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In the relentless saga of the airline industry, the spectre of a pilot shortage persists. Image Credit: Shutterstock

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.

Capt. Zoya Agarwal Air India Pilot
Social media celebrity and Air India pilot Capt. Zoya Agarwal. While the COVID-19 pandemic severely reduced flight numbers by over half in 2020, leading to a surplus of pilots, post-pandemic recovery has quickly turned the tide for aviators. Image Credit: Instagram

Soaring demand

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.

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A full-motion flight simulator. 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. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan | Gulf News

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.

Pilot shortage
Image Credit: Jay Hilotin | Source: ICAO

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.
The Boeing 777 Capt. Triston Ray Abracia Simeon Simeo
Boeing 777 Capt. Triston Ray Abracia of Philippine Airlines. As the global aircraft fleet expands and air travel rebounds to pre-2020 levels by 2023, the shortage of pilots becomes more pronounced.

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.


Global 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.

Global pilot supply and demand 2020 to 2028
Image Credit: Oliver Wyman


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.

American Airlines
American Airlines planes are parked at Pittsburgh International Airport. Pilots at American Airlines have approved a new contract that will raise their pay 46% over four years. Image Credit: AP

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.

Airlines Philippines PAL Philippine Airlines Cebu Pacific Air Asia Philippines
PROJECTION: Boeing projected that airlines will need 637,000 new pilots over the next two decades — till 2036 — to keep pace with the growth of global air traffic. The aviation industry is projected to be more than 2 million new commercial airline pilots, maintenance technicians, and cabin crew. Airlines in the Asia-Pacific region alone will need 253,000 new pilots, a third of the total, according to the Boeing report. Photo shows Filipina pilot Chezka Carandang, of Cebu Pacific. Image Credit: Cebupacificair

Demand estimates

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.