The Perfect Storm
Our national demand for aerospace professionals in the commercial spectrum has skyrocketed over the past fifteen years, causing shortfalls we have previously never witnessed. Weekly news reports of airplanes being grounded because of a lack of professional crew and routes being cancelled because airlines are not able to hire enough pilots, have become the norm.
We are experiencing fiascos like the baggage issues with Delta and other overseas airlines that crippled travel last fall, followed shortly by what happened to Southwest over Christmas in 2022, when their crew scheduling program had a meltdown causing the cancelation of 16,700 flights, leaving two million passengers stranded. Recently United passengers experienced a very difficult 4th of July. What was once considered premier service from airlines is now considered by most seasoned travelers as average. To make matters worse, the future does not look that bright because young people are not taking science, math, or engineering courses. To quote a UCLA education report written by Stuart Wolpert, “60% of students entering community college and four-year colleges are not qualified to even take math,” and if you don’t take math, you can’t be an engineer. What is the aerospace industry short of aside from pilots, crew members, and technicians? Engineers!
To add fuel to the fire, there have been over seven documented close calls involving large airliners within a period of six months. One recently involved an ambulance driver who mistakenly crossed an active runway coming within 180 feet of a departing airliner full of passengers. Had any one of those seven close calls resulted in an accident, America would have seen a catastrophe on the scale of the top ten worse aviation disasters.
The sad thing is that we saw this coming. Unlike the baby formula crisis in the summer of 2022 or the supply chain issues in the winter of 2021, we’ve seen a shortage of pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics coming for the past five years! This was not a COVID-19 pandemic issue. This is an issue that has been knocking on our door, ringing our doorbell, and kicking us in the shin for years.
If money alone could fix it, then the 30% pay increase some airlines are providing their pilots would solve everything. If leadership from the FAA could fix it, then we would be well on the way to seeing less, not more, issues and there would not have been a need for the “safety stand-down day” we witnessed in March 2023. If Congress could fix it, well, let’s not go there. The issues plaguing the FAA, pilot recruitment, supporting technical schools have been with us for over ten years, both political parties have been in power and had an opportunity to improve, neither has done so.
- Estimates by both Boeing and Airbus show the need for at least 600,000 pilots over the next twenty years or 34,000 new pilots a year. Higher shortages apply to aircraft technicians and flight crew members. We are nowhere near close to producing that number.
- The largest pilot training organization in the world, the U.S. Air Force, trains about 1,200 pilots per year and those pilots are committed to at least a seven-year service obligation Kimberly Johnson of Flying magazine recently wrote an article highlighting, The S. Air Force shortage of 1,650 pilots.
- There is no senate approved FAA administrator.
- We are not attracting younger individuals to fill the pipeline.
- The FAA is understaffed, underfunded with technology approaching 30 years of age.
- We have numerous entities competing by establishing flight academies when they should be supporting one other.
- The US government is not as involved as it should be in the training of technicians and pilots for both the military and commercial sectors.
- Cost and time are prohibitive – the 1,500-hour FAA ATP Standard needed before one can apply to sit in the right seat of a US commercial airliner takes years to achieve and can cost up to $300,000 causing many wanting to go into the profession to go elsewhere.
- Without addressing the areas above, we have little hope of meeting future demands for safe air travel and aerospace professional training.
I’ve laid out the storm, albeit not that perfect. The next writing will entail an initial stab at how to exit the storm and lead us to a solution.
 UCLA Newsroom, “Why so many U.S. students aren’t learning math,” 2018.
 Kimberly Johnson, FLYING, “U.S. Air Force is Short 1,650 Pilots, Report Says, 2022