Updated Apr 6, 2019 - Economy & Business

Millennials spark a pilot comeback

A surge in pilot certificates for millennials is chipping away at a critical, decades-long labor shortage in aviation.

Data: Federal Aviation Administration; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
Data: Federal Aviation Administration; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

What's happening: The U.S. pilot shortage has threatened to eventually shut down smaller regional and cargo airlines and make rural areas of the U.S. more isolated and out of reach. But since 2006 — when millennials began reaching adulthood — the number of 20- to 35-year-old pilots has been slowly ticking back up after decades of decline, and compensating for a fall in other age categories, according to FAA data.

In 2008, 150,907 people in the 20- to 34-year-old age group had active pilot certificates. By last year, the number was up to 197,493, according to the FAA.

But there's still a long way to go:

  • There are 177,000 fewer pilots today than in 1980. Fewer than a third are 20-34 years old, whereas this age group made up almost half of pilots in 1980.
  • A fifth of certified U.S. commercial pilots are over 50. Mandatory retirement age is 65.
  • And the usual main font of pilots — the military — is turning out far fewer than it used to. Moreover, millennials are significantly less likely to be veterans than past generations, according to Pew Research Center.

Major airlines — such as American Airlines, Delta, Southwest and United, which account for 67.5% of industry revenue — have been better able to attract young pilots with wage, benefits and recruitment strategies, such as Delta's Propel program.

  • But smaller regional and cargo airlines are struggling to fill their cockpits, experts tell Axios — even though they are paying a starting salary of $60,000, up from around $20,000 in 2012.

The big picture: The industry expects the number of air travelers to double over the next two decades, and cargo companies could be forced to find new ways to fulfill growing demand without access to more pilots.

How we got here: Following 9/11, several airlines went out of business or filed for bankruptcy. The industry then suffered through the financial crash. That made piloting a hard sell for young people starting careers.

But there are other hard obstacles:

  • Price: If you aren't a veteran, you need training courses that cost tens of thousands of dollars, which, on top of already-rising costs for college, make it unattainable for many young people. The FAA has also increased requirements.
  • Diversity: The millennial and post-millennial generations are the most diverse the U.S. has ever seen — about half of post-millennials are nonwhite. Yet airlines are largely not tapping nonwhite and women millennials. Look at the data — 92% of pilots and flight engineers are men, according to Census data collected by Data USA. And 93% are white. "We're only set up to recruit from half the population — males," says James Higgins, director of the aviation program at the University of North Dakota.
  • Civic virtue: Aviation may be missing millennials who seek an altruistic occupation. "They may go into medicine, they may go into Peace Corps, they may go into other things that in their mind would be more impactful. I think we've lost a little bit of people coming into aviation because of that," Higgins said.

The power of image: Sandy Napier, a former Navy aviator who spent several decades as a pilot for a major airline, said that when he was young, planes were the new technology and films often glorified flying and wartime in ways they don't anymore.

  • "If you walked down a terminal, through the concourse, and you had your uniform on," Napier, a Baby Boomer, said remembering when he became a pilot, "if they see four stripes, generally people knew that was significant of being a captain." But the prestige has diminished some, he said.
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