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May 28, 2022, 11:25 a.m. EDT

Airlines face severe pilot shortage as summer travel season nears

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By Claudia Assis

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After six to nine years at a regional airline, a pilot would then move on to a legacy airline. Ultra low-cost air carriers changed that equation a little, hiring from regional airlines and offering pilots more choice of home bases. The career is going through a generational change, but still attracts younger people and still has plenty of cachet.

“People are passionate about it,” Syth said.

Capacity ‘creak’ and fewer flights

The median annual wage for airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers was $202,180 in May 2021 , according to the Labor Department.

The department projects growth of 13% for the employment of airline as well as commercial pilots through 2030, faster than the average 8% growth for all occupations.

U.S. airlines need to hire about 10,000 to 15,000 pilots a year, and they are hiring about 13,000 this year, so they are meeting their needs, but it’s getting harder and harder and it will be tight for another couple of years, Syth said.

Rising fuel prices and not enough pilots are the main capacity constraints for airlines, and consumers are seeing it play out in fare prices.

The latest Consumer Price Index report showed that airline fares “continued to rise sharply,” up nearly 19% in April and the largest one-month increase since the inception of the data in 1963.

Cancellations, which hit about 6% of U.S. flights in January amid a surge in omicron COVID cases that sidelined airline personnel, are hovering around 1% in May.

Travel website Hopper estimated recently that airfares around Memorial Day, which kicks off summer travel, are about 30% more expensive than in 2019, with the average domestic airfare at around $394 per round trip.

“The pilot shortage is going to manifest itself with reduced service, reduced frequencies,” and airlines flying larger aircraft to compensate for that, said Geoff Murray, a partner with consultancy Oliver Wyman.

“Supply in North America won’t be able to meet demand,” especially in medium-sized cities, he said. A city that might have had two daily flights to a larger city on a 50-seater plane, say, may be left with one flight on a 70-seater aircraft, Murray said.

Airlines need to preserve their more profitable slots, such as flights to popular vacation spots and wide-body trans-Atlantic flights with tiered cabin services. So “the top of the pyramid,” the wide-body flights and the destinations, is likely to remain unchanged, Murray said.

As to how long the shortage may take to work itself out, Murray estimated “at least five years, if not longer, and the clock started in 2022.”

Murray has predicted that the more likely scenario is for a global gap of 34,000 pilots by 2025, which could turn out to be as high as 50,000.

“It’s hard to see our way through it,” said Peter McNally, an analyst with Third Bridge. Airlines are worrying about the three Cs, he said: costs, capacity, and consolidation.

“Costs are still going up, capacity is slow to add, and consolidation is still a big question mark,” McNally said. The shortage is a structural problem, and wages are the No. 1 cost for airlines, and it has manifested itself “at the slow capacity creak that we are getting.”

McNally predicts that United and other majors “will be ok” for the most part, but we are going to see reduced schedules, perhaps even for the majors, though 2022, that “will limit capacity and hurt consumers.”

‘Zero regrets’

For Larsson, learning to pilot a plane appealed to her adventurous side and a fascination with aircraft going back to her childhood spent split between Spain and Sweden.

Living in New York as an adult and working at Nordic investment bank Carnegie, she felt that most people in the industry were in it to make money. She left investment banking 10 years ago.

“Very few people would say, ‘I love this job,’” Larsson said. “You start to enjoy it because it’s your job, but in general I sensed that people were not genuinely happy in the financial industry, and that was something I felt coming to this industry: people were happy.”

“You don’t really get into flying by accident. Most people get into flying because they love what they do,” she said.

Larsson was in line to become a captain at her regional airline before COVID hit, and hope that is now back in horizon. Ideally, she and her partner want to be based in the same city.

She has dealt with a few recalcitrant passengers in the last few months, mostly not wanting to follow mask mandates, but acknowledges that flight attendants bore the brunt of the problems created, with pilots like herself relatively insulated.

“I have zero regrets, none. It’s amazing. I’m still living my dream.”

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