Read Past the Headlines for Details of Aviation’s Future Pilot & Maintenance Needs

By Scott Spangler on September 21st, 2010

Google Alerts is an efficient way to keep pace with the global aviation industry. But to mine prognosticative details about aviation’s future, one must read past the headlines.

boeing-building_med In a recent media release, “Boeing Projects Requirements for More than One Million Pilots and Maintenance Personnel Over Next 20 Years,” my headline happiness was an inaccurate ethnocentric response. The first paragraph seemed to support my assumption that America would need 466,650 pilots and 596,500 maintenance personnel “to accommodate the strong demand for new and replacement aircraft,” which was based on the crew assessment forecast in  Boeing’s Current Market Outlook, a comprehensive analysis of the commercial aviation industry.

What struck me odd, however, was the dateline: Singapore. Reading further, why Boeing made this announcement at the recent Asia Pacific Airline Training Symposium in Kula Lumpur made perfect sense. The majority of those one million aviation jobs—180,600 pilots and 220,000 mechanics—will be needed in this region, with the largest share in China, 70,600 pilots and 96,400 maintenance people.

A global sum, Boeing based its one million number on the projected delivery of 30,000 airliners by 2029. North America will need 97,350 pilots and 137,000 mechanics; the release didn’t itemize the projected needs of the United States and Canada. Dividing these totals into an annual need results in just 4,867 pilots and 6,850 mechanics.

This is a sobering view of the looming “pilot shortage” in America. Today, 105 accredited collegiate aviation colleges and universities are members of the University Aviation Association. Unable to find a current  summary of their combined enrollment, it seems a safe assumption, however, that their  graduates may overwhelm the demand in these career fields.

As a consequence, it could be safe to assume that the economic laws of supply and demand will reduce the number of students pursuing these fields, thereby reducing the number of available programs and increasing the tuition the survivors charge. This will likely cause all but the most passionate aviation hopefuls to look at other career fields, which might just be a supply sufficient to meet demand.

The Boeing release tacitly supports this possibility. It quotes Roei Ganzarski of Boeing Training & Flight Services: "To accommodate this growing demand, it will be vital to match training with the learning styles of students to come. As an industry, we need to adapt to the learning styles of tomorrow’s technologically savvy pilots and mechanics, and ensuring that training is globally accessible, adaptable to individual needs and competency-based."

Ryanair-Oleary His “growing demand” seemed out of place, until I remembered that he was focusing mainly on the  Pacific Rim, not America. Still, the point seems clear: aviation as a whole must adapt to a new economic order. And it must factor in further changes, no matter how silly they seem by current standards. Raise your hand if you  remember the conversations that riffled through the industry when Boeing and other OEMs reduced the number of cockpit seats to two.

The point man on this seems to be Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, who said in an interview with the Financial Times, “Really, you only need one pilot. Let’s take out the second pilot. Let the bloody computer fly it,” which is the reality today, except for takeoffs and landings.

The reporter buries the relevant point in the fifth paragraph: “If times were lush, rival airline executives could afford to ignore him. In recent years, with much of the global industry struggling to survive, O’Leary’s subversive vision looks like a viable alternative to the status quo, which is threatened by obsolescence, attrition, and consolidation. He says what the others are thinking, and, more often than not, doing” [Emphasis added].

My point is to not paint a gloomy future. Rather it is to connect seemingly disparate harbingers of what tomorrow may look like, because success rewards the prepared and penalizes the surprised. –Scott Spangler

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6 Responses to “Read Past the Headlines for Details of Aviation’s Future Pilot & Maintenance Needs”

  1. Vincent Says:

    With all due respect to M. O’Leary, I’not ready to seat (or stand…) in a single pilot airliner. I know that the damn computer can fly and land, but there’s an area where the computer will never be as good as a crew, and this is decision making.

    Airline crew no often have to improvise and leave the checklists and manual aside, but when this happen (think of double engine failures after a bird-strike, or severe weather, icing, …) the decision making power of a human brain is way better than a computer program. Yes, I’m a computer guy, so I know what this is about.

    IMHO, it is important to have a crew, and not a single pilot. Dicussing options is the best way to make the best decisions and this is not something that a pilot can do alone in the cockpit.

    Unless a double personality becomes a requirement…


  2. @williamAirways Says:

    Thanks for this write up. I was wondering where Boeing’s numbers came from and how they came to this conclusion. If this projection is based on aircraft orders, did they mention that if a customer decide not to execute on those orders (delay receipt or aircraft, or cancel these orders), that it will affect their lofty projections for the hiring demand?

    I’m truly not a fan of any of these “projections” and “speculations”. A majority of these *guesses* are often far from reality. One wonders why industry continues to put out optimistic outlooks that bears no resemblance to reality.

    It’s no secret that the aviation growth is going to be in the Asian Pacific region. Flight schools are setting up shop in China and other parts of the world to meet this future growth. We are already seeing flight schools in the USA training foreign pilots to meet this growth.

    Regarding the American “pilot shortage” for airlines, I wonder if it’s a concern. The economy is showing slow growth. The airlines are merging and talking about eliminating regional flying. The 1,500 hour requirement is going to bench a lot of low time pilots. It seems to me that by the time the economy improves, airline hiring demand increases, and the benched pilots gain the 1,500 hours, it may all just work out.

    There are only so many airplanes flying, with only so many pilot seats in said airplanes. This basically means, nationally, we only need a finite number of pilots, with a shallow pool that can replace attrition. I don’t believe the hiring pools are dry, and most airlines are not hiring, and won’t be hiring in the foreseeable future. So it begs to question: do we already have enough pilots to meet this finite number plus attrition replacements? Granted this is a moving target depending on the number of new airplanes added to fleets. But nobody seem to talk about how many airplanes were retired. The net result could very well be zero (no change in additional pilots needed).

  3. Wilson Richards Says:

    I have heard about this. They are planning to hire a million pilot/employees for their Airline. Some needs this but the fear of not getting the target head count is there considering that there are only few studying pilot and related courses.

    It might be alarming to some but a new hope for a few. Let’s just look at the bright side and make everything work for the future aviation industry to work.

  4. Tracy Says:

    I agree with WilliamAirways that the retirement of older aircraft seems to be left out of the equation. The U.S. airlines seem to have found a reasonable capacity level that keeps most of their aircraft full enough to generate a profit. Adding new, more efficient aircraft without retiring the older ones would upset the balance they have achieved.
    The airline I work for announced earlier this year that they would begin hiring pilots. On the surface this sounded like good news, but in reality the majority of the first year or so of their hiring is actually the recall of previously furloughed pilots.
    I can see a temporary pilot shortage in the short term as the new hour requirement for airline pilot hiring takes effect coupled with the age 65 retirement rule catching up and starting to take effect. But those bumps will smooth in short order.
    I think the largest factor in the availability of pilots will turn out to be the financial viability of the career field. Love of flying is one thing, but you have to be able to feed your family. The initial training costs, the additional hours that will be needed to meet the new minimum requirements, the lower pay rates (especially at the entry levels) and questionable retirement systems all put check marks in the wrong column when analyzing possible careers these days.

  5. Scott Spangler Says:

    As politicians show us every day (or more during election season), numbers dance to the agenda of their originator. In other words, Boeing’s prediction of pilots needed is just that. Their best guess based on their orders as they stand now.

    But Tracy, you hit is on the head. The future of airline flying depends on the financial viability of the career. And the way things have been going lately, between decreasing pay and increasing requirements (and, naturally, to cost prospective pros must pay to meet them) things could get interesting.

  6. Elise Lowerison Says:

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