Air carriers are on pace to hire nearly 5,000 pilots this year, even after canceling thousands of flights from the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.
Airline hiring will top more than 4,000 pilots by year’s end for the fifth straight year, a pace not seen since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That was before mergers halved the number of major air carriers and airlines were comfortable flying planes with more empty seats.
The industry is trying to keep up with a record number of passengers and more pilots retiring as they hit the mandatory age 65 retirement limit, said Louis Smith, president of the Nevada-based aviation hiring firm Future & Active Pilot Advisors.
“Airlines need a lot of pilots,” Smith said. “As long as the economy is good and pilots keep retiring, someone has to fly planes.”
The surge in hiring comes with an increase in commercial air traffic throughout the country. U.S. air carriers have shuttled about 848 million passengers this year through November, 3.9% more than the same period in 2018.
That includes about 75 million passengers this year at DFW International Airport.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines, which still has the most employees of any carrier, also has hired the most pilots this year, bringing on 925. American hired 894 pilots in 2018, FAPA’s data showed.
American also plans to hire more pilots in 2020 than it did this year, said American Airlines spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson.
Southwest Airlines, which is headquartered at Dallas Love Field, has actually cut back on hiring this year, adding only 390 through November after bringing on 759 in 2018.
Southwest, which owns the most grounded Boeing 737 Max planes, delayed first officer training in late 2019 and doesn’t plan to hold another class again until February. It also put off some pilot promotions to the captain position.
Southwest was supposed to get about 41 more 737 Max planes this year, but the aircraft has been sidelined by the Federal Aviation Administration since March 13 and the agency is taking its time to get it back into service.
However, Southwest is still making plans to boost pilot hiring in the future. In July, the airline launched a recruitment program called Destination 225 to partner with universities and flight schools. The program is intended to give pilots a direct path to flying for Southwest Airlines after they complete flight school.
Airlines have been facing a potential shortage of pilots during the next few years, mostly from retirement. Some 2,000 to 3,000 pilots a year at the country’s 11 biggest airlines will turn 65 and age out of the system.
Airlines have been upping efforts to get students into pilot training programs and regional airlines, where starting pay was as low as $22,000 a few years ago, said Mike Sykes, CEO of US Aviation Academy in Denton.
Now, pilots can make $50,000 to $60,000 a year in their first and second years, including big signing bonuses that first year. In 2016, American Airlines regional subsidiary Envoy Air started offering signing bonuses of up to $22,100 for new pilots and retention bonuses of $10,000 after the first year of flying. Envoy is also willing to pay up to $45,000 in signing bonuses for experienced pilots.
“I would say it’s been a good five years since students with enough flight hours had to work really hard to get a regional pilot position,” Sykes said.
Pilot pay at mainline airlines such as American is good, but many inexperienced pilots were looking at up to $100,000 in debt for flight school and then careers where many are “just scrapping by,” Sykes said.
But Sykes said rising pay has helped lure more students. He said financial institutions that dropped out of lending for flight schools are reentering the market.
At American Airlines, average pilot pay hit $229,000 a year in 2018, up from $138,000 a decade ago, according to the MIT Airline Data Project. The pay at Southwest was $234,000 for the average pilot, $52,000 better than in 2008.
“The money is really good once you get to the mainline,” Sykes said. “It used to be that you had to suffer through flying for a regional with low pay, but that’s not the case anymore.”