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The limits to the sky: The shortage of pilots in the aviation industry

By John Wadhams | December 7, 2023

The aviation industry is struggling with a shortage of pilots. How big is the problem and what steps can be taken to solve it?

Airline pilots need to be able to move high value passengers and goods from one place to another quickly, efficiently and, above all, safely, in an exceptionally high-risk environment. Pilots need to be very good at their jobs, but there has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the lack of trained pilots.

The uncertainty created by COVID-19 led to several hiring freezes and many people moved away from the aviation industry. The system was under strain even before the pandemic though, with several social and economic changes putting pressure on the flow of trained pilots entering the industry. At the same time, demand for air travel has been growing in many regions globally as a result of the booming middle classes, growth of global business and the need to move cargo around at speed.[1]

With air travel firmly back on the agenda, this is a good time to revisit the debate and add the risk management and insurance perspective.

The recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic was an extraordinary challenge for the aviation industry. There are various numbers out there depending on source and definition[2], but the industry suffered 18 months of only being able to carry out a fraction of its normal business and, in some cases, staff needed to be redeployed or find employment elsewhere. This has complicated the COVID-19 recovery process.[3]

The aviation industry is relatively mature and generally has a strong understanding of what it needs and when it will need it. Airframe manufacturer Airbus suggests that the industry will require 585,000 new pilots between 2022 and 2041[4], while competitor Boeing suggests the industry will need to hire and train 649,000 new pilots between 2023 and 2042 if it wants to keep up with projected levels of demand.[5] These are very forward-looking forecasts, but they do give an indication of the scale of the industry’s challenge. The fact that they are based on global airframe manufacturers’ forward order-books also gives them a high level of credibility.

There are several reasons for the perceived requirement to extend the pool of pilots available in the industry.

Changing aircraft to meet net zero

Firstly, the pace of change is unlikely to let up as the airline industry strives to achieve net zero by 2050. In most ways this is a good thing, but with each new generation of aircraft, pilots, and cabin crew, need to learn additional skills and adapt to new technologies.

This means that the potential pool of people that are both willing and have the capacity to put in the work necessary to become commercial airline pilots is not as deep as it might seem, even on a global level.

This is a long way from being an insurmountable challenge with the right training methods, support and incentives, but commercial airlines operate in a very competitive market. Passenger safety is paramount, but efficiency and margins are also very important.

Millennials seeking balance

Meanwhile, there are also social factors to consider. Alongside the constant training and development, working on an aircraft involves irregular shift patterns which can make it difficult to achieve a work/life balance.

There are said to have been significant improvements made in the aftermath of the fatal Colgan Air crash in 2009 where pilot fatigue was suggested by some to have been a contributing factor.[6] A lot of attention was subsequently put on the working conditions for pilots and crew, particularly in the north American regional airlines, but the aviation industry places some very specific demands on pilots that can’t be circumvented without compromising training and ultimately passenger safety.

COVID-19 threw the question of work/life balance into sharp relief, with the World Economic Forum going so far as calling it The Great Reshuffle,[7] but it has been on the agenda for many people for some time. Aviation organisations need to find ways to respond to the challenge and ensure that the industry remains attractive to people as they enter the job market and remains attractive as they progress through their careers.

Training for competitors’ benefit

While the simple solution might be to invest to attract more pilots, there is a risk for some organisations that they might end up doing little more than training pilots for their larger competitors which can offer more opportunities on more modern equipment flying to a wider variety of places.

Compounding this, global economic growth tends to be uneven, so airlines in some parts of the world can offer the best terms to get the pilots they want while airlines in other parts of the globe will have to accept the lion’s share of the shortages.

This argument can become slightly circular though. On the one hand the rapid pace of change could scare potential pilots off or make it difficult for some pilots to find the interest to keep training on new hardware, on the other if airlines train their staff too well there is a risk that they will be acquired by competitors.

This is a perennial issue for the transport industry as a whole. Prior to the global economic crash, the marine cargo industry was awash with discussion about the lack of ship captains. The suggestion was that the number of luxury yachts belonging to the exceedingly wealthy was making the talent pool in commercial shipping very shallow indeed. While the demand for mega-yachts has dwindled in recent years, the issue has not gone away, with the marine industry facing similar work/life discussions and other challenges emerging post-COVID-19.[8]

eVTOLs: New ways to soar

A third aspect of the problem stems from changes away from commercial aviation. In the past it is suggested that many commercial airlines responded to pilot shortages by bringing in experienced, extensively trained, former military pilots to make up any shortage in the available talent.

The nature of war is changing however, and many militaries now focus as much on training pilots on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they do on traditional aircraft. This reduces their applicability for roles on commercial aircraft.

On the upside though, the potential emergence of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles, which are expected to start entering commercial service over the next couple of years, could be a sub-sector that needs an existing supply of trained drone pilots.[9] Some eVTOL companies are hoping to operate their vehicles autonomously, so the availably of trained former military drone pilots could potentially fill this gap nicely.

Given that piloted eVTOL vehicles have yet to enter commercial service, it’s probably fair to assume that unpiloted eVTOL vehicles are still a few years away, but it’s interesting to note while technological evolution is having a detrimental effect on one part of the aviation industry, it could become positive for another.

Part of the bigger picture

It is also worth noting that staffing challenges are not confined to aircraft. Airports and air traffic control operations have also found themselves in difficulties because of staffing shortages recently, causing delay and irritation for customers in many parts of the world.

This was one of the recurring themes that emerged during Airport Risk Community’s annual conference in November 2023 hosted by WTW in London. Several of the airports, associated organisations and government representatives at the event suggested that the industry needed to augment recruitment to keep attracting high calibre staff. Speakers stressed the need to work across the industry at both a national and international level to avoid the current staffing shortages becoming acute.

There are business interruption and travel insurance implications that arise from delays to individual flights or whole airports being unable to function fully, and these implications could become more significant if the demand for air travel grows on its expected trajectory. This is an issue where there can be a significant benefit in explaining to insurance partners the measures that are being put in place to minimise delays or cancellations during the process of negotiating an insurance placement.

One of the quickest ways to increase the supply of trained staff would be to reduce the cost of training. The problem with that approach is that there is a risk of compromising the quality of the pilots and staff that are being trained, which, given the high-risk nature of aviation activity, would not be a sensible approach.

The reality is that the aviation industry, like many others, is changing rapidly, the shortage of qualified pilots is being widely discussed and is recognised as having the potential to disrupt the industry.

From an insurance perspective the risk of a lack of trained staff is a concern, but claims have remained relatively stable for the last few years, even with the relatively rapid ramping up of activity since COVID-19. Pilot shortages may continue to be a challenge for the industry, but there are structures in place to ensure that it does not have much of a direct impact on insurance.


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Regional Director, Aerospace Nordic Hub

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