The Truth? Congress Didn't Create The Pilot Shortage, You Did

A look at the pilot shortage

· opinion,aviation

Dear Scott Kirby, Jonathan Ornstein, and other airline executives,

Everyone knows 2022 is a challenge for the airline business with the crazy passenger demand and the short supply of pilots, crews, and staff. But for the love of God, please stop oversimplifying the pilot shortage with messages of "we could solve the shortage if this one thing changed." Using the same clickbait tactics seen on Facebook makes you look willfully ignorant of the complexities of our ecosystem. 

Do you want to foster real change? Have the courage to acknowledge that the problems are more extensive than government regulations and high entry costs. Do you want to make a real impact? We'd love to hear how your business structure and working environment may be part of the problem. Perhaps start by examining the situation as the NTSB might. What is the error chain? What parts do you touch directly? Which ones could you help improve? My hunch is the list is much longer than the 1500 hour and age 65 rules that seem to come up so often.

Here is a simple suggestion about where to start: stop talking about the problems from the airline's perspective and start talking about them from the prospective pilot's view. If the pilot shortage is such a risk to the company, start framing decisions from the perspective of those you want to attract. How does today's decision impact your successor's employees? And yes, I know your shareholders don't care about anything but what impacts share price this quarter which means your board may not care. You need to have the courage to play the long game. But even if you aren't in such a position, stop offering such simplistic excuses for complex problems.

Tough Quarter

As an example, Mr. Ornstein, I bet your board doesn't like the reduced revenue of your "tough quarter," but it is disingenuous to imply that if the 1500 hour rule disappeared, your company would have been successful (12). Would a change to the 1500 hour rule overcome your COVID-induced 25% sickness rate or the $59 million costs from -your- decision to defer maintenance (12)? What was your pilot attrition rate that you "don't care" about (12)? Did all of those pilots get hired by your mainline partners? I notice you didn't outline what percentage left the industry or why your first officers quit (12). Aren't those first officers going to develop into captains? What are you doing to change your employment environment to minimize industry exits? Please, quit oversimplifying your woes to the 1500 hour rule when the problem is your complex relationship to the mainlines and internal employment practices.


Our industry's habit of oversimplifying the problems isn't limited to analyst calls after a bad quarter. Take, for example, United CEO Scott Kirby's comments around the bold and very welcomed move in buying a school and opening their new Aviate pilot training program in Arizona. Instead of focusing on the program and its potential for transformative change, Mr. Kirby's LinkedIn post outlined several "myths" about today's pilot shortage through a blend of entirely accurate data, fanciful employment marketing, and glaring industry omissions (6).

With great respect for Mr. Kirby and his decision to open the academy, we would prefer research rather than more oversimplification, myths, and urban legend. As I said, I am thrilled to see the United Aviate opening as it is a significant first step in having an airline take a direct hand in solving their own problems. United now offers zero-to-hero programs with flow-through paths that all but assure their students an airline seat if they get through the process. They even offer students a free private pilot license along the way, and they are actively looking for ways to diversify the pilot cadre. I have to imagine United will also ramp up a similar maintenance program to develop aircraft maintainers. While United can't possibly train enough people to fill their needs, it is a start, and we should applaud them for helping tackle some of the problems themselves.

As Mr. Kirby stated, Aviate won't solve the pilot shortage or the industry's diversity issues. After a pandemic-induced lull, the pilot shortage is back and will worsen as we see an uptick in travel (9). Oliver Wyman's conservative estimates show a return to a pilot shortage in late 2022 or later (8), but we are already seeing the pilot supply dwindle. Based on comments made at Redbird Migration 2022, pilot hires increased dramatically in January following a previously steady hiring rate, and experts indicated that most airline simulator facilities had been back to 24/7 operations for some time. The airlines are obviously ramping up.

As for diversity, that is an even worse black eye for the industry. Yes, making the profession more accessible will help add a broader range of voices. And yes, United's goal of 50% of their Aviate graduates will be women and people of color is a good first step, but even this goal is a marketing spin (6). In a fantastic AVWeb article on the subject, Mireille Goyer pointed out how the goal is out of touch with the makeup of the American population and that United could attain their goal without hiring a single woman (5). She points out that if safety is an airline's top priority, they should insist on prioritizing the hiring of women pilots. Her points derive from Army Major Seneca Peña-Collazo's 2013 report (10) that found that "women are involved in less aircraft accidents than all male crews," especially in the AH-64 attack aircraft (p. 47).

So, is today's situation just a short-term supply-chain issue as the airlines recall their pilots? Or are we going back to the shortages and inequities of 2019 and before? It appears commercial pilot training facilities had record enrollment in 2020, which is likely a result of the so-called great resignation as people left their traditional jobs and looked for more fulfilling careers. Heck, CFIs are again in great demand, which means people must be taking lessons. Given all of that, you might think things are looking up. But are they?

