Carolina Larsson was in her mid-30s and working at an investment bank in New York City when she overheard a co-worker talk about flight lessons. Soon she was taking lessons at the same flight school and plotting a career change.
“I emptied my 401(k) and I maxed my credit cards and I borrowed money from friends,” she said of taking the first steps toward becoming an airline pilot, which she estimated cost her about $100,000 over several years. “I went all in. I just hoped it would pay off.”
Ten years later, Larsson is a first officer at a regional airline on the East Coast, mulling her next career stage, a move made slightly more complicated by her recent marriage to another pilot. But there’s a strong chance the newlyweds will have plenty of career choices in the months to come.
That’s because the pandemic heated a simmering pilot shortage to boiling point, leaving U.S. airlines scrambling to hire enough pilots to get flight schedules back to full capacity. The shortage is expected to limit capacity growth, and be a factor in higher ticket prices.
Not a ‘temporary issue’
U.S. airlines received billions in government loans in 2020 to make payroll as travel restrictions, put in place around the world to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, caused a sharp decline in bookings.
The airlines went into cash-conservation mode, especially when they were in between the two tranches of government loans. The carriers cut down on capacity and implemented hiring freezes and cost-cutting measures. Crucially, they also offered their pilots, among their highest-paid personnel, incentives to retire early.
Airline pilots must retire by age 65, a limit raised in 2007 from age 60, and the industry was prepared for retirement waves as pilots from the baby-boomer generation were approaching that threshold.
Those waves would have spanned two to three years, Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth told MarketWatch. With the pandemic, “they happened all at once,” Syth said.
Flight schools were also getting hit and graduating fewer pilots. Many schools had to close doors under public-health orders, offering flight students fewer opportunities to build the flight hours they need to qualify and slowing graduation rates.
After air travel demand started picking up, flight-school instructors started leaving to become pilots themselves, leading to other training bottlenecks. Moreover, a pilot hired today may get a better offer from another airline tomorrow.
“There’s just a lot of movement,” Syth said. “Today as a pilot you are in a very sweet spot, you can become a pilot in a legacy carrier faster than ever.”
Aviation-training company CAE Inc.
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