The Pilot Shortage

Read an op-ed piece by RASA² Executive Director Bill Swelbar about the pilot shortage in Aviation Week

RJ3The looming pilot deficit will soar to 15,000 [pilots] by 2026, according to a study by the University of North Dakota’s Aviation Department, as more captains reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 and fewer young people choose commercial aviation as a profession…“That is one of the things in my job I get to worry about every day and when I go to bed at night,” said Greg Muccio, a senior manager at Southwest Airlines Co. “The biggest problem is a general lack of interest in folks pursuing this as a career anymore. That’s what puts us in the most jeopardy.”

Shrinking Pool of Pilots Puts Major Airlines on Edge, June 2016

 The Pilot Shortage Is Real

Residents of communities across the country have already seen the effect of the shortage of qualified regional airline pilots on air service availability at their regional airports. For instance, in February 2014, United Airlines cut 60% of its daily departures from Cleveland, citing increasing economic pressures due to federal regulations. Other small communities throughout the country have also seen flight service cut as a result of the pilot shortage.

What’s Causing the Pilot Shortage?


No single factor alone can be attributed to causing the pilot shortage. Instead, it is the combination of legislative, economic, and industry forces that have left small communities fighting to retain air service:

  • Heavy-handed government regulation limits the pool of available pilots;
  • A wave of mainline pilot retirements is leading to pilot promotion from regional carriers to mainline carriers. This is a healthy phenomenon–as long as there are enough qualified regional pilots to fill the gap;
  • The high cost of pilot training discourages would-be pilots from entering an exciting and lucrative career track;
  • Upward pressure on regional pilot wages are contributing to the labor supply imbalance. A first officer for a regional airline may make as little as $22,000 per year, even after laying out hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront training costs;
  • The military is no longer a major source of commercial pilots as they have been historically, and the military is retaining more of their pilots than in the past;
  • High fuel prices and new airline economics make flying small, 37-50 seat regional jets economically infeasible in many markets; and
  • There is no replacement for the 50-seat regional jet in the manufacturer pipeline, putting airline service at small communities further at risk.

We all need to work together to solve the challenges facing small community air service. See What Can Be Done to prevent these factors from causing small community airports to go dark.