Constellation cockpit
9 min read

I have noticed the aviation industry is once again experiencing another pilot shortage. So, let’s take a little trip back in time and see how we keep getting in to these so called “shortages.”

A long time ago—when dinosaurs ruled the earth, beer was only a nickel, and I had no gray hair—the airlines were regulated and all was well upon the land. Air carriers, or 121 operators, owned three things: the aircraft they used, the facilities they operated out of, and most importantly the routes they operated on. In the 1930s the federal government worked to develop and promote aviation by awarding profitable routes in exchange of providing service to remote and less profitable areas.

No, I did not forget the pay. For a captain flying at night on an international flight, the salary was as much as God. Everyone wanted to be an airline pilot.

What could possibly happen to upset this strong well-run industry?

Constellation cockpit

There was a time when airline captains were treated—and paid—like God.

The first announcement of the alleged pilot shortage was that the pilots from WWII would soon be reaching the then-mandatory retirement age of 60. This led to a stampede of student hopefuls to the nearest flight school and more flight schools appeared across the land. The Vietnam war was ending and military pilots concluded that flying from LAX was much better than flying out of Da Nang, so they also headed for the airlines. (Of course, as luck would have it, the shortage was temporarily offset as the retirement age was changed to 65 in 2007.)

The requirements to join one of the major airlines as a pilot suddenly became insurmountable from the competition of experienced and not so experienced pilots. After reaching all required FAA pilot ratings and having all the required flight time (see previous story), there was always one thing that was needed but you did not have.

Unlike today’s aircraft today’s airliners, such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus, many older airplanes required a “professional plumber,” i.e., a flight engineer. It was the unspoken requirement to obtaining a position as a flight crew. However, after passing the required written exams, one found the cost of taking the flight test to be rather expensive (you usually had to take the practical exam in a 727)… more expensive than some wanted to pay for the risk of maybe being hired.

Unfortunately, a plague soon infected the airlines. Something called deregulation appeared to end the shortage and then caused a surplus of flight crews.

This deregulation caused competition, which it was designed to do. The competition, which most airlines had never had to experience, caused several to simply disappear. Pan Am was out of business before they realized what was happing, followed by Eastern and National. As a side note, every airline I ever to applied to except Delta no longer exists.

Air carriers no longer had to service the less profitable routes, which they abandoned, so they retreated to what is called the hub system. This allows efficient use of aircraft along profitable routes. If you don’t live close to one of the hubs, well there were “feeder” carriers, AKA regionals, to provide air transport to the hub of your choice. These feeders paid nowhere near the major air carriers and there was no real progression to the major carriers. Flying as a passenger in one of the “feeder” carriers was not the comfortable ride one was accustomed to experiencing. Usually it was a small twin engine turboprop (lovingly referred to as an executive mailing tube) with no service, and “pack your own lunch” did not go over well with the seasoned traveler. This caused a turnover of flight crew and passengers alike.

The hub system is also the reason that when you die, you will have to go through Atlanta.

This caused what are called furloughs in the airlines. That means you are no longer working and are no longer getting paid. Which I suspect sounds a lot better that being fired.

Pilot hiring chart

Airline pilot hiring trends are notoriously turbulent.

Then came a second rallying call to arms of another pilot shortage. This dire warning appeared in the September 1989 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology (known in the aerospace trade as “aviation leaks and space follies”). Same story as before: pilots reaching retirement, no military to fill the crew station, no engineers and technical support, same story. As you might suspect, I could not let this pass and responded to the article with a letter to the editor (AW&ST, September 11, 1989 – page 146):

I have followed with amusement your articles on the “pilot shortage” the air carrier industry is now experiencing. There is no pilot shortage. We are right here working in other industries that are less glamorous but pay good salaries. We are no longer interested in pursuing costly degrees or ratings for a questionable position in an unstable market. These positions no longer pay as well as they once did. I personally could not afford the cut in salary to start as a pilot for a major, and I certainly will not attach the now-required $25 nonrefundable administration fee for an application.

