hile the contention that there is an approaching shortage of airline pilots has been getting more attention the past two years, the reasons and level of severity for the presumed scarcity were up for debate at last week’s Aviation Festival Americas conference.

In a conversation with Espen Høiby, CEO of flight crew management firm OSM Aviation, and René Armas Maes, VP of air transportation consultancy Jet Link International LLC, Wall Street Journal The Middle Seat reporter Scott McCartney suggested the high costs and stringent requirements associated with pilot training as the most likely reasons behind of the dearth of pilots. One conference attendee suggested that young people are simply more enticed by working for a tech startup in gaming or e-commerce than were appealed by the prospect of learning to fly a plane for a major airline.

But both Høiby, a former airline captain with Scandinavian Airlines, and Armas Maes, an IATA and Airport Council International instructor, pointed to a disconnect between the number of pilots needed and the number of aircraft to be delivered in the next years. As we’ve noted, By 2035, there will be 7.2 billion airline travelers annually – almost twice the 3.8 billion air travelers in 2016, according to the IATA’s 20-Year Air Passenger Forecast.

Aircraft Delivery Woes

That heightened level of travel has spurred a race to add new technology in the cockpit and faster pilot training to keep up with the demand.  

But the delivery of new aircraft has been slow in coming. And that slowdown in delivery will probably be even further delayed in the wake of the tragic crashes of Indonesia’s Lion Air in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines in March 2019. In both flights, the flight crew’s inability to wrest control from Boeing’s anti-stall software in the 737 Max aircraft has been alleged as one possible cause of the doomed jets, which left a total death toll of 346 passengers.

Even before those tragedies, orders for the 737 Max suspended by airlines such as Ryanair, which has delayed its delivery of 210 737 Max planes until next winter, FlightGlobal reported. Boeing estimated that airlines will need approximately 790,000 new pilots globally by 2037.

Boeing's outlook for where and how many pilots will be needed over the next two decades

Consumers Will Bear The Cost

While David Kammeyer, a pilot and software co-founder and CEO of machine learning startup Mentality.ai, conceded he hasn’t “heavily researched the airline pilot ‘shortage’” too extensively, he posited a general dubiousness about how much of an issue it is.

“I tend to believe that there is never such a thing as a shortage, only a market clearing price that's high enough that makes it worthwhile for employers to hire a PR firm,” Kammeyer told Kambr Media.

“Obviously, there's a local vs. global market and the factors driving each are different. Globally, there is no shortage whatsoever, because outside of the U.S. pilots are trained ab initio, usually on some sort of contingency basis by the airline,” Kammeyer added.

Nevertheless, he did say that the aviation industry does face labor deficits in a number of areas.  

“In the U.S., you've got the 1,500 hour rule, less private aviation, and the decline of aviation ‘shit jobs’ like pipeline patrol and flying checks,” Kammeyer said. “Some people were willing to do these (paid) jobs to build up the 700-800 hours necessary to get a regional airline job. But if you're asking someone to pay $70-per-hour -- if you know how to do it cheaply -- for 1,500 hours, that's $100k worth of time.  It's stupid to go into that kind of debt for a $25k/yr regional airline job.”

In a large sense, Kammeyer said he believes the market will find its own level in terms of the matching the number of pilots to meet consumer demand for more flights. Instead, the problem as he sees it, is how much the flying public will be willing to bear the costs.

To put the labor cost in context, pilot salaries vary according the type of aircraft that they’re flying and how long they’ve been at an airline, according to an analysis by Phoenix East Aviation. The median annual salary for the pilot of a large jet is an impressive $121,408. For a small jet, the median annual salary is $104,219.

“If we are requiring another $50k + 6 months' worth of training, ultimately the flying public is going to have to pay an extra $60k per pilot, spread out over regional airline ticket prices,” Kammeyer said. “That has caused some pain for regional airlines, but that's the only way it can be.”

WSJ's Middle Seat Reporter Scott McCartney, Espen Høiby, CEO of flight crew management firm OSM Aviation, and René Armas Maes, VP of air transportation consultancy Jet Link International LLC (L-R)

AI’s Possible Cost Solution  

To avert the potential pilot availability crisis, Høiby and Armas Maes floated the idea of initiating a collaborative effort among aircraft manufacturers, software companies and tech startups, simulator providers, training specialists, and regulators to find “right path forward.”

“How to access, train and secure enough competent people to support this industry’s rapid and tremendous projected growth will be one of the key challenges every airline will be facing. However, most people growing up today are faced with limitless career opportunities, and if we wish to attract talents to our industry, we need to reinvigorate the status of a career in the sky, offering tailored, high quality and affordable pilot educations in combination with employment security and complete career paths,” said Høiby.

Aircraft manufacturers have begun studying autonomous flying technologies, Høiby, though that possibility appears to be way off in the future. In the near term, key aircraft manufacturers have expressed interest in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning (among other technologies) in the cockpit as well as moving forward toward digital interfaces.  

Airline pilots have successfully generated public consensus for maintaining the required two pilots in the cockpit rule, thereby pushing back on the use of more automation to replace in-flight personnel. But that’s not the primary use case for software as envisioned by Armas Maes, who said that the greater role of AI and automation could help to shorten the amount of time it takes to train pilots, and ease the shortage as a result.

“Moreover, in order to continue growing their order books, businesses and aircraft deliveries, at least two key aircraft manufacturers are exploring new technologies to accelerate training,” Armas Maes said. “But in order to move quickly, the industry needs to work proactively with regulators to mitigate effects of delayed regulation.”