The pandemic years, which created a surplus of pilots, posed an anomaly. The welcome post-pandemic rebound casts a shadow over airlines grappling to fortify their ranks, serving vital routes and growing their network.
Now, the aviation sector confronts a critical challenge — an escalating need for fresh pilots amidst a worldwide scarcity of certified aviators, and tougher entry rules.
Projections indicate this persistent supply-demand disparity will endure until 2027 and beyond, leaving an anticipated deficit of pilots.
Projections indicate a potential global shortage of 50,000 pilots by 2025. Research published by Statista on December 8, 2023 shows that global commercial aircraft fleet is expected to increase from 25,900 to 47,080 aircrafts between 2019 and 2041.
This figures do not include military or private aircraft and business jets. Over the next 20 years, all regions are predicted to see an increase in the size of their aircraft fleet. These growth forecasts may change though if significant regulatory change is introduced to address environmental concerns.
Aviation is growing everywhere.
And while the more established markets of Europe, the US and Canada are predicted to increase by around 79 and 42 per cent respectively, the Chinese fleet is expected to increase by about 145 per cent to 9,630 aircrafts in 2041.
Factors for pilots shortage
In the US, an industry report prepared by consulting firm Oliver Wyman shows the prevailing pilot shortage is caused at least in part by the following:
- Wave of early retirements due to pandemic.
- Fast recovery from COVID-19 pandemic.
- The rise of drones, disrupting the military pilot pipeline.
- Non-military training for pilots can cost upward of $100,000.
- More stringent requirements imposed by FAA for entry-level pilots due to previous accidents.
Supply and demand
According to a study published by ICAO, known as "Global and Regional 20-year Forecasts – Pilots, Maintenance Personnel and Air Traffic Controllers", the number of commercially-operated aircraft will have jumped from 61,833 in 2010 to 151,565 between 2010 and 2030. The number of departures from around 26 million to almost 52 million.
47,080Global commercial aircraft fleet by 2041, from from 25,900 in 2019 (Estimate: Statista).
The ICAO research compares the average number of professionals worldwide that will need to be trained annually against the training capacity of existing facilities. What it shows: a shortfall of training capacity equivalent to 160,000 pilots, 360,000 maintenance personnel, and 40,000 air traffic controllers.
As of July 31, 2023, the aviation industry continues to grapple with a persistent pilot shortage, emphasising the sustained strength in pilot demand, according to AeroGuard, a flight training school.
The Wyman industry analysis reveals that North American airlines continue to face a pilot shortage, with approximately 14,300 pilots falling short of demand in 2023.
The result: in fewer flights to some of the smallest cities across in 2023. While this marks an improvement from 2022 deficit of around 16,900, the situation remains challenging, especially for regional carriers. Meanwhile, major carriers like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines have acknowledged this issue.
American Airlines stated in 2023 that it was ending services in two cities in New York state and one in Ohio because of the shortage of pilots. Moreover, American Airlines’ CEO Robert Isom said the carrier had grounded about 100 regional jets because it couldn’t get enough people to fly them.
The report noted a rise in pilot supply, with 6,900 new North American airline pilots in 2023, offsetting 4,200 retirements.
While US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data show an 8 per cent increase in Air Transport Pilot certificates issued compared to the previous year, the Wyman study predicts a persistent pilot shortage – reaching around 13,000 a decade from now. The shortage is fueled by a 30 per cent increase in demand for pilots over that period.
Persistent issue, underlying problem
ICAO points to an an underlying problem. Simply stated, the demand for aviation professionals will continue to exceed supply. The factors include:
- Wholesale retirements in the current generation of aviation professionals
- Aviation professions not attractive enough to potential candidates
- Training capacity insufficient to meet demand
- Learning methodologies not responsive to new evolving learning style
- Accessibility to affordable training
- Lack of harmonization of competencies in some aviation disciplines, and
- Little awareness by the “next generation” of types of aviation professions available.
ICAO offers the following solutions:
- A globally-harmonised human resource planning tools,
- Accredited training and educational programmes adapted to the next generation, and
- Wide-ranging cooperation among all stakeholders.
ICAO and the International Air transport Association (IATA) are also collaborating on this issue, generating synergy between ICAO’s Next Generation of Aviation Professionals Taskforce and IATA’s Training and Qualification Initiative (ITQI).
IATA also support a globally harmonised standards and evidence-based training and as well as competency-based training for engineering and maintenance.
Despite global shocks, such as the 9/11, financial crisis and the pandemic, the ICAO study reveals a strong demand for qualified aviation personnel.
All told, the agency projects more than 2 million jobs for pilots, maintenance personnel and air traffic controllers – as a result of the retirement of qualified professionals and the anticipated growth of commercial air transport to the year 2030.
In 2017, Boeing made a forecast stating that the world's commercial aviation industry will require approximately until and 2036, with the following breakdown:
- 637,000 new commercial airline pilots
- 648,000 new commercial airline maintenance technicians
- 839,000 new cabin crew members
Consulting Oliver Wyman states that the pilot shortage “will persist for the foreseeable future” – driven in part by a 30 per cent increase in demand for pilots over the next two decades, and the retirement of baby-boomer pilots.