Your problem gentlemen is we are no longer willing to outlay the time and money for a minimal return as a flight officer. A similar outlay in other professional fields has a much larger financial reward. If you find this letter somewhat harsh, cold, and mercenary, you are correct. Welcome to the real world.

Yes, to apply for a position as a flight crew officer, you attached a check for $25.

On arriving home from work after the magazine hit the readership, I looked at my telephone answering machine. It displayed 35 calls received. All contained the same relative message, indicating my position was correct on the working environment and pay scale. Other supportive comments were not G-rated.

Oh yes, the pay scale. I neglected to say at this time that the major air carriers instituted what was called “the B Scale.” Simply put, you would not be receiving the previous pay scale new hires had received in the past and you would never receive any thing close to what senior captains were receiving.

So where are we now?

The next generation of young men and women who thought they might be inclined to aviation bypassed flight training all together. They can enjoy the almost fun of flight by obtaining the latest video game and skip the expensive flight training. They could fly a fighter be a navy pilot at Midway in WWII or fly a TIE fighter against the rebels.

The latest savior was the coming of the fractional charter companies, which hired the over-65 crowd, and newer pilots who obtain the new Second in Command rating as an entry into an aviation career. They found it to be a more stable and financially rewarding work environment. The sale increases of business jets also added to the employment drain of pilots available to air carriers. Their owners enjoyed corporate aviation by not having to mix with the public in today’s high-density cattle cars.

This uneasy stability continued through the 90s and in to the 2000s, until the pandemic arrived, causing airline shutdowns and furloughs which flooded the pilot community.

Flight instructor

A new generation has flooded flight schools over the last few years—will this time be different?

During and just before, lots of young men and women opted for flight training and entered the roles of the flight instructor—not as many as before but some, as the cost of flight training went from prohibitive to insane. This limited their progression towards higher ratings.

The answer to cost reduction in flight training and to attract new pilots and students is the advent of electric flight training aircraft. That may sound like a good idea, except for the six-figure cost of purchasing one. I am still unsure just how that was supposed to help. Most likely we are going to see the venerable Cessnas and Pipers around for a very long time.

Enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and the federal government. AOPA has addressed this problem by introducing STEM couched in aviation technology to high school and younger students. This allowed them to see that science is not some head-numbing subject previously taught in school. Their efforts appear to be well received. We will hopefully soon to see more young men and women hanging around the airports and attending the Young Eagles introductory flights offered at many airports around the country.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has approved The National Center for the Advancement of Aviation (NCAA) Act (HR 3482). The bill would create the NCAA and would work to guide people to careers in aviation. Their goal is to bring the industry together to address workforce shortages by shaping a generation of new pilots, aerospace engineers, UAV systems operators, and maintenance techs. I am not sure how all this would work, but I for one sincerely hope it solves the problem of boom and bust in the pilot community.

OK, so where have all the pilots gone?

Lots of pilots simply moved into engineering, retired, or ran flight schools. Several pilot friends I know left the military and worked in various field as far removed for aviation as one could get, later buying their favorite warbird, building their own experimental aircraft or spam-can to enjoy the pleasures of flight.

It’s obvious that the aviation marketplace has changed dramatically. The cost to enter professionally is restrictive. Some of those learning to fly have opted for sport pilot ratings and light sport aircraft with no desire to take it up as a career. Another group is composed of foreign nationals who will be employed by their countries’ airlines and who sent them to the US for training. The remaining few are the ones who are truly dedicated to achieving their dream and I sincerely hope they reach their career goals with the more that fair compensation they deserve.

Now if the marketplace can just get itself under control, this story will have a happy ending.

