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Career Adviser /

Betting on a career

Forecasting pilot demand

Q: As a CFI, I have been encouraging individuals to consider a professional pilot career because, for the first time in my life, it may actually be a good return on investment—thanks to the pilot shortage. But with the proposed increase in the airline pilot retirement age to more than 65 years, and the possible return of retired airline transport pilots with type ratings to employment at the airlines, are there any data on this change’s possible impact on the pilot shortage during the next four to 10 years? It is difficult to recommend anyone to take on the debt required to become a professional pilot since they may be stuck as a CFI, unable to pay off their loans.—Harry S.

A: When it comes to long-range forecasts, I’ll take a cue from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: “There has never been an investor in the history of investors that has believed a 10-year projection in a business plan.” Speculation as to how robust airline hiring may be long term is a crap shoot. One stock market crash, one consuming war, one act of terror upon an airliner could turn the airline industry upside-down.

One can only make a career decision in the here and now. The current state of affairs can provide some comfort that things will be good for the next two to four years, maybe longer.

First, you reference the possible increase in the mandatory retirement age. Japan and other International Civil Aviation Organization nations have increased or are considering an increase of the retirement age to 67, but I have detected no serious effort in the United States to follow suit. The increase in 2009 from 60 to 65 took years of research and wrangling with the FAA, the airlines, and the unions. If the age of airline pilot retirements is raised, we will have pretty much the same result at most: Hiring will decrease for a while, but the pilot shortage will not be mitigated. We need young people entering the field at a livable wage more than we need older pilots hanging on longer.

Even with the 2009 increase from 60 to 65, some pilots only stuck it out to 62 or 63, and not all pilots wanted to keep working to 65. Those airmen have had 40 years or more of living out of suitcases. Going to 67, or even 70 as some have suggested, is just not desirable to many. It’s time to go fishing, visit the grandkids, and improve the golf handicap.

Remember, too, that when the age-65 rule went into effect, it was not retroactive. A few friends missed that boat by only a few months. They turned the magic 65 two months earlier but could not reapply for the job that they were forced to leave.

I would not discourage anyone from pursuing the airline career path today. Some airlines, such as Endeavor, have bumped starting salary to the mid-$40,000s. JetBlue seems to be the first carrier to start its own ab initio program because of the shortage. But, at the risk of contradicting myself, I’ll share some predictions from Boeing’s long-range pilot hiring forecast: Over the next 20 years, Boeing projects demand for 226,000 new pilots in the Asia Pacific region, 95,000 in Europe, 95,000 in North America, 60,000 in the Middle East, 47,000 in Latin America, 17,000 in the Commonwealth of Independent States, and 18,000 in Africa. Rolling the dice on an airline career looks like a pretty good bet—right now.

Wayne Phillips
Wayne Phillips manages the Airline Training Orientation Program.

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