The Airline Pilot Shortage

When a humorist is asked about the looming pilot shortage, he proposes booster seats to solve the problem. When the aviation industry is asked about it, it offers a range of well-meaning and often practical solutions. Not wanting to be left out here, I’d like to propose my own solution: Do nothing and let the problem solve itself.

Just to be clear here, we need to do everything we can to increase the general aviation pilot population. That’s a given. What we don’t need to do is to worry about the airlines not having enough pilots. Why? The looming shortage (to the degree that it actually looms) will be one of the best things that’s ever happened to general aviation. If you don’t believe me, just look in your mailbox.

Last week, I received a brochure from TransPac Aviation Academy in Arizona offering a $3,000 sign-up bonus for full-time CFIs. The company offers 80 flight hours a month, a five-day workweek, plus an annual salary and benefits. Get out! How do you explain all those goodies? You can do it in two words: Milton Friedman.

The great economist was a free-market maven who taught that the market’s supply and demand determine the price of goods and services. To date, the active full-time flight instructor population has diminished. As far as we know, CFIs are not being abducted by UFOs and warped off to Romulat for alien probing. They simply left the market because they couldn’t buy food in the market with the money they made. CFIs are now standing in high cotton because there are fewer of them available to work full time.

So what’s going to happen when airlines begin hiring more pilots and those pilots are nowhere to be found, not even on Romulat? If you’re a student of aviation history, you already know the answer, and it bodes well for general aviation.

In the mid-1960s, United Airlines and Pacific Southwest Airlines couldn’t find enough pilots to fly their airplanes. What did they do? They paid people to become commercial pilots. If you had a private pilot certificate, United would interview you, and if they liked you, they’d pay for your commercial and instrument training. Then they’d stick you in a 707 or DC-8, sit you sideways in the cockpit, and give you a gigantic panel of switches (many of which were connected to things). Today, this is very similar to how some European/Asian carriers find and train pilot applicants.

Let’s remember that airlines are in business to make money (at least, they’ve got a lot of my money). To do this, they need people to fly their airplanes. Surely, the CEOs of these companies are aware of this problem and aren’t just sitting around using their thumbs as a defense against alien mischief, right? Here is where Milton Friedman deserves a curtain call.

Think about the FAA’s and Congress’ solution to the Colgan Air crash in 2009. They raised the minimum flight time for Part 121 new hires to 1,500 hours. But the captain of the Colgan airplane had 3,379 hours of total flight time. Based on the FAA’s and Congress’ logic, wouldn’t you think that they would have at least raised the new hire flight time to 3,380 hours?

This is why I’m worried about the government getting involved in solving the pilot shortage problem. If they did, you know this would initially involve offering bids for the development of elevator shoes, stretching machines, and optical devices to make pilots look taller in the terminal. Once they actually understood the problem, who knows what kind of Colgan-type, “boll weevil”–inspired overreaction might be foisted on general aviation and our “now taller” cotton fields. No, thank you.

My proposed solution to the pilot shortage is simple: Sit back and let the market handle the problem. Airlines will find some way to obtain more pilots, such as paying for new hire training, raising pilot pay to entice more to enter the industry, or petitioning the FAA to reduce regulations (i.e., require less total flight time for new hires). In the process, I’m betting that this will help solve GA’s decreasing pilot population, too. If all else fails, we can refurbish a shuttle and order Elon Musk to fire it off to Romulat and haul our abducted CFIs back to earth. I’m sure they would be happy to return home. It’s a thumbs-up for everyone.

 Copyright: Rod Machado
Appeared in June issue of AOPA Pilot 




By Rod Machado | | CFI Resource Center, Learning to Fly | 6 comments
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  • alice - December 20, 2015

    Thanks for pointing out the way! And thank you for your instrument survival book!
    Do you think that I can get an advice on where to work as a CFI and where I should go for a CFI training?

  • Joe - December 17, 2015

    We are right to criticize the government for a lot things but the new airline safety act isn’t one of them. requiring both pilots up front to have an ATP certificate makes a lot of sense. The SIC of a 121 flight should have way more experience then just 250 hours. Do we want student pilots of front learning from the CFI captain, or full fledged airline pilots with enough expertise to contribute to the CRM process? There’s no room for novices up front when i’m sending my family to fly.

  • mel - November 19, 2015

    The requirement is that an applicant must have an ATP to be hired for a 121 carrier. The 1500 hours is a requirement to attain the ATP. 1500 hours flight time without the ATP will not get a pilot hired. Pay rate changes would solve the problem purported pilot shortage problem. Please don’t advocate for regulation changes. It’s hard enough to get some flight students to study without implying that some of it is unnecessary.

  • Harold - November 17, 2015

    Rod, you have hit the nail on the head. Thank you for being willing to step out and say what needs to be said.

    It will be very interesting to see the effects of the sticky wage theory on the flight training industry. I am about to make my exit from the training industry myself, during what I believe is the tail end of the days of the low-wage CFI. I believe you are absolutely correct about the general aviation renaissance that is on the horizon as the result of the government’s intrusion into this important industry. Negatives aside, I too believe it bodes well for general aviation as private subsidization of flight training begins to affect the market.

    As to the airlines, I believe they have dug themselves a real hole by not being more forthright and outspoken about the regulatory burden imposed on their primary labor source. To that, I say they get what they deserve!

    Harold, CFI-I

  • Malki - November 16, 2015

    Well said. Let paid training be part of the sign on bonus.

  • Old Bob Siegfried - November 16, 2015

    Totally agree Rod,

    There were a lot of things wrong with the Colgan deal, but low time pilots was not a FACTOR!

    You and Milton have/had it figured!

    Happy Skies,

    Old Bob

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