U.S. airlines have a retirement problem.
When the airline industry struggled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and during the recession, pilot jobs were scarce. American Airlines went 13 years without hiring a single one, a stretch that David Tatum, the airline’s director of pilot recruiting and development, calls “the lost decade.”
“There was little career progression, so there was not a lot of motivation to learn to fly,” he said.
Hiring has resumed in recent years as demand for travel has grown. But a wave of upcoming retirements means airlines will need to replace thousands of current employees. Over the next 20 years, Boeing estimates that airlines will need to recruit about 131,000 commercial pilots in North America and 514,000 more throughout the rest of the world.
That’s going to take more than a couple of help wanted ads. Airlines seek to rebuild the pipeline of aspiring pilots before they’re left scrambling to fill cockpit seats — so they’re getting involved in the hiring process earlier, increasing compensation and providing more coaching to students.
“Back when I was in school, you would leap at whoever offered you a job first,” said Ryan Phillips, co-chair of the aviation and transportation department at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. “Students definitely have way more options now.”
There’s more than one way to become a pilot at a major airline, though all require commitment. Some people undertake expensive training at a flight school or university program before rising through the ranks at a smaller carrier, a process that can take years. Others join the military.
United Airlines and American Airlines say they aren’t having trouble filling job openings, but want to make sure that remains the case. Airlines say they’re hiring fewer pilots from the military, which means they lean more heavily on regional carriers to fill their ranks — but they don’t want the regional airlines they work with to experience shortages either.
Some regional airlines had to cut flights between 2011 and 2017 because the carriers didn’t have enough pilots to fly all their routes, but members of the Regional Airline Association are now having an easier time hiring, in part because salaries are rising, said Faye Malarkey Black, association president and CEO.
As recently as four years ago, starting salaries at regional carriers were as low as $25,000 a year, Wendy Evans, aviation program manager and recruiter at Parkland College’s Institute of Aviation in Champaign, Illinois, said in an email. When hiring slowed, that made the career a tough sell for aspiring pilots faced with expensive training and little certainty about when they could move up to higher-paying roles at larger airlines.
Now, base salaries start around $45,000 to $55,000 annually, and some airlines offer extra signing bonuses, she said. The Regional Airline Association says members’ typical entry-level compensation is even higher — around $63,000 including pay and bonuses.
“We have seen a boost this year and we’re working hard to keep it going, but it’s the calm before the storm with all those coming retirements,” Black said.
Both United and American have introduced recruiting programs that could provide their regional airline partners with a pool of prospective pilots.
In the past, United focused recruiting efforts on pilots who had already risen through the ranks at regional carriers or served in the military. A new program, launched earlier this month, will let aspiring pilots apply to join a pipeline to United at any stage of their career — including while still training at a flight school or university — with a conditional job offer.
“For prospective airline pilots, it’s a huge financial commitment and a time commitment, and you’re kind of on your own. … What we’re trying to do is fill the gap between initial flight training and the goal of getting to a major airline,” said Mike Hamilton, a United pilot who was involved in the program’s development.
United already has career pathway programs with some regional airlines, but the new initiative is more structured and is meant to give aspiring pilots a better understanding of how to move through the ranks to a job at United. It also involves more coaching and mentoring, Hamilton said.
The airline expects to hire more than 10,000 pilots over the next 10 years, including about 650 this year. Nearly half of United’s 12,500 pilots are expected to retire during that decade.
American Airlines chose to focus on aspiring pilots with little or no flight experience with its Cadet Academy program, which launched in April 2018. Applicants who successfully complete flight school training through the program are guaranteed an interview at three regional airlines owned by American: Envoy Air, PSA Airlines and Piedmont Airlines. If hired, students would be able to transfer from the regional airline to American when they have enough seniority.
The airline will hire 900 pilots this year and expects to continue hiring similar numbers each year. It expects about 8,000 pilots to retire over the next decade.
While entry-level salaries have grown, the cost of training for those jobs require remains a hurdle, said Black, at the Regional Airline Association. Flight school can cost $85,000. University programs are more expensive, though graduates don’t need to complete as many hours of flying before earning the certificate that qualifies them for an entry-level airline job.
At Lewis, tuition costs $25,000 a year for a four-year program, plus $75,000 to $80,000 for flight training, though most students receive scholarship assistance, Phillips said.
Federal financial aid typically doesn’t cover the full cost of an aviation-focused degree at a college, and flight school students aren’t eligible for that assistance, Black said.
“It doesn’t matter how attractive you make the career if there’s no bridge to cross to it,” she said.
Major airlines are trying to reduce the financial burden to avoid losing applicants who feel they can’t afford to pursue a career as a pilot.
American works with Discover Student Loans to help students finance flight training, and United is planning a financial assistance program.
At Lewis, Phillips said hiring and recruiting initiatives are making a difference and helping boost enrollment. Lewis has 700 students in its aviation programs, the most the department has had since it was created in 1932. That includes 275 flight majors, or prospective pilots, up from 235 last year.
Parkland, which offers associates’ degrees, has seen steady growth since taking over the University of Illinois’ aviation program in 2014. During each of the past three semesters, the college had to turn away students interested in pursuing flight training because it didn’t have the capacity to accommodate them, Evans said. Parkland has about 80 flight students and 20 more in its drone programs.
But if airlines’ growing demand for pilots makes it easier for institutions like Parkland and Lewis to attract students, it’s making it harder to find people to train them.
Working as a flight instructor is a common stop for pilots trying to rack up the hours of flying time required to qualify for entry-level jobs with regional carriers. The number of hours needed ranges from 750 to 1,500 hours, depending on the person’s training.
When jobs were hard to come by, instructors would stick around. Now, once they hit their target, “they’re out the door,” Phillips said.
Lewis has started letting full-time instructors pursue master’s degrees at no added cost, to encourage them to stay until they finish the degree, he said. The university is also considering adjusting the salary structure and providing other training opportunities as incentives.
Parkland also is having trouble keeping instructors because the college can’t compete with airline salaries, Evans said, though she hopes the pilots retiring from airlines will be a potential pool of instructors.
It’s not just airlines that are having to get creative with recruiting, Phillips said. “We’re all kind of in the same boat.”