By Kathryn B. Creedy
- Airlines are not the only piloting career
- Freight, business aviation doing well
- Growing interest in flight training, small aircraft
- Training companies adapt
- Advanced Air Mobility may impact demand
- Furloughs impact recurrent training
- Resources to help pilots cope
Hat tip to Aviation Week for Friday’s webinar looking at the pandemic’s impact on pilot supply and flight training. While all agreed the short-term pain for airline pilots is huge, speakers agreed, long-term prospects are robust and aspiring pilots have opportunities given accelerating retirements at airlines. Speakers also offered suggestions to keep students and furloughed pilots going.
Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick noted recruiting at commercial airlines will be tougher when asked about the attractiveness of a piloting career.
“While airlines are suffering other segments of the aviation industry are not,” he told listeners, adding IFALPA (International Federation of Air Line Pilot Associations) said it doesn’t expect to do recruiting for the next two years. “Freight is not doing too bad nor is business aviation. There is more opportunity there than at the airlines. You may see that this level of disruption means business aviation will come out of this pandemic with more momentum which will create a few more challenges for airline recruiters.”
And rising training costs for sectors, including regional cargo airlines, doing well.
Broderick noted moves to support flight schools. “Embry Riddle has no long-term concerns and has seen no drop in interest,” he said. “We are still going to need pilots and flight schools and we need them to survive until we get to recovery. The smart money will help support these programs in the short term. Industry is going to have to be more resourceful than it has been in the past.”
Indeed, aviation universities have long reported growing interest in aviation careers, including pilots.
He pointed out there is additional access to capital for flight training with L3 Harris reporting private equity interest in the sector.
“We are going to need a lot of pilots,” he said. “A year ago, we were doing stories on airlines setting up their own pipeline programs and financial institutions providing loans. We are going to need more of that, and aspiring pilots will want more security when they think about airlines because this situation will be fresh in their minds.”
His comments have been born out on several fronts. The National Business Aviation Association recently reported more than half of respondents to its annual Compensation Survey returned to work in June. AvWeek reported an uptick in flight school demand along with a growing interest in acquiring aircraft. The General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association reports turboprops are leading deliveries while business aviation OEMs see heightened interest in small business jets such as the Embraer Phenom 300, HondaJet and below.
Pilot Supply Debate Continues
Pilot supply, always the subject of lively debates, historically has seen airline pilots and industry taking different sides. Despite the outlook for pilots, some do not agree there’s a rosy picture, including British Air Line Pilots Association which said it is discouraging aspiring aviators from pursuing an airline career.
This, I think, is short sighted. As Broderick pointed out airlines are not the only aviation job out there. Second, by the time these kids finish with their training we will be in recovery. Third is the impact of accelerated retirements. Fourth, even pilots suggest the reason there was a lull in interest in piloting or aviation careers between 1980 to 2015 is because pilots did nothing but complain about their careers given the impact of deregulation and recessions. The fact is the industry has flirted with many pilot shortages over the decades dodging them because of the economy or 9/11. This is a cyclical industry with recessions as regular as clockwork – about every decade. Even in good times, pilots point out, those who fly 80 hours a month often have second careers.
Even so, automation is threatening future prospects, according to Aviation Consultant Brian Foley, who makes strong arguments that by the end of Boeing’s 20-year forecast, automation will be taking over.
“These forecasts do not take into account the technological progress being made in semi- and fully-autonomous flight,” said Foley.
Foley, who writes extensively on aviation, pointed to the Large Unmanned Cargo aircraft under development and those already fielded by the U.S. military, predicting military will be the first to shed crews.
“Drones are moving even more quickly towards flight autonomy, including military versions and those used by delivery services like Amazon, Walmart and others as well as Garmin’s Autoland technology,” he said. “It won’t take a special, clean-sheet aircraft design to accommodate this but instead a retrofit of the existing fleet.”
Broderick indicated before the pipeline can start flowing again for airlines, aircraft utilization must rise and for that we need demand recovery. While predictions for that are four to five years, he indicated vaccine results followed by successful distribution, could build the confidence needed for higher demand, quickening recovery.
Two recent forecasts predict the aviation industry will face challenges in populating the flight deck, including the recent CAE report, based on pilot retirements and fleet growth of 11,000 new aircraft, showing a need for 27,000 pilots for airlines and business aviation through late next year and 264,000 by 2030. It also suggested traffic will return to 2019 levels in 2022.
While lowering its pilot demand forecast from 2019, Boeing still sees a need for 605,000 pilots in the next two decades. Cowen Securities reported 12,000 pilots at US major carriers are due for retirement in the next five years and expected airlines, to save money, will “juniorize” the flight deck by offering retirement incentives.
“There is no question the seniority lists at airlines will look very different,” said Broderick, noting this presents opportunities for remaining pilots to upgrade.
