The airline industry has put a dent in the pilot shortage

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The pilot shortage has alleviated over the past year but still remains a substantial impediment for U.S. air service, especially in small markets.

According to an analysis by consulting firm Oliver Wyman, pilot availability for North American airlines is approximately 13,300 short of demand, an improvement over last year’s shortage of approximately 17,300. 

However, the shortage would be more severe — an additional 6,000 pilots — if regional carriers were flying the same number of planes as they did before the pandemic, explained Oliver Wyman partner Geoff Murray at the Regional Airline Association’s (RAA) annual meeting on Tuesday.

U.S. regional aircraft flying, which typically connects small and midsize markets with airline hubs, has declined 36% from 2019, Murray said. 

While the largest U.S. airlines say they have largely caught up on pilot hiring for mainline flights, a pronounced impact continues in the regional sector, Murray said, since the larger airlines do most of their hiring from the regional ranks. 

According to the Wyman analysis, 75% of mainline pilots are hired out of the regional sector, with the remainder coming from business aviation and the military. The company estimates that 44% of the regional pilot workforce of 18,100 will get hired at a mainline U.S. carrier this year, including a whopping 59% of regional airline captains. 

Murray said the pilot deficit improved in the past year due both to reduced demand and increased supply. Demand for pilots has been driven down by parked regional aircraft, planes being flown fewer hours per day than is optimal, and supply chain-related production delays. 

Meanwhile, pilot supply has increased due to a bump in the number of pilots achieving certification to fly for commercial airlines. This year, Oliver Wyman expects 6,900 new North American airline pilots, countering 4,200 pilot retirements. 

FAA data also show that pilot hiring is on the rise. Through August of this year, the agency had issued 7,526 of the Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificates, which are the certificates required to fly for a commercial airline. That’s up 8% compared to the same period a year ago, according to an analysis from the Air Line Pilots Association. 

Still, the Wyman study projects that the pilot shortage will persist for the foreseeable future and will still be approximately 13,000 a decade from now, driven in part by a 30% increase in demand for pilots over that period. 

The RAA says that its members were flying 300 fewer aircraft this July than they did in July 2019. Those reductions have been driven by the pilot shortage and by airline strategies to focus more on mainline flying, which offers larger margins. 

Forty U.S. airports have lost at least half their flights since 2019, according to the RAA.

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