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Airlines Are Cannibalizing Training Pipeline and Deepening Pilot Shortage

Pilot Learning to Fly

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that some flight schools are having to scale back operations or turn away students due to pilot hiring demand from regional airlines.

Of the schools studied in the report most said that recruiting or retaining flight instructors was a challenge and that being able to keep flight instructors on staff was the greatest challenge their flight schools faced in being able to produce more pilots in order to meet the increasing demand.

Some of the aviation universities mentioned in the study say that in the current employment market that they are unable to recruit and retain enough flight instructors to teach all of the pilot students that their programs could normally accommodate.

Even those schools that are able to stay fully staffed are having trouble with the quality of their training as high instructor turnover routinely subjects students to new flight instructors and reduces training continuity.

The schools interviewed said that flight instructor turnover is expected as most pilots do not pursue instructing as a career goal. However, they continued “that in recent years, airline industry growth, increasing pilot retirements, and other factors previously discussed have caused commercial airlines to accelerate pilot recruitment, ultimately causing pilots to move through the instructor ranks more quickly.”

Complicating the issue further is the requirement that to train a new flight instructor a current instructor must have two years of experience. Flight instructors usually get enough experience to qualify for their Airline Transport Pilot Rating (ATP) before two years. Flight schools ability to train new instructors is eroding.

Typical Pilot Career Progression

The typical path for a pilot to work their way up through the career is first as a flight instructor or other entry level position such as pipeline patrol flying. After earning enough time to earn their Airline Transport Pilot rating pilots then move on to Regional Airlines. They then gain experience at the Regional Airlines before moving on to a Major Airline.

Most career minded pilots seek to move up through the career rungs as quick as possible so that they can start accruing seniority at the major airlines, which is the all important number that dictates pay and quality of life for airline pilots.

Pilot Career Progression Chart

When there’s pilot shortages they typically become noticeable to employers at the bottom of the career progression ladder before employers further up the chain notice. For major airlines to notice a shortage the supply of pilots would need be dire.

The Cost of Flight Training is a Challenge For Some Flight Schools When It Comes to Attracting and Retaining Students

Of the flight schools included in the study most said that they have seen a general increase in interest from prospective pilot students over the last 5 years, likely from improvements in the profession’s pay and improving career path. But nearly all the schools said that the cost of training was a major issue when it came to attracting and retaining the new students.

Flight training costs vary considerably but currently range between a total approximate cost of $50,000 to $81,000. Some of the schools said that it is not possible to appreciably reduce these costs as flight training is inherently expensive.

Some schools are attempting to find solutions to help flight students pay for school by raising money for departmental scholarships. One school mentioned that they’ve approached some major and regional airlines to see if they would make scholarships and school subsidies available.

New Pilot Hiring Programs Further Threaten Flight Schools

Also causing potential additional issues for flight school’s ability to attract and retain flight instructors is aviation employers creating new and unique employment opportunities to help ensure access to more pilots. This will give pilots just entering the profession additional job options to consider and alternative paths for their first pilot jobs.

There Are Not Easy Solutions for Flight Schools

Many would assume that raising pay would be an easy solution to attract and retain employees. However, flight schools are often on par with regional airlines already. The main challenge they face is the career progression most pilots seek.

The easiest solution would be another downturn in what is often a very cyclical industry. This would reduce the demand for pilots and would flood the market with pilots being laid-off from airlines. Most industry experts do not want this and also consider it unlikely with the pilot shortage projected to continue for decades.

Some schools have partnered with regional airlines and have created arrangements that allow pilots to accrue seniority with an airline while still flight instructing. Other schools offer free or reduced cost advanced training to instructors in return for agreements from the pilots to stick around longer. One school is reported trying to seek an arrangement with a regional airline whereby the airline would not hire their instructors.

Many of the schools have put significant resources into recruitment efforts, with some now seeking non-traditional applicants such retired pilots, or other pilots who may not meet medical requirements to work for the airlines.

Flight Instructor and Student Walking

At least 6 regional airline now offer cadet programs which provide incentive for graduates from partnered schools to remain and instruct at that school until they meet minimum requirements to work for the airline. Students who sign up for the cadet program with an airline agree to provisional employment with the airline. In return the regional airlines may provide health benefits, bonus pay, or tuition reimbursement. The schools have said the cadet programs are not popular as most flight students prefer to not commit to a single airline.

Some collegiate aviation programs are considering making obtaining a flight instructor license a requirement to graduate in hopes of increasing the available pool of instructors.

Greg started his professional pilot journey in 2002 after graduating from Embry Riddle. Since that time he has accumulated over 8,000 hours working as a pilot. Greg’s professional experience includes flight instructing, animal tracking, backcountry flying, forest firefighting, passenger charter, part 135 cargo, flying for a regional airline, a national low cost airline, a legacy airline, and also working as a manager in charge of Part 135 and Part 121 training programs.

Greg Thomson