Skip Stagg
Latest posts by Skip Stagg (see all)
11 replies
  1. Ccfr8er
    Ccfr8er says:

    We’ll said, Skip. I retired just pre-Covid (B767 CA-cargo), and lived through most of what you described: 10 years at a large regional followed by 25 years in cargo. I believe the challenge for the horde of newbies will be finding a new career in 15-20 years when autonomous flight finally becomes the standard. Major cargo haulers are already experimenting with autonomous flight (FedEx). It won’t happen fast, but happen it will. These will be the very last “airline pilots”

    Reply
  2. Tony
    Tony says:

    Interesting. In 1980 I ran an avionics shop for a small outback Australian air service company. They did helicopter mineral surveys (the money earner that paid for me) and had a little airline. I went into the bosses office one day and say a pile of CVs several inches high on the bosses desk. May I? I asked the boss. Go ahead he said. So I browsed through them. Guys with untold 1000s of hours and every rating under the sun apply for jobs to even fly our little Cessna 402 on the “milk run”. Most with military service. You see, the Vietnam war had ended only 5 years before.

    Reply
  3. Dan Blore
    Dan Blore says:

    I was looking for my next flying job when I got “hired” in 1978. I retired in 2017. When people ask me about my career, I tell them, “I sure got to fly a bunch of neat airplanes.” I kept it about the flying. All of the other BS, merges (4), strikes, pay cuts, base closings, etc, etc, ad nauseum, I dealt with as if they were a line of t-storms; ya just deal. It was a flying job. When young people ask me about the job and start talking money, time off, advancement, my only advice is that if you don’t love flying, you’re not going to be happy in the job.

    Reply
    • Robert Federhofer
      Robert Federhofer says:

      There’s a former Air Force flight surgeon I was looking to advance my career by taking a position in the flight medicine department at one of the many airlines in late seventies. Within 5 years all but American Airlines had eliminated these flight medicine departments. Retrained an area unrelated specialty. Aviating limited to spam cans and homebuilts.
      Looking back on the experience and those of professional pilots you make a lot of sacrifices as your career negatively impacts your personal life. You continue on because of your love of the freedom of flight

      Reply
  4. Brian L Hollenbeck
    Brian L Hollenbeck says:

    Thanks for the article. My career story has had plenty of hurdles. Back in the 80ties when my friends were heading to the majors, I stayed in college to earn a 4 year degree which I felt was more important for my career. The Gulf War started and I missed the wave of hiring causing a 10 year slow period but I was hired at my number one choice, TWA right after PanAM closed it’s doors. Eastern and PanAM shutdowns flooded the market with excellent pilots with ample experience. Then 9/11 happened and slowed it up again followed by the age increase to 65 which also was a setback for upgrades and career growth. I had to go overseas to find work during that time (furlough). I am still trying to get back to my 1999 pay scale and quality of life schedules. I really feel unions and deregulation have caused the career to slip to a level that is not attractive. Adding to insult is the hiring status for qualified pilots who have been displaced and requirement to join the bottom of a list for pay and seniority when no other professional career would tolerate taking experience back to an entry level position with inadequate pay. If pilots ratified a national seniority system to facilitate unified career status, I think it would encourage professional pilots to expand the pilot career basis and see this profession as an end game career path. It is a unique and formidable task to be a professional pilot, maintain safety and efficiency for the carrier and provide essential air service to the flying public. I just do not feel that the career is respected as it should, especially at the federal government level as it once was. Nor does the flying public understand the foundation for what pilots must endure to remain qualified. I am hopeful this “shortage” perception will allow fundamental changes in how the career of all flight crew can become one of unified growth, especially after how COVID caused this massive layoff condition. I am currently qualified as a B767 LCA, B737 and B767 TCE, B737 test pilot. ATP B737, B747, B744, B757, B767 rated. As well as a prominent contributor to pilot training with over 20 years of training experience expanding scenario based programs. I truly enjoy mentoring pilots and my career. My real hope is to contribute as much of my experience to the aviation community as my predecessors have contributed to my growth over my career.

    Reply
    • Fred
      Fred says:

      When you write a story like that and I can read it I will be pleased to proof read it after publication.
      The writer has more experience at pushing throttles than you have at being a troll.

      Reply
    • Frank Guarascio
      Frank Guarascio says:

      So Adrian, you think Brian’s article was really about proper composition, spelling and punctuation?

