A few weeks ago, student pilots approaching graduation were destined to join an industry desperate for their services. Not now. With much of the world’s airliner fleet grounded and – under a very best case scenario – a return to 2019 traffic levels unlikely before the end of 2021, newly qualified pilots will be entering a jobs market that no longer needs them.
This is not the first time. The furloughs and painful airline restructuring that followed the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 meant that – in the USA especially, but also in Europe – the recruitment of entry-level pilots was halted or severely limited for the best part of a decade.
A generation of would-be first officers was lost and the industry began paying the price in the 2010s. With the US sector robust again and massive fleet expansion in Asia and the Middle East, a flightcrew shortage became one of the industry’s preoccupations.
As with engineers and doctors, first officers cannot be trained overnight. It takes years to create a pipeline of airline pilots. However, unless aspiring aviators have a realistic job prospect at the end, it seems inevitable that the training sector will be starved of recruits for as long as airlines feel the after-effects of this crisis.
For the current cohort of trainees, the outlook appears even bleaker. Some will have incurred six-figure debts based on the promise that they had a first officer’s salary and a career of 30 or 40 years awaiting them.
The only consolation that any of us who have lived through crises before will be able to offer is that this one – like all the others – will not last forever. The industry will come back strongly and, with it, demand for the services of pilots.