Could Airlines Face A Pilot Shortage Post COVID-19?

It was just over a year ago when airlines globally were struggling to fill their pilot shortages. COVID-19 has upturned that reality, forcing airlines to furlough or dismiss thousands of pilots. But what will happen once airlines make a substantial recovery? Will they face a pilot shortage post-COVID? Let’s find out.

Pilots wearing masks
The demand for pilots will return before airlines make a full passenger recovery. Photo: Getty Images

Return

According to an analysis from Oliver Wyman, a pilot shortage will surely return in the coming years and could even outpace the overall airline passenger recovery. This would occur since pilots are hired based on aircraft utilization and the number of rotations and not the number of passengers flying.

This means as airlines increase their capacity, the demand for pilots will increase alongside it. Moreover, the pilot demand could outpace a passenger recovery by nearly a year, as airlines ramp-up schedules in advance.

Icelandair 737 MAX cockpit
As airlines add more flights, the demand for pilots will continue to rise. Photo: Getty Images

Since the return of the pilot shortage is extremely likely, the issue turns to the supply of pilots. The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted confidence in the job security of pilots and could have a long-term effect on the number of new cadets joining the industry.

This has been seen after similar shocks in the aviation industry, such as 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. With COVID-19 arguably impacting the industry more, we could see fewer pilots joining the field.

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Different market

This time around, the pilot shortage will look a lot different due to the number of pilots furloughed or laid off due to the crisis. When airlines start seeing demand return, they will first opt to bring back their pilots who are on furlough, followed by some who were laid off due to the crisis. This will slowly fill the demand for pre-pandemic capacity and prevent airlines from slowing down their recovery.

However, thousands of pilots have chosen to take early retirement plans or left the industry due to the crisis, creating a future shortage. As pilot cadet programs guaranteed by airlines become fewer, that means airlines will struggle to find pilots a few years down the line.

Delta pilots
Tens of thousands of pilots have opted to retire or leave aviation due to the pandemic, increasing supply pressure in the future. Photo: Getty Images

One analysis shows that the global pilot shortage could be anywhere between 34,000 to 50,000 pilots by early 2025, when a full recovery is expected. This would be similar to levels seen in 2019, effectively bringing back the global shortage.

Advantage

While the global industry will struggle with pilot shortages, a few airlines might find themselves at an advantage. Airlines that opted to keep most, if not all, of their pilots on the payroll through the crisis will benefit. While airlines have cut salaries and flying hours, they can increase flight hours again with no delay.

Aeromexico pilots Getty
Airlines that have avoided furloughs and redundancies will be at an advantage in a few years. Photo: Getty Images

Carriers like Delta, United, JetBlue, and others have largely avoided furloughs and redundancies thanks to government support and cost cuts. However, many airlines have axed thousands of crew due to the crisis as they look to shrink in the future.

Overall, expect the pilot shortage to quickly return as the airline industry begins its recovery. This could be as soon as the end of 2021 or at the end of 2023, but it will all but certainly make a return.

What do you think about the future of the pilot shortage? Will it return sooner, later, or not at all? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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