Will Generation Y be pilots?

Several recent, seemingly unrelated reports pose issues in our hopes for a new generation of pilots. Boeing’s July announcement that half a million airline pilots will be needed worldwide by 2031 made big news. But many of us have heard such news before. And this time, there are new caveats and wrinkles.

One that caught my eye was a Frontier Group study “Transportation and the New Generation” cited in MOTOR TREND. It said the share of 14- to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license was up to 26% in 2010 from 21%  in 2000. MOTOR TREND worries that young people are weaning themselves from cars and driving. Compared to the mechanically minded “motorhead” generations of yore, this could be more than just a trend toward big-city mass transit or close-in suburban living. At the least, it’s a symptom of generational poor incomes and gas prices that affect flying and flight training, too.

Today’s younger generations also have more interest in what’s new now: Digital technology. The July 16 Newsweek noted a poll of “Millennials” who said “they felt ‘exhausted’ by their (day and night) online activities” that for many constitute their world. Gen-Y and Millennials could be great in future cockpits, I guess, if only for their data entry skills. (Many of today’s first officers now describe themselves as great typists!) More likely, Gen-Y and Millennials may be the best future ground-bound UAV pilots.

What would motivate them into real flying or the hard work and long hours of the flying profession? Only a love of flying, I’d say. How do we engender that? For those whose only exploration of the world may be through Google Earth, who needs a seat in the sky? I suspect the possibility of employment will again be the main driver.

But there are problems: Low starting salaries, huge training expenses and subsistence pay while serving one’s aeronautical apprenticeship. Regional Airline Association president Roger Cohen told the Wichita Aero Club in July, “The supply of pilots is going to be a major, major issue for us.” Damn right say many, now older and wiser after working stepping-stone jobs with the regionals. Others will cite the disruption of airline consolidation or failed pension funds. And now comes a new 1,500-hour total time requirement that will further complicate the traditional apprenticeship (although graduates of college aviation programs may get a break.)

When that spectacular Boeing estimate made news as “a new pilot shortage looming,” I could hear a collective “Oh, not again” from pro pilot ranks. Boeing is right, however, in saying that post-Cold War military fliers are fewer and “staying in” longer. And Boeing’s credibility is boosted by a frank estimate that U.S. airline activity will grow only 2% annually. Compared to booming Asian and European demand for 185,000 and 100,000 new pilots, respectively, a more moderate 69,000 pilot openings are forecast for North America.

Still, that’s not bad. So it was ironic to receive a call in July on behalf of GA officials liquidating left-over assets of the 1996-2005 BE A PILOT program. There is a small amount of money remaining which they will donate to a good cause. (I won’t say which, but you’ll probably like it.) Other BE A PILOT intellectual property and resources were distributed long ago to major sponsors like Cessna and AOPA, which folded them into their own in-house efforts. AOPA, EAA and others continue to sell learn-to-fly at levels appropriate to current economics. Do we need an industry-sponsored BE A PILOT again? Sometime, yes, if right now only for flight schools and regional airlines to counteract pervasive bad news about once-glamorous flying careers.

As demographic factors and the economy weigh heavy, it seems career flight training could be a spark for GA in the near term. But that works only with prospects for a solid, stable and remunerative career. There are many pro pilots and ex-pilots out there telling their truth to new hopefuls: Flying is great but potentially only a marginal living these days — a sure choice only for the lucky, the well-trained and the very determined.

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

 

© Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

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