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U.S. Pilot Hiring on Track to Eclipse 2022 Levels
The aviation industry is currently in an unprecedented time for multiple reasons, however, one in particular stands out compared to the rest: pilot hiring. In 2022, airlines in the United States set a record by hiring just over 13,000 pilots, almost tripling the previous high of just over 5,000 in 2021.
While the industry has seen significant peaks and lulls over the years, the current state shows pilot hiring climbing to previously unseen levels, with 2023 forecasted to surpass the hiring that occurred in 2022.
Aircraft manufacturing giant, Boeing, anticipates a global demand of 649,000 new pilots over the next 20 years. The Arlington, Va.-based manufacturer believes the commercial North American sector will need 129,000 pilots, while China and Eurasia will necessitate even more.
Future and Active Pilot Advisors (FAPA) has tracked pilot hiring with the major carriers since the 1990s. The organization anticipates the hiring trend to continue this year, marking yet another record in the number of pilots hired by major carriers in a year. FAPA categorizes the major carriers as Alaska, Allegiant, American, Atlas, Delta, FedEx, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United, and UPS. Regional carriers and corporate operators are not included in the data detailed below.
Regional carriers will need to continue hiring pilots who meet the Airline Transport Pilot certificate (ATP) requirements or the Restricted Airline Transport Pilot certificate (R-ATP) requirements. Corporate operators have different requirements set forth to hire pilots, however, many hire at the same requirements that regional carriers do.
In 2021, major carriers hired 5,426 pilots according to FAPA, with United Airlines hiring the most at 1,280 pilots. At the time, this was the largest number of pilots hired in a single year. 2022 on the other hand brought unfathomable numbers.
Last year, 13,128 pilots were hired by the majors. This represented an increase of 142% in one year. So far in 2023, the major carriers are on track to break that record as well, with FAPA anticipating over 13,000 pilots set to be hired. Through August, 8,920 pilots have been hired, leaving four more months in the year for additional growth.
Freight Operators Buck the Trend
It is not all positive news though. Cargo giants FedEx and UPS are currently seeing a post-COVID decline in operations. According to ch-aviation, FedEx has accelerated the retirement of the carrier’s MD-11 aircraft with a fleet retirement year of 2028. Trans-Pacific flying is being cut by 30% for the Memphis, Tenn.-based carrier, and overall flight hours are being reduced transforming the company’s operation to have more presence on the ground. FedEx hired two pilots in January of 2023 and zero since. UPS started the year with nine hires, four in February and none since.
On the flip side, passenger carriers are hiring at rates never before seen. Year-to-date totals for the big three include American Airlines bringing aboard 1545 pilots so far this year, Delta Air Lines with 1790, and United Airlines hiring 1813 pilots. American had the largest class month out of all the carriers, bringing aboard 284 pilots in May alone per FAPA.
Hiring droughts in the past have correlated with major world events involving a decline in air travel. Immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, carriers furloughed pilots for years without recall. Hiring then resumed after those who had been furloughed had returned, however, some carriers waited longer than others. American Airlines, for instance, hired zero pilots from 2002 to 2012, a period of 10 years.
Many of the carrier’s pilots spent years furloughed awaiting the call to return to the job they had worked years to earn. This was a similar story for those at other carriers during the time period as well. Delta and United did not hire pilots again until 2007, lasting only two years before another year of zero pilots added to the ranks. The post-2007-2008 financial crisis showed 30 pilots being hired across the major carriers in 2009, all of which were by JetBlue.
The past two and half years show a very different picture compared to the ones painted just a decade ago. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics believes that between 2022 and 2032, there will be around 16,800 openings for airline and commercial pilots each year over the course of the decade. This number accounts for retirements and attrition across the industry and other workforces. United Airlines alone is expecting to add 10,000 pilots over the course of the decade.
Major carriers are also addressing one of the largest barriers to entry into the industry: cost. The big three carriers are making strides to bring those without experience in the field into the workforce. Delta Air Lines has partnered with a Florida-based flight school to create the Propel Flight Academy. The carrier is offering financial assistance as well to help students get into the cockpit at an accelerated pace. United Airlines also has its own in-house flight school in Arizona. American has the American Cadet Academy, partnering with CAE to give those without experience a path into an American Airlines cockpit.
United also just announced a new way for military aviators to transition into the civilian sector. Applicants need not have an ATP certificate, just the minimum requirements to possess one. Scott Kirby, United’s CEO stated “Launching this program is a win-win: our airline gets direct access to some of the best, most talented aviators in the world, and military pilots – and their families – get the time they need to plan their civilian career while still serving.”
While there is no magic ball to query for what the future will hold, the aviation industry needs pilots.
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