Demand for airline pilots set to soar

For as long as he can remember, Costas Sivyllis has dreamed of becoming a pilot.

“There was no specific moment,” says Sivyllis, 20, a junior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “I’ve grown up my whole life knowing this was it.”

Sivyllis hardly could have picked a better time to enter his chosen profession, and he knows it. “I’m very excited about the future… because we’ve never really seen anything like this,” he says.

After nearly a four-year drought of job openings, the airline industry is on the brink of what’s predicted to be the biggest surge in pilot hiring in history. Aircraft maker Boeing has forecast a need for 466,650 more commercial pilots by 2029 – an average of 23,300 new pilots a year. Nearly 40% of the openings will be to meet the soaring travel market in the Asia-Pacific region, Boeing predicts, but more than 97,000 will be in North America.

“It is a dramatic turnaround,” says Louis Smith, president of FltOps. com, a website that provides career and financial planning for pilots. “Pilot hiring was severely depressed in the last three years. The next 10 years will be the exact opposite, with the longest and largest pilot hiring boom in the history of the industry.”

The demand for pilots will be so great that the industry could ultimately face a shortage, sparking fierce competition among airlines across the globe vying for candidates qualified to fill their cockpits.

“We’re already seeing in some spots around the world a shortage of pilots… and if you were watching this a few years ago at the last peak, you had airlines stealing from other airlines,” says Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services for Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Seattle. “It’s a global marketplace for pilots, and… we’ll not have enough if that growth trend continues over the next few years.

That’s something the industry needs to come to grips with. Where is our pipeline of new pilots going to come from, and how are we going to finance them?”

The hiring surge is being fueled by several factors:

-The rapid growth of travel in Asia, which is on track to surpass North America as the largest air travel market in the world;

-A looming wave of pilot retirements in the USA;

-Proposed changes to rules that could increase the time pilots must train, rest and work;

-And increasing demand for air travel within the USA as the economy improves.

U. S. carriers had 4.9% more pilots in 2010 than in 2009, with much of the increase fueled by low-cost carriers that are continuing to expand, according to the U. S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Low-cost airlines such as Southwest, Virgin America and AirTran increased their pilot staffing 11.2% in 2010 over 2009, while regional carriers increased their pilot numbers by 4.9%. Major network airlines, however, saw their pilot workforce drop 1.3% last year, the bureau says.

“The cost of the fuel has spooked a few carriers,” Smith says, noting that the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan have also had some impact. But, he says, the industry-wide hiring explosion is “still on track.”

Finding jobs over there

Many new pilot opportunities are in Asia, particularly China, where the rapidly growing economies are spurring a demand for air travel.

Beijing became the second-busiest airport in the world last year, and Boeing projects that the region will need 180,600 pilots in the next two decades, 70,600 for China alone. In March, Boeing announced that Hong Kong Airlines was planning to buy 38 aircraft.

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Demand for airline pilots set to soar