At dinner the other night I sat between a United Airlines B737 pilot and an American Airlines A320 pilot.
The purported airline pilot shortage has not hit the mainline carriers. The United pilot explained that for a white or Asian male it would be necessary to have substantial turbine-multi pilot-in-command time (i.e., have worked at a regional airline for 5-10 years so as to upgrade to captain). In other words, United and American are not poaching first officers (“co-pilots”) from regional airlines, nor are they hiring white/Asian men anywhere near the FAA minimums (1500 hours, possibly all but about 50 in a little four-seat single-engine plane).
[It is a different story for pilots who identify as “female” or who can claim membership in one of the sought-after racial groups. They will be hired if they meet the bare regulatory minimums (i.e., they skip out on the 5-10 years of time- and experience-building and can therefore be much more advanced in their careers at any age because, once hired by a United or American, it is all about seniority).]
What’s the easiest job at these airlines? Senior first officer on the B777, especially if one’s role is to be an en-route relief pilot (just sit in the right seat and maybe work the radios for four hours mid-flight). You literally get paid to sleep in a crew rest bunk for nearly all of your “working” hours. Due to your high seniority you get the best schedules and are probably home at least 20 days per month. This position can be gamed such that the relief pilot does not do three takeoffs and landings within 90 days. Then he or she is no longer legal to serve as a crew member and is grounded for a month while the airline figures out how to schedule simulator training to regain currency.
Down in the world of humble four-seat piston airplanes, the shortage does seem to be real. At our local airport, for example, a 54-year-old flight school shut down recently, saying that they couldn’t recruit and retain instructors. I can’t figure out whether that leaves our school in better or worse shape. On the one hand we no longer have any real competition other than people driving 30+ minutes to some other airport. On the other hand, this “competitor” was great at marketing (our school is great at maintenance) and brought a lot of people to the airport who learned to fly with them and then rented from us or got additional ratings with us.
[Can a flight school holler “shortage” when the retail price for an instructor is less than what the local gym charges for a personal trainer? No school would be short of instructors if it paid $150,000 per year ($200,000 including benefits and taxes?). But if the instructor teaches 500 flight hours per year, that’s $400/hour to the customer, currently paying $150/hour for the plane and $50-60/hour for the teacher. Customers would presumably wander off to find other hobbies if flight schools pushed dual rates from $200/hour to $550.]