Will The World Still Need Pilots?

Stein Mjåtveit

The aviation industry is an impressive display of human achievement that has served our need for human connection and exploration. It has ‘made our world smaller’, enabled us to study abroad, experience different cultures, and build relationships that span the globe and remove borders. Millions of people have devoted their careers to ensure safe and efficient travel for humanity, and in the recent months the corona pandemic has put everything on hold. In this article we will take a closer look at how the engines are being re-ignited.

The road to recovery

As the pandemic has spread from region to region, we have witnessed a variety of strategies and efforts to limit the spread of the virus. The novelty of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been a source of uncertainty and fear, and as we have scrambled to understand how the virus works, a natural reaction was to slow things down to regain control of the situation. 

Air traffic in Europe

Now that we have taken a deep collective breath, learned a lot and started to recover, it is natural to start looking towards the next phase of recovery and what that might look like.

Eurocontrol - 2020 vs 2019 traffic variation

Source: Eurocontrol (https://www.eurocontrol.int/)

As reported by Eurocontrol on the 9th of August 2020, the recovery as measured by number of flights is pointing upwards, but there is still a long way to go. The data below gives a good indication of recent developments.  

Increase in number of flights from the 21st of July to the 4th of August 2020: 

  • Ryanair – 1,447 flights (+50%)
  • easyJet – 866 flights (+92%)
  • Turkish Airlines – 637 flights (+20%)
  • Wizz Air – 523 flights (+4%)
  • Lufthansa – 439 flights (+14%)

Source: Eurocontrol (https://www.eurocontrol.int/)

For a more visual representation of the recent increase in number of flights, check out this animation by Eurocontrol. It is fascinating to see the responsiveness of many airlines as they scale up their network to meet the rising demand for air travel. 

Many European airlines have expressed an ambition to reopen routes in the coming weeks and months, British Airways announced resumption of 17 destinations (short and long-haul) throughout August and Ryanair will restore 60% of their schedule in August, following the successful resumption of its services at the end of June.

If we look at the operators in Europe based on their segment we can see that business aviation has been recovering faster, being only 9% below 2019 levels on the 27th of July. This can be explained by the fact that new customers are flocking to the business aviation segment, driven by the peace of mind and safety that comes with flying privately. 

Cargo flights have remained stable during the crisis, and interestingly the biggest challenge for this segment during the pandemic has been the combination of increased demand and lower capacity. This might seem counter intuitive, but many cargo operators are dependent on buying relatively cheap cargo capacity onboard scheduled passenger flights. Due to the decreasing number of passenger flights, this important part of the cargo network has simply not been available. 

Asia/Pacific region and China

China has been dealing with the pandemic the longest when these words are being written, and in spite of dealing with a resurgence in cases, the Chinese domestic market reached 11,853 flights on the 2nd of August, which is only 15% below pre-COVID levels.

It is important to note that international traffic from China still remains low, since travel restrictions remain in place to and from many international destinations. Although international travel is expected to recover more slowly, it is uplifting to note that the domestic development in China has recovered to such high levels only 6 months after the initial outbreak.

United States

Domestic traffic in the US has remained stable over the past few weeks, but remains 49% lower than 2019 levels as measured on the 19th of July 2020. In a similar fashion to Europe and the Asia/Pacific region, international flows of passengers remain low, with the exception of traffic to and from Mexico. 

International routes that are reopening seems to be primarily connecting strong city pairs, as can be seen by Delta Airlines resuming daily flights between New York and London from the 3rd of August. 

Implications for pilot demand

As the aviation industry is battling its way out of the worst downturn it has ever seen it is natural to presume that this will have an impact on pilot demand, and that is definitely the case in a short-term perspective. Which is why we have launched Project Resilience to ensure that our most recent graduates are able to stay current and be ready when recruitment resumes.

Similar to other industries that have been affected in a major way, measures are being taken by airlines to downsize, save cost and ensure that they can survive through the pandemic. This in turn has led to many highly qualified and talented pilots and cabin crew being furloughed or losing their jobs.

The fact that a looming pilot shortage has been one of the main concerns of airlines and aircraft manufacturers for several years can be easily forgotten in the midst of the chaotic effects of the corona pandemic. If you are considering a career as a pilot however, it is vital to take recent history into consideration and assess the Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPKs) over a range of several years.

Committing to a career as a professional aviator is not a short-term commitment, it’s a long term devotion!

Gauging the development of RPKs over a longer period will give you a better understanding of the fluctuations in the job market for pilots. Committing to a career as a professional aviator is not a short-term commitment, it’s a long term devotion! And thus it makes sense to have a long-term perspective when assessing your career path and when to start your education.

ICAO WorldAviation(2)

Source: ICAO (https://www.icao.int/Pages/default.aspx)

Educating yourself in a downturn has historically been a smart decision, especially so in the pilot profession. Think of it this way, if you educate yourself in a downturn when recruitment is slow, you will be ready for the next wave of recruitment. It can be difficult to envision growth and prosperity in the midst of a pandemic – since we tend to put disproportionate weight on the situation evolving around us.

As can be seen in the historical data from ICAO, this is not the first crisis affecting the aviation industry, nor will it be the last. After each and every crisis aviation has dealt with in the past, there has been a surge in recruitment as aviation has recovered – and those who have been bold enough to pursue a pilot career during these times have been onboard for the takeoff.  

Retirement outlook

Another aspect that will affect the job market for pilots in the coming decades is the fact that many airlines will be retiring large numbers of pilots. As reported in this webinar (around 13 minutes into the webinar) by Captain Curtis Brunjes at United Airlines, 50% of their pilots will retire in the next 10 years – that comes out to 5,822 pilots! If we take an even longer perspective, United Airlines will retire 90%(!) by 2039, which translates into 10,490 pilot retirements, and that is just one airline. 

Similar numbers have been reported by some of the legacy carriers in Europe, and even though this doesn’t translate into new recruitment efforts tomorrow, it clearly shows that from a long-term perspective the job opportunities for aspiring pilots will be plentiful. 

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