Pilot Shortage: Using Innovation to Overcome Training Requirements

Bright skies ahead for pilots currently in the job market. A recent article in USA Today revealed that airlines plan to hire hundreds of new pilots. Still, in the interim many warn that a pilot shortage is actually on the horizon because of retirement, greater training requirements, and longer rest periods.  Let’s explore why the mandatory retirement age of 65 and increased training could leave airlines with a pilot shortage and out of luck when it comes to finding the experience they need.


Retirement Age

There is an impending wave of pilot retirements, with an expected 15,000 to retire by 2016 and another 19,000 expected to retire by 2021. With a mandatory retirement age of 65 there are many questions as to whether or not the industry can fill this void and indeed avoid a pilot shortage.

The aviation market today is full of declining numbers and that includes the number of students enrolling in aviation training programs. The reason? Student’s primary concern is job placement. And while that may not be an issue now there are other barriers to entry forming, which include: increased training.


Increased training

It is no secret, as the USA Today article points out, that the FAA implemented a new rule that took effect on Aug. 1, requiring 1,500 hours of flight time for all first officers. This matches the minimum requirement for captains. While there are exceptions some airlines are hesitant to hire pilots who haven’t reached the requirement. 

What we haven’t seen yet are the unintended consequences of these increased training requirements. As we’ve discussed before student pilots have the highest dropout rate of any discipline—and one reason cited is because the program is more demanding than students expect. The increased flight hours won’t help the student pilot dropout rate. 

As training requirements increase so will the competition between local flight schools and collegiate programs. While typically local flight schools are more cost effective, the increased emphasis on training may start weighing into student decisions. For example, the new flight-time requirements gives credit for some university programs – which can help offset the cost difference. 

Another unintended consequence of increased training requirements may be that more students choose a collegiate program over a smaller, private flight academy.  In the past, students may have chosen a smaller academy because it was more cost effective and did not require a four-year commitment and afforded more flexibility.  But the new flight training requirements are a sizable time commitment.  Couple that with the financial aid and scholarships universities can offer alongside college credit for flight training requirements and a collegiate program may become the better option for prospective student pilots.

What does this mean for your flight training program?

"The urgent demand for competent aviation personnel is a global issue that is here now and is very real," said Sherry Carbary, vice president of Boeing Flight Services in an August USA Today article. She continued, "The key to closing the pilot and technician gap in our industry is enhancing our training with the latest, cutting-edge technologies to attract and retain young people interested in careers in aviation." The price of doing so however can be rather high. Cessna just announced that the cost of a new 172 for 2014 will be north of $400,000. Still, a consortium of industry partners (full disclosure: including Brown Aviation Lease) have partnered together to create a remanufactured Cessna 172 equipped with a Continental Centurion 2.0 diesel engine, and other features. The price? Less than $249,000 -- which is much more affordable when compared to a new Skyhawk. Further, Brown Aviation Lease will be offering a power-by-the-hour subscription based program where the flight school taking on the airplane would pay small upfront fee to acquire the airplane and then pay a palatable per hour cost. The program is designed to allow flight schools to have a modern training aircraft that’s also economical without a large financial commitment.

To attract and retain young students you will need to foster a new way of thinking and incorporate new technologies that are scalable, affordable and make sense for your program. 

Take for example the San Carlos Flight Center, which took home best flight school in the country at this year’s second annual Flight Training Excellence Awards. Established less than two years ago the school won because of superior customer service, innovative and engaging community events, and excellent quality of training. Students describe the school as being “committed to safety and fun in aviation,” promoting a flying club like atmosphere and personal connections with students. 

The size of the future crop of new pilots may be uncertain but you can set your flight training program apart by focusing on innovative processes, procedures, and technology. What are your thoughts on the pilot shortage and how are you attracting new students? Leave your thoughts in the comments.