Is there a Pilot Shortage?

Is there a pilot shortage?

Before Covid-19 the answer was yes, there was a worldwide shortage of pilots, but the situation was a bit more complex than the straightforward answer I might suggest. However, at present in 2021, there is no shortage of pilots due to the impact on aviation of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whenever you hear of “pilot shortage” it usually refers to a worldwide shortage, not necessarily a shortage in Europe or the UK. The shortage is always specific to a region, type of operation and pilot experience.

Covid-19 pandemic and aviation

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on commercial aviation has been catastrophic. While huge portions of fleets have been grounded for nearly a year, tens of thousands of pilots around the world have been left without work. IATA don’t expect airlines to return to pre-Covid operating levels until 2024 and beyond.

However, flight training provider CAE said that due to natural attrition (such as retirements), the world will need 260,000 pilots over the next 10 years. This suggests that while the immediate outlook is bleak, when the industry recovers job opportunities will begin to open up.

Shortage of pilots pre-Covid

The rest of this article was first published before the Covid-19 pandemic, but addresses the age-old questions that arise when this subject is discussed.

First, let’s get the stats out of the way. In 2016, Boeing forecast that the aviation industry will need 679,000 new pilots by 2035. Airbus said that between 2016 and 2035 there will be a need for over 500,000 new pilots. Keep in mind, however, that this is a global forecast.

Flight schools

This is a general point, and I don’t mean to tarnish all flight schools with the same brush, but if you are considering starting your flight training, know that many flight schools will always tell you that there is a impending pilot shortage. of the state of the market. To them, at the end of the day, you are a profit, and to make a profit, they need people to train with them. It won’t be good for business if they tell prospective students that there is no training because there are no jobs! This is not the case at the moment, as the market for freshly graduated, low-hour pilots is better than it has been in a long time, but keep that in mind.

Airlines companies

Secondly, airlines want to prevent a shortage of pilots from occurring, in fact they want the exact opposite; many pilots on the job market. It’s simple economics. Pilots are very expensive for the airlines. They are highly paid and have lower productivity than other personnel due to flight time limitations. If you have a lot of unemployed pilots, that puts downward pressure on wages because you have a lot of applicants for a position. The reverse happens when there is a shortage; airlines must put in place terms and conditions to attract the best candidates. Many pilots looking for jobs are suitable for airlines.

Terms and conditions

In 2008 we saw a recession in Europe and other parts of the world. It put a lot of airlines out of business and left a lot of pilots unemployed. As a result, the past 10 years has seen pilot salaries stagnate in many areas as the supply of pilots has exceeded demand. This pressure on terms and conditions has not been helped by the introduction of an increase in the retirement age in Europe from 60 to 65. This meant that the pilot planning to retire could stay for five more years if they wished.

More recently, airlines have expanded again and major carriers have recruited heavily. When the big carriers are hiring, it tends to shake up the job market as people move up the ladder. As a result, there are fewer pilots to choose from and we are slowly starting to see terms and conditions improve, mainly in the airlines, as they seek to attract the interest of the most capable crews.

Airline finance

As the airlines’ financial performance began to improve, their pilots began to demand a share of the profits through increased wages. Lufthansa pilots have been on strike throughout 2016 to fight for a better pay rise as they haven’t had a pay rise since 2012. Delta Airlines pilots recently won a whopping 30% raise of their salary.

Middle East and Asia

The shortage of pilots is most notable in the Middle East and Asia. Airlines in this part of the world are growing rapidly and do not have enough established and experienced local pilots to fill the seats. Therefore, they must recruit pilots from areas of the world where aviation has been established longer, such as Europe, America, and Australasia. They offer huge sums of money to lure the crew, in some cases over $20,000 a month.

However, while there is clearly a shortage of pilots in these parts of the world, it is not for inexperienced cadet pilots straight out of flight school, it is for experienced co-pilots and captains. An experienced captain takes years to train and gain the required experience, while a cadet pilot can be “online” in as little as 18 months.

Who does the pilot shortage affect first?

Typically, a pilot shortage would hit regional carriers first, as they are unable to offer the terms and conditions of charter, low-cost and traditional airlines.

Understandably, most people aspire to improve their standard of living throughout their careers, which means working your way up to the next job. Once you work for a former carrier, there is no stage, and therefore pilot retention at these companies is very high and generally only hires as they expand and replace retired or medically unfit crews .

Regional airlines in the United States

The shortage of pilots is particularly notable at regional airlines in the United States. In the United States, the FAA introduced a requirement for pilots to have 1500 total flight hours before operating for a commercial transport operator. You graduated from flight school with about 250 hours, but now you need to rack up those hours through instruction, banner towing, general aviation, and more. Regional carriers have traditionally recruited entry pilots at the cadet level, which has significantly impeded the flow of available candidates.


The European market is currently doing quite well with the recruitment of pilots of all levels of experience, from incumbent carriers to regional operators. One wonders if this can be called a shortage, rather than just a labor market at the moment. Flybe, however, hinted last month that a shortage of pilots was holding back growth.

To assess whether or how much a shortage of pilots in Europe is going to get worse, you need to look at potential expansion opportunities and current market saturation. Much of Europe is well connected to Europe and millions of people now have access to air travel thanks to the success of low-cost carriers over the past decade.

Can there be more expansion?

How much leeway do airlines have to expand to offer services to new destinations and unexplored markets? That remains to be seen, but it certainly has nothing to do with those opportunities in developing countries with huge populations like India and China. That being said, airlines like Ryanair, Wizz Air and Norwegian Air Shuttle have an impressive number of aircraft on order, and many of these chassis are intended for expansion rather than fleet replacement.


Looking at it independently, now is a good time to start your flight training. However, you must take this into account. Just because you have a license does not mean you have the right to get a job as a commercial pilot. Airlines want more than just a license, they need a competent commercial operator and a frozen ATPL does not guarantee that. Just because there’s a job offer that you meet the minimum requirements doesn’t mean you’ll get it, even if you’re the only candidate. Yes, there is a shortage of pilots in many parts of the world, but that is not a guarantee of employment.

Choose your training path and flight school carefully, and be aware of the qualities airlines look for in their pilots. It’s more than just stick and rudder skills.