Top government leaders painted a “sobering picture” of the future of the aviation workforce, with a need for thousands of new pilots in the next couple of decades at a time when interest in the industry appears to have ebbed. In prepared remarks at the Aviation Workforce Symposium last week, FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell cited the Boeing pilot outlook, which predicts a need for 117,000 pilots in North America alone as traffic is projected to double by 2036.
“But at a time when we need to see interest in aviation careers going up, the data is trending in the opposite direction,” he said, noting a 27 percent slide in the number of private pilots in the last 10 years. At the same time, the number of commercial pilots has slid by 21 percent. And, Elwell added, “The military—which used to be one of the best sources for new hires—isn’t turning out as many new pilots as it used to.”
College aviation programs are suffering from a shortage of instructors because they move to the airlines as soon as they have logged enough time, he said. Complicating matters is an anticipated increase in pilot retirements over the next 10 years, since the average age of an Airline Transport Pilot certificate holder is 50 years old.
“There needs to be a common understanding of the gravity and urgency of this situation,” he said. “We have a diminishing supply of qualified pilots, mechanics, and technicians.” The aviation community needs to work together to make aviation careers attractive and consider how to improve training so safety can improve at the same time, Elwell added.
Transportation secretary Elaine Chao agreed: “This issue goes far beyond what the government alone can do. It is incumbent upon all of us to find solutions.” The aviation community must stoke interest in the industry, she said, adding, “These are wonderful jobs in the aviation sector, and they should be highlighted.”
U.S. Air Force secretary Heather Wilson also stressed during the symposium the need to highlight safety in its efforts to boost the population, as well as a need to work together. “If we continue to cannibalize off each other, we will never solve the core problem,” she said.
And furthering Elwell’s contention on the military, Wilson had said that the service was already short by 2,000 pilots, including 1,300 fighter pilots. Noting the small percentage of women and minority pilots, Wilson added, “There’s a whole segment of our population that has not been touched or inspired.”
The symposium, which attracted more than 100 aviation professions, drove home the need for everyone to work together on a solution, added Jo Damato, NBAA senior director of educational strategy. “There are a number of paths people can take once they enter this workforce, but this ecosystem that we all are responsible for is why NBAA needs to be a part of the solution,” she said, adding that industry must take new and creative approaches to connecting with young people.
The country will be short 5,000 pilots by 2021, and by 2026 that number will increase to about 15,000 pilots, according to statistics from Marty Lenss, a symposium panelist from Eastern Iowa Airport and the American Association of Airport Executives.
During its regional forum in on September 6 in San Jose, California, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen asked business aviation stakeholders to do what they can to help boost the workforce. “The future of business aviation looks bright, and technologies on the horizon make this an exciting time to be in the industry, but only if we meet challenges head on and work together to make a difference,” he said.