Airlines Get Creative to Ease Pilot Shortage

New flight schools, bonus incentives among efforts to fill thousands of jobs by 2030

By Evan Dougherty

Published February 7, 2022

Read Time: 4 mins


A critical pilot shortage forecast by the aviation industry for years has arrived—ahead of schedule.

“There has been a looming pilot shortage for the last decade in the United States,” said United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Dec. 15. “Going through COVID, it became an actual pilot shortage.”

READ MORE: New Flight School Takes Off at Allegheny County Airport

As passenger demand emerges from the doldrums of the pandemic, airlines are scrambling for pilots in creative ways, including opening their own flight schools, revising education requirements and boosting pay for first-year captains and first officers. They are also taking steps to increase the number of pilots who are women and people of color.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Data, about 14,500 job openings for airline and commercial pilots are expected through 2030. Jobs for commercial pilots are expected to grow 11 percent in that time, faster than the national average.

While a career as a pilot can be lucrative, training can be daunting financially for many aspiring pilots. The average cost to earn a commercial pilot’s license in the U.S. is near $100,000.

Becoming a certified Airline Transport Pilot necessary to fly for airlines requires at least 1,500 hours of flying time, which is significantly more than in other parts of the world, including Europe.

“I’m a little less optimistic that the situation is going to reverse itself in the near term unless we do something to increase the supply of pilots,” Kirby added.

Aviate gets airborne

United became the first U.S. airline to open its own flight school when United Aviate Academy welcomed its inaugural class on Jan. 27.

The 340,000 square-foot facility at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona includes modern amenities, such as student housing capable of future expansion, 50,000 square feet of office space and late model Cirrus SR-20 single engine aircraft that come with advanced safety features. The favorable weather in the region allows for year-round flight training.

Through a partnership with JP Morgan Chase & Co., United plans to fund $2.4 million in scholarships for student pilots who attend the Academy.

Citing low numbers of women and minority pilots, the airline will work directly with organizations, including the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and Sisters of the Skies, to educate prospects about choosing a career as a pilot and provide scholarship opportunities.

United Aviate Academy welcomed its inaugural class of students on Jan. 27 which consists of nearly 80 percent women and minorities. (Image courtesy of United Airlines)

United estimates it will need to hire at least 10,000 pilots through the end of the decade to keep up with demand. The school expects to train about 500 of those pilots per year at the Aviate Academy, with a least half women or people of color, according to the airline.

Nearly 80 percent of the inaugural Aviate class consists of women and minorities.

“As a United pilot for more than 32 years, it’s exciting to see these new students earning their wings and beginning their aviation careers, and I’m looking forward to them joining me on the flight deck one day,” said United Chief Pilot Mary Ann Schaffer in a statement from the airline. “We need more pilots and a more diverse pool of young aviators, and United Aviate Academy will help us achieve both goals.”

Life experience

United isn’t the only airline looking to remove barriers for future pilots.

On Jan. 6, Delta Air Lines announced it would drop its longstanding college degree requirement for all new hire pilots. Previously, the airline required its candidates to hold a four-year bachelor’s degree.

“After a comprehensive review of our pilot hiring requirements, Delta has decided to make a four-year college degree ‘preferred’ rather than required for first officer candidates, effective immediately,” Delta’s pilot recruitment team said in a statement.

“While we feel as strongly as ever about the importance of education, there are highly qualified candidates—people who we would want to welcome to our Delta family—who have gained more than the equivalent of a college education through years of life and leadership experience. Making the four-year degree requirement preferred removes unintentional barriers to our Delta flight decks.”

Numerous carriers have instituted pay raises and added benefits for their pilots. Houston-based start-up Avelo Air announced it would increase salaries for first-year captains from $135 to $200 per hour, and first officers from $70 to $90 per hour. Ultra-low cost carriers Breeze, Frontier and Sun Country have also announced similar pay increases for their pilots.

Avelo, Frontier and Sun Country recently entered partnerships with ATP Flight School, the nation’s largest. ATP, which partners with 30 airlines, has trained more than 20,000 pilots since 1984. The flight school provides pilots to all major carriers, with some offering up to $17,500 in tuition reimbursement and bonus incentives totaling $172,500.

On Wednesday, ATP announced the opening of its newest flight school at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin. Starting on Feb. 7, student pilots will be able to enter the school’s Airline Pilot Career Program, earning a commercial pilot and flight instructor certificate prior to advancing to an Airbus or Boeing First Officer position.

Delta’s pilot recruiting team announced on Jan. 6 that the airline would drop its longstanding college degree requirement for all new hire pilots. (Photo by Evan Dougherty)

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