The Pilot Shortage Will Be Worse Than Anyone Believes

By Robert Mark on February 3rd, 2007

The infectious excitement surrounding the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring Florida last month made it pretty clear that the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) movement offers a far different air show experience than Air Venture, or Sun & Fun or most other local events. In a nice way, I was impressed with the ease of browsing at the 20 or 30 new aircraft on display.

But the exhilaration of seeing a full range of LSA airplanes, ones an average pilot can actually afford to own and fly, was overshadowed by another revelation I took away from Sebring. More sobering was the realization that everywhere, I ran into pilots and enthusiasts who were not only past 50 like me, but many easily past 60, 70 and beyond.

While the graying of the pilot world will hardly come as a profound shock to anyone, AOPA’s Kathleen Vascouselos said on a recent AvWeb podcast that the total pilot population drop is worse than anyone has even imagined, from 850,000 in the early 1990s to 597,000 today.

Couple those numbers with preponderance of old men and women I see around airports and shows and lots of aircraft-marketing people are probably having nightmares … lots and lots of nightmares, because in 10 to 15 years, a huge chunk of the nation’s pilot population is going to simply drop off the face of the Earth, never to return.

And we’ve trained few replacements. Plenty has been written about the ever-deepening pit both the airlines and business aviation will soon find themselves as the demand for pilots rapidly increases in the face of a diminishing supply. said last week that regional are already scrambling for pilots.

What should also be ruining the dreams of the marketing folks at Piper, Cessna, Cirrus and the LSA builders however, is that along with the retirement of a lot of professional pilots comes the elimination of the vast majority of recreational pilots – the people who used to fly for fun – and their need for new airplanes.

Certainly the Be-A-Pilot folks and AOPA have spent millions trying to entice more people to learn to fly, as have a few flight schools. Quite a few people have started the learning process, in fact. The problem is that few continue on to receive their license unless they see a serious business need to own and fly an airplane.

Funding has basically dwindled at Be-A-Pilot until it is now a mere shadow of its former self. And that diminishing supply of people who fly for fun spells big trouble for the future of GA in this country since we’ll not simply be retiring professional pilots soon, but recreational pilots as well. And honestly, the money is being cut off because the results have been questionable.

Most airport managers and Fixed Base Operators will tell you their marketing efforts are focused on turbine-powered airplanes because that’s where the profits are. But what they can’t tell you is where the pilots to fly those airplanes – any airplanes 10-15 years down the road – will come from if general aviation experiences the massive slowdown in operations the numbers seem to indicate. The FAA administrator is so focused on making user fees a reality, money she says they need to fund the next generation ATC system, that they have no ideas on how to encourage people to fly.

Let’s see, neither FBOs, airports or FAA seem to know how they’ll encourage people to learn to fly because they are to busy serving their customers today to realize that despite the significant steps up in aviation since 9/11, the industry is headed for a big whack in the side of the head soon. AOPA is trying, but they can’t do it alone.

Most airports and FBOs don’t see career education as their job. The FAA does, but only in a very broad sense. Could this all have anything to do with FAA dropping the promotion of aviation from their mission statement a decade ago? It just might. But now is not the time to point fingers of blame. We already do way too much of that in this country. Blame won’t solve the problem. Just as the Chinese economy has begun to compete with the U.S. for oil supplies, so too will they and India begin to compete with the U.S. for pilots.

So right now, we don’t know how we’re going to supply professional pilots over the next decade, much less the recreational ones to buy the airplanes our companies want to build. And no one seems to have figured out why flight training, the pilot base for all commercial and private pilot starts, is not simply faltering, but going comatose, in addition to the overall awful marketing efforts most flight schools produce that is. It is high time for a massive sit down between the parties – FAA, FBOs, flight schools, aircraft manufacturers, NBAA and airline representatives – to not just talk about pilot shortages, but to craft some new initiatives that will make a dent in the drain at the bottom of the bucket before it becomes and even bigger leak.

It’s time we call this what this looming pilot shortage what it truly is becoming … not a crisis, but a catastrophe. Maybe Be-A-Pilot was not as successful as some had hoped, but it was a start. If we don’t start developing Be-A-Pilot 2.0 and incorporate the good marketing efforts that worked with some new ideas to encourage people to fly for fun and for money, there isn’t going to be an aviation industry a decade or two down the road.

We can’t simply sit back, say we tried and hope someone else will fix the problem. Trust me, just like the user fee crisis, the pilot shortage is a problem from ALL of us. You are the “someone else” to help the industry survive … and if you still don’t think this is about survival of the industry, just archive this blog and stop back in ten years, maybe sooner to see how the future has unfolded.


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13 Responses to “The Pilot Shortage Will Be Worse Than Anyone Believes”

  1. Gerald Z Says:

    Hi Rob –

    Excellent article.

