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Opinion: Pilot and Technician Career Outlook Post-Pandemic Still Promising

A brand new American Airlines A321neo parked in Pittsburgh (Photo:AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Once again, airlines across the globe are facing stiff headwinds, this time due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Travel bans and general health fears have driven customers away forcing airlines to reinvent themselves to keep the lights on.

Government stimulus monies often come with restrictions and limitations and do not offer long term solutions. Meant as a financial bridge to when airline customers return, airlines are now looking at ways to maintain financial viability for when the industry recovery takes hold.

Experts disagree on when airlines will return to their high load factor days but no one is arguing that a recovery is inevitable. You don’t have to look far to see examples. The 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks and the SARS pandemic in 2003 demonstrated how airlines weathered global financial storms. 2020 is likely no different.

But the challenge facing airlines is keeping assets nearby and ready for when flying returns. Large scale fleet retirements and staffing cuts are causing a short-term shift in strategy, especially for the major carriers.

An airline’s biggest commodity is time. It offers its customers the opportunity for time-saving travel options. But while the industry offers time savings to its customers, it comes at a significant time cost to the airlines. Keeping airplanes and crews certified and qualified takes time. Lots of it.

It can take years to become a qualified airline pilot. Technicians must demonstrate 36 months of experience before being granted a Federal Aviation Administration Airframe and Powerplant license. Add to that recurrent training and other currency maintaining requirements and the time investment quickly becomes significant.

Prior to the pandemic, there were widespread reports of looming pilot and technician shortages on the near horizon. Industry growth and the general aging of the pilot and technician workforces presented a challenge for airlines to solve.

Worsening the matter, the influx of pilots and technicians into their career fields has declined in recent years. And large scale retirements are looming, especially for the major airlines.

United Airlines announced, pre-pandemic, that half of the airline’s 12,500 pilots will retire over the next ten years, and they will need to hire 10,000 pilots over that period to keep pace with growth.

Due to seniority rules at most large airlines, pandemic driven reductions in staffing have mostly impacted less senior employees. Many airlines will soon find themselves in a predicament when the senior members retire and their pilot and technician pipelines thinned by the pandemic driven cuts.

When the recovery takes place, airlines will largely reach out to their former employees but may find many have changed career fields or taken positions with other airlines or flight companies.

So what of the pilot and technician shortage now? With so many furloughed pilots and techs, what does all this mean to someone interested in working at an airline? Most experts agree, not much.

ATP Flight School, a leading pilot training school, notes that “It takes two years to become a qualified airline pilot, making it essential to consider the long-term career outlook. The factors that caused the pilot shortage are still in effect. Thousands of pilots will be retiring when they turn 65 years old while the airline industry is forecast to keep growing to meet demand for air travel and freight.”

United Airlines recently purchased a flight school in Phoenix, Arizona to cultivate and train its pilot replacements for retiring crew members. Some airlines are also loosening minimum requirements on flight hours and collegiate education while bolstering salaries to attract candidates.

Many airlines have also instituted pilot training career programs and formed formal relationships with pilot and technician academies to replace their aging workforces.

The 2019 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook projects that 804,000 new civil aviation pilots, 769,000 new maintenance technicians and 914,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the worldwide commercial, business, and civil helicopter fleet over the next 20 years due to expanding passenger demand, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. This equates to approximately 40,000 new pilots and technicians needing to join the airline workforce every year.

While the Boeing projections were announced prior to the current pandemic, few are disputing that a void in talent is still a real concern and airlines cannot take too much time in addressing them. In short, most experts agree the airline industry will return to its pre-pandemic glory. The debate is how soon and what parts of the globe will recover soonest.

Other benefits also need to be considered for those looking to join the airlines. Anyone interested in flying or maintaining a multi-million dollar jet are almost certainly looking at doing so on state-of-the-art machinery like the A350, the B787 and many more in development, thanks to airlines retiring its aging and less efficient fleets.

“It is crucial to keep in mind that the sudden instability in the industry is temporary and aspiring airline pilots should keep a long-term focus on their career. Demand for airline travel will return. There is pent up demand for air travel, and after containment of the virus, passengers will be eager to travel for business and leisure” ATP said.

As the airlines work to reinvent and remake themselves during this time, it is clear that the projected shortages in pilots and technicians in the years to come are still a significant issue and airlines and corporate flight departments will be fiercely competing for the limited supply of professionals available to them.

The career outlook for pilots and technicians still looks promising.

Rick Shideler


  • Rick Shideler

    Rick is a retired airline maintenance professional with over 40 years experience in commercial, corporate and military aviation sectors. Rick holds an FAA Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) and a FCC General RadioTelephone Licenses. Rick is a veteran of the United States Air Force and has served in multiple leadership positions including Director of Maintenance for a large corporate aviation firm, airline Director of Engineering and has chaired multiple aviation maintenance safety and reliability industry committees. Rick took his first airplane ride at six months old and became an airline geek shortly thereafter.

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