Congressional and Regulatory Reporter Ben Goldstein said, in the US, only American was forced to impose 1600 involuntary furloughs, beyond the 821 pilots opting for early retirement. Meanwhile the rest of the industry worked with unions to avoid such moves with 450 United pilots, 640 Southwest pilots and 500-600 Delta pilots taking buyouts. Indeed, AvWeek recently published an excellent article on the subject reporting 3.8% of commercial pilots are expected to retire or leave the profession each year for the next decade.
Goldstein said those carriers having reached deals with pilot groups, pledged to protect jobs until July ’21 (United) and January ‘22 (Delta).
Should another CARES payroll protection program pass Congress, Goldstein explained, these agreements are void and pilots would return to their previous rates. Airlines are required to recall furloughed pilots and pilot groups have provided for a full snap back to pre-crisis pay and rules once demand reaches certain thresholds.
Recurrent Training Burden
Concerns ripplng through the aviation industry focus on pilot pay which has been rising exponentially with the shortage, especially at regionals. It is probably too soon to tell whether the law of supply and demand will diminish pilot pay short term outside of the airline industry.
In the meantime, airlines are pulling several levers to avoid the massive currency training needs once recovery happens.
Jens Flottau, executive editor commercial aviation, reported Lufthansa is betting on part-time work, keeping pilots flying but giving them a pay cut with reduced hours. It also suspended all training even for the 700 cadets already in the program.
“They told cadets if you don’t manage to secure a job with Lufthansa within five years you’ll have to pay back the training costs in one piece which can be as much as €100,000,” he said, noting cadet training has been disrupted elsewhere. “If they do get a job with Lufthansa, they are given a loan to pay it back over time.”
“A lot of pilots are flying less because of the airline deals,” said Goldstein. “Airlines are relying on cutting hours and schedules as well as early retirements to reduce labor costs and avoid involuntary furloughs. These agreements benefit pilots and airlines because it keeps them flying and they are able to maintain pilots, saving hiring and training costs. That’s a win/win.”
Others, like Emirates are offering 1,000 pilots a year of unpaid leave to keep them available as traffic returns.
Training providers are also adapting, according to Senior Editor Business and Commercial Aviation Bill Carey.
“They have developed online tools with live access to instructors to fill the gap as well as relying more on simulator training versus actually flying the aircraft,” he said. “All this is affected by the inability to get to locations and social distancing standards.”
Broderick described the airline conundrum. “Airlines don’t want to pay pilots to sit around,” he said. “Airlines and pilots want to fly as much as possible. At the same time, the cost to retrain pilots is significant. ALPA is wondering whether airlines are using Covid as an excuse to stretch out training intervals and it does not favor such extensions. But airlines are doing as well as they can to mitigate the risk.”
Flottau pointed to a recent IATA study saying airlines are handling currency issues well.
The massive fleet retirements prompted a huge training task as pilots who once flew the 747, 757, A380, MD80, 717, 767 will need retraining. Alaska Airlines is already training A320 pilots on its Boeing aircraft, said Goldstein.
“Fleet retirements have a cascading effect on training pilots on different fleet types so there is a series of moves that have to happen which are very costly,” he said. “That is part of the equation in terms of training costs.”
Carey spoke of a new program to help pilots weather the pandemic. Called Resilient Pilot, on which he reported recently. (Subscription required) The program was developed to provide free pilot mentoring service connecting experienced pilots with cadets and other pilots.
“In October, Resilient Pilot had 50 volunteer mentors and 150 mentees in the UK,” Carey reported. “Resilient Pilot also works with the training industry to help pilots remain current. It focuses on the core competencies as defined by ICAO. Importantly, it also talks about pilot mental well being connecting pilots with each other for support. This is just one of the concepts organizations are developing in response to what is happening during the pandemic and to see commercial pilots through this.”
Its ‘Resilient Pilot Flightplan’ provides pilots with support and guidance to ensure they are fully prepared and equipped to return safely to the flight deck focusing on three main elements: Core Competencies, Wellbeing and Diversity.
Mentoring has been identified across the industry as one of the most important initiatives for active, furloughed student pilots. Most professional associations and nearly all of the aviation diversity groups such as Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Latin Pilots Association, the National Gay Pilots Association, Women in Aviation International have mentor programs. Airlines and aviation schools have partnered to develop mentor programs as part of their classroom-to-flight deck pathway programs helping them pursue, and stick with, their careers.
All in all, prospects for pilots look good long term. We just have to get there. In the meantime, pilots are pursuing plan Bs, according to Franment Owner Marie Rogers, who reported a uptick in franchise interest from pilots who want something to fall back on during downturns. All things considered, that’s probably a good idea regardless of the pandemic.