The Industry Hasn't Changed

Despite the rosy picture Scott Kirby tried to paint, there is still an elephant on the flight deck as fundamental problems exist across the industry. Yes, of course, he had to write a glowing review, or he would have trouble attracting people to Aviate or the industry in general. I don't blame him for writing what he had to, but it is hardly the whole truth given the broad omission of industry realities. So, let's look at what he wrote, and I'll try and fill in some of what he couldn't say publicly.

The Pilot Shortage is not due to COVID

This is probably the most accurate sentence in the entire article. It's true. The pilot shortage pre-dates COVID, and I'm sure they worked on solutions years before. The proof is easy to see since, over the last decade, United was one of the airlines forced to offer more financial incentives and more flexible working environments for new pilots. And they've likely been working towards buying/opening Aviate for a long time. But even here, Mr. Kirby fails to mention that COVID worsened the pilot shortage problem. 

In October 2020, Rob Mark wrote in FLYING magazine that United and the Airline Pilot's Association (ALPA) reached a deal to avoid pilot furloughs by reducing the number of hours each pilot would fly (7). Yes, that deal and early retirement offers saved many pilots from an involuntary furlough leading to little or no income. That said, the deal doesn't mean there wasn't financial hardship since pilots make much less money on the ground than in the air. And those that chose early retirement likely made less total lifetime income skipping out on a few years of work. Yes, the airline stayed afloat, and, yes, the pilots didn't lose their jobs, but how many pilots couldn't afford the reduction in pay? This non-furlough pay cut led many junior (read: lower-paid) pilots to seek other jobs even as the airline began to backfill their upper ranks. So, the reality is that the airlines lost people at the top due to early retirement and lost people at the bottom who couldn't afford to stay... and many aren't coming back (8).

The pilot shortage is not driven by pay or benefits

This statement is a head-scratcher and makes me wonder if Mr. Kirby is trying to spin a good story or willfully ignorant of the state of the industry. If it isn't about pay and benefits, why are the major airlines only touting their pay and benefits to potential pilots? If pay didn't matter, why is that the core of their employment marketing, and why did they need to bring it up?

Mr. Kirby justified this position citing that widebody captains make over $350,000 (6). While true, he seems to forget how many years it takes someone to go from being a new, regional first officer to the captain of a widebody like the 747 or 757. New regional airline pilots can expect somewhere between $35,000 to $60,000 a year for the first few years. Some pilots report that a good portion of their pay comes in first-year incentives, meaning many don't make as much the second year as they did the first unless they take on extra, optional flights. So, we are left to wonder what percentage of his pilots make more than $300K and how long it took them to get there. An airline pilot friend of mine rolled his eyes and suggested it might be easier for his 15 yr old to be a major league home run champ than to be a captain making $350K.

Also, that "industry-leading" 401(k) program with the 16% match (6) sounds terrific, and I bet there are other great perks in the traditional HR benefits package. Are they all based on a percentage of pay? Do they change with seniority level? Because 16% of an already low entry-level pay is quite a bit of money for someone to give up when paying off $100k of flight training and university loans. We'd love to hear your take on the call for the airlines to institute a debt repayment program that is tied to tenure, the number of miles flown, or some other performance-based metric.

Training is Expensive

Mr. Kirby is right to call out the high cost of training being a barrier to entry and a root cause of the lack of diversity in the industry. Most airlines hire most pilots coming out of training centers and university programs. A few pilots come from the military - fewer still self-train at a local airport. As far as the airline is concerned, initial training was someone else's problem. The pilot did their training, so it is time to give them a job and start paying them. It is good to see United jumping in at the front of the process, and we need to applaud their leadership as United steps into the primary pilot training arena. I look forward to hearing what they learn along the way. Hopefully, United Aviate will operate as a near break-even venture rather than a profit center since we don't need another profit-driven puppy mill.

The industry needs more training options, and there have been suggestions that scholarships are the answer and will increase the pilot starts. While more people may start, scholarships drive overall costs up. For-profit training centers are, of course, fans of scholarships since they are the ones receiving the money. Having talked with a couple in the 141 space, I can tell you some seem to have less price flexibility for those with external scholarships. In other words, some don't offer discounts knowing the student is already paying less than they might because of their scholarship. So, more scholarships likely mean more profits at the for-profit schools, not a reduction in costs.

We need a radically different training environment that drives the price down and creates real competition for students... but this is a subject worthy of a separate article.

The pilot shortage is not the result of any mass exodus of workers - the age 65 rule

Again, Mr. Kirby is right. There is always attrition due to medical challenges. But Mr. Kirby didn't mention that furloughs and economic pay reductions also increase the attrition rate of those deciding to leave the profession (2). Instead, he and others point to a commonly cited issue of the FAA's mandatory retirement age at 65 years old. While I agree the FAA should review this and likely set other criteria besides age, I can't help but roll my eyes at this excuse. 

