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U.S. Pilot Hiring Plateaus in September and October

Is the race to hire airline pilots slowing down?

Cockpit of the Boeing 737-10. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Fangzhong Guo)

Following a record-breaking year of hiring in 2022, some U.S. airlines are beginning to level off on pilot recruitment. Across 13 non-regional airlines, September and October saw a reduction in pilot hiring of nearly 11% compared to last year. This comes on the heels of some shake-ups in the post-COVID blitz to recruit new aviators.

According to data from pilot career advisory group FAPA, major U.S. airlines hired a total of 2,116 pilots between September and October. The group’s data includes hiring trends from 13 U.S. airlines, including Delta, American, and United, along with smaller carriers such as Spirit, Frontier, and JetBlue.

Cargo operators FedEx and UPS are also included in the data but have not hired pilots since at least February.

A Low Point

In September, 1,001 pilots were hired, per FAPA’s data, marking the second-lowest month of hiring so far in 2023. June 2023 reported the fewest hired pilots at 958. October 2023 saw a modest increase of 114 new hires when compared to September.

Both September and October 2023 fell below 2022 hiring trends during the same period. In comparison, U.S. airlines hired 1.105 and 1,243 pilots in 2022 for the respective months, representing 232 fewer year-over-year.

Hiring totals by month for U.S. carriers. (Data from FAPA)

Despite the shifting trend, major U.S. carriers are still on track to eclipse 2022 pilot hiring numbers overall. FAPA’s data indicates that 11,050 pilots have been hired to date in 2023,

A Shifting Pilot Shortage?

In late October, ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit announced it would stop hiring pilots until further notice. The airline lost nearly $158 million in Q3 2023. Coinciding with this announcement, FAPA’s data shows a drop off in Spirit’s pilot hiring from August 2023.

While some carve-outs exist at airlines to hire direct-entry captains, the vast majority of hiring pertains to first officers. After gaining time and seniority at a carrier, first officers can later transition to the left seat. However, finding pilots interested in upgrading to captain has proven to be a challenge at some airlines.

“For a year now, at least for us, the issue has not been hiring pilots, and the issue has not been pilot attrition. So that’s not a concern. The issue has been on the upgrade front,” shared Sun Country President and Chief Financial Officer Dave Davis during the company’s Q3 2023 earnings call. At Skift’s Aviation Forum in early November, the Minneapolis-based airline’s CEO Jude Bricker shared that his top-earning pilot made $750,000 in 2022.

Landing in New York aboard a Tailwind Air Cessna 208B. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

Regional carriers are particularly not immune from retaining captains. “It’s actually a captain shortage. We don’t have a first officer shortage..we’re producing lots of ATP certificates across the country,” said CommuteAir CEO Rick Hoefling during an interview with AirlineGeeks.

On the cargo side, both FedEx and UPS have stopped hiring as of early 2023. Leadership at these carriers has even advised pilots currently on the payroll to look at other opportunities outside the company, including at regional carriers.

Some Positive Trends

Even with some reductions in overall hiring, a few airlines are still setting milestones. In October, Allegiant had its second-highest hiring month on record for 2023, bringing in 43 new pilots.

Also in October, United broke its own hiring record with 270 new pilots. This marks the largest hiring month for the carrier in 2022 and 2023. So far in 2023, United hired the most pilots of any major U.S. airline at 2,296.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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