Love is in the Air, Magic in the Cockpit

By Gerasimos Kontos Associate Professor of Aviation, Abu Dhabi University

Embracing the challenging future of piloting profession 

Commercial aviation shows signs of air traffic returning to pre-COVID levels. Despite inflation, the conflict in Ukraine, and other economic and socio-political issues, commercial air travel is steadily increasing – and so is the demand for talent. Encouraged by the increased demand, airlines continue to invest in new aircraft and technology to bolster their operations and enhance the customer experience. From 2023 to 2042, Boeing forecasts 42,595 new aircraft deliveries while its major rival Airbus for the same period forecasts 40,850 deliveries. These forecasts imply a significant number of new pilots by comparison with today’s active pilot population.

Before we go any further, here is a look at the demand. According to CAE – Aviation Talent Forecast 10 year outlook, 1.3M Civil Aviation Professionals will be needed over the next 10 years. This number can be further decomposed to 284,000 New pilots, 402K New aircraft maintenance technicians and 599K New Cabin crew. In a similar vein Boeing also released the 2023 Pilot and Technician Outlook, forecasting a need for over 2.8M new aviation personnel over the next 20 years to support the commercial fleet expansion and meet long-term growth in air travel. The need for significant personnel through 2042 includes 649,000 pilots, 690,000 maintenance technicians, and 938,000 cabin crew members. 

This insight does not only focus on how many people will be needed over the following decade, but also the reasons behind this demand and what the industry as an ecosystem can do to attract talent and meet the needs for highly skilled pilots, cabin crew and aircraft maintenance technicians.

Driving the Demand for Air Travel

People have always had the desire to travel, which portrays the sharp rise in air travel demand as we are coming out of the pandemic. Experts expect the industry to recover to the 2019 traffic level in 2024, with North America leading the pack in 2023, followed by Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East in 2024, and Africa and Asia Pacific in 2025. Should the forecast prove to be accurate, the industry will have recovered from its worst crisis in history within four years, with a rate of recovery five times faster than the growth observed in the past 20 years. Although it may be too early to say that we are back to before the pandemic levels, we all have learned to operate in the “New Normal” and we are all better prepared to deal with similar challenges in the future.

Understanding the Global Pilot Shortage

Demand for new pilots is driven both by industry growth and by the need to replace pilots retiring from the profession. Besides the aging pilot population, a large number of pilots departed during the pandemic and left the industry for other careers. Basically, the value proposition for pilots changed during the pandemic. As a result of cutback in flying needs, pilots started seeing improved salaries and a renewed focus on quality of life, faster career progression timeline and more job security in other industries. Added to that, the industry lost many experienced pilots when airlines offered early retirement packages during the pandemic and there were insufficient candidates to fill the void created by their departures. In conjunction, the supply for new pilots is also dwindling, partly as a result of fewer trained pilots from the military (due to growth in the use of UAVs and advanced Drones).

To add more complexity to the shortage challenge, the rigorous training and certification processes that pilots must undergo contribute to the ongoing issue. Meeting these standards set by regulatory bodies, airlines and pilot schools requires significant time and financial investments, thus preventing potential candidates from pursuing a career as a pilot.

For many fledging aviators, the cost of pilot training is a serious barrier. For others, it may be hard to dedicate the necessary time to pilot training. The third might have medical conditions, so they cannot get accepted to start pilot training.

The Challenging Landscape of Technology

The adoption of new systems and emerging technologies transform the way pilots train, work, and interact with their environment.

Here are some key challenges to monitor:

Advanced flight decks:

The flight decks of tomorrow will incorporate cutting-edge technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) to improve situational awareness, reduce pilot workload, and enhance overall flight safety. Pilots will need to become adept at leveraging these tools to optimize their performance. 

Automated systems:

As automation technology continues to advance, pilots may find themselves taking on more of a supervisory role, monitoring and managing automated systems. This will require a shift in mindset and skillset, as pilots adapt to the new paradigm of human-machine collaboration.

