Luke Easley, from the EKU Class of 2016, always wanted to be a pilot. As a kid, he mapped out major cities on his family’s Stamping Ground, Kentucky, farm. Countless hours were spent soaring his toy jetliners over a pretend map of the world that spanned several acres.
“I would even have emergencies along the way every so often, so I would have to divert to a closer city,” he said, laughing at the memory.
Easley was in luck. Today, it is easier than ever for a newly trained pilot to land his or her first job. That’s because airlines, aircraft manufacturers and industry analysts all say there are far too few pilots being trained to meet the ever-growing demand for air travel.
The pilot shortage has created an unprecedented opportunity for professionals like Easley. Since graduating from EKU’s aviation program, the 24-year-old is a first officer with a regional airline. He’s on track to fly for a major national airline before he turns 30.
While the shortage is good for pilots, it has left the rest of the industry in a state of uncertainty. The demand for air travel is outpacing the supply of pilots so quickly that airlines have no idea how they will staff flights in the coming decades. Unless the gap is closed, the pilot shortage will slow or halt industry growth, and travelers could soon find it harder to get a flight as airlines are forced to park planes, reduce routes and raise ticket prices.
“It’s a huge concern in the industry. We’re talking about a shortage of thousands of pilots per year,” said EKU Aviation Program Coordinator Dennis Sinnett. In his role, Sinnett directs EKU’s aviation program, recruits aspiring pilots, and instructs them on the methods and principles of flight and management. To do so, he keeps his finger firmly on the pulse of the industry.
“The pilot shortage is not going away,” he said. “It is real. Every major airline is trying to invest in it in some way, shape or form.”
THE DEPTH OF THE PILOT SHORTAGE
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing, in its 2017 Pilot Outlook industry forecast, calculated that the global aviation industry will need 637,000 new commercial pilots between now and 2036. That breaks down to 33,500 pilots trained each year, 91 new pilots trained each day or one new pilot trained every 15 minutes. CAE Inc., a leading maker of flight simulation technology, released a similar forecast. It says 255,000 pilots will be needed in the next 10 years, of which less than 50 percent of are currently being trained.
The primary cause of the pilot shortage is that the airline industry is tied to the health of the economy, and the economy is soaring. As America continues its steady recovery from the Great Recession, and new middle classes emerge in Asian and other overseas markets, more and more people are gaining access to air travel.
“The proliferation of commercial aviation, the affordability and the access to it worldwide has expanded greatly,” said Sinnett. “It’s readily available. It’s the safest way to travel long distances. And now, more people are in the financial position to afford it.”
Commercial passenger airlines aren’t the only ones struggling. Cargo airlines like those that contract for FedEx and UPS — which both have major import-export hubs in Louisville — are feeling the strain as more and more people shop online and have items delivered to their home.
However, the economy isn’t solely to blame, particularly in America, which accounts for 18 percent of Boeing’s projected global pilot shortage. There are a number of other factors.
For example, more than 40 percent of pilots at major carriers will reach age 65 in the next 10 years, the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandatory retirement age, leading to an exodus of 18,000 to 25,000 experienced flyers. Unlike most other industries, aviators can’t be replenished quickly or trained on the job.
Due in part to stringent FAA safety regulations, flight training can take years, creating significant lag in filling entry-level positions. Most notable is the FAA’s 2013 regulation that first officers must hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, which requires 1,500 hours of flight time, before co-captaining a commercial airline. Previously, first officers needed only a commercial pilot certificate, which required 250 hours of logged flight time.
“Some people view that as somewhat draconian, but it’s done for the right reasons,” Sinnett said. “When you’re flying a $100-million or $200-million airplane with dozens of passengers, your level of technical expertise needs to be high. That’s the standard the FAA established.”
The U.S. Air Force and Navy used to be the most reliable pipeline for replenishing the ranks of commercial pilots, but fewer military pilots are being trained than any time in recent history. Military officials have said they currently have a pilot shortage of their own — the Air Force currently has about 2,000 fewer pilots than it needs.
