In 2021 and 2022, aviation worked hard to keep workforces big enough to handle spiking demand as the COVID-19 pandemic began to recede. Every category from pilots to flight crews to ground staff to aircraft mechanics searched in vain to fill their ranks.
In North America in particular, having enough pilots proved a tough challenge after the ranks had been thinned by COVID-related early retirements. This prompted delays and cancellations. The number of flights was cut, with regional airlines feeling the biggest squeeze.
After years of warning of the impending pilot shortage, Oliver Wyman has now compiled new data that shows industry efforts may be reducing the severity of the shortfall. Thanks to rising salaries, faster career paths, and greater awareness of the need for pilots, the number of candidates pursuing certification to fly commercially is rising. While this won’t address the immediate problem, it does mean that the gap between the supply of pilots and demand for them will shrink later in the decade, according to the latest Oliver Wyman analysis.
Where previous Oliver Wyman forecasts predicted a gap between supply and demand of nearly 30,000 in 2032, we now anticipate a smaller shortfall of 17,000. In 2023 and 2024, that gap is also at about 17,000. The biggest spread between supply and demand is now expected in 2026 when we project it reaches 24,000.
Addressing the problem
In addition to the larger pool of new candidates, the decrease is also a product of reduced levels of flying, particularly by regional airlines. The cutback in flying reflects the shortage rather than any decline in demand and has been one of the solutions the industry has had to use to address the current tight labor markets for pilots.
Basically, the value proposition for pilots changed in 2022. As a result of industry actions and a consequence of the shortage itself, pilots started seeing improved salaries and a renewed focus on pilot quality of life, a faster career progression timeline, and more job security. For regional airline pilots, salaries are as much as 86% higher than they were just three years ago; for the larger carriers, they’re up modestly but recent labor agreements and those expected to be negotiated in 2023 suggest significant increases to come.
The pilot shortage has been precipitated by the massive cadre of baby boomer workers at or near retirement. Added to that, the industry lost many experienced pilots when airlines offered early retirement packages during the pandemic, and there were insufficient candidates to fill the void created by their departures.
Smaller candidate pool
Behind the smaller candidate pool is the fact that the military is training fewer pilots as the services look to unmanned drones, more advanced aircraft, and missiles to take their place. Millennials and Generation Z workers also seem less interested in the industry as well, which means aviation needs to modernize its professions and work environment.
One obvious answer would be to recruit more women and minorities — something that has not proven easy for the industry to date. For example, currently, women represent about 4.6% of commercial airline pilots in the United States. Besides an improved value proposition for new recruits and expanding the pool of candidates, carriers will also need to explore other solutions such as better sponsorship of candidates to make the career path more accessible.
Oliver Wyman’s pilot research and analysis team includes Scott Horowitz.