In recent years, the United States has begun to see a shortage of airline pilots. This sparsity, which particularly strikes regional airline levels, began to affect the U.S. as early as the 1990s. In 1987, America boasted about 827,000 pilots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. These past three decades have seen this number decrease by thirty percent.
This shortage demonstrates a shift in the airline industry. In the 1970s, an airline pilot job proved a prestigious career, offering high salaries, respectable schedules that offered considerable time off, and reputable stature within society. Some international pilots were making salaries as much as $300,000 during the early 1990s. During the following decades, the military held a consistent demand for pilots and provided flight training to aspiring pilots. When pilots fulfilled their commitment to the military, more often than not, they were guaranteed a job flying for a major airline.
In 1978, however, the career of an airline pilot decreased in popularity. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act deregulated the airline industry, spurring an increase in alternative, low-cost carriers. Airlines being forced out of business by this deregulation, as well as the 9/11 attacks, rendered the financial condition of the airline industry feeble. In the aftermath of 9/11, major legacy airlines US Airways, Delta, United, American, and Northwest declared bankruptcy. This financial hardship also dropped captains to lower officer positions, which resulted in unfavorable pay decreases.
The airline industry’s hardships were only compounded by the increase in unmanned aerial vehicles. As a result, fewer pilots had been supplied by the military and more needed to pay for their own flight training. Recently, the percentage of airline pilots coming from the military dropped less than one-third from the two-thirds percentage seen in the 1980s. The Navy and Air Force predict pilot shortages, with the former predicting a 10% shortage in 2020 and the latter predicting a 1,000-pilot shortage by the year 2022.
In 2016, reports showed that roughly 42% of pilots currently flying for major U.S. airlines will reach the age of 65 within the next decade. This mass-retirement proves difficult to navigate, as there are fewer pilots to take their place. As Congress changed the duty time rules in 2010 to combat the dangers of pilot fatigue, airlines have had to increase their pilot staffing by 5 to 8 percent. New pilot experience requirements also complicate this shortage, by requiring a certificate proving the pilot has flown a minimum of 1,500 hours, instead of the previous 250 flight hour minimum.
While these shortages are becoming more prominent, the demand for pilots who are well-trained is increasing. In the next 20 years, the International Air Transport Association predicts that air travel will double. Even though major U.S. airlines aren’t currently experiencing the pilot shortage, smaller regional airlines have certainly begun feeling the stress. It’s only a matter of time before the shortage becomes worse and begins impacting major U.S. airlines and the industry at large.