Turning 65 is the only predictable reason a pilot might leave an airline, so why are the airlines unable to plan around this data? I tend to dismiss their arguments about the age 65 rule since raising the age would offer only a temporary reprieve while potentially introducing less predictable retirement criteria. It's not like those pilots will fly forever. At some point, airlines still have to replace their retiring captains regardless of how old they are. So, I find it disingenuous to blame the pilot shortage on a retirement age when no matter the age, the airlines need to increase their hiring rate to produce a currently quantifiable, predictable backfill.


I've noticed that airline leaders rarely talk about the seniority system. While seemingly focused on internal advancement, the seniority system traps pilots and makes their job skills effectively non-transferable unless moving to a larger airline. Unlike most industries, pilots don't have an easy way to break up with their employer since starting somewhere new means starting over at the bottom of the pecking order and likely taking a massive pay cut. Have you ever seen a 747 captain move to another passenger airline? A few go to the cargo world, but few change airlines once they've been with a carrier for more than a few years because they don't want to give up seniority. The result is that pilots can't quickly bring their skills to a competitor without a massive financial hit which means pilots are trapped in an airline and have few options if the airline degrades its working conditions.

As an example, I ran into an acquaintance at a coffee shop, and he was deep in the books working on transitioning to a different airframe. Assuming he was moving from FO to captain, I asked how long until he got his fourth stripe. He laughed. He was working transitioning to a -smaller- plane because the 747s were retired, he didn't take the option of early retirement, and he wasn't qualified on any airframe near his family's new home. At 58, his family moved to Florida near his wife's family. Since he wasn't qualified on airframes based there, he chose to get a crash pad in Chicago to minimize his commute. At the same time, he worked on transitioning to a smaller plane that he could fly from near his new home. "I wish I could have followed the 74s, but I'm not up for the pay cut and being trapped at the bottom again."

My friend can't be the only one affected by almost every non-cargo airline retiring their largest widebody aircraft like the 747. While this transition was likely in the works for years before, doing it during the cost-slashing pandemic is interesting timing ... which I don't think was a coincidence. I would have LOVED to be in the meeting where someone said something like, "you know, we should retire the 747s. Their four engines eat way too much expensive fuel, need twice as much expensive engine maintenance than a two-engine plane, and make too much CO2. Since we wouldn't need our senior, most expensive crews, we'd see a huge cost saving with smaller, more efficient planes flown by less expensive crews." 

But I have to wonder, what are those 747 pilots that didn't retire doing right now? Are they retraining on smaller aircraft like my friend? Doesn't that mean they are making less money? Or are United and the other airlines still paying them $350K? And what about the now-displaced existing crews of the smaller models? How many at the low end of the seniority ranks are back to reserve or retaining on even smaller planes? How long until we see more of the 757, 767, 777, and 787 numbers dwindle, causing more seniority ripples? They only have two engines and won't be retired as quickly as the 747s, but bigger is not in fashion now.

So why don't airline executives want to tackle the seniority system? I think they know they would have to improve working conditions to retain and attract their current pilots. A different airline friend told me they are desperate to avoid fighting a second war for talent for more tenured pilots. My hunch is that airline leadership is short-sighted. Any improvements for current pilots will stem attrition, increase the attraction of tenured pilots, draw more first-time first officers, and increase the industry's draw for future pilots as they see less employment risk.

We don't have a lack of interest. We have a lack of employment security

Aviation thought leader Rod Rakic regularly points out that we don't have trouble finding people who would like to fly. We have trouble giving them access and convincing them that the financial risks are worth the effort. I would add that even if they do have the socioeconomic access to enter the industry, many still avoid aviation given the employment uncertainties and the deprofessionalization of the job (4).

Science is clear that individual humans make risk assessments about their future employers, which is why employer marketing and branding exist (1, 11). So it is no surprise that individuals that could join the industry often don't, simply because so many other professions offer a more compelling, life-long value proposition that isn't full of blatant employment risks (3). If we want to attract high-performing, high-potential people, we have to provide an environment to thrive within. The Aviate program will give United a first-hand look at what it takes to get candidates into the industry. It will be interesting to see how United and its partners change to keep these students as they progress.

At its core, the pilot shortage originates from the fact that external candidates aren't sure about our industry, and today's pilots aren't as in love with their jobs as they once were. Until the industry works to stem Deprofesionalization (4) and increase the industry's attractiveness, tomorrow's pilot candidates will look to the relative certainties of other industries. For proof, we need only look to Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's comments before Congress, where he outlined how he stayed in the industry despite a 40% pay cut, loss of pension, and loss of attraction to the profession. "I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps" (13).


No amount of over-simplification will overcome aviation's complex truths, so please stop dumbing things down.



About the Author:

H. Michael Miley is Co-Founder & Head of Consulting Strategy and Coaching Services for Miley Performance Group. He is also a 30-year CFII and is working on a Ph.D. in Business Strategy and Innovation. Contact him at



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(13) US Airways Flight 1549 Accident: Hearing before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation of The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, 111th Congress (2009). 


Photo Credit: H. Michael Miley ©2012. Used under CC Attribution, Sharealike.