By Geoff Murray, Daniel Rye, and Derek Costanza
We are aviation partners at Oliver Wyman. Geoff is also a former commercial airline pilot.
Commercial airline pilots are still in short supply, but the outlook is less severe today than it was a year ago.
Over the past year, airlines have been working hard to address the shortage. In 2022, many airlines cut back service to less popular and rural destinations because of the scarcity of pilots. In addition, carriers also tried to expand the pilot workforce by raising salaries — significantly in the case of regional airlines — and providing faster paths to career advancement. Awareness of the impending, decade-long shortage itself also helped to attract candidates, giving them new confidence in the potential for long-term job security in what has been at times a boom-and-bust industry.
The efforts have started to bear fruit. While it will still be a complex balancing act for airlines for the rest of the decade, especially if projected demand materializes, the latest Oliver Wyman analysis shows the shortage will be less severe than expected. We now anticipate a peak shortfall in 2026 of about 24,000 pilots instead of a peak of close to 30,000 once predicted in the wake of COVID-19 early retirements. That still represents about 23% of the pilot workforce, so the problem is far from eliminated. By 2032, we expect that gap to narrow to about 17,000, or 15% of the workforce, which is about where it will stand this year and next.
The improved outlook reflects a rise in the number of pilots seeking air transport pilot (ATP) certification — a license needed to fly a commercial airliner and eventually become a captain. In 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported that it issued more than 9,500 ATP certificatesversus a little over 5,000 in 2021 and almost 7,000 in 2019.
Not enough mechanics
But as the pilot problem eases, another aviation workforce shortage is developing — this time involving aircraft mechanics. Based on an Oliver Wyman analysis, we foresee a shortfall in the number of aviation maintenance workers in North America this year, and like the situation with pilots, it will worsen as the decade progresses.
In 2023, Oliver Wyman projects a gap between the North American supply of mechanics and demand for them of 12,000 to 18,000, depending on economic and fleet growth. This estimate takes into consideration the number of licensed and unlicensed labor working on aircraft and in repair shops as well as the anticipated demand for maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services. The gap represents about 14% of the total mechanic workforce.
For airlines, this means higher operating costs as carriers push up wages to retain and attract mechanics, just as they have had to do with pilot salaries. Airlines also can be expected to keep more spare aircraft and parts on hand as a cushion, which will also drive expenses higher. For consumers, it is likely to lead to more delays, cancellations, and fewer flights, although the direct impact will be less than it has been with pilots. Additionally, the higher costs are expected to push up air fares, assuming demand doesn’t decline.
As the decade progresses, the mechanic supply gap widens. By 2027 — projected to be the worst year for the shortage — the shortfall could be over 40,000, depending in part on how quickly the industry moves to attract more mechanics and the success of those efforts.
Baby boomer retirements
The problems facing both pilots and mechanics are similar and involve three generations of workers — baby boomers, millennials, and members of Generation Z. For both mechanics and pilots, a large contingent of baby boomers has recently retired or is on its way to retirement, leaving a gaping hole in the workforces. That gaps were further enlarged by a raft of early retirements and other employee departures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As much as 35% of the current workforce of mechanics is 55 to 64 years old, putting more than one-third at or near retirement, according to a recent Oliver Wyman survey of MRO operations and government data. The average retirement age for a mechanic was 62 before the COVID-19 pandemic, based on Oliver Wyman’s analysis. While the FAA requires pilots to retire at 65, there is no mandatory retirement age for mechanics.
On the recruitment side for both job categories, there haven’t been enough millennial and Gen Z workers to fill the void, with a raft of reasons behind the insufficient numbers. For pilots, the military has been training fewer as the services look to unmanned drones, more advanced aircraft, and missiles to take their place in combat zones.
In both job categories, there was also a questionable short-term value proposition between the amount of time and money required to get the necessary training and the entry-level salaries and working environment new candidates faced. Neither job category allows for hybrid work — these days a requisite element of employment for most Gen Z workers.
Pilots and mechanics are also overwhelmingly male and white, meaning a large pool of potential female and minority candidates have been overlooked for decades. For instance, only 2.6% of mechanics and 4.6% of airline pilots in the US are women.
Lasting COVID impact
Since the COVID pandemic, aviation has endured a series of challenges with workforce shortages being one of the most profound. When coupled with supply chain disruption caused by COVID, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and other geopolitical unrest, it is easy to understand why operating costs are rising for the industry.
The improved outlook on pilots does show that aggressive action by airlines can help ease the pressures. Many of the solutions for pilot recruitment also apply to mechanics. Given the essential nature of both jobs, collaborating with regulators to modernize both professions as well as subsidizing the training process for both more vigorously also need to be high up on the industry’s to-do list this decade.
Contributing to the research and data analysis on the shortages in pilots and mechanics were Rory Heilakka, Sam Sargent, Lindsay Grant, Livia Hayes, Scott Horowitz, and Jeff Green from Oliver Wyman.
This article originally appeared on Forbes