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Oliver Wyman’s third Flight Operations Brief, based on a global survey and extensive interviews with industry leaders, explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the pilot workforce worldwide and the way Flight Operations leaders do business – and what that could mean for the coming decade.

Airlines sharply reduced pilots flying during the pandemic. But with the renewal of air travel demand in some regions, airlines are being challenged on schedule reliability like never before. In some cases, a shortage of pilots has meant strengthening the recruitment pipeline, as well as greater focus on training and retaining pilots. Yet this also is an opportunity for industry renewal, as a tech-savvy and more diverse next generation of pilots comes on deck.

A Workforce Transformed

High levels of retirements, fleet consolidation, and airlines shuttering during the pandemic have strained airlines’ ability to fly their schedules. The current pilot shortage is uneven across regions but is expected to gradually worsen over the decade and impact most of the world in the next few years (Exhibit 1). The shortage also is uneven across carriers: Large network carriers are having no trouble filling training classes but are challenged to meet unprecedented training demand volume, while regional carriers have had to reduce flying.

Pilot demand versus supply forecast, 2020–2032
Thousands of pilots

The need to support schedules and reduce churn has led to a significant uptick in pay, with regional pilot pay even approximating mainline pay for the first time in North America. In addition, the pandemic has forced Flight Operations leaders to rethink pilot engagement – implementing additional touchpoints and communication throughout the pandemic. As a result, carriers have seen a significant uptick in pilot engagement – a trend they need to continue to build on in the future (Exhibit 2).

How engaged do you think your pilot workforce is?
Percent of respondents

Current Challenges

Most airlines are finding it moderately challenging, if not more, to identify and recruit pilots – particularly in North America. Consequently, carriers are turning more to non-traditional pathways and recruitment methods, with about half of respondents focusing more on diversity and pilots with non-traditional backgrounds, as well as offering flight school financing.

The next generation of pilots will likely have significantly different expectations relative to previous ones. Airlines are working to segment pilots to better understand how views on incentives have changed generationally, and what mix of pay, quality of life benefits, and engagement will be needed to retain existing pilots while also attracting the next wave.

In addition, workforce changes and COVID-related fleet decisions have led to much higher training demand. Pilot training profiles and needs have changed as well: survey respondents report that a third more pilots are failing training than pre-COVID (Exhibit 3). In response, some carriers are taking a more targeted approach to support individual pilots and get them more time for training as they come back from a period of low flying.

What impacts have furloughs/layoffs had on pilot training success rates?
Percent of respondents

Shaping the Future

As airlines look forward, the number of younger, more diverse pilots will only continue to grow. This new generation will learn and fly differently: On the one hand, they will be more adaptable to evolving technologies; on the other, they may demonstrate greater individuality and less conformity with command-and-control models. 

In addition, the upgrade timeline for captains is getting shorter. Airlines are proactively upgrading training to better prepare young captains to take a leading role on the flight deck. Many airlines also are assessing how they need to update their current Flight Operations safety processes, given changing demographics and experience levels.

Finally, demographics-related changes are increasing focus on emerging technologies. Younger pilots are more likely to prefer shorter “micro-learning” sessions and more interactive training. COVID-19 also expedited a shift toward distance learning (Exhibit 4). There is a benefit for carriers here also in these changes: New technologies such as virtual and augmented reality not only will enable airlines to provide more and faster training (and provide it anywhere), but allow them to implement the latest evidence-based and situational training methodologies to maximize flight safety and efficiency.

What is the current structure of your ground training program?
Percent of respondents

COVID-19 was a massively disruptive event for the airline industry, but has paved the way for industry resurgence. The industry has made great strides both during the pandemic and in dealing with renewed travel demand to reach out to its pilot workforce and keep them flying.

Now, airlines have an opportunity to build a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with the next generation of pilots.