Report: Pilot shortage will become critical in the next decade

This is a shocking report from Boeing that details what will happen in the next couple of decades if we don't dramatically increase the number of pilots being trained.

Over the next two decades, 87 new pilots need to be trained and ready to fly a commercial airliner every day in order to meet our insatiable demand to travel by air.

That's one every 15 minutes.

Passenger and cargo airlines around the world are expected to buy 41,000 new airliners between 2017 and 2036. And they will need 637,000 new pilots to fly them, according to a forecast from Boeing released this week. That staggering figure is matched only by how many will leave the profession in the next decade – particularly in the U.S.

Retirements at U.S. airlines will start to rise precipitously starting in 2021 as the current crop of pilots turns 65, the mandated age of retirement. More than 42% of active U.S. airline pilots at the biggest carriers will retire over the next 10 years, about 22,000, according to a recent report by Cowen & Company.

In the next 20 years, airlines in North America are going to need 117,000 new pilots, Boeing estimates. And the farm team for training and recruitment in the U.S. – the military and regional carriers – are already struggling to find and keep aviators.

The coming retirements exceed the active U.S. regional airline pilots corps, which stands around 19,000.

Without enough pilots, the amount airlines can fly will be capped. And an acute shortage may wreak havoc on air travel, grounding planes and reducing air service to some cities if routes are cut or curtailed.

It's already happening.

Last month, Horizon Air, the regional arm of Alaska Airlines, said it was canceling 6% of it schedule – more than 300 flights – from August to September because it doesn't have the pilots. And Republic Airways filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016 in part because it was "grounding aircraft due to a lack of pilot resources.

Pilots and their unions contend that there is no shortage, only a perceived one, and a dearth of good-paying flying jobs that would attract new candidates. Rather than change any standards to bolster recruitment, pilots unions have pushed for higher wages for existing pilots to increase the economic attractiveness of the profession.

And American Airlines (AAL), Delta Air Lines (DAL) and United Airlines (UAL) have all signed new contracts with their pilots to raise their hourly wages.

There aren't enough flight schools to train pilots for multi-engine commercial jets.  There aren't enough simulators or instructors.  And the FAA is not geared up to certify the vastly increased number of pilots that will be necessary to keep pace with demand.

The pilot union is half-right about increasing pay.  That will likely increase retention to some extent.  But with an aging pilot base, a lot more new pilots will be needed than will likely be available. 

It appears that the flying public is going to have to live with reduced, less convenient, and more expensive flights.  And airline companies are going to have to compete globally for pilots.  How this will affect the American aerospace industry is also an important question, given the number of jobs at stake.  Fewer pilots means fewer planes being made, leading to fewer jobs at Boeing and other companies.

One answer might be pilotless planes, although it's hard to imagine the FAA allowing no humans in the cockpit.  Regardless, air transportation is going to change radically in the next few decades.