Some Predictions of Pilot Corps Growth

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Predictions of pilot corps growth are based on both known scheduled retirements and known and likely expansion plans among the airlines. Expansion of airlines will be affected by ups and downs in the national economy as well as by the health of individual carriers. In turn, expanded or contracted pilot need at airlines and other aviation companies will affect piloting career opportunities. As might be expected, aviation company slot qualification requirements vary with pilot supply and demand. In times of oversupply, companies can demand a much higher qualification level than during pilot shortages, when requirements are not as stringent. Not all types of companies may experience pilot shortages at the same time. The airline industry is dynamic and cyclical, expanding or receding with great sensitivity to the economy and to the profits of each company. Airlines often go for years without hiring any new pilots, then suddenly need thousands of pilots in a matter of months. In the other direction, a pilot may be furloughed (laid off temporarily) if business and economic conditions require. While not the most stable of industries for newcomers, the airline industry is somewhat predictable. Anticipated hiring cycles, which often vary among airlines, may be followed by maintaining a membership with FAPA (the career counseling firm for pilots), reading aviation trade journals, and talking with airline crews.

The trick is to be aware of and utilize these forecast hiring cycles. You will want to concentrate on long-term preparations during a no-hiring period, then pursue job openings relentlessly before and during a hiring surge.

As noted, the "baby boom," with its ensuing concentration of young adults, underlay rapid airline expansion in the 1980s. That boom was followed by the "baby bust," a period of low birth rate. Actual airline expansion plans may be tempered by the knowledge that at some point in time, the air travel market will be weakened as the baby boom population is replaced in the overall economy by the much smaller baby bust group. Airline managements could factor demographic predictions into their plans to keep from over expanding. This can be accomplished (in part) through lease rather than purchase of aircraft and through hiring practices; the recent trend, at some large airlines, of hiring many older pilots could prove to be a felicitous way of reducing the pilot force through retirements instead of furloughs when leaner times come.

The world community also has to be factored into any demographic predictions that might affect U.S. air travel in the future. It is not hard to foresee relaxed immigration should the United States face serious labor shortages growing out of the baby bust period. The overall impact on transportation industries when the effects of the baby boom wane may wind up being less than could be predicted from studies of current U.S. population trends in isolation.

Quite a number of industry observers were stunned by the spectacular success of such hubs as Republic Airlines at Memphis and Detroit (Republic later was absorbed by Northwest); Piedmont (since absorbed by USAir) at Charlotte and Dayton; and Delta at Cincinnati. And just as some pundits were declaring the nation "hubbed out," airlines began scoring coups with "mini-hubs."

The biggest surprise of all may have come from America West, which at the turn of the decade to the 1990s was poised to become a major airline with annual revenues in excess of $1 billion. In part, Phoenix-based America West accomplished its rise from shaky new-entrant carrier to a billion-dollar airline by virtue of a wholly-integrated commuter operation, using Boeing/de Havilland Canada Dash 8 turboprops to complement its Boeing 737-200s and -300s and 757-200s.

Because the industry keeps finding ways to exploit deregulation, no one can say definitively that an airline of modest proportions today will not be a giant of tomorrow, just as America West in six years rose from its three-airplane beginning to a developing David among major airline Goliaths. (This is not bad news, but good; it means the ongoing creation of jobs for pilots with jet airline flying ambitions.)

The airline industry is cyclical and is directly related to the nation's economy. When the economy is strong, airline passenger traffic increases. Then the airlines must increase their flights, purchase new aircraft, and hire new pilots to fly those aircraft. Timing is very important in competing for airline jobs. When the economy slows down, the airlines frequently cut back flights and furlough those crew members with the least seniority. Although such times are depressing, they offer excellent opportunities for you to improve your qualifications and make contacts with the people who do the hiring. When a significant amount of hiring is going on, airline personnel departments are saturated with phone calls and letters. The same goes for the chief pilot's office. It is almost impossible to get through. During times when the airlines are not hiring, it may be easier to talk with someone who could make the difference when hiring resumes.

One factor that affects pilot demand is the attrition of senior airline captains as they reach age 60. Airlines have never been faced with massive pilot retirement, but now they find that the flight crews who were hired during the post-Korean war era are retiring. The retirement factor will increase flight crew demand and have a considerable impact on pilot hiring in the coming years unless the retirement age were to be raised above age 60 by the FAA. Such change would temporarily alleviate the problem for the number of years that the retirement age is raised; however, the problem then would begin anew.
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