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

Expand chart
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.

Go deeper

In photos: Tokyo Olympics day 9 highlights

Team USA's Ryan Murphy, Zach Apple, Michael Andrew and Caeleb Dressel celebrate winning gold in the final of the men's 4x100m medley relay swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on Aug. 1. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Day nine of the Tokyo Olympic Games Sunday saw the final day of swimming competition end with a historic win for Team USA.

The big picture: The U.S. men's 4x100-meter medley relay team set a new record world as they won the final and Caeleb Dressel earned a fifth gold — becoming the fifth American to do so. Team USA's Bobby Finke won the 1,500-meter freestyle.

Trump PACs raise over $82M for first half of 2021

Former President Trump during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, on July 11. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Former President Trump's political action committees (PACs) raised more than $82 million in the first half of 2021, per Federal Election Commission filings published on Saturday.

Why it matters: It's a significant amount for a former president who's been banned from major social media platforms. It demonstrates his ability to raise huge sums of money should he choose to run for the presidency for a third time.

Updated 6 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Team USA's Caeleb Dressel celebrates winning gold in the final of the men's 50m freestyle swimming event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Gameson Sunday. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

🚨: Simone Biles won't compete in Olympic floor finals, individual vault or uneven bars

🏊: U.S. wins gold in men's 4x100-meter medley relay, earning Caeleb Dressel fifth gold — American Bobby Finke wins gold in men's 1,500-meter freestyle

🏊‍♀️: Katie Ledecky wins gold in women's 800m freestyle

🏌️‍♂️: Golfer Xander Schauffele wins gold for U.S. by one shot

🇬🇧: Britain wins gold in new BMX freestyle category and gold in first-ever Olympic mixed 4x100m medley relay

📷: In photos: Tokyo Olympics day 9 highlights

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage