How has the pandemic affected the long-term demand and supply for pilots and training?
By Maximilian Buerger, Managing Director, AFM & Aviationfly
The aviation industry has shown remarkable signs of recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global passenger demand in July 2023 reached 95.6% of 2019 levels, indicating a near-complete rebound in air travel. This recovery will continue, following which air travel is forecast to grow at 3.6% annually (CAGR) until 2041 according to Airbus Global Market Forecast. Similar to the demand for air travel having recovered to close to pre-pandemic levels the demand for pilots has recovered and exceeded 2019 levels as a large number of pilots left the profession during the challenging pandemic years. The industry now faces a situation in which airlines in a number of different regions across the world have more demand for air travel then available capacity due to a shortage of “qualified/experienced” pilots (this personnel shortage is seen in other roles as well such as technicians and flight attendants). The result of this has been flight cancellations, high air travel ticket prices and increasing amount of poaching between the different airlines.
How will this situation develop? Breaking down the pilot recruitment and training activities by demand and supply segments allows one to get a better understanding of the current state of the industry. In terms of demand for pilots and pilot training – 2023 requirements far exceed 2019 levels which is leading to airlines becoming more aggressive by offering higher compensation to attract especially experienced pilots from other operators as well as launch their own abinitio pilot training cadet programs to ensure their own pilot pipeline for the future. This demand for pilots will only grow with organisations such as Airbus or CAE forecasting that over 284,000 will be required over the next 10 years based on aircraft orders.
How will this requirement for pilots be met? When evaluating the supply of pilots, it is important to note that the pandemic has done significant damage to both the perception of the pilot profession and the global pilot training infrastructure itself. Supply of experienced pilots is limited, during the pandemic around half of the world’s pilots were not required and for a period of almost three years a large number of experienced pilots did not take to the skies. This has led to a lot of experienced pilots leaving the profession with a large number of them not coming back to the airline cockpit as they have adjusted to another profession.
The supply of new pilots is impacted by both the number of student pilots in training and the total capacity of the global flight training infrastructure. Due to travel restrictions and a lack of demand from aspiring pilots the industry witnessed almost three years in which pilot training organisations enrolled a much smaller number of new student pilots. The enrolments in 2020, 2021 and 2022 have an impact on the number of new first officers entering the industry in 2023 and the subsequent years as to become a commercial pilot it takes between one and three years. In addition due to the low demand for the pilot profession for a number of years a large number of flight schools globally shut down resulting in a reduced global pilot training capacity to train new pilots in 2023 than in 2019. Even now when demand for pilot training is significantly strong again, boosted by the high compensation on offer for pilots and airline abinitio pilot cadet training programs, there continues to be a large number of pilot training organisations around the world that are shutting down due to not having enough instructors to train new pilots. The reason for why there are not enough instructors? High demand for pilots and attractive compensation from airlines create an environment that makes it difficult for flight schools to retain the instructors.
Looking ahead, this imbalance between the demand for qualified pilot and the supply from the global pilot training infrastructure will continue as the pilot training industry requires time to scale up to meet the demand. Airlines will become more active in terms of supporting the supply of new qualified pilots by launching ab-initio cadet pilot training programs (with many of them subsidised by the airline) or in certain situations take control of the pilot training infrastructure to accelerate scalability. The greatest benefactors of this demand and supply imbalance are existing qualified pilots and aspiring pilots. There has never been a better time for well-trained pilots or aspiring pilot to pursue career opportunities in cockpits around the world.