The idea of a shortage of commercial and airline pilots has been volleyed about for so long it has almost risen to the level of urban myth: oft-discussed but never seen. However, some in the industry say it is no tall tale. An aging workforce combined with expanding markets means demand for qualified pilots will increase substantially in the coming years, a claim backed up by both government data and an industry report.
For students seeking a career out of the ordinary, a pilot shortage may mean plenty of opportunities to work in field where, quite literally, the sky is the limit.
Aging workforce may be creating shortage
Kirby Comeaux is the captain of a Falcon 20 corporate jet, a certified flight instructor and a member of the Aviation Advisory Board at Baker College in Michigan. He says there has been talk of a pilot shortage throughout his 20 year career, but it appears the industry may be reaching the point where that shortage is becoming reality.
"There will be a lot of mandatory federal retirements in the next five to ten years," he says.
Under federal law, commercial and airline pilots must retire at age 65, and statistics from the Federal Aviation Association indicate more than 55 percent of Airline Transport Pilot Certificates are held by those between the ages of 40 and 64. In addition, the average age of airline transport pilots was nearly 50 in 2012, up from 47 in 2003.
Boeing says 460,000 new commercial pilots needed
The 2012 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook pegs demand for new commercial pilots to be just shy of half a million by 2031. The airline manufacturer anticipates 460,000 new pilots will be needed, particularly in emerging markets such as Asia. According to Boeing, the Asia Pacific region will require 185,600 new commercial pilots in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, North America will need 69,000 more pilots over that same span.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of U.S. airline and commercial pilots to hit 114,900 by 2020. It estimates demand for these professionals will grow 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, a rate that exceeds the 14 percent average growth expected for all occupations.
No degree in aviation needed
Although degrees in aviation are available, students don't necessarily need a specialty degree to work as a pilot. Instead of a specific degree, the Air Line Pilots Association, International recommends students take courses in advanced math, English and science as well as aeronautical engineering.
While you may not need an aviation degree, Comeaux says most employers want their pilots to at least have a degree of some kind.
"Major employers like to see a four year degree," he says.
Comeaux recommends students consider a business degree or another line of study that will provide them with options should they find they are unable to fly in the future, due to a medical condition or some other reason. For students who pursue another academic field, aviation training can be obtained outside their degree studies.
Landing your first job
Still, a dedicated degree in aviation comes with advantages. Students typically graduate with all the ratings needed to work as a pilot and certified instructor. However, that doesn't mean students will be walking off their college campus and right into a jet.
"You can't expect to get an airline or corporate job right out of college," says Comeaux. "You have to build time and experience until you are marketable."
Until then, many graduates work as flight instructors to gain the flight time needed to move up to commercial positions. In addition, some charter companies may be willing to pick up recent grads for their flights.
Once students graduate to commercial flying, they can expect to earn above average salaries. According to the BLS, mean annual wages for commercial pilots were $80,140 in May 2012. Those working as airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers earned significantly more, with mean wages of $128,760 at that time.
Advice for aviation students
Comeaux cautions students entering an aviation program to remain realistic about the work and money involved in becoming a pilot.
"Go in knowing that it's expensive to learn to fly, but it is really rewarding," says Comeaux. "Do everything in your power to come out [of school] with as little debt as possible."
In the end, for those bitten by the flying bug, becoming a pilot is about more than earning an income.
"It's hard to beat being at 35,000 feet in the sunshine," says Comeaux. "That's your office."
And that's why for many working in the field, being a pilot is less about having a profession and more about having a passion.
2012 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook
Air Line Pilots Association, International. General Qualifications (Accessed August 28, 2013)
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Airline and Commercial Pilots (Accessed August 28, 2013)
Federal Aviation Association, US Civil Airmen Statistics (Accessed August 28, 2013)
Interview with Kirby Comeaux, Commercial Pilot, August 2013