      Wow, you sure missed the point. Unbelievable.

      Reply
  5. Jack Aubrey
    Jack Aubrey says:

    My earliest memory was the sight of airplanes that were parked up against a chain link fence, my nose to the car’s rain spotted window and staring wide-eyed between rain drops as we drove by. “WOW, Look, look”, I kept repeating. I don’t know if I was of age to talk or just thought it but disappointingly none of the adults in the car seemed to share my interest or excitement. I just couldn’t grasp why no one shared my thrill or wanted to stop.
    I came from a working class family and we lived many miles from any airport. Besides not having a bicycle, I had what I felt was an even bigger road block to pursuing a flying career, I wore glasses. But Plane and Pilot, Flying, best of all Air Progress, Gordon Baxter, Richard L. Collins, Len Morgan, RIP, I read them all. They talked to me, my language.
    Now I’m 18 yrs old, Vietnam is hot and heavy and I’m ‘flying’ around on my BSA. Then I saw the ad. Oh Joy, the US Army needs helicopter pilots badly, bad enough to take candidates with just a high school diploma and vision corrected to 20/20. Hallelujah, Gloryoski, I hit the lottery, I got a date with Marilyn Monroe. I signed up. l knew about planes but had to learn about copters from an encyclopedia. I passed the written and was accepted. My toes were barely touching the ground.
    Wellllll until I got flown down to Ft. Polk, Louisiana, for basic and the flight physical. I was corrected 20/20 alright but I learned I had something called astigmatism. “Sorry son”, said the reviewing physician, “can’t give you a waiver for astigmatism”.
    So now I’m out, it’s 1970, all my astigmatism and I managed to do was crew-chief a Cobra and dodge a few armfuls of mortars, RPG’s and 122mm rockets and miss Woodstock. I did personally see to it that a lot of 7.62, 40mm and 2.75″ was returned in kind. Worst is I missed Woodstock.
    I also became painfully aware that I’d be competing with thousands of military pilots who were rotating out. Pre-qualified for airline positions with tons of hours, multi-engined transport time, college degrees and no astigmatism. My friend’s next door neighbor was a prime example but there were thorns on this rosebush. IIRC he had just been called back by National again, his wife had just given birth to a son, they had just bought a house and then, he got furloughed again.
    Seems things have only gotten worse since. For me there’s not much luster left on them wings. Hedge funds, private equity groups etc buy and sell these companies like trading baseball cards. Their only talent is they can cold-bloodedly squeeze every nano droplet of blood out of a penny into their brimming pockets, lobby and buy politicians who let them. They wouldn’t know one end of an aircraft from the other. Charter pilots, have become butlers with a type rating. I’m retired and would rather drive than fly, even cross country.
    “The thrill is gone”,
    as is,sadly, B.B. KING.

    Reply
  6. Paul Zahner
    Paul Zahner says:

    Skip, I feel compelled to respond to your article with a very different perspective. While your description of the airline history seems reasonably accurate the tone of your article is decidedly sour..
    We didn’t all experience it that way.
    I got my tickets all in the same C150 except for my MEL in a C310. Spent four and a half years getting a college degree and another two as a CFI. With about 2000hrs in my logbook I got a job “Oiling” on a DC8 (due to deregulation) that turned into forty years flying mostly wide bodies internationally. Twenty five of those wearing four stripes on my shoulder and generally having a ball while “getting paid like God” as you said. (My daughters correctly point out that I never really “worked” for a living.)
    Yes, I was lucky. But so were. thousands of others that made it happen for themselves.
    I’m sorry yours was not a happy easy journey.
    Mine and many more of ours was.

    Reply
  7. Peter N Steinmetz
    Peter N Steinmetz says:

    One item not mentioned but is an elephant in the room. In the US, aviation is a very heavily regulated industry. This usually creates shortages and waves of supply and demand as the regulators are not incentivized to react quickly to changing market conditions.

    Reply

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