The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the demand for pilots to make a 180 degrees turn. The aviation industry went from suffering from pilot shortage to dealing with pilot surplus almost overnight. Now, with vaccination rates accelerating and airlines ramping up their summer schedules, the circumstances have seemingly changed once more. The US-based air carriers could soon be facing a post-pandemic pilot shortage. 

Post-pandemic pilot shortage: why and when?

There are a couple of questions the ailing airline industry is trying to answer at the moment. One major question is when will the air travel demand return? The other critical question coming hand in hand is whether the airline sector will face the pilot shortage after the passenger traffic recovers. 

According to a recent study conducted by the American consulting firm Oliver Wyman, the pilot shortage, temporarily paused by the pandemic,  will be felt once again between 2023 and 2025 when the industry fully recovers. The report suggests that by the middle of a decade there could be a lack of as many as 50,000 pilots worldwide.

Air carriers in North America and Asia-Pacific, including China, will see the pilot shortage first and feel it the hardest. 

“In North America, with an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements, the shortage reemerges quickly and is projected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023—13 percent of total demand,” the study indicates.  

In the United States, air carriers were facing a shortage prior to pandemic. The lack of pilot supply was caused by an ageing workforce facing mandatory retirement plus fewer pilots leaving the military, compounded by the high cost of training.

Meanwhile, noticing the air travel demand recovery, the airline industry might face the lack of pilot supply once again not only because of ageing pilot population but also due to the COVID-19 pandemic related retirements, furloughs, and curtailed cadet programs. 

“Pilot candidates will think twice about entering such a cyclical industry. Many furloughed pilots will return, but some may pursue other opportunities,” read the Oliver Wyman report. 

Currently, with the COVID-19 crisis being resolved, passenger traffic recovery estimates range from early 2022 to 2025 and beyond. According to the Oliver Wyman report on pilot supply, the rapid recovery from COVID-19 might create a pilot “supply shock” that can be seen even in 2021. 

“With a more rapid recovery and greater supply shocks, [pilot shortage - ed. note] could be felt as early as late this year,” the study indicates, adding that COVID-19 related furloughs, retirements might create real challenges even for the biggest air carriers. 

Recently, several American-based air carriers also indicated that there could be a lack of pilot supply in the coming years and even during the summer travel rebound in 2021.

While American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) was keenly waiting for the post-pandemic air travel demand to rebound, the airline came across the issue related to the pilot and cabin crew shortage. In June 2021, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) announced to cut hundreds of July 2021 operations ahead of the summer air travel demand peak. 

“Unprecedented weather, combined with the labor shortages some of our vendors are contending with and the incredibly quick ramp up of customer demand, has led us to build in additional resilience and certainty to our operation by adjusting a fraction of our scheduled flying through mid-July,” an American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) spokesperson told AeroTime News on June 21, 2021. 

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American Airlines is reportedly planning to cut 1% of July 2021 operations capacity amid a labor shortage.
 

As many other US-based airlines, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) has seen a quick ramp up in air travel demand as the COVID-19 vaccination rates in the United States and across the globe accelerated and certain travel restrictions were lifted. The quick ramp up possibly meant that the airline was unable to re-employ pilots who had been furloughed due to the COVID-19 crisis in time. 

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American Airlines said it will proceed with its plan to furlough 19,000 employees but will stop the process if the U.S. government extends COVID-19 relief aid.
 

Furthermore, United Airlines chief executive also shared a concern about the possible pilot shortage in the near future. The main reason behind the anticipated pilot shortage, according to the United Airlines CEO, is that the US military produces far fewer pilots today and that makes it harder for people to become pilots for a commercial airline on their own.

“Down the road, there is probably going to be a pilot shortage in the United States,” CEO of United Airlines Scott Kirby said during an interview with AXIOS on June 21, 2021. “The military produces far fewer pilots today than they did in the Vietnam and Cold War era.”

“It is hard to become a pilot, a commercial airline pilot on your own if you are not going through the military,” Kirby explained.