For the past few years, securing a pipeline of new pilots has been a primary concern for airlines around the world. In a 2019 poll of flight operations leaders, 62 percent listed a shortage of qualified pilots as a key risk. The root cause of the coming shortage varies by region: in the United States and in the Pacific regions which includes Australia, it’s an aging workforce facing mandatory retirement. In China and other regions where a burgeoning middle class is demanding air travel, the struggle is to expand capacity fast enough.
The impact also depends on the class or carrier, with 83 percent of regional carriers finding it challenging to recruit talent compared with 22 percent of low-cost carriers. Despite these differences, there were few regions in the work that weren’t dealing with how to secure enough pilots to fuel future growth.
Nearly overnight, with the outbreak of COVID-19, the conversation shifted from shortage to surplus. For the carriers that were struggling with pilot supply, this has provided a momentary reprieve.
The return of demand:
A major question facing the aviation industry is when demand will return. For passenger recovery, estimates range from 2022 to 2024 and beyond. For pilots however, demand is driven by aircraft departures and utilisation rather than passengers. The global in-service fleet has already recovered in size to 76 percent of pre-COVID levels. In the Asia Pacific region, where the outbreak was earlier and better controlled, the in-service fleet is already at 89 percent. While utilisation and resulting block hours still lag in historic levels globally, the industry expects the demand for pilots to proceed the recovery of passenger growth by two to three times.
THE Emergence of the pilot shortage:
The most important question is not whether a pilot shortage will re-emerge, but when it will occur and how large the gap will be between supply and demand. Based on a modest recovery scenario, it is believed a global pilot shortage will emerge in certain regions no later than 2023 and most probably before. However, with a more rapid recovery and greater supply shocks, this could be felt as early as late this year. Regarding the magnitude, in our most likely scenarios, there is a global gap of 34,000 pilots by 2025. This could be as high as 50,000 in the most extreme scenarios. Eventually, the impact of furloughs, retirements, and defections will create very real challenges for even some of the biggest carriers.
What the airlines can do:
For airlines who are currently struggling to right-size the operations and remain solvent, the idea of a pilot shortage is far from the top of their mind. However, it has the real potential to limit their ability to regrow and rebuild their operation in the coming years. There are two main areas where airlines can help to reduce the impact of future pilot shortages:
- Reinforce the pipeline: continue to invest in training programs ad pilot recruitment, including resolving emerging financial challenges.
- Engage the workforce: Recognise the likelihood of increased competition, particularly for newly training pilots, and actively engage to improve recruitment.
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