While aircraft manufacturers are enjoying increased sales, the number of pilots in the U.S. to fly those new planes has not kept pace. In fact, the numbers are downright scary: Boeing’s 2019 Pilot & Technician Outlook predicts that the world will require 804,000 new pilots over the next 20 years. The United States will need 212,000 of them, which is just shy of one third of the 633,317 total certified pilots reported by the Federal Aviation Administration last year—a number that also includes recreational fliers, students, and other nonprofessional pilots.
This problem didn’t exactly sneak up on anyone: The pool of U.S. pilots actually reached its peak in the late 1980s, after which the profession began to be less lucrative and glamorous with the rise of low-cost carriers. The issue was compounded in the years after 9/11, during which the airlines struggled financially and pilot wages stagnated. Learning to fly planes can cost upward of six figures, so many were turned off by the number of years they would have to work just to recoup their training. This has resulted in multiple generations of young people who have not pursued professional flying in large enough numbers to cover expanded demand, along with the positions left vacant by baby-boomer retirees.
Traditionally, pilots in the private aviation sector enjoyed similar or higher compensation than their airline counterparts, though the big commercial carriers offered more benefits and stability, including more predictable schedules. Now, with airlines facing a huge shortfall of pilots, they are offering salaries and signing bonuses that are siphoning away private pilots—creating another vacuum.
“We’ve seen a lot of flight schools struggling,” says Tom Haines, a representative for the nonprofit aviation advocacy group Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “They’ve got a big influx of students who see the opportunity in aviation. Meanwhile, the flight instructors are all being sucked up the charter companies, corporate flying, and regional airlines because of the experience levels they have.” Pilots seeking higher wages have also left the United States for jobs in places like China and the Middle East. It’s all a big shell game, and the most devasting effects will be borne by those at the bottom of the ladder—forcing the cancelation of flights that serve remote communities on islands or in places like Alaska that depend on aircraft for transportation and supplies.
If it sounds like the problem is only going to get worse, you’re likely correct. The most significant piece of federal legislation aimed at addressing the crisis up to this point was a bill signed into law in 2007 that raised the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65—a stopgap measure at best. There have been calls to lower the 1,500-hour minimum of training time to fly as an airline copilot—Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao floated the idea last year but has since backtracked—but that plan just moves people through the pipeline more quickly rather than attracting more young people to the field. For its part, the AOPA offers a scholarship program that awards $10,000 for flight training to 80 exceptional young people and operates programs aimed at introducing aviation to high school students. Even some of the big flight service brands have stepped up to help alleviate the problem. Stratos Jets announced its own scholarship program earlier this year, joining private jet operator Clay Lacy, the National Business Aviation Association, and others in investing in future pilots.
Given that programs like these won’t start paying dividends for years as the new batch of pilots put in their training, salaries for existing aviators will continue to go up in the near term. Private jet owners are going to need to offer comparable salaries, benefits, and perks to attract and retain the quality of pilot they are used to. When it comes to flight service brokers and providers, it’s likely that customers will see the cost increase reflected in their rates—which puts a bit of a damper on the recent explosion of jet ridesharing programs and all-you-can-eat membership plans that strove to make private aviation more accessible. The pool of pilots will begin to skew toward younger pilots with less experience, so it may behoove you to stick with the big established brands that can attract the best talent—players like NetJets, Flexjet, PrivateFly, and the Vista Global portfolio. As always, the general rule of thumb is if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is—and the shortage will only make things worse. Customers of JetSmarter found this out the hard way, as the fly-for-free membership program they signed up for suddenly required them to start paying for seats that were supposed to be free, among other questionable practices. (The JetSmarter platform has since been purchased by Vista Global.)
If nothing else, the situation is a good reminder of the importance of treating the pilots you work with well. While they may be able to make more elsewhere, one of the big perks that keeps pilots in private aviation is the close relationships they get to form with their coworkers and passengers. The best part? It’s free.