Back To Pre-COVID? United Airlines CEO Sees Pilot Shortages Returning

United Airlines’ CEO Scott Kirby is flagging a looming pilot shortage, saying the military isn’t producing pilots at the rate they used to. It is a long-term structural problem at many airlines that the recent worldwide travel downturn has highlighted. Consequently, airlines like United are having to change the way they recruit and train their pilots.

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United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has flagged a looming pilot shortage. Photo: Andrew Curran | Simple Flying

This year, short-staffed airlines are beginning to experience some real-life consequences. Competitor Delta Air Lines has previously canceled swathes of flights, allegedly due to pilot shortages. More recently, American Airlines canceled hundreds of flights over the weekend owing to staff shortages and is trimming its schedule through July as a consequence.

The cancelations have left tens of thousands of travelers bumped, delayed, and otherwise inconvenienced. As a result, airlines suffer reputationally and burn goodwill. Speaking to news website Axios on Monday, Scott Kirby said,

“Down the road, there is probably going to be a pilot shortage here in the United States.”

Traditionally, airlines everywhere have poached/recruited pilots from Air Forces. The longstanding practice is the bane of Air Forces worldwide. They lose their expensively trained and highly skilled pilots to better-paid jobs in the commercial airline sector. The practice has always been a bit of a cop-out on the part of commercial airlines. They effectively outsource training costs and responsibilities to the taxpayer.

“The military produces far fewer pilots today than they did in the Vietnam and Cold War era,” admits Mr Kirby. “It’s hard to become a commercial pilot on your own if you are not going through the military.”

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Scott Kirby says the military isn’t producing pilots in the numbers they once did. Photo: Getty Images

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United Airlines turns to training pilots in-house

With domestic flying almost recovered in the United States, airlines are once again looking to hire more pilots.  Last year, United Airlines was warning it would need to let some 16,000 employees go, including nearly 3,000 pilots. In the end, United Airlines permanently lost fewer pilots than that. But like its competitor airlines, United was ill-prepared for the swift rebound in travel demand this year.

In April, with United Airlines experiencing unexpected but welcome uplift, they began rehiring pilots. First off the blocks were 300 new pilot positions offered to prospective United pilots who had conditional offers or start dates delayed in 2020.

In the same month, United Airlines said it planned to train 5,000 pilots by 2030. Those pilots will be trained in-house at their own pilot training school. United said it would spend over US$1 billion on scholarships to break the traditional white male pilot mold.

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United is building better diversity targets in its upcoming pilot hires. Photo: United Airlines

Futures of flight attendants & ground staff secure at United Airlines

The USAF will probably welcome United Airlines (and other airlines) taking responsibility for training up their own pilots. But it’s not just pilots finding themselves in demand again. United Airlines has recently told flight attendants, ramp workers and customer service agents in the United States their jobs were safe because of rising travel demand. That is despite federally funded payroll assistance ending in a few months.

“Given the current outlook for the future of United, we continue to move closer to full frontline staffing levels to support our operation,” United Airlines says in a statement.

With July around the corner, United Airlines is adding more than 400 flights a day to its schedules. The airline expects to operate at 80% of its summer 2019 capacity.

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