Japanese airlines are having to cancel schedules because they have too few flightcrew. American ­carriers, especially regionals, have the same problem. Ryanair is having to migrate crew around its network to patch up holes in local rosters.

Gulf carrier Etihad Airways, meanwhile, plans to acquire a local training academy, thus guaranteeing a steady flow of recruits for its own operation.

It is reasonable to ask whether the shortages are local issues caused by bad planning or something more general. A pilot shortage has been predicted for nearly 15 years but never seemed to arrive.

There is now, however, a growing nervousness about whether it is finally happening, because all the reasons why the previously predicted shortages failed to materialise since about 2000 are no longer applicable. The successive reprieves were the result of the travel slump after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the SARS crisis in 2003, the extension of the pilot working age from 60 to 65 in 2006, and the 2008 banking crisis.

There has also been the general move by all airlines to squeeze more flying hours out of pilots by tighter rostering and faster turnarounds. But now all that has happened, there is no more juice in the lemon.

Meanwhile the world’s economies are returning to steady growth, and airlines appear on a more robust financial footing too. The order backlog for single-aisles alone stands at over 8,000 aircraft, of which over 3,000 are on firm order for the fast-growing low-cost carrier sector.

And while some of these aircraft are for replacement, the reality is that the bulk of deliveries will be for growth. Airbus expects that over the next 20 years airlines will absorb 28,000 new airliners and retain around 5,000 of the aircraft they are flying today. So if Toulouse is right – and Boeing sees similar growth -– the mainline airliner fleet will have to double from 16,000 aircraft today to over 33,000.

The vast majority of these aircraft – 24,600 – will be narrowbody Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 types. And assuming that short-haul fleets require an average of three sets of crew per aircraft, that means that by 2032 the world’s airlines will have to employ upwards of 147,000 A320 and 737 rated pilots. That compares with an estimated 33,000 such pilots today, applying the same metrics.

This short-haul pilot requirement estimate alone is a figure that is not only eye-watering but potentially challenging on many levels, from recruitment, to training, to oversight. And it’s not rocket science to work out where a large portion of these pilots will be located.

So pilots are needed, not just for the status quo, but for growth in a marketplace where no more flightcrew time savings can be made.

The Japan example is difficult to judge. Is it a demographic product of Japan’s ageing population, quiescent economy and falling birth rate? It is too early to judge.

The American example is easier to understand, being a self-inflicted condition resulting from the law passed by Congress after the 2009 Colgan Air crash at Buffalo. It required that FAR Part 121 airline pilots must have 1,500h experience before their hiring. Congress not only failed to question whether hours alone produced quality, but also how enough pilots would get the hours if no one was allowed to hire them.

Pilot unions say there are plenty of unemployed qualified pilots out there, arguing this means there is no panic. But just because a pilot has a licence it does not mean they are good, so a fair proportion of those remaining will not pass muster.

The next test for the industry is finding the instructors the training sector will need to meet the growing demand for well-trained, fresh pilots.

The pilot shortage is here, but, as with climate change, there are still unhelpful deniers.

Source: Airline Business