The U.S. Pilot Shortage: How Much Will Airfare Increase?

Two pilots at work during departure of Dallas Fort Worth Airport in United States of America.
Rathke / Getty Images/iStockphoto

A combination of pandemic fatigue, being overworked, lengthy training time, and early retirements, is leading to a pilot shortage in the country. Now, airlines are upping the ante to fill the positions. In turn, several experts say that customers need to brace themselves for higher prices.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said that in the U.S., airlines aim to add 13,000 pilots this year, but the country only produces between 5,000 and 7,000 pilots annually, according to an April 21, 2022, earnings call transcript. Fewer pilots mean less supply, which translates to higher prices, he added.

Kirby added on the call that, “the pilot shortage for the industry is real and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plan because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” according to the transcript. “The other really large airlines will also probably be able to attract enough pilots, but for anyone else, I just don’t think it’s mathematically possible to meet the pilot demand for the capacity plans that are out there.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BEA), the overall employment of airline and commercial pilots is projected to grow 13% from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations. In addition, the BEA notes that the median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $202,180 in May 2021, while the median annual wage for commercial pilots was $99,640 in May 2021.

But airlines are struggling to attract pilots and are looking at creative ways to do so. For example, Airline Weekly reports that Alaska joined United in launching a training program with its new Ascend Pilot Academy, which includes access to financial aid, a $25,000 stipend to defray training expenses, as well as a conditional job offer from Horizon Air upon completion of the program.

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ABC News reports that American Airlines announced it would begin busing passengers from smaller cities to its hub in Philadelphia and that JetBlue will cut its spring and summer flight schedule by 10 percent.

United Airlines’ Kirby, said that the airline is continuing to make progress toward its hiring needs.

“This January, we celebrated opening our Aviate Academy in Arizona and welcome the next generation of pilots to the United family. This flight training school is the first of its kind, and we believe it will help to maintain a pipeline of qualified pilot candidates for United as our industry looks to combat the pilot shortage,” he said, according to a transcript of the call.

He added that over the next eight years, United plans to train 5,000 new pilots at Aviate.

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