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Airline hiring softens

Pilots, flight schools adapt

With major airlines slowing or pausing pilot hiring, flight schools and airline pilot hopefuls are shifting their focus to alternatives that get them on the flight deck faster.

As air carrier hiring slows, flight training providers are highlighting other options including cargo and charter operations. Photo by Mike Collins.

The rush to return to pre-pandemic travel minimums created a hiring and aircraft buying boom at part 121 airline carriers that reached its peak last year with all major airlines hiring pilots at a record-breaking pace. Now, hiring numbers are trending downward as airlines like United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines have announced slowdowns or complete hiring freezes.

Hiring numbers at the 12 major airlines year-to-date are 2,989 pilots; 4,361 pilots were hired by this time last year. The first two months of 2024 saw the largest dip in hiring with 984 pilots hired in January and 732 in February. March and April held at 641 and 632 pilots hired, respectively.

Equipment delays from Boeing and Airbus are also contributing to the hiring slump. While manufacturing issues abound at Boeing, Timothy Genc, Chief Advisor and Executive Editor at Future and Active Pilot Advisors, said that Airbus currently has a backlog of almost 8,800 aircraft to be delivered.

And over the last couple of years, pilots have had most of the bargaining power, but it appears that trend is going away as well.

“Regionals are slowing down a little bit,” Genc explained. “They're still offering some pretty big incentives for upgrade or for direct entry captains. But if we do the math, about this time last year is when some of the regionals started saying, you know what? I think we're good right now on first officers, but what we really need are captains.” 

Many of the first officers hired early last year and in late 2022 may be getting ready to upgrade to captain, which could mean a reduction in direct entry captain bonuses and a need for more first officers again, but all in all Genc predicts hiring at the regionals will continue trending downward.

Some regional carriers are opting to no longer pay for airline transport pilot and cargo transport pilot certificates and requiring pilots to obtain their own certificates and cover the costs themselves. “That of course would be indicative of the fact that we're really not hurting for first officers the same way that we used to be. If we're throwing money somewhere, it's going to be a direct entry captains, not at first officers,” Genc explained.

Many accelerated flight programs and colleges are still offering partnerships with major airline cadet programs or regional airlines, but as hiring numbers continue to fall, alternatives like flying cargo, smaller airlines, charter, and Part 91K fractional ownership air carriers are becoming more viable options for pilots looking to get into the flight deck quickly.

“Most of those partnerships are usually with a regional airline,” Genc said. “So people still have the option of doing whatever it is they're going to do. I think a lot of aviation programs are pretty lacking in their ability to say, here's actually what's going on in the industry and how you should be preparing.”

Flight schools like Kilo Charlie Aviation (KC Aviation), an accelerated career-focused pilot program located in New Century, Kansas, are taking a proactive approach to help students see the benefits of a career not only at the airlines but also with Part 135 and Part 91K.

“Everyone at the major Part 135/91k operators know that they were a hidden gem that does not get a lot of attention in the pilot media,” Robert Renfro, part owner and chief revenue officer of KC Aviation, said. “I wanted our students to see and compare both. We bring Airlines in to do presentations, but we also bring in all the hiring business jet operators to present. More importantly we bring in both groups of pilots and our students see a major difference in the quality of life that our business jet pilots have over the airline pilots; typically.

“Some of the biggest career flight schools advertise being the ‘fastest to an airline,’” Renfro continued. “We focus on ‘fastest to a career.’"

Renfro said many charter, corporate, and fractional ownership operators are hiring pilots with 1,000 hours, offering competitive pay. Those jobs can put students in the right seat of a jet six to eight months faster than the typical route of building hours by instructing and starting at a regional airline with 1,500 hours.

Renfro said, "100 percent of our students have been hired by the time they have 1,500 hours," most of them hired by charter operator Wheels Up, SkyWest, and the rest "sprinkled to all the airlines and Part 135 operators.”

The good news is, even with hiring numbers slumping, there will still be a continuing need for new pilots across all carrier types. American Airlines, for example, is planning to hire around 1,300 pilots this year to fill vacancies left by retiring pilots. Pilot pay is also improving with new pay rate contracts in the works or recently approved at Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, and more. 

Niki Britton
eMedia Content Producer
eMedia Content Producer Niki Britton joined AOPA in 2021. She is a private pilot who enjoys flying her 1969 Cessna 182 and taking aerial photographs.
Topics: Aviation Industry, Flight School, Career

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