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Pilot shortage: Fact or fiction

by Wendy Pursey Head of Membership & Career Services

An impending pilot shortage is something aspiring pilots will hear about a lot. A quick search online throws up headline after headline declaring there is a global demand for pilots. At the same time flight training schools want to entice paying customers with promises that it is a great time to become a pilot.

Time after time BALPA is asked if there really is a shortage, and what that means for UK pilots. However, the answer is not as simple as it might first seem, and it depends on which region, type of operation, and pilot experience.

What is clear is that predictions of a severe pilot shortage globally do not reflect the situation being experienced by all British pilots. In fact, BALPA currently has around 500 unemployed pilot members. Many are recently qualified and are trying to secure their first pilot job.

So, let’s start with the often-quoted statistics. Manufacturing giants Boeing and Airbus have forecasted the need for as many as 617,000 new pilots by 2035. They state that demand is growing as economies grow and airline fleet numbers expand. In fact, they claim that over the next 20 years, at the current rate of pilots entering the profession, there won’t be enough pilots to fly the planes.

However, once we break the numbers down, it’s not such a straightforward story. Firstly, there are big regional differences in demand with the greatest need for pilots being in parts of Asia and the middle east. However, much of this demand is for experienced pilots and not freshly-qualified, low-hour cadets or qualified pilots without hours on type.

Another big problem is the cost of pilot training. Long gone are the days when airlines footed the bill for training. Now aspiring pilots need to find up to £100,000 to pay for their own ATPL training costs. In many cases, if they manage to secure a job they could find themselves funding their own type rating which can cost up to £30,000.

In order to cover these training costs, many pilots take out substantial loans with no guarantee of a job at the end of their training. Even once they secure a position with an airline, the starting salaries are often not high enough to live on, after factoring in loan repayments and standard living costs. The number of pilots willing to commit the time and money to their education and training when the return on investment is at best unpredictable, is far fewer than it’s ever been.

The answer to the pilot shortage is not simply a matter of encouraging more people to become pilots: it’s the culture that needs to be changed. Actions need to be taken urgently to improve the appeal, affordability, and access to the career of professional flying. That’s where BALPA comes in.

We’ve been lobbying policymakers and airlines to encourage them to offer would-be pilots more support and protect the quality and safety standards of the profession. We have asked the Government to find ways to use the apprenticeship levy to help pilots with their training costs. At the same time BALPA wants the EU to outlaw some of the worst employment practices that are becoming more common. We have encouraged UK airlines to agree permanent contracts and move away from employing pilots through temporary work agencies or on zero-hour contracts.

An important part of BALPA’s work involves attending recruitment fairs to meet the pilots of tomorrow and help them compare the reality of the piloting profession to the dream. BALPA offers trainee pilots membership as part of our nextGen project to welcome them in to the pilot family and provide mentoring and support from experienced pilots. Through the nextGen project BALPA is striving for equal opportunity to ensure future pilots are drawn from all parts of society and that the profession attracts the best talent and not just those best able to pay for training. We want to protect the piloting profession by reaching out to these new entrants and giving them a voice.

In many ways now is as good a time as any to start flight training. However, while there is a pilot shortage across many parts of the world, hopefuls must remember that this isn’t a job guarantee.

Choose your training route and flight school carefully. There is a lot of information that could help you choose the path that is right for you in our guide: The Inside Track 

You also need to be aware of the qualities that airlines are looking for in their pilots. We don’t want to put anyone off a pilot career, but it is important to ensure our future pilot members are entering the industry with their eyes wide open.