    As you are aware, the sport pilot/light-sport aircraft rules went into effect in September 2004. has been actively promoting this exciting, affordable segment of aviation for one year now. In 2006 we received over 38,000 visitors.

    With these new rules one can now become a licensed pilot for about $3,500! That’s no more expensive that a small boat, motorcycle or pop-up camper. And it’s less that half the price of the private ticket. I believe that getting folks started with the sport pilot license will get the ball rolling towards further certificates and perhaps even careers as professionals. The new rules simply reduce the cost of admission.

    The problem right now is not a shortage of people interested in learning to fly (just read through the forum), but actually finding light-sport aircraft and sport pilot training. We need to get the flight schools onboard to jump-start this segment of aviation. The number of flight schools offering this type of training is growing – check out our “Flight School And Rental Finder” map. Most flight schools don’t even understand the new rules and some DPE’s are scared of the liability of signing off lesser-trained pilots. My former flight school still requires a medical for sport pilot training even though the FAA doesn’t!

    Furthermore, flight schools incorrectly believe that sport pilot training will take away from their core training business, but that is simply not true. You will find a link on the home page to the excellent NAFI article entitled “The Reluctant Flight School.”

    I have recently introduced a new program called “The Affordable Flying Initiative (AFI).” Since light-sport aircraft, selling for $60-$100k, are still out of reach for most pilots, this program seeks to form small partnerships and also to develop a “critical mass” of potential pilots that can lobby a flight school to offer sport pilot training.

    I have also been in touch with the EAA to recommend a flight-school marketing program and have recently opened discussions with to help make flying affordable. Let me know if you would like to get involved!

    Don’t expect any help from AOPA. Their recent “Needle In A Haystack” survey to identify future pilots only included those earning over $100k per year. How absurd!

    Gerald Z,

  2. Michael Says:

    In total appreciation of your copy and feelings… I take note with further input pursuant to such…

    The late 60’s found the same scenario. You know, history does ‘repeat’ itself… continually. Pilot, Technicians shortages, et. at.

    So… what happen?

    It fixed itself! Like everything else on this planet, lack revolves and replenishes its depletions in every category… And actually, to a greater degree than necessary. Meaning in due time (again) we’ll have, and will delivery more pilots and technicians than the industry requires.

    In the meantime… Bring It On!!! It’s about time that the well deserved and qualified aviation buffs ‘earn’ their ‘due’ pay! You know, when a A&P/IA or CFI fetches an average of, maybe $35 bucks an hour… well that Sucks!

    Come on, let the good times roll for the decade or more for the unrecognized professionals in our industry. Let the ‘void’ exist for many a years (… as far as I’m concerned) to come, and let the need for experienced pilots and maintenance personnel exist for many a more years to come! I mean… what the..! anyway.

    It’s ‘finally’ time for the flyers’ to earn their keep!

    Again… the void will fill! I guarantee it.

    Besides I’ll buy you a beer in 10 years if it hasn’t by then… [btw… A very good Cabernet or deep Stout will do me just fine].


  3. rob Says:

    To Gerald’s comment … you have plenty of people interested in learning to fly?

    Are they under 45 years of age?

  4. rob Says:

    To Michael:

    I agree with you that somehow this all going to seek its own level. The question is how long that will take and who or what it will drag with it in the process.

    There was an interesting story in today’s Chicago Tribune about the pilot shortage and it mentioned just what you did.

    That you can only cut so long before you cease to be competitive to potential employees. They either go to some company thatappreciates them or they get out of aviation completely. That is what’s happening to the aviation technician markets.

    With a similar problem, nursing seems to have certainly figured out a to turn itself around when Johnson & Johnson advertises on TV for the profession itself.

    Can you imagine United Airlines doing that?

  5. rob Says:

    And also for Gerald … a flight school marketing program. Now there’s a tough one. I not only agree that too many of them see light sport aircraft as a threat, but still don’t understand that they need to treat customers like … well, customers.

    All that warm fuzzy stuff like, “We want you to stop in, we’re glad you’re here, thank you for coming” …

    One of the reasons the National Air Transportation Association has essentially dropped their FlightTraining committee is they simply tired of trying to explain Marketing 101 to a bunch of people who just want to fly airplanes, like most flight instructors.

    If I can learn enough about marketing to make a solid impression as a CFI, so can they.

    Problem is the majority of instructors don’t really want to teach, they want to fly airplanes, which is why they have trouble transferring any entusiasm to potential students.

    I’ll be curious to see if Gerald’s group from a few earlier posts is able to develop a successfulflight school marketing program. The many times we tried, the clients thought it was all intersting, but balked at paying for the help.

    I think the slogan was something akin to Marketing … When business is good, I don’t need it and when business is bad I can’t afford it.

  6. Norman Rhodes Says:

    It seems we are in tune on this as well. I have been banging on for ages about the looming shortage.
    This is a worldwide problem that has taken years to slowly grow. Now it is set to hit the industry quite hard imho. Thank goodness there will be a major shortage in the left seat! No more dead mans shoes – promotion for those that need it and better pay for those who made it.

