• Effect on Pilot Training is Mixed
  • Business Aviation Positioned Well for Recovery
  • Retirements May Rise
  • Pandemic Increases Business Aviation

At the beginning of this year, all of aviation was facing a severe pilot shortage, with business aviation competing against commercial aviation to recruit a limited pool of qualified candidates. Now, established pilots face furloughs, or even job losses, as airlines adjust their operations for a long recovery period.

Impact on Pilot Training

Before the coronavirus crisis, the industry had invested heavily in promoting aviation careers and education. In February, United Airlines had bought a flight school in Phoenix to support its Aviat pilot recruiting program.[1] The airline had plans to train up to 10,000 new pilots over the next decade. The current instability might discourage some student pilots from completing their careers, and persuade others that aviation is too unstable a field of study.

Regional pilot Mike Czarnecki told FightGlobal,[1] “I worry more about the next generation, because we will come out of this smaller than before.” His own son is currently training as a pilot.

But the reality both for Czarnecki and his son is that, in time, aviation will recover. Those specialized skills will still be in demand. The question is how long the recovery will take and which jobs will attract the greatest share of existing pilots and new recruits.

Recovery May Favor Business Aviation

It is expected that the recovery for airlines returning to 2019 levels of traffic may take anywhere from 3 to 5 years. During that time, job security and growth prospects in commercial aviation will be in doubt.

While business aviation has suffered through many of the same disruptions of service as airlines, it may be better poised to recover more quickly as more high net worth individuals opt to acquire aircraft or to fly private charter in future.

For those pilots who welcome more flexible work schedules, a career working as a pilot in business aviation could be attractive.

Alerion Aviation, an aviation services company that offers aircraft management, charter, maintenance and FBO services to owners and operators of private jet aircraft, saw an initial retraction in business resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, but has kept its flight staff on the payroll in expectation of a rapid return to service once people can start traveling again.

“If we furlough our pilots and they went off to do other things, then they might not be available,” says Bob Seidel, CEO of Alerion, and a pilot himself. “Recruiting, hiring and training would take months that would add to the injury that we already suffered from the loss of business.”

Seidel, who has been active in raising awareness of the pilot shortage, and supporting recruiting of new pilots for the industry through his work with the State University of New York (SUNY), believes that there are still good prospects for future pilots in the long term.

Effects of Retirement

For one thing, this latest downturn may persuade more senior pilots to retire. Those who are at the senior level are not going to go through another furlough cycle, he tells us. There may be wave of retirements and early retirements taken because of this latest shock. If pilots aren't flying airplanes by June, then United is going to be accepting retirements. That makes room for people to come up, and we've seen a tremendous interest in aviation careers. SUNY's flight school was struggling to find students and is now full to capacity.

Aviation journalist Victoria Bryan decided to take her passion for the skies further by pursuing a career as a pilot. Nearly two years ago, she left Germany for New Zealand to study at a local flight school there.

The crisis has put her dream on hold, but she remains hopeful of completing her training. One positive result from the current crisis, as she points out in an article she wrote about her current flight school experience,[2] is that there may finally be enough retired and furloughed pilots available to adequately staff flight schools.

“Our school lost instructors to airlines hungry for flight crew and we endured delays to our training. The 18-month timeframe to get qualified was out the window,” Bryan writes.[2] “Ironically, flight schools are now in a better position than in the past few years.

“With no airlines seeking crew, there are now enough qualified pilots to work as flight instructors to train their cadets. So once lockdown restrictions are lifted in New Zealand, my training should progress faster than previously anticipated.”

It will be important to keep those students committed to their career as pilots to avoid coming out of the coronavirus recovery with a greater pilot shortage than before the pandemic.

And that won't be easy, considering the costs of study for cadets, and the slow jobs recovery which will see experienced pilots more likely to get hired before recent graduates.

Some of those experienced pilots will want to shift from airlines to business aviation, and graduates may welcome opportunities in business aviation too. While airlines offer more regular work-schedules than charter operations, the financial vulnerabilities of the airline industry have been on full display. Airlines may no longer be in a position to offer the same tempting work packages that saw them lure pilots away from business aviation before the pandemic.

“We lost five people to the airlines last year and three of them have contacted us wanting to come back,” Alerion's Seidel tell us. “And there is a possibility that recovery may be faster for business aviation, as those who have the resources to fly private now choose to do so.”

Private Flight Considered Essential

Seidel has seen some signs of a change in the wind that favors private aviation, with some people who might previously have thought private flight a luxury now considering it essential. There may be a greater willingness to abandon commercial air travel in order to avoid crowds at airports and crowded cabins, and to have greater control over travel companions.

“Last year, at this time, we were working on one acquisition deal. This year, we are working on six. I don't think the industry is up 600%, but our little corner of the business is so active that it tells me something,” Seidel says.

“Whatever the shape of recovery, pilots will be needed. The key, at least for now, is to be flexible to get through the crisis. People are going to have to remain agile,” he tells us. “They're going to have to be pragmatic, but the opportunity is still there.”

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