Airfares are already skyrocketing with fuel costs, environmental taxes and inflation soaring and the economic impact of the pandemic still being felt. In January, The Telegraph reported that average ticket prices rose 44.1 percent – the sharpest increase on record. But another, lesser-known problem threatens to make vacationing even more expensive in the years to come.
A report by aviation consultancy OAG has revealed that a significant shortage of pilots is likely to hamper the industry over the next decade, with attempts to alleviate the problem sure to push airfares even higher.
What is causing the crisis? To put it simply, the pilots are getting older, retiring earlier and there are not enough young people to follow. Today, more than 60 percent of airline pilots around the world are over 40 years old and have the prospect of their careers on the horizon. In contrast, only around 10 percent are between 20 and 30 years old.
The problem is exacerbated by the recruiting strategy customary in the industry. Airlines, with their extremely tight profit margins, cannot afford to employ large staffs of pilots. They keep a bare minimum on their books, leaving them vulnerable to external factors.
John Grant, OAG’s executive vice president, believes there are many reasons why the shortage is now looming. “That’s partly because of the pandemic and people of a certain age — like many other jobs — saying they don’t want to go back to work,” he says. “We’re also seeing rapid growth in aviation demand around the world as airlines are literally unable to hire staff fast enough.”
He estimates that around 55,000 pilots will be missing worldwide in the next 10 years. Airlines appear scared, and many have been quick to adopt new measures to attract a younger workforce, including the launch of new pilot training funds and facilities.
For example, Emirates has invested in new state-of-the-art simulators and increased its training capacity by 50 percent. Of course, significant investments like this cost money, as passengers queue up in one way or another to foot the bill.
Short term solutions
Southwest Airlines has gone further, with aspiring pilots now only needing 500 flight hours in jets or turboprop aircraft to enroll, instead of 1,000.
“This is clearly designed as a short-term fix,” Grant says of the Southwest changes. “It is important to recognize that these pilots will not be let loose on an aircraft without completing all the necessary training, simulator hours and anything else required before going online – there is no danger to the passengers . But there may be a situation where Southwest pilots are training new recruits and they may not be able to execute a busy flight schedule.”
The burden may then not only be of a financial nature: the customers could also notice a reduced schedule. After years of flight chaos, another hurdle appears to be emerging for those trying to travel by air.
Customer retention is obviously a key issue for the industry. “It’s extremely expensive to recruit, many thousands of pounds to train a new pilot,” says Grant. “So the last thing you want is a revolving door culture.”
As such, there have been a number of pay rises. Delta pilots recently negotiated a 30 percent pay rise over the next four years. Hawaiian Airlines has approved a 33 percent increase.
The average pilot salary in the UK is currently around £54,000, rising to around £150,000 for the top earners – but these figures are expected to rise and the impact will be felt on ticket prices. “There are many ways to improve business conditions right now,” says John Grant. “It’s a very good time to be a pilot.”
The exact amount added to ticket prices will likely depend on negotiations between pilots and airlines in the years to come. If it’s spread throughout the schedule, it’ll likely seem small – but John Grant thinks consumers shouldn’t ignore it. “When you add up all these small incremental increases, families going on holiday will really feel the difference. It may only be £30 per person, but multiply that by four and you have a significant price change.”
One thing is clear: the age of ultra-low-cost airlines is over. Gone are the 7-pound jaunts to Malaga. Even Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary predicted customers would save on other luxury goods ahead of the holidays, recently declaring the end of ultra-cheap fares. The aviation pilot crisis is just another nail in the coffin.