    All the best, Norman

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  9. Suz Says:

    Oh Honey, You have to be kidding.
    The airlines will just lower their standards and hire people with 100 hours in 172. And those young kids will take 50 bucks a week just to fly.

    I lie now when people ask me what my husband does. I tell them that he’s a driver for UPS.
    It slays me how much we put into my husband’s career, all the sacrifice to get those many hours he needed for a so-called “real airline pilot job”, the B-scale. Guess what? He’s a 20+ year co-pilot for USAirways making squat, less than he made 1993 when he got off B-scale and a poverty retirement now waits us. He’s gone 4 days of of the week and he’s dead tired when he gets home. 85 grand a year for all that glamor? You have to be kidding me.
    If one of my kids wants to be a pilot, I’m locking him in the basement until he comes to his senses.

  10. Gerald Z Says:

    Honey, there’s plenty of guys waiting to take your husband’s $85k seat. Maybe you can talk him into retiring? I make less than half that after 3 years of flying a 50 seater for a large regional ($17k the first year).

    Although I would like to see flying become more affordable, I’m kind of glad to see the impending pilot shortage coming down the pike. Finally airlines will have to start fighting for us pilots with better work rules, wages and other incentives.

    Regarding hiring with lower standards – that’s already happening. The next time you climb into an RJ just take a look at the baby-face sitting in the cockpit. These guys and gals are being hired right out of Riddle with a whole 300-400 hours under their belts! I have no idea how they’re going to pay off their $100k loans.

    Rob – regarding the marketing to flight schools – the idea is to help accelerate the sport pilot movement. The EAA spearheaded the new rules and they have been actively promoting them. This segment of aviation is growing but the problem is not in finding people interested in learning to fly, but flight schools who offer this type of affordable training and aircraft. Perhaps this educating of flight schools can be funded in part by groups such as the EAA and LAMA (the Light Aircraft Manufacturer’s Association).

  11. Tony O Says:

    I, personally, still have the passion but not the time to fly. THis as we all know can make for a dangerous flight should bad weather pop up from out of nowhere. I mortgaged my home to go to flight school 3 days a week to get my private in 3 months and get my COMMERCIAL, MEL SEL INSTRUMENT in 18 months…Then I became a dad a year after 9/11 because the prospects for a flying job fell with the Twin Towers and I have to pay my mortgage…so, now I sell exotics and still fly as a “safety pilot” wishing I could have pursued my dream earlier…

    I turn 40 this year, and with a total of 650 hours, (70 multi and 5 jet), a $375,000 mortgage to pay off while now also paying pre-school tuition at $10,000 per year and a now 18 month old daughter recently added…well, I’m done.

  12. Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz Says:

    Thanks for the post. I found it very useful for (and I quoted from it in) a piece I just finished for our blog.

    You can view at
    if you’d like.

    Thanks again!

  13. Paul Peterson Says:

    Great article… I have a contribution to the problem, and an answer:

    From what I’ve read, pilot recruitment effort seems to revolve around the up-and-coming generation ONLY, via Regionals sending recruiters out to flight colleges. Problem is, there isn’t enough in that generation to replace the retiring baby-boomers you eluded to (“10-15 year dropoff, never to return”). However, there are some of us from OTHER generations who have always wanted to be pilots, but because we didn’t get the chance as young men (and women), we did something else. Now that we’ve lived a little, been beaten up by the world a little, and need to ‘retrain’ again because corporate America let us down, we’re looking at the profession again. Some of our personal barriers are gone (children grown enough to be independent, not single bread-winner anymore, etc.). But still, in an era of shortage, we’re denied because of credit ratings. Fully half of all Americans have some credit problem, either because of the times we live in, or unemployment times, or just plain complexity of the credit system and the unfairness of it all: Pay good for 20+ years, but trash your credit the first time your unemployed and have to juggle things.

    I’d like to see initiatives that make pilot career training financed like college education: Accelerated program academies (which are in place), lump sum payment with deferrment against future income. They do it for an unclear career path beyond college on the basis of that statistic that says, the more educated people are, the more they’ll make in their lifetime. The pilot career is even more well-defined.

    Additionally, pay pilots better upon career entry, and the simple economics of that situation will attract more interest from people doing serious risk-reward analyses of the job.

    In my case, I need a sponsor to get SallieMae to cough up the dough. However, I do have a plan to protect this sponsor in the case of Murphy’s Law. There is such a thing out there as Pilot Occupational Disability Insurance for pilots who lose their ATP license for circumstances beyond their control (such as Medical Certification loss).

    Any help from anyone out there, whether direct or indirect, would be greatly appreciated. I’ve still got a good 20 years to be had in the profession if I could only get it off the ground, and I’m already a private pilot.

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