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Airline Pilot Hiring Outlook and Career Information

Airline Pilot Retirements vs Pilots Training to Replace Them

Over the last 6 years there has been an average of 3000 airline pilots retiring per year in spite of the fact that they were not forced to retire due to their age, according to airline consultant Kit Darby. Some have retired for medical reasons, some have been let go and the remainder have retired for a variety of other reasons.

Beginning in the year 2012, the backlogged number of pilots who have to retire because they have reached the age of 65 will begin to increase the number of those retiring for other reasons.

Airline Pilot Retirement Numbers

Pilots Training To Replace Them

According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), there has been an average of 9,130 new Commercial Certificates issued over the last 6 years.

A significant portion of those Commercial Certificates have been earned by foreign students who leave the US after training and have no intention of working for an airline in the United States.

If you compare this number of new Commercial Certificates (9130) to the average number of ATP Certificates (4775) issued over the same time frame, you can see that only half of Commercial Pilots go on to be Captains for the airline industry.

Boeing is the world’s largest producer of Airliners, and every year they take an objective look at the future of the airline business. This report is called Boeing’s Current Market Outlook and it is based on current firm orders for its aircraft. The Current Market Outlook is the single most accurate projection of what the airline industry is going to be for the next 20 years.

In the latest edition of the Outlook, Boeing states:

In order to meet demand, 19,000 pilots will need to be trained each year until 2026. Flight schools currently train around 12,000 annually in the United States.


Current Market Outlook

"Over the past 20 years, air travel grew by an average of 4.8 percent each year. This was despite two major world recessions, major terrorist acts, the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and two Gulf wars. During 40 years of producing the Current Market Outlook, we have learned that the resilience of air transport growth comes from its importance to the livelihood of people around the world.

On average over the next 20 years, passenger travel will grow at 5.0 percent and cargo at 5.8 percent. The fastest growing economies will lead the transformation into a more geographically balanced market.

A record 31 percent of our forecast for airplanes with more than 100 seats is already on firm order (7,900 aircraft), so we have unprecedented visibility of future airplane requirements, giving more certainty to the shape of our forecast."

In order to meet demand, 19,000 pilots will need to be trained each year until 2026. Flight schools currently train around 12,000 annually in the United States.

Airline Pilot Need Versus Supply

Airline Hiring

Historically, the Legacy Airlines have had a pool of experienced pilots to choose from when they begin to hire pilots. This pool has consisted of formerly furloughed pilots, retired military pilots and Regional Airline Pilots who have built up enough Jet Pilot-in-command experience to be attractive to the Major Airlines.

The Airlines will find that things have changed when they start hiring again. Although there were a lot of pilots furloughed in 2008, almost half of them have taken other jobs. The airline industry has been booming overseas in the Middle East, China, India, Africa and the Pacific Rim. None of these areas have developed the flight training infrastructure that exists in the United States. When the foreign airline industry began to quickly outpace the number of qualified pilots in their respective countries, they began to come to the U.S. to hire experienced pilots and found a large number who had been furloughed from the U.S. airlines. These foreign airlines have hired U.S. pilots in huge numbers, and moved them overseas.

The U.S. military has also long been a source of well trained and experienced pilots for the U.S. airline industry. Over the recent decade though, the military has trained fewer pilots due to the downsizing of each branch of the service, and the increasing use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). In addition, due to conflicts abroad, the military has successfully increased their efforts to retain their pilots and keep them from retiring.

The Regional Airlines are still a good source of pilots for the Major/Legacy airlines and when they start hiring again they will be hiring the most experienced regional pilots that will be available and most of those will be Regional Airline Captains. When a regional airline begins to lose pilots off of the top of their seniority lists, they will have no choice but to upgrade First Officers from among their ranks to Captains. This will cause a shortage of First Officers and the regionals will begin recruiting pilots from the ranks of civilian pilots who have been training and instructing in the flight training industry and Part 135 operations mentioned above.

The Regional Airlines will find trouble when they look to the civilian sector to recruit pilots. The recent economic recession and the resulting credit crunch have caused a shortage of student pilots that have traditionally been entry level airline pilots for the Regionals. There is a building bubble in the Pipeline, and it is getting worse.

The combination of these factors has formed a Perfect Storm of a pilot shortage for the U.S. Airline Industry that experts and airline management have all recognized and lamented publicly for some time.

The inevitable shortage of pilots qualified to go to work for the airlines may well result in a situation similar to the shortage that peaked in 2006, where at the prompting of ATP airlines were willing to pay a hiring bonus to attract pilots from the shrinking pool of well-trained students who had relatively low flight experience.

The opportunities for advancement in both the Regional and Major/Legacy sides of the industry will be numerous for pilots at all levels of the airline industry for those prepared to take advantage of the opportunities.

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Seniority & What it Means to You

Seniority Rules when you are an Airline Pilot! Seniority decides which monthly schedule you will fly, when you will take vacation, which crew base you will be work in and how soon you will become a Captain.

The pilot seniority list is made up of all the pilots at an airline listed in order of their date of hire. The pilot who has been at the airline the longest is #1, and the pilot who has been there the shortest length of time is at the bottom of the list.

The day that you show up for your initial new-hire training, you will be given a Seniority Number, so it is important to be hired first! Here are a few ways that your seniority number will affect your career in the airlines:


The Scheduling Department at your airline will publish a packet containing all the monthly work schedules (or lines as they are called) for the next month. You will then let the Scheduling Department know which Lines you select in order of preference. The most senior pilot in your base will get first choice of a schedule; the next most senior pilot will get the second choice and so on. When your Seniority Number comes up, you will be awarded the Line that you requested as long as it hasn’t been taken by someone Senior to you.


Once a year, the Scheduling Department will also publish a Bid for Vacations. Methods vary slightly from airline to airline, but you will be given a choice of two week time slots in which you may take vacation during the following year. The most desirable slots are usually those around holidays or summer when children are out of school. Once Vacation Bids are published, you will pick out the slots that appeal to you and bid on them in order of preference. Once all of the Bids have been collected, the most senior pilot will be given their first choices of slots, then the next most senior pilot get their choices and so on down the Seniority List.

Crew bases

Every airline spreads their Crew Bases out across the country. These Bases (called Domiciles) are usually located at airline’s different Hubs. As is the case with Schedules and Vacation Slots, some Domiciles are more desirable than others. When you finish with initial training you will give the Scheduling Department a list all of the airline’s Crew Bases in order of your preference. Seniority will then decided which Domiciles are awarded to which pilots.

Captain Upgrades

When you are first hired you start as a very Junior First Officer (FO). As time passes you will gain Seniority and start winning the more desirable Lines, Vacations and Crew Base. Eventually your Seniority Number will entitle you to upgrade to Captain. When this happens, you will be asked to return to the Training Center for additional training and the all-important check-ride. Once completed, you have been granted an increase in pay and responsibility. You have also transitioned from a very Senior First Officer to a very Junior Captain, with all that went along with being Junior as a new FO.

Seniority Rules in the Airline Industry! It is important to do whatever you can do to be hired first. You will then enjoy your Seniority, while those who took more circuitous routes will have to wait their turn.

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