After halting hiring during the coronavirus pandemic, United Airlines is planning to bring on hundreds of pilots and launching a flight school to prepare the next generation for the cockpit.
Chicago-based United isn’t alone: Frontier Airlines expects to hire 100 pilots this year, and several regional carriers have posted openings.
Help wanted ads are an unusual sight after a year that saw airlines, faced with travel restrictions and empty airports, urge employees to take early retirement deals and voluntary leaves of absence. Thousands of workers faced furloughs until the federal government delivered additional aid to airlines keep them on the payroll. But as vaccination rates increase and travelers return to the skies, a pre-pandemic problem is coming back too: a potential shortage of pilots.
“It’s absolutely a question of when, not if,” said Geoff Murray, a partner on consultancy Oliver Wyman’s global aerospace sector team.
In North America, airlines’ demand for pilots could outstrip supply by roughly 13% as early as 2023, according to an Oliver Wyman report
U.S. airlines are still seeing about 43% fewer passengers than before the pandemic, and passenger numbers are unlikely to return to 2019 levels until at least 2023, according to trade group Airlines for America.
But the industry is expected to recover, and when it does, airlines will face a wave of retirements. As of early 2020, nearly half of all U.S. qualified pilots faced mandatory retirement within 15 years, according to the Regional Airline Association. Pilot jobs were scarce when the industry struggled after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leaving fewer to take the place of those retiring, and fewer pilots are joining commercial airlines from the military.
Some pilots who would have retired in the next couple years have left the industry during the pandemic. United said nearly 1,000 pilots left the company since September. Last August, American Airlines said 1,200 pilots had left, while unions representing pilots at Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines’ pilots said 1,806 and more than 500 took early retirement deals, respectively.
American also temporarily furloughed 1,600 pilots. While United also furloughed employees, pilots instead agreed to work reduced hours.
United, which has about 12,000 pilots, expects to need to hire 10,000 by 2030.