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COVID-19 and the Airline Industry Effects on Pilot Hiring, Retirements, and Flight Training

Not unlike other historical events, the COVID‑19 pandemic has impacted demand for air travel, causing airlines to decrease flight and hiring activity. When airline hiring returns to normal, recruiters will be looking for the most qualified candidates. Pilots who start training and building their hours now will be among the most competitive, particularly if they have additional qualifications such as the ATP CTP.

For over 35 years, ATP has helped pilots navigate industry challenges and capitalize on opportunities. ATP has placed pilots at airlines every year since 1984, and we are putting that experience to work and setting the foundation for your career success.

Airline Pilot Hiring in 2021

Before the global pandemic, a severe pilot shortage created one of the hottest job markets for professional pilots. While decreased demand in air travel after March paused hiring at the regional and major airlines, corporate and cargo operations have been more isolated from the disruption. In some cases, these operations even saw an expansion in hiring. As travel demand returns to pre-COVID levels, a recovery in airline pilot hiring is expected to return by the time pilots training now reach airline minimums.

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Expert Analysis on Pilot Hiring Post-COVID-19

Kit Darby, an industry expert and retired airline captain who has forecasted pilot hiring following many other historical events, projects that pilot hiring will recover 70-80% of previous levels in one year or less.

Rapid Pilot Recovery

Pilot hiring will recover to 70-80% of previous levels in one year or less — with a two to three year recovery back to the previous levels and beyond.

80,000 Airline Pilots are Retiring

Full market recovery will be driven by future pilot retirements, averaging an average of 4,100 new pilots per year. Note that this demand alone exceeds the capabilities of the flight training industry today — the pilot shortage remains.

Twice as Many New Pilots Needed

The return to normal growth will require twice as many new pilots.

Long-Term Outlook 2021 Pilot Hiring & Beyond

It takes two years to become a qualified airline pilot, making it essential to consider the long-term career outlook. The factors that caused the pilot shortage will still be in effect in 2021. Thousands of pilots will be retiring when they turn 65 years old while the airline industry is forecasted to keep growing to meet the demand for air travel and freight. Aspiring aviators who begin their training today will be well positioned to take advantage of new job opportunities as the industry recovers.

Yearly Retirements at Major Airlines
Yearly Retirements at Major Airlines

United Airlines estimates half of the airline's 12,500 pilots will retire over the next ten years, and they will need to hire 10,000 pilots over that period to keep pace with growth. Boeing's Current Market Outlook has estimated that airlines will need 763,000 pilots from 2020 through 2039, with 208,000 in North America alone.

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Should I Postpone My Airline Career?

No. It takes two years to become a qualified airline pilot. Postponing your airline career over a short-term upset in the industry will affect your seniority and long-term career prospects. Aspiring pilots are currently training for their career, and delaying your career means you will lose seniority to them. Pilots choose their aircraft, flying schedules, location, and vacation schedules based on their seniority, which is also directly correlated to their pay. Your spot on the seniority list will affect you for the rest of your career. Further, even delaying your career by one or two years could mean losing $400,000 to $800,000 in career earnings when you are a major airline captain.

What Has Changed

What Hasn't Changed

  • ATP continues to place pilots with corporate and cargo operators, who remain more isolated from fluctuations in airline passenger demand
  • Long-term demand for airline pilots remains at unprecedented levels
  • Mandatory retirements at airlines will continue with over 4,000 pilots needed per year to replace them
  • Interest rates for financing flight training are at historic lows
  • Flight training continues at ATP, with fast track training and unparalleled resources
  • If starting training today, the timeframe it will take for you to become an airline pilot has remained unchanged

ATP is supporting alumni today with new partnerships and career services while setting the foundation for your success after reaching airline minimums in about two years. Train confidently, knowing you'll be competitive and ready for record retirement-driven pilot demand.

From a Pilot's PerspectiveThoughts about COVID‑19, the Airline Industry and New Pilot Training

Chris - Mentor

“ …be the first to be able to take advantage of the hiring wave. Do not base your career, a lifetime decision, off of very short term events. All industries have ups and downs, but over a career it levels off and those pilots that position themselves well will benefit greatly when all of this short-term craziness settles down.”

Chris Pilot Mentor

Join the conversation at and read more about what Chris, other airline pilots and flight training students are discussing.

A pilot's perspective on COVID‑19, the airline industry and new pilot training »

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Airline Career Pilot Program graduates are being hired by the airlines

“ATP laid the foundation for success in my aviation career… from zero experience to my dream major airline in just 5½ years.”

Jordan Lascomb

Airline Career Pilot Program Graduate

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