February 01, 2013
I was downing my eighth chocolate chip cookie when the marvel of today's global air transportation system struck home. Again.
The killer batch of double-dark confections were baked by my niece, recently arrived from New Zealand, and there about to return with her brood. Meanwhile, the stack of classic, morsel-dotted blondes were baked in wonderful abundance by my youngest sister, soon to be launching for Abu Dhabi where her physician-husband is working on contract in a clinic.
Others assembled for the family fete in Maryland had arrived from Seattle, Augusta and Chicago, and I discovered that during the past year these siblings and scions had alighted in Bermuda, China, Cleveland, Calgary, Casper, Kauai, Seoul, Panama, Tampa, Taipei, and Fort Rucker, Ala. (the last, repeatedly). Their collective near-term itineraries mentioned at the gathering include London, Amalfi, Paris, Beijing, Geneva and Orlando. And this from a group of middle-classers. By the way, none, save me, have a professional connection to the travel industry, but rather are simply going about their lives, which frequently involves moving from A to B.
It is the jet airplane and its accessibility to the mass market that makes this possible, of course. And the entire world is catching on. The growing global demand for air travel will result in the delivery of tens of thousands of new jetliners in the next two decades, according to Boeing. Meanwhile, that tabulation is in addition to the 10,000 new business jets Honeywell predicts will be shuttling executives across the world's airways in the next decade.
While I find that prospect exciting, others see trouble in the forecasts. Specifically, they say this surge in flying hardware is about to converge with a decline in personnel essential to direct it — namely, pilots. The reasons for that forecast decline are several.
First, the upward adjustment of the Age-60-and-Out forced retirement for airline pilots to age 65 was inaugurated five years ago, so the first class of four-stripers that benefited is exiting the cockpit and any headcount boost the provision delivered to the airlines will end in four years. Secondly, pay cuts, lost pensions, airline failures, increased duty time and general economic turmoil have made an airline career less appealing to many. Third, the traditional path of low-time copilots is being blocked by a new requirement that they have ATPs before they can take the right seat of an airliner. And fourth, the ex-military and general aviation pilot pools that once helped sustain the carriers are diminishing steadily.
The aviation industry is concerned, even alarmed. This past November a coalition of airline, general aviation, business aviation and academic government groups urged the General Accountability Office to conduct an in-depth examination of what they believe is a looming pilot shortage and its ramifications to the industry in particular and the U.S. as a whole.
Boeing, which is a member of the coalition, predicts the global industry will need 460,000 new airline pilots by 2031, with 185,000 of those in the Asia-Pacific region alone. I've not seen an estimate for the number of new business pilots required, but it must be in the multiple tens of thousands.