Boom or Bust – ‘The Pilot Shortage’ and Cycles in the Fortunes of the Aviation Industry

Airline Industry to need 200 Thousand Pilots by (insert year approximately 10-15 years ahead of date of the article.)”

Those of us in, or interested in, the aviation industry, will have seen such headlines multiple times. Generally in the aviation press, such as Flight International,  or even more so in the glossy Flight Training magazines that commercial aviation training organisations litter around their public areas. Come and train with us, it’ll be worth the huge outlay, they’ll be screaming for pilots just like you the second you step out the door! is what they are trying to tell prospective students / customers / victims. Occasionally, these claims will make it out into the general arena of a normal Newspaper, drawing apocalyptic visions of airliners gathering dust with no-one to fly them.

Training organisations trying to drum up custom aside, these claims always neglect to mention two critical things. If there is ever a shortage of pilots, as there was becoming up to about a year ago and before the CV19 crisis decimated the industry, it is of experienced pilots, ready to fly the aircraft with minimal training. Direct-Entry Captains, with a proven track record of commanding an airliner safely and efficiently, and experienced First Officers, who will be quickly ready to get on with line flying and be ready for upgrade to Captain before too long.

Those of a cynical nature, looking at the complaints of the many Low-Cost airlines across Europe that claim they can’t find pilots while offering risible terms and conditions say, ‘The only shortage is of Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 Captains that are prepared to work maximum hours for a First Officers salary.’

The one thing the industry is rarely short of is low hours pilots yet to prove themselves in the cockpit of a commercial airliner. There are several airlines that take on ‘Cadet’ pilots with low hours and mentor them through, and they, because of the stringent selection process, can be very good indeed. But opportunities are limited and usually involve even more outlay after the considerable expense of getting the licence. I use the analogy of an engineering graduate. You have the piece of paper to say that you are an engineer. But no-one’s going to put such a person in charge of a project. But that doesn’t sell £100’000 plus courses to young hopefuls.

The second thing these claims never mention, is the cyclical nature of the aviation industry.

CV19 is unparalleled in the havoc it has caused across the World, in every part of life. But aviation has always been vulnerable to external influences.

In just the last 30 years, Gulf War 1 in the early 90’s, the attacks of the World Trade Centre in 2001 and subsequent unrest, the banking crisis of 2008 and now CV19, all have had serious effects on the industry, resulting in personnel losing their jobs, airlines going bankrupt and employment prospects, especially for new people, devastated. I qualified in 2001, in the wake of the WTC attacks and it was several years later that I saw the cockpit of an airliner. Many of my contemporaries fell by the wayside and gave up on their dreams.

I wouldn’t want to put someone off a career in aviation. But if you are put off by one article, without checking other sources and making your own mind up, then frankly, you probably aren’t going to make it anyway. But take all claims of employment prospects with a large pinch of salt. Have a back up plan. Better yet, have an actual career you can continue or go back to, absolutely unconnected with aviation. And never, ever, pay for complete courses up front.

The aviation industry does recover. It will again, in time. Whether it will ever look as good as it was looking just a year ago remains to be seen. But, whatever transpires, two things I can guarantee. There will be claims, from the aviation training industry, of a looming pilot shortage. And it will be a lie.

Article by my friend and fellow aviator, Adrian Bennett.