The purported airline pilot shortage

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.]

11 thoughts on “The purported airline pilot shortage

  1. Not sure where the shortage stands but it is interesting to see that there are various programs being offered by the regionals that pay for commercial helicopter pilots to transition to fixed wing. They write you a check to get your ratings with a promise for a job upon completion and a transition to the majors within a few years. Know of several people who are jumping on that.

  2. LinePilot: I think that the U.S. regionals are facing a “shortage” (i.e., a willingness of other employers, such as Chinese and Arab airlines, to pay more). But, based on their continued insistence that white/Asian males go through the regional airline filter, it seems that mainline compensation is still quite attractive.

  3. The purported airline pilot shortage

    Same as the 30-year purported programmer shortage.

  4. Is the implication that the white and asian (regional airline pilot) males will be poached by foreign carriers, and the pipeline fills up with affirmative action hires?

    Should we worry about US pilot quality in a few years?

  5. Viking: That’s a great question. From what I’ve seen Americans are reluctant to expatriate themselves indefinitely. They enjoy working for Emirates or a Chinese carrier for 10 years and then somehow decide that it will be easier to rear children here in the U.S. so the family moves back and the pilot follows shortly afterwards. One knock against Emirates seems to be that the schedules can be brutal. They are cozy with the regulator so they can work pilots to the point of exhaustion. (“We were punching each other to stay awake,” said one Emirates pilot who came back to the U.S. to be a major airline first officer.)

  6. Why should an instructor only be able to work 500 hours a year? If I worked 500 hours a year, I wouldn’t make any money either. (I know it’s not possible to fly 24/7) Maybe flight instruction is only really suitable for freelancers with second gigs. (Crappy/quitting flight instructors is a big part of why I never finished my license!) Maybe we should co-locate co-working spaces on airports so instructors can be productive during downtime.

  7. SuperMike: airline pilots can work only a maximum of 1,000 flight hours per year (see 14 CFR 121.481). Flight instructors at a university-run program might be able to get close to this and possibly instructors at a perfect-weather location such as Florida or Arizona. At a regular flight school, however, customers mostly show up on weekends and there is a regulatory limit of 8 hours of flight instruction (does not include ground instruction) per day.

    Keep in mind that 500 flight hours per year may correspond to 1,000-1,500 hours at the school.

  8. Most travelers are men who obviously prefer having female pilots, so why has the media always considered men the conservative ones who want a male president?

  9. @philg How much ground instruction is really needed? (Doesn’t that wacky old couple take care of most of it?)

  10. Is there a short-form or bullet point list to cover what’s involved in being an airline pilot? I don’t have to divorce to get time for lessons in piloting, so I’m curious.

  11. Mrs. Practical: You need 1500 hours and an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. If memory serves, you live in Florida, which is simply carpeted with airports and flight schools. They have a lot of packaged programs and time-building schemes too, e.g., having people fly as first officers in non-airline commercial flying. I think for about $50,000 and 1.5-2 years, though, you can get there. It is a much better return on time and money than most four-year college degrees!

    is an example structured program. The basics are that you have to pay for about 250 hours of flight time (at roughly $200/hour with instructor, but it could be done cheaper). At that point you have your instructor certificate. Then you get paid (minimally) to fly the next 1,250 hours in a world that is quite short of instructors (see original posting!).

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