IATA: The pilot shortage crisis is “the biggest threat to aviation since 9/11

It felt like the worst was over.

After two years of the pandemic, the number of flights around the world shot up again this summer in the northern hemisphere: millions of people packed their bags and went to airports in search of new destinations, reunions and adventures.

Airlines, one of the sectors hardest hit by the covid-19 pandemic with thousands of flight cancellations, planes without passengers and mass layoffs, have reclaimed space this year. Some even reported their first gains since 2019.

However, a new crisis was in sight.

With the arrival of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, the supply of airline flights fell short of demand and many companies had to cancel trips, thousands of passengers were stranded at airports for days and some were even unable to receive their luggage for weeks.

The sector is also facing a significant staffing crisis, which has led to some airports around the world, such as London’s Heathrow, asking companies to reduce their flights as they cannot keep up with passenger numbers.

With several airports experiencing staff shortages, low-crew aircraft and record baggage backlogs, most airlines also saw significant reductions in pilots, increasing the number of flight cancellations.

Biggest threat

For many analysts and managers, these issues are the biggest challenge facing the industry.

While pilot shortages affected industry around the world, the United States felt the problem the most.

– The shortage of pilots is the biggest threat to the industry I have seen since the attacks of September 11 in the United States, Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa Air Group, told the US Congress.

While pilot shortages affected industry around the world, the United States felt the problem most acutely.

Major airlines have announced they plan to hire between 12,000 and 13,000 captains this year and 2023 — and about 8,000 in 2024.

Some airlines have even had to lower or change their requirements or look for pilots in other countries: Frontier Airlines is hiring in Australia, Delta Air Lines has removed part of its requirement to hire flight attendants, and others, such as American Airlines , has started using buses for trips previously made by air.

But what is behind this situation?

A long crisis

As Stuart Fox, Director of Technology and Aviation Operations at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), explains, the current pilot shortage is a problem that has existed since before the pandemic.

“In the long term, a pilot shortage has always been predicted because there will be an increase in passenger demand which will require more professionals and it is also likely that there will be an increase in pilot retirements in the future,” he told BBC News Mundo , service in Spanish from the BBC.

Back in 2016, Boeing had predicted that the global aviation industry would require 679,000 new pilots by 2035, while Airbus estimated that around half a million would be needed over the same period.

But according to Fox, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

“Certainly the cause of the current crisis is the pandemic and due to the increased demand, more pilots are needed,” explains the IATA expert, who sees the current crisis as a “short-term” problem.

“Given the uncertainty of the pandemic, airlines have had to implement pilot retirement programs or staff cuts. And while much has been said about this situation in the United States, countries around the world have experienced a similar situation.

According to data from the Australian Air Pilots Federation, around 23% of its members were made redundant during the pandemic.

An expensive race

For years, the world’s major airlines, especially in the Middle East and Asia, have developed fierce competition, offering huge incentives for pilots to work for them.

Major airlines also began hiring pilots, placing many regional airlines among the hardest hit, both in the United States and abroad.

In addition to the pandemic, the preparation required to fly a plane in most countries is not only very demanding, but also extremely expensive (training for less than a year for a basic license can cost around R$460,000), which prevents making it available profession for the majority.

In some countries, such as the United States, some former sources of recruitment, such as the armed forces, have also been depleted: the use of drones has reduced the number of military personnel in flight training in recent years, according to the official. data.

Faced with this situation, the passage of time has also taken its toll: many pilots have retired and in the US alone, more than 13% of pilots will reach retirement age in five years, according to data from the Regional Association of Airlines.

Desperate measures

All over the world, companies are looking for measures to try to solve this situation.

“Airlines have addressed this issue in a number of ways, including creating new pilot training programs, improving recruitment efforts, leveraging communities to increase diversity (gender and race), and implementing programs to address financial barriers.” , says Hannah Walden of Airlines for America, which represents the largest US airlines.

In that country alone, which has one of the most restrictive and stringent laws, several legislators came to propose changes to the legislation limiting the retirement age or the flight hours required for a pilot, which has been seen as an example of an even more complicated global situation.

In countries like India, some airlines have started hiring retired pilots due to staff shortages.

Several unions also denounced that this situation has led to many pilots working overtime and enduring greater stress conditions.

“It’s a struggle every day. Our fatigue numbers reflect that,” Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told US media.

The industry union says it received three times as many reports of fatigue and exhaustion from pilots in the first five months of this year compared to the same period in 2021.

A spokeswoman for the Airline Pilots Alliance (ALPA), the largest union of its kind in the US, told the BBC that this type of situation, along with requests for measures to reduce flying hours to join certain airlines or raise the retirement age, could affect flight safety.

“We agree that we can do more to make the piloting profession accessible to all, but ALPA opposes any attempt to lower safety, such as raising the retirement age for pilots, and any attempt to use a false narrative to reduce service or reduce safety , says the agency.

Fox assures that it is still too early to have an idea of ​​when this problem will be solved or if its consequences will be greater in the coming years.

But managers at some major airlines estimate that the situation could last more than five years.

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines simply won’t be able to deliver on their plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five years or so,” said Scott Kirby, United Airline’s CEO

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