Brace yourself for airline price hikes and limited seats as U.S. prepares for a ‘tsunami’ of pilot retirement

A United Airlines plane takes off above American Airlines planes on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on October 1, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
A wave of pilot retirements could soon make flying even more expensive, as airlines grapple with labor shortages.
Mario Tama—Getty Images

A “tsunami” of retirements among pilots is looming, according to an airline industry insider—threatening to pile more pressure on an already constrained sector and raise ticket prices even further.

Testifying at a meeting of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on Wednesday, Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association, said a “devastating pilot shortage” was gripping aviation and impacting its ability to meet passenger demand.  

Outdated training standards and the high expense of learning to be a commercial pilot were damaging the sector’s ability to “create a sustainable pipeline of new pilots,” she warned, at a time when the number of qualified pilots available to airlines was about to plummet.

Under rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration, commercial airline pilots must retire by the time they are 65. Commercial airlines are not permitted to employ pilots after they reach this age.

“Over the next 15 years, approximately 50% of the workforce will be forced to retire,” Black said at Wednesday’s hearing. “When a pilot—typically a captain—retires from a larger airline, this sets off a trickle-down effect of upgrades, ultimately resulting in a pilot—typically a captain or captain-eligible first officer—being hired from a regional airline…Thousands of willing, healthy, and skilled pilots, who would like to continue working, are being forced out of the profession at age 65, to the detriment of air service across the country.”

Black pointed out that 12 large carriers alone hired more than 13,000 pilots last year, almost all of whom were sourced from regional airlines.

Back in January, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on an earnings call that United and its peers were aiming to hire a combined 8,000 pilots through 2023—but he warned that aviation’s ongoing labor shortage meant it would be a difficult year for travel.

Black said on Wednesday that heightened demand for pilots at national carriers like United and Delta was being “fueled by the coming tsunami of pilot retirements.”

“There are 70% more pilots aged 43 to 64 than aged 21 to 42,” she pointed out. “Reflective of the high cost of flight education and training, the ‘under 30 years of age’ cohort of pilots is the smallest, at around 8% of total pilots. This year, 2,225 pilots must retire. Required retirements will peak in 2029 at 3,750, when pilots aged 58 today turn 65. Thereafter, retirements remain high, staying above 2023’s rate for the foreseeable future.”

Even before this wave of retirements took hold, Black said, the impact of the pilot shortage was already “real.” More than 500 regional aircraft were currently grounded, she noted, and those that were in service were underutilized, as there were not enough pilots to fly them.

“The impact has been felt by 308 airports, or almost 72% of all U.S. airports,” she said. “These airports have, on average, lost one quarter of their flights, with smaller airports experiencing a disproportionate impact.”

In a bid to address the problem, regional airlines were now offering first officer salaries in excess of $100,000 a year, Black said—with regional pilot salaries around the same as first officer salaries at network carriers.

“Despite increased FAA pilot certifications in 2022, there are not enough qualified and interested pilots for hire,” she added. “Though 9,491 new pilots qualified in 2022—the highest number on record—it fell far short of the 13,128 hired by just one subset of the airline industry last year.”

Black also noted that the number of pilots trained in 2022 dropped below the five-year average once the COVID backlog was taken into account.

Travel rebound

A rebound in demand for travel after the easing of COVID restrictions, coupled with rising jet fuel prices, limited capacity, and a shortage of qualified aviation staff, sent flight ticket prices soaring 28.5% higher over the course of 2022.

The consumer price index for March showed that airfares were still continuing to outpace inflation, with airfares rising almost 18% year on year.

Inflation cooled to 5% in the year to March 2023, hitting its lowest level in almost two years.

Consumers still appear willing to spend vast amounts on air travel, however, with some airlines reporting record bookings for the coming summer—but the looming exodus of retiring pilots will add further constraints to flight capacity across the U.S., Black warned, particularly for smaller and regional communities.  

“The pilot shortage has driven a wholesale collapse in small community air service,” she said. “Smaller communities are particularly impacted because they rely exclusively on regional airlines for air service.”

According to aviation analysis firm OAG, international flight capacity is still 12.7% below pre-pandemic levels. Last summer, airlines and airports struggled to meet passenger demand globally, sending air travel into a chronic state of chaos that included waves of delays and cancellations.

With demand outpacing supply last summer, U.S. airfares spiked drastically in the summer months, jumping 52% between January and their peak in May.  

Last month, seven U.S. senators proposed legislation that would raise the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots to 67, in a bid to address staffing shortages at regional airlines. Under the proposed changes, those who continued to work past the age of 65 would have to undergo thorough medical screenings every six months.

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