Mike Stones

Pilot shortage? Don’t blame video games

“Blame the video games.” My old flying instructor, Barry – one of the most patient people I have ever met (obviously) – used to blame the popularity of aviation video games for pilot shortages. Flight simulation has become so good, it robbed generations of the desire to fly, he reasoned. While the causes of today’s looming pilot shortage are more complex, there’s no denying the depth of the crisis.

Joe Moeggenberg, president and CEO of ARGUS International summed up the problem at Corporate Jet Investor’s (CJI’s) Town Hall online meeting this week: “There are just not enough pilots out there.” As business aviation, at least in north America, gears up for its busiest ever October, finding flight crews with the required ratings and type experience (plus quality aircraft for them to fly) are going to become the most pressing problems.

“Finding qualified pilots is going to be the big driver,” according to Moeggenberg. “Many card and fractional programmes state clearly in the contracts what the pilots’ qualifications should be to fill these cockpits. It’s a constant issue, where operators are contacting us saying: ‘We want to hire this person but he or she only has 500 hours total time.’ It’s going to be a big deal.”

While many pilots were furloughed during the pandemic, new entrants to private aviation – both as owners and more particularly as new clients for charter companies plus fractional and jet card schemes – are fuelling burgeoning demand for flight crews. That demand can only intensify as corporate flight departments resume flying and commercial airlines start to step up services.

The retirement of experienced aircrews is a key part of the problem for Rolland Vincent, president Rolland Vincent Associates. “We have just witnessed a massive retirement of talent,” Vincent told Town Hall delegates. “Where did it go? It’s aged out and it’s not coming back. Senior pilots with 30,000 hours are no longer working because they are putting their feet in the sand somewhere enjoying a long and well-deserved retirement. We have a massive supply issue.”

‘We have a massive supply issue’

Sheryl Barden, president & CEO of recruitment specialist Aviation Personnel International, could be forgiven a sense of weary resignation to a recurrent problem. Back in 2017, she wrote a prescient article titled: Pilot Shortage: How We Got Here & What’s Next. Barden traced the origins of the pilot shortage to a perfect storm brewed, in part, by a decade of stagnation at the major airlines. “If we trace the talent shortage to its origins, can see that it began post 9/11 and was exacerbated by the subsequent economic downturn in 2008-2009 and the soaring cost of flight training,” Barden wrote.

Four years later, Barden tells CJI some fundamentals have not changed. Training costs and time to become marketable remain very high and, until recent years, the return on investment took long to recoup. Just as pilot careers started to become desirable, Covid-19 struck to temporarily halt flying. “I believe the career will be desired, but you can’t become a hireable pilot overnight. It takes many years and lots of investment,” says Barden.

The pandemic has also shifted demand for pilots. “Those business aviation pilots who lost jobs have been hired by management companies to staff new aircraft under management, mostly for first time owners.” There has also been a large hiring in the charter and fractional markets as their demand has increased exponentially.

“My biggest concern is around when the corporate fleet returns to full activity.  A significant number of Part 91 corporate flight departments have at least one if not upwards of three to five open pilots’ spots on their organisation chart,” says Barden.

When international flying begins again, there will be a rush to hire and operators will be competing for limited talent, she predicts. “I fear aviation directors are going to have to tell their executives that we can’t take that trip because we don’t have pilots.”     

‘Long-term incentives’

While there’s no silver bullet to solve the crisis, Barden recommends businesses to hire now and prepare to return to full capacity. “Structure your operation so that you can offer an appropriate work life balance and be prepared to compete with not only compensation but perhaps long-term incentives,” advises Barden.  These include stock – options or restricted stock units (RSUs) – and potential retention bonuses.  “One of the keys is to understand what your pilots value beyond money, and structure benefits to appeal to their drives. For example, one department I know has a small recreational aircraft that they allow their pilots to use. That is highly valued by their team and creates loyalty.” 

Widening diversity is another lever to pull. “Encouraging diversity is key, be it women or people of colour, both are significantly underrepresented groups in the pilot ranks worldwide. As an industry we need to show that this is not a white man’s career.”

Also, it’s important to recognise the wealth of industry schemes designed to attract new talent into business aviation. Moeggenberg at ARGUS partnered with Southwest Airlines to launch the Gateway Program, designed to attract new talent into aviation. Town hall co-host and sponsor Jay Mesinger, president & CEO Mesinger Jet Sales, praised the work of other industry schemes, including NBAA initiatives,

“I’ve talked to several corporations that have more planes than they have pilots right now,” says Mesinger. He believes fundamental long-term forces are at play to boost demand for private jet aviation. “I don’t use the word bubble any more. I think this demand runs so deep; supply is not going to catch up with demand. It could be years – it could be never, depending on how sustainable this group of people coming into our industry remains.”

You can listen the town hall meeting – The Elusive Fourth Quarters: 2020 vs 2021 – here.

Meanwhile, it’s not just my old flight instructor who sees a damaging side to video games. Earlier this week, China’s video games regulator ruled that online gamers under the age of 18 will be allowed to play for only one hour on Fridays, weekends and holidays. Perhaps Barry was onto something after all.

 

Top: Jay Mesinger knows of several corporations who have more planes than pilots at present.

Below: Chief flying instructor, the late Barry Thompson (who had an aversion to video games).

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