(Click the above to watch the segment I did with the NewsNation Team)
Let’s talk about this pilot shortage we now find ourselves in. How did we get here? What can we do about it? Are there ways mitigate the effects when it comes to our travel plans?
WHY DO WE HAVE A PILOT SHORTAGE?
The aviation industry tends to cycle in waves of thriving then contracting. Before September 11th, 2001, the industry was flourishing and there was a huge hiring spree. There was a lot of pilots and sources for the airlines to pick their best candidates from. Whether a pilot trains and ascends through the military or whether they level up in the civilian realm, we all start with training in smaller more basic aircraft, work our way up to more complex aircraft and operations, then sometimes, if the timing is right and we are fortunate enough to be selected by the majors, we climb in ranks there. Some pilots will stay in the military and work their way up, some will stay as pleasure flying pilots, some go on to be corporate, business, or personal pilots, some will fly for the regionals and stay for seniority (quality of life), and some fly for the majors.
The pilot career is similar to a doctors’. People wash out along the way, do not have the means or the drive to stay the course, some cannot cut it, and some choose to have a more stable home life. Attrition is part of the process, a necessary one because of the grueling years, sacrifices made, and challenges needed to overcome. If pilots do not have natural ability, solid decision making skills, drive and motivation, situational awareness, quick learning capabilities, and aptitudes for leadership, they will not succeed. Pilots have to love the aircraft and the operation they are performing so that they give their best efforts, always. It is critical for safety.
Post Sept 11th, 2001, people were just not encouraging their young ones to go into aviation. It was seen as too dangerous and too volatile. After a decade, when things began to rebound, we saw an increase in pilot training once again. People saw that is was possibly worth dedicating eight to ten years of their lives to achieving the goals required, efforts made, money spent on college and flight education. It seemed that the industry would stabilize even with all the mergers that had happened. Then, we got hit with the pandemic.
It was crushing, not only to see the devastation across the board, but also the fear and concern of our passengers, family, and friends. With the shutdowns in 2020, our industry fell to just 10% of the demand and stayed that way. Airlines could not sustain a 90% reduction of passenger loads and so began the dominoes of airlines going out of business around the world once again. In some cases, we knew the airlines would be forced to shut their doors if there was no government. Talk between managements and unions began and with huge concessions made on both sides, some airlines were able to hold on as hurricane COVID-19 hit us all full force. Early retirement packages were offered to aviation workers and most jump at the chance not knowing how long and devastating this all would last. More junior workers were faced with losing their careers, jobs, homes, and families. In some cases, if they were laid off, they were able to find other work, in other fields more secure and stable.
In 2021, vaccines were coming out giving people a layer of protection which also included confidence. But many airlines forced the issue of vax or lose your job. We lost more aviation professionals due to these concerns and issue. Travelers began to return, although gingerly. New protocols were in place across all the airlines and airports for health and safety, and to make passengers feel more comfortable. We were very happy to have our customers return and although unable to see each others smiles through the masks, we all were hopeful for a recovery.
Now in 2022, two years after the start of the pandemic, we are nearly back to 2019 demand levels. This issue is that we are down those percentages of aviation professionals. This affects frequency of flights on certain routes, cuts service from smaller and mid sized communities, and raises the prices of tickets. The gas prices are also a player in what we are seeing. As pilots, like I previously mentioned, it takes nearly a decade to reach the levels required and the experience needed to fly you safely on these large, complex aircraft. The answer is not to ‘lower’ requirements or standards because that entails compromising safety. Pilots need to meet and exceed these levels. If we increase the mandatory retirement age to over sixty five (it was raised from sixty to sixty five overnight in 2007 because of the airline bankruptcies, paychecks cut in half, and pensions stripped), we need to have even more stringent medical criteria on our twice a year required FAA exams where a pilot must demonstrate solid competency physically and mentally.
The answer is also not to go full throttle into the idea of automating pilots right out of the cockpit. We operate in extremely dynamic environment in very complex aircraft. We often perform decisively, with speed, and accuracy. We have skin in the game – we are at the head of the aircraft commanding the aircraft, flying the aircraft. We too want to get you safely to your destinations and onetime, since we too have family, friends, events, to get to. I promise you, there is no greater safety sources, as you have seen over the past few decades of excellent safety records, than two highly experienced, well trained, healthy and alert pilots flying you in a well maintained and certified aircraft by the major airlines, mechanics, and FAA in airspace and airports ran by experienced air traffic controllers.
We need to encourage the next generation to consider this industry and career through exposing them to airplanes, airports, military, etc. Movies like Top Gun Maverick and the original made many of us pilots simply by envisioning the aviation joy that comes from the thrill and excitement. Using larger aircraft on busier routes will help offload the mid sized aircraft provided for frequency of service to handle more midsized regions. We need to encourage pilots who are currently flying smaller aircraft to consider continuing their work toward the higher step ups. Although some of the military flying has been automated to drones, that is still a small percentage and we need pilots and crews to serve and protect. They can transfer over when their commitment is done and serve the public for the airlines. (And although some of us LOVE aerobatics, we won’t be doing that with our hundreds of passengers onboard!)
Here are some ways to best protect your travel plans:
1.Book directly through the airlines. We all love third party companies too but your plans will be better protected if any delays or cancellations happen.
2. Be flexible. Make sure to book your flights to arrive at least a day or two ahead of any events you must attend. Weather delays, reroutes, lack of staff, etc. could cause you to miss that once in a lifetime experience you have planned for.
3. Be proactive. Select to receive notifications from the airline to your phone so you find out immediately if there has been a disruption to your flight schedule. Keep an eye on the weather the day before and day of your flights to anticipate possible issues. This applies not only to your departure, but your connections, and arrivals also.
4. Call by phone or direct message. If something does happen with your flight, do not sit back and wait or stand in a very long customer service line. Immediately call the airlines to see when and where they can reschedule you if possible. You may just get those very last seats on the next flight out!
5. Be patient and courteous. Travel can be a bit of a marathon. If it makes better sense when things are falling apart to just grab a local hotel and get some sleep, throw it on a credit card and take care of yourself with food, hydration, and sleep. It is better to get to your destination a day later in a good mindset, than a sleep deprived mess.
6. Book early morning flights if you can. It is usually best to go early and be half asleep because most of the time, your aircraft and crew will be there for your flight. Afternoon summer weather effects or deep winter climates can wreak havoc on the flight system. Plus, you can always sleep on the airplane and enjoy generally smoother flights.
7. Travel Insurance. Make sure if you buy a policy for your trip, that it covers your trip for cancellations. Read the fine print and consider the more expensive policy may actually cover the issue you may run across.
Look for my book out soon in order to have all the travel tips and tricks you need to have the best flight experience!
Thank you for flying with me! Wishing you Blue Skies and Smooth Flights!