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Why Pilot Hiring Is Slowing in the U.S.

A cyclical rebalancing and a long-term labor market improvement are among the many factors at play.

A Southwest 737 in Las Vegas (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

A year ago, unionized pilots at Delta Air Lines had just secured a landmark agreement with the company to raise pay by 34% over four years. The March 2023 deal averted any labor action and seemed to enshrine pandemic-era labor tightness in contract form — nine months later, a similarly massive increase in salaries at Southwest Airlines confirmed the trend.

But in 2024, the winds have shifted. First, Delta announced that it would drastically slow pilot hiring, then a leaked internal Southwest memo made clear the company’s plans to pause hiring and defer job offers for the remainder of the year. United froze pilot hiring; Spirit and Amerijet plan to furlough pilots.

In Skywest’s first quarter earnings call, CEO Chip Childs was sanguine about the ‘pilot shortage’ – he noted that while Skywest had a lot of hiring to do in order to grow back to its pre-pandemic capacity, finding pilots was much easier.

“We’re very optimistic about what we have coming up through the pipeline to be able to fill the demand for both fleet types [Bombardier CRJs and Embraer 175s],” Childs said on the call.

What changed? How did the aviation industry go from a desperate shortage of pilots to a plentiful supply?


We collected and analyzed a wealth of data about the pilot population, fleet sizes, and payrolls at the publicly traded airlines, and the unit economics of airline fleet operations to understand why airlines are pulling back on hiring.

We published our findings in the inaugural AirlineGeeks Insights report.

A confluence of factors has forced airlines to slow down hiring, including the Boeing delivery delays that have been widely cited across airline management teams. There are now 12 pilots for every aircraft in the fleets of publicly traded airlines, the highest pilot-to-aircraft ratio in a decade. Growth in pilot headcount has outpaced growth in aircraft counts at fleets and TSA passenger throughput for several years. Load factors have come under pressure as the airlines fly more available seat miles but let growth in revenue passenger miles fall behind. 

Considered from several angles – from the raw number of pilots compared to demand to the actual passenger margin per ASM, which has been negative at many airlines since the pandemic – it makes sense for airlines to fly less capacity and drive utilization higher.

There’s definitely a cyclical rebalancing happening where some airlines are deliberately trying to slow capacity growth and let demand growth catch up. But there’s also reason for longer-term optimism about the pilot labor market loosening. The number of airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates issued each year has exploded, growing more than 100% in the past five years. While the airline industry loses approximately 4,300 pilots each year due to mandatory retirement, in 2022 the industry added more than 9,000 ATPs, and in 2023 more than 11,000 ATP certifications were issued. 

And although airline pilots are older than they were at the beginning of the century – the average ATP holder in 2001 was just 46 years old – the current average age of 50.4 years is the lowest it’s been in eight years. Because many more new ATPs are being issued than pilots are being lost through retirement, we expect the average age of the ATP holder to continue trending downward.

We dive into all of this data and much more in our first AirlineGeeks Insights white paper. Click below to download it and get access to our full analysis of the pilot labor market.

For the best insights on the pilot workforce, go to FindAPilot.com, where you can search hundreds of pilot jobs and tens of thousands of pilots for hire.

AirlineGeeks.com Staff


  • JP Hampstead

    JP Hampstead has been writing about transportation at FreightWaves since 2017, where he was a staff writer and associate editor before launching subscription research products focused on freight markets and building data products for containerized ocean freight.

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