The Pilot Shortage in Business Aviation

The Pilot Shortage in Business Aviation

Chatting with various business aviation operators at the NBAA Scheduler’s & Dispatcher’s conference this year made one thing clear: the pilot shortage, or more generally, the personnel shortage, was on seemingly everyone’s mind.

We’re going to take a look at this trend - the rise in concern over pilot shortage - and then take a look at some of the suggested causes. In our next post we’ll discuss some of the solutions through an optimization-oriented lens.

Pilot Shortages Long-Term

While the pilot shortage topic has certainly grown in popularity in recent months, it’s certainly not new.  Articles and experts have been predicting the trend for many years, suggesting shortages of up to 3000 pilots per year.  The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) had several features in their January/February issue on the topic, some of which were based on panels and presentations from the 2017 NBAA-BACE conference in Las Vegas in October, which was highly attended.

The search trend for the term “pilot shortage” shows long-term interest:


Source: Google Trends

In short, during times of economic distress for the aviation industry - here characterized by the time following 9/11 and the recession in 2008/2009 - the aviation industry lays off a large portion of its workforce, or companies simply go bust.  Those working in aviation at the time have to adapt, those thinking about entering aviation at the time reconsider, and the result when the economy and industry recovers is a pilot shortage.

Donald Menard, in a presentation given at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in August of 2017 drew the same conclusions, going into more detail and including factors like the FAA extending the mandatory retirement age in 2007, among others, but the conclusion remains the same: business aviation experiences a downturn after hard economic times.

The Pilot Shortage in Commercial Aviation

Pilot shortages in commercial aviation often get more attention than those in business aviation, for obvious reasons: these shortages affect larger numbers of the population, who typically fly commercial.

In commercial aviation, the pain is real.  Many reasons have been given for why the current pilot shortage seems more drawn out and severe than previous ones, with explanations ranging from the cost of pilot training, particularly following an increase in the requirements following a 2009 crash, to the fact that global competition has ramped up, with Chinese and Middle Eastern carriers in particular seeming to offer much higher salaries in a push to attract pilots.

The other contributing factor that often gets cited is that the job of a pilot has “lost its glamour”.  While this might sometimes be a blanket description for more concrete reasons, it’s a valid argument that is explained when you see that pilots for regional airlines, often the starting position for bigger commercial companies, get starting salaries “as little as $15,000 to $20,000”.  

For other personnel, it’s often just as bad, as “many flight attendants begin their careers making less than minimum wage”.

A pilot shortage most certainly exists in commercial aviation, but how does that affect business aviation?  Basically, it gives pilots choice, and many are choosing to go to commercial positions.

Why Pilots are Choosing Commercial Over Business Aviation

This is the critical question for those in the business aviation world.  If there’s a pilot shortage, and pilots are choosing commercial airlines, why is that and what can we do about it?

NBAA addressed the issue directly in a couple of their January/February issue articles titled, appropriately, The Lure of the Airlines and Addressing Business Aviation’s Personnel Shortage.

The articles confirm much of what we’ve talked about:

  • Predicted “Retirement over the next decade of 15,000 to 18,000 air carrier aviators”

  • “The long-forewarned pilot shortage is a harsh reality - a 15,000-person gap by 2026, according to a University of North Dakota study.”

Most of The Lure of the Airlines focuses on salary and compensation;  401K pension plans, profit-sharing, medical insurance, dental insurance, and other benefits are all touted as reasons why a pilot would choose commercial aviation over business aviation.

Addressing Business Aviation’s Personnel Shortage takes a bit of a different approach.  Instead, this article focuses on both the NBAA’s Business Aviation Management Committee pilot workforce retention study, which “involved interviewing former business aircraft pilots who have departed the industry for the airlines” with the goal “to better understand why these aviators are leaving business aviation.”

They also consulted a range of experts, who also conducted the panel we mentioned earlier at NBAA-BACE in 2017, titled “All Hands on Deck: Confronting the Personnel Shortage.”  Those experts were Christopher Broyhill, Jay Orwin, Bill Prochazka, Jon Riemenschneider and Daniel Wolfe.

This study came up with 4 top reasons for pilots leaving for airlines, and this is the list that most interests us.  The 4 cited reasons were: “

  1. Predictability of Schedule

  2. Compensation

  3. Retirement Benefits

  4. Job Stability”

Solutions suggested for better recruitment and retention include things like more clearly laying out a path towards promotion, lowering minimum hours for new hires and then pairing them with experienced aviators, and better communicating how valued they are at the company.

These are great, and should certainly be pursued and continuously improved upon.  What strikes us, however, is that we believe most of the cited reasons can be addressed by an improvement in operations.

Predictability of schedule is difficult in the business aviation world, and increasing headcount can be one strategy to cope.  Another, however, is getting better at prediction. Examining previous flight patterns and schedules can often yield schedules that are much more robust, and allow a much longer planning window, with minimal disruptions.

Offering better compensation and retirement benefits is a function of the company’s overall profitability - the more efficiently you can operate, the more of these benefits you can offer while still remaining successful as a company.

Job stability is difficult to address, but that’s also true for commercial airlines.  If you look at the major disruptions in the last couple decades of aviation - 9/11 and the recession - neither could have been predicted, and they hit both industries equally hard.  So this is likely more of a perception problem, and may be addressed by charting clearer paths to advancement or seniority.

In the next post, we’ll dive a little deeper into common strategies for retaining employees, and our take on how to address the top three reasons for pilots leaving for airlines: predictability of schedule, compensation, and retirement benefits, as well as some peripheral benefits that may result from addressing these issues.

What do you see as the causes and solutions to the personnel shortage in business aviation?

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