GAO study highlights realities of pilot shortage

The lack of opportunities for aspiring pilots to build flight time required to advance to the right seat of a regional airliner is among the factors leading to the shortage of qualified pilots now confronting the U.S. airline industry, according to a study recently published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) at the request of lawmakers and industry stakeholders.

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) was part of a coalition of aviation associations, regional and major airlines, and universities with aviation programs that participated in the GAO study, titled “Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots.”

The GAO also interviewed groups representing airlines and airline pilots, as well as officials with mainline and regional airlines, pilot training programs and industry organizations.

The study examined airline pilot hiring and retention data from 2000 to 2012, and hiring forecasts for 2013 to 2022.

“Everyone has a sense that there’s a shortage of qualified pilots looming, but we wanted to go deeper into the actual data,” said NBAA’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Brown. “We encouraged the GAO to conduct a broad-based study of the evidence, so that the public would benefit from such an objective review.”

The study confirmed many industry observations concerning the dwindling ranks of qualified pilot candidates, noting that age-mandated pilot retirements and other attrition in the ranks of existing commercial pilots continues to outpace the rate of new hires.

“Evidence suggests that the supply pipeline is changing as fewer students enter and complete collegiate pilot-training programs and fewer [retired] military pilots are available than in the past,” the study noted. “If the predictions for future demand are realized and shortages continue to develop, airlines may have to make considerable operational adjustments to compensate for having an insufficient number of pilots.”

Although the study focused on FAR Part 121 commercial carriers, the GAO did call attention to the vital role that general aviation plays in helping aspiring candidates build flight time. That important task has become significantly hindered, the study noted, as “fewer jobs are available in general aviation and non-airline commercial sectors for pilots to accrue the needed flight hours.”

Furthermore, commercial-pilot requirements increased last year with a congressionally driven mandate that all first officer candidates hold an air transport pilot rating, which requires a minimum of 1,500 flight hours logged. Graduates of accredited two- and four-year university aviation programs may be eligible for slightly reduced minimum hourly totals, though even those modified requirements are substantially greater than previous minimums.

Low entry-level wages are another concern for the airline industry.

“The pilot supply is dwindling faster than the industry anticipated, and we’re seeing those effects in particular at the regional level,” Brown added. “Some [regional] carriers have already begun eliminating flights and service to smaller communities as a result.”

While a shortage of qualified pilots also affects other segments of the industry, Brown believes the business aviation workforce may fare better due to differences in compensation levels and duty patterns.


  1. BJS says

    My flight instructor recently told me the regional airlines start pilots in the low $20’s. They can make that much being a part time greeter at Walmart. The same thing is going to happen in the medical field which is why applications to the nation’s dental schools are up 50%. Why would anyone with half a brain want to spend the time, money and punishment to become a physician or airline pilot to make less than a plumber?

  2. Greg W says

    The pay and job conditions,hours, are indeed big problems driving aviation’s shortages. The “pilot” shortage predictions and/or current reported stats are only part of it. The ranks of Airframe/powerplant mechanics are dwindling fast as well. The predicted shortage of mechanics is greater than that predicted for pilots. The training cost is high the wages low and work hours and conditions often poor. The first labor cut-backs at the carriers is often the maintenance departments not the flight crews. Maintenance is looked at as a cost while the flight crews are regarded as “revenue generating”. I am a pilot as well as an A&P, just remember that the technician works in obscurity with little pay or appreciation and if not for them the planes would not fly.

    • Donnie Underwood says

      Point well taken. Until the flying public gets inconvenienced greatly by this situation, nothing will change.

  3. Donnie Underwood says

    I can’t believe that there are all these studies going on to try to find out why there is a shortage of pilots going to the regional airlines. The answer is- pay – pay -pay. When you have an industry where the admission price is so high and the return on the investment is so low, you are going to have a lack of people wanting to do it. There are a lot of quality pilots that would gladly go to work for the regional airlines if the pay was better.

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