If you’ve ever considered learning to fly, now might be the perfect time.
That includes the weekend warrior who has always dreamed of piloting their own Cessna four-seater to anyone who has ever considered a career as a commercial pilot.
With thousands of commercial pilots nearing retirement age, airlines and flight schools have been looking for ways to fill what is expected to be a massive pilot demand. A recent Boeing study estimated the need for 208,000 new commercial aviation pilots in the next 20 years in North America alone, and 763,000 worldwide.
While the COVID pandemic temporarily created an oversupply of qualified pilots, that blip is reversing as the world gradually returns to normal.
“If you look at the trends right now, the shortage is still there—it’s just masked by COVID,” said Frank Beresnyak, who runs Pittsburgh Flight Training Center at Allegheny County Airport. “As people get vaccinated and start traveling and demand picks up, you’re going to see airlines scrambling to hire and to get [pilots] in flight decks.”
Geoff Murray, a partner at Oliver Wyman and former commercial pilot, predicts a shortage of 34,000 commercial pilots by 2025 due largely to a rash of early retirements kickstarted by furloughs, layoffs and lack of demand caused by the COVID pandemic.
“At some airlines, we’ve seen as much as 15 or 20 percent of the workforce accept an early retirement because it’s an incentive-based scheme that many pilots accept,” Murray said in a recent CNBC interview. “So when the recovery returns, it’s not like you can bring those guys back. You have to find new pilots, and that’s the challenge.”
At least one airline is taking it upon itself to help fill cockpits. United Airlines in 2020 expanded its Aviate career development program by purchasing a flight training academy in Phoenix, becoming the only major U.S. carrier to operate its own flight school.
“Launching our own academy provides us with the unique opportunity to not only ensure we maintain the ideal number of quality candidates within our pilot pipeline, but also play a significant role in recruiting, developing and welcoming those with diverse backgrounds to the United family,” Captain Bebe O’Neil, Aviate’s managing director said in a press release.
The Aviate program aims to recruit and train 5,000 pilots by 2030, with half of those pilots being women and people of color. A private pilot’s license is not required to apply to the program; United will cover the cost of obtaining a license, if necessary, once an applicant is accepted.
United estimates the total cost to a student at more than $71,000, but the carrier is offering scholarships and help obtaining loans.
Accepted applicants earn their certificates and ratings through the Aviate program as they work their way up the United chain, first as a flight instructor, then as a pilot with one of the airline’s regional partners, before they are eligible to join United as a first officer. Participants who make it through the process are guaranteed a job with United.
And while Murray predicts a boom for flight schools in the next 12 to 18 months, it appears to already be underway in many places. Beresnyak saw record numbers of students at PFTC during the past year, and the trend appears consistent nationwide.
“Flight schools across the country are reporting that business is booming,” said Elizabeth Tennyson, executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s “You Can Fly” program. “Enrollment seems to be up just about everywhere, and in some areas there are long waiting lists to start flight training. We believe this upward trend in flight training is likely to continue even as we work our way out of the pandemic.”
Private pilot instruction saw a huge spike during the pandemic as many people who were forced to work from home found themselves with more free time on their hands. Many students were seeking recreational flying opportunities, but given the need for commercial pilots, many may see flying as a career opportunity.
The recent creation of niche airlines like Avelo Airlines and Breeze Airways, which last week announced it will provide service to four destinations out of Pittsburgh International Airport, indicates that the trend toward more commercial flying opportunities does not appear to be diminishing.
“For people who want to become professional pilots, it’s clear that as travel resumes, there will be a big need for pilots to fly both passengers and cargo,” Tennyson said. “The demand for new pilots could be greater than ever.”