Sustainable aviation:

As the industry moves towards greener technologies, pilots will need to familiarize themselves with alternative propulsion systems, such as electric and hydrogen-based power sources. This transition will necessitate additional training and a commitment to staying informed about the latest developments in sustainable aviation.4.

Advanced air mobility (AAM):

The emergence of AAM presents a new frontier for pilots, as they learn to navigate the challenges of flying air taxis and other forms of urban transportation. This elevated field will demand a unique set of skills and expertise, opening up new career paths for forward-thinking aviators 

Adapting the Industry to 21 Century Needs

Truth to be told, airlines are actively seeking to address the pilot shortage by expanding their recruitment efforts. In doing this, they need to act both proactively and creatively and ultimately create a favorable environment for those who dream of a pilot career in regional and major airlines.

Here are some key actions to support adaptation:

  1. Create programs to support career development and educate potential candidates earlier in their academic path. Offering incentives like scholarships, guaranteed placement and sponsorships to reduce the financial risk of flight training programs. These outreach programs will show that aviation is an attractive career choice, and ultimately encourage interest in flying and bolster Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education activities.
  1. Embracing partnerships with Universities and Approved Training Organizations (ATOs) for offering comprehensive training programs allowing cadets to obtain integrated airline pilot licenses and University degrees. These programs provide future pilots with the necessary skills and certifications required to enter the industry and become airline pilots and at the same time offer additional career opportunities in the aviation ecosystem.
  1. Increase the diversity and inclusion of the recruitment pool. For instance, according to CAPA – Centre for Aviation Analysis only 4% to 6% of the world’s airline pilots are female. Airlines and ATOs should directly encourage women to pursue a fruitful career in aviation.
  1. Engage in more modern outreach techniques targeting Generation Z and secure investments in modernizing the profession and work environment through emerging technologies (AR – Augmented Reality) and (VR – Virtual Reality).
  1. Offer better career advancement. As airlines strive to fill positions, motivated current airline pilots can progress through the ranks more swiftly, gaining valuable experience and assuming higher positions within flight operations. Regional and Low Cost airlines may offer more frequent upgrades to higher positions, due to their seasonal operational requirements.
  2. Sustainability is critical for our future and must remain a top opportunity for the aviation ecosystem. Progress and investments shall continue for electrical aircraft and for cleaner fuel sources like Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and hydrogen. In addition the development of rechargeable electrical aircrafts for training purposes could support lowering the aviation industry’s carbon footprint and noise levels. Pipistrel – Velis Electro and Diamond eDA40 aircraft are paving the way for new training curricula with electrical aircraft.
  1. The recent Air Canada pilots protest, following their colleagues from WestJet indicates that airlines should start offering more competitive salaries and benefits packages. This enhances the financial rewards and job security associated with a career as a pilot, making it an appealing choice for those considering this profession. 
  1. The use of new technologies and artificial intelligence can also help by creating more efficient methods of training pilots both on-site and remote. In addition, new technology can help to develop more efficient scheduling tools to optimize the deployment of cockpit crew, thereby easing some of the pressure on recruiting. Leveraging Data and analytics enable ATOs and airlines to create adaptive pilot training programs and realistic Scenario Based Training.

To Take Home

The pilot shortage experienced in 2023 is a multifaceted issue driven by increased air service demand, an aging pilot workforce, stringent training requirements, and the effects of pandemic on pilot training and recruitment.

To overcome these challenges, the aviation industry must invest in the development of new training methods, including simulation-based programs and remote learning opportunities. Furthermore, airlines and ATOs should focus on attracting a diverse range of professionals, encouraging more women and underrepresented groups to pursue careers in aviation. By fostering a more inclusive environment the industry can tap into a wider talent pool and better address the looming pilot shortage. Now is the time to navigate the skies of tomorrow. So, buckle up and prepare for take-off. The future is yours.


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