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, the military has been downsizing,” Sinnett said. “There aren’t enough aviation squadrons to fill that gap anymore.”
Additionally, there are simply fewer would-be pilots pursuing their dream career. Many have been turned off by stories of low pay and tough working conditions at regional airlines, where most of the growth in the aviation industry is taking place.
THE REGIONAL TURNAROUND
Regional airlines, such as ExpressJet, American Eagle and Delta Connection, generally subcontract with major carriers to provide overflow flights on small jets and turboprops. They’re also where new commercial pilots cut their teeth, building flight time in the hopes of obtaining a job with a major carrier, which requires 3,000 to 4,000 hours in the air.
Historically, new pilots have accepted sub-par conditions at regional airlines because it was considered a stepping stone to a more fruitful career. However, some estimates say regional airlines now account for about 50 percent of domestic flights, and that number is growing. Faced with the prospect of working a whole career at a regional airline after spending years and tens of thousands of dollars training, many potential pilots have opted out.
“Not that long ago, entry level pay at a regional airline would start at $20,000 or $25,000,” Sinnett said. “You were renting an apartment with three or four other pilots, sleeping on a sofa and eating ramen noodles, just waiting to build your time so you can go fly with a major carrier like Delta or American.”
That’s not the case anymore. Due to the shortage of experienced pilots, regional airlines are raising pay and improving working conditions to attract and retain new pilots. Pilots can now make a good wage while still pursuing their dreams of flying for larger airlines and earning six figures.
“I’ve met many pilots who stepped away from ﬂying for a long period of time and sought other opportunities outside of the airlines, or aviation in general,” Easley said. “They only returned, from my observation, because pay had increased fourfold.”
Starting pilots now often make $60,000 or more in their first year, including signing bonuses.
“Regional airlines are now giving new pilots $20,000 or $25,000 signing bonuses, where that was never done before,” Sinnett said. “You’re in high demand. There is some negotiation among the regional airlines for your talents.”
THE RISE OF THE FOUR-YEAR PROGRAM
To fill the gaps, many airlines are turning to four-year universities like EKU. That’s good news for students, as college aviation programs now have effectively a 100 percent employment rate post-graduation.
“Students, as I understand it now, are guaranteed a job with an airline the minute they graduate,” said Willi Walker, one of the founders of EKU’s aviation program. “For the most part, they end up with some kind of employment right after graduation, simply because there is a need for pilots.”
EKU offers the only FAA-approved, four-year professional pilot program in the state of Kentucky. It is also one of the oldest four-year flight programs in the country. Walker, a professor in the geography program, co-founded the program in 1983 with Dr. Joseph Schwendeman, a former Navy aviator. The four-year professional flight degree was formally established in 1991.
Some of the earliest graduates of EKU’s professional flight program are now serving as captains for Delta, American and Northwest Airlines, Walker said. The current demand for pilots will enable EKU to continue that success on a larger scale.
Airlines, as well as students, are drawn to four-year programs like EKU’s because they get graduates in the pilot seat faster than traditional flight schools. The FAA’s 1,500-hour ATP rule includes a provision that takes into account the training and education pilots earn at four-year colleges. EKU students holding a four-year degree receive a restricted ATP certificate with just 1,000 flight hours, shaving significant time off training.
“Part of what drew me to EKU was the 1,000-hour track to get to the airlines instead of the 1,500 hours at some other ﬂight schools,” Easley said. “Plus, I received a four-year degree while learning to fly. I knocked out two birds with one stone.”
Less than two years after graduating, Easley is months away from taking captain’s training with his current company and becoming first-in-command on his craft. Then, it’s onto the big leagues. His advice to anyone who’s always dreamed of flying jets is simple — now is the time.
“Today the pilot has the edge,” he said. “Due to the pilot shortage, the aviation industry is in an unusual position where it has to stand up and bet on the pilot. There has never been a better time to start a career in commercial aviation.”
See a profile of EKU aviation student Horace Hunter at go.eku.edu/pilots.