Over one-third of commercial pilots are still not flying as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on airlines globally.  

That’s according to a new survey by FlightGlobal and aviation recruitment agency Goose, published on January 27, 2022.   

The survey of 1,743 pilots across the world was carried out before the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. According to the results, 62% of pilots said they were employed and currently flying, although this is up from just 43% one year ago.  

However, the survey notes that there are big differences across the world to this picture. In North America, where airlines have been cutting schedules and offering additional incentives to crews to combat staffing shortages, 81% of pilots said they were flying.  

In Europe, that figure drops to 62% and in Asia-Pacific (excluding China), where many countries are effectively closed due to tough COVID-19 restrictions, only 53% of pilots said they were employed and flying.  

In the United States, domestic flying has remained strong throughout the pandemic and senior captains taking early retirement has added to the return of a flight crew shortage that was already in place back in 2019, with a lack of new first officers having come through since then.  

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Mark Charman, CEO and founder of Goose Recruitment, noted that first officer salaries in North America had risen by almost 20% in the last two years.  “This can be explained to an extent by the shortage of this rank in the region and airlines having to pay a premium to recruit. With the high rates of pilots at retirement age, pilots are a valuable asset in Northern America right now.” 

But for many respondents, salary cuts and job insecurity are big concerns. Almost a quarter of the unemployed pilots in the survey also said they did not feel confident about returning to the flight deck. 

“I don’t think that anyone could blame an unemployed pilot for losing some confidence whilst facing unemployment,” Sophie Wild, FlightGlobal divisional director, commented.  “Whether it is temporary or permanent, unemployment can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. On top of this, uncertainty related to COVID-19 only adds to the angst. We hope that the sector and airlines are already planning on how they can make the transition from unemployment to flying again run smoothly and safely.”  

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Meanwhile, 55% of respondents said they would not recommend the profession to young people. Before the pandemic, only 29% of those surveyed said they would not recommend becoming a pilot. Furthermore, 37% in the latest poll said if they could go back in time, they would not become pilots.  

  

When will normal levels of flying return? 

However, there are some spots of optimism in the survey results. 60% said they believed the sector would make a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels within one or two years, while another 23% said it would take a further five months. It should be noted, however, that the survey was carried out before the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has knocked back recovery at airlines.  

“Despite the downbeat mood of this latest survey, it is clear that pilots do look forward to aviation returning to the sort of activity we saw in 2019, sooner rather than later,” Charman commented. “Pilots have remained resilient throughout a crisis that has made them adapt to new economic realities and re-evaluate what is important to them in their careers.” 

As for the ever-rumored pilot shortage, 57% believed there would be a shortage of experienced pilots again within five years, up from 43% in 2021. A smaller proportion, 28%, thought there would be a shortage of all pilots, both experienced and inexperienced, within five years.   

“With 85% of pilots believing the sector will be facing a shortage of pilots in five years, despite the difficult time it has faced through the pandemic, airlines must look to acting now,” commented Goose’s Charman. “We must factor in the pilots we have lost to retirement, those who have taken early retirement as well as those who have left the profession for other occupations.”