It’s been years in the making, but it now seems the predicted global pilot shortage is beginning to become a reality.
Looking back to 2009, the UK CAA reported a total of 10,690 pilots in employment with UK airlines with experts predicting a need for around 400 newly qualified pilots each year as the economy started to show signs of regeneration. The British Airline pilots association (BALPA) clearly predicted that we would be seeing a distinct shortage in qualified pilots in years to come, blaming high training costs and competitive selection processes for dwindling numbers of applicants making it through the rigorous training process. For the next few years this prediction remained just that, with no major airlines hiring in large numbers the industry seemed to simply tick along, it’s recruitment lead only by low-cost-carrier expansion taking their pick of cadets from top schools such as CAE Oxford or CTC. BALPA continued to predict a pilot shortage but insisted it wasn’t quite here, with over 500 members in their database looking for work the big airline training schools continued to lure prospective hopefuls in with a promise of a massive recruitment boom.
A few years later in 2013 experts predicted the need for a further 235,000 pilots over the next seven years with a rise in jet aircraft taking to our skies from 22,000 to over 40,000. The American market continued to dwindle and Europe remained in a steady state of LCC expansion, the only real growth was seen in the Middle-East and Asian markets, but still, no real sign of a significant pilot shortage. The UK market seemed to just plod on, airlines took people as and when they needed them, with the market just recovering from economic downturn it appeared, for most airlines, that forward planning wasn’t a big priority. The only real planning during this period was seen by the likes of British Airways, Emirates and easyJet with large investment in their future cadet pilot programmes, still it would prove that even this wouldn’t be enough to cover their shortages to come.
It wasn’t until late 2014 that any real change appeared on the horizon, the flight schoaols continued to take larger numbers of cadets with the promise of fast track airline employment, the likes of Ryanair hoovering up newly qualified cadets straight out of training with the intermittent blip of recruitment from other carriers as they realised their summer schedules were falling short. It wasn’t until British Airways opened it’s doors in 2015 to all pilots with 500 hours airline experience that any other airlines had anything to worry about. British Airways’ recruitment of around 300 pilots, coupled with an ageing commander pool kick started a domino effect which is now really beginning to pinch at levels all through the UK.
In 2010, Capt Mike Searle, BALPA chairman predicted that Britain’s aviation industry would wake up with a pilot shortage, recent recruitment bursts would suggest he was correct; right now we’re seeing recruitment drives by the likes of Thomson, easyJet, BA, BA CityFlyer, Flybe and Jet2 to name but a few. Later this year we can expect to see another big drive from Monarch, Thomas Cook, Ryanair and easyJet as movement occurs upwards, arguably driven by British Airways and the Middle-East whose pilot requirement is reported to still be in huge deficit.
So how has this happened so suddenly? The aviation industry is renowned for its 7 year cyclical boom and bust, yet this is potentially the first time its reached such a scale globally, almost simultaneously. In April airline El AL reported that some of it’s pilots were working almost 200% the norm with the majority working at least 120-150% of a normal roster. In February this year US regional carrier Republic Airways filed for bankruptcy after reporting a severe pilot shortage rendering it incapable to operate. Just before its demise, Republic was losing around 40 pilots a month to larger carriers as they hired en masse, something that could well be around the corner on this side of the Atlantic as many pilots move on from their current employers.
Whilst rather worrying for airline human resources, this shortage is a very positive thing for those looking to move on or even gain their first foothold in the industry. There’s probably never been a better time in the UK to be finishing training. For those looking to move on, this is an equally exciting period for pilots as many carriers now face the reality of watching their experience levels decline, draining their pre-command resource pools making way for even more direct-entry level positions. Could it be that the flight schools got it right?