In the airlines, there’s a mandatory retirement age of 65, and a lot of pilots are reaching that age and they are basically going to be forced to retire,” Ali Shabbir, a certified flight instructor at ATD Flight Systems, said. “Now what happens when those pilots leave — we need pilots to replace them.”
Almost 6,000 pilots a year are already hitting that retirement age and by 2029, not a single baby boomer will be able to legally fly a plane.
“The allure of airline travel has kind of gone down in the last 15-20 years,” Shabbir said. “IT has grown a lot, a lot of startups, and those have been more appealing to perhaps younger generations than traditional jobs, if you will, that have been around for years and years.”
Shabbir says the process to fill the labor gap has been difficult for two reasons.
First, flight training is very expensive. A newly-enrolled student can expect to pay between $60,000 to $150,000.
Second, the requirements for a license takes a long time. A student pilot must have 1,500 hours of flight time in the U.S. before they are even eligible for what is called an airline transport — a pilot certificate.
“For right now, all we can do it focus on getting more people trained, decreasing the burden and looking at perhaps the retirement age,” Shabbir said. “If we focus on making it affordable to get in, we don’t have to sacrifice the quality or the safety.”
More aviation schools are creating accelerated programs and offering incentives like scholarships or tuition reimbursement.
Shabbir says ATD is also using social media and word of mouth tactics to recruit more students.
But a silver lining of the pandemic-induced labor shortage may be people like Robbie Caldwell, who is seeking a career change.
“I wasn’t really happy in the business world, but I’ve always wanted to fly my entire life,” Caldwell said.
He enrolled during the onset of COVID-19 after he saw a bottleneck effect happening in the industry.
“[I] Looked at the different career paths and opportunities, especially with the airline industry right now and kind of the need for pilots, and I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” Caldwell said. “It’s definitely a leap of faith, you know, coming from a business background. And going into an industry that is in the beginning not always lucrative, you really gotta work those few years in flight training.”
Airlines in the U.S. are trying to hire 12,000 pilots this year alone.
Industry experts and lawmakers searching for viable solutions such as financial aid, incentives and raising the mandatory retirement age to 67.