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As Boeing Projects Demand for Pilots, ALPA Points to Supply

ALPA has released a new statement intended to debunk what it calls “the myth” of a pilot shortage, and publishing a new fact sheet on the employment realities for trained pilots in today’s aviation industry.

I’ve covered the projections by Boeing of demand for 533,000 new pilots needed in the industry by 2020, as well as the announcement of Boeing’s Pilot Development Program in collaboration with Jeppesen–and made mention of a February article which appeared in Flying Magazine and made many of the same points in yesterday’s announcement.

However, the new ALPA announcement presents some interesting additional information.

ALPA attributes the following facts to a recent US Government Accountability Office report indicating there is no current shortage of qualified airline pilots in the United States:

  •  A large pool of qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand.
  • Data on wage earnings and employment growth are not consistent with the existence of an airline pilot shortage.
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2000-2012 showed that the median weekly earnings of airline pi- lots decreased by 9.5 percent over the period (adjusted for inflation), which is an average decline of 0.8 per- cent per year. Wages would be going up if a shortage existed.
  • In the context of the 72,000 airline pilot jobs that existed in the United States in 2012, FAA data show there are 137,658 active pilots who currently hold an air transport pilot (ATP) certificate and a first-class medical certifi- cate, and were younger than 65 as of January 20, 2014.
  • Another 105,000 pilots hold instrument ratings and commercial pilot certificates and could potentially obtain an ATP.
  • In 2012, the FAA certificated 6,396 new ATPs, and that number is trending upward.
  • In addition, about 2,400 qualified pilots leave the U.S. military services each year; and mainline airlines, which offer new-hire first officers approximately $48,000 per year, indicated that they have no difficulty attracting qualified pilots.

ALPA once again presents figures on pay scales at US Regional Carriers which are shockingly low:

10 Lowest-Paying Airlines, US/Source: ALPA
10 Lowest-Paying Airlines, US/Source: ALPA


Flight: Without Actually Flying

ALPA also points out that the educational investment required, compared to the poor starting wage scales at airlines in the US, are drawing potential pilots away from a career working for an airline into different aviation careers more likely to pay well.

Becoming an airline pilot is an expensive and time-inten- sive undertaking, no matter which path is taken to reach that goal. Many new pilots have invested $150,000 or more in their college aviation education and flight training with the expectation that they will be able to pay off their loans and eventually earn a salary that is commensurate with their education, training, and experience.

Even for students who feel passionate about working
in aviation, other careers for which university aviation program graduates may be qualified offer stronger starting salaries than becoming a pilot. A test engineer ($52,000), an operations manager ($55,000), and a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force ($53,616 in salary and allowances) are just a few of the alternatives graduates with aviation degrees have to becoming a professional pilot.

The Growing Expat Pilot Dynamic

Of course, Boeing’s projected growth figures speak to global demand.  Boeing predicts that 88,000 new pilots will be needed in the US.  It predicts 55,000 demand for new pilots in the Middle East and 216,000 in Asia Pacific.  Both of these are regions where, ALPA indicates, “hundreds of other qualified pilots work abroad” for leading carriers; attracted to working overseas by better compensation packages.  Says ALPA of this dynamic:

Many of the pilots working elsewhere would prefer to fly for U.S. airlines were they able to earn compensation commensurate with their aptitude and confident of a long-term career.

Aviation Freakonomics

Under normal supply/demand market conditions, a pilot shortage would be good for pilots–forcing airlines to compete against each other for qualified staff and raising the stakes.  However, two and a half key factors prevent this dynamic from taking effect when it comes to commercial airline operations.

1)   Economic forces and competitive models at the airlines (spurred by the ongoing passenger demand for cheaper fares), make high wages for pilots (or any other personnel for that matter) unsustainable.

2) Technological advances by the OEMs make it easier for new-entry pilots to train and fly.

2.1) Flying is still an attractive career for many (just for the joy of it) making Boeing’s pilot hatchery an attractive and viable option for airlines’ price-picked new recruits.  A Boeing spokesperson confirmed to Flight Chic that the Pilot Development Program is focused on airlines and that any fees for training and pre-qualifications are under review.  When released, these will be targeted to airlines and focused on those airlines’ needs.

UPDATE: According to an AOPA article by Ian J. Twombly:

David Wright, the Pilot Development Program director, said that it is expected to cost roughly $100,000 to $150,000 to train each student. But with much of the rest of the world working on an ab inito basis, airlines will be the customers.

He said that although individual sales may come in the future, airlines are expected to foot the bill. Although Wright said no North American airlines are customers at this point, they are talking and “the airlines aren’t opposed to it.”

I have not yet been able to independently confirmed this, but have reached out to Boeing for more information on the details of the Pilot Development Program, and will update when that is available either here on in a new post.

I’d welcome your questions or comments, as I take a deeper look into the future of aviation employment.  

Featured Image: Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and fellow pilots at the introduction of the “Safe Skies Act” in the 113th Congress, legislation designed to ensure that America’s cargo plane pilots are sufficiently rested and alert before they fly.  Via Senate Democrats Flickr.


6 thoughts on “As Boeing Projects Demand for Pilots, ALPA Points to Supply”

  1. Why don’t airline unions shave some money off the top and move it to the bottom of the seniority list? They could fix new hire pay in one day.

    1. @Uncld Freddy: Why doesn’t management shave some money from executive compensation, perks, bonuses, stock options, and then bring in some money home from those offshore havens–and then invest it in their labor force?

  2. Having been furloughed twice from ALPA carriers, might I also point out that there are literally thousands of pilots who are on the street but still hold there certificates. Once furloughed, the options are usually, find something in a different industry and start out at at least $50K doing something reasonable, or go to the bottom of the list at a new airline to make $20-30K. What would a reasonable person do? Doctors and lawyers take their experience with them to the next job. So do pilots. But the pay for experience does not follow. So they are forced to find something else to do. To all of you union reps who don’t care enough for our profession and agree to contracts that screw us all, You’re day to start at the bottom again may come sooner than you think. And you’ll wish